“There!” I said to myself, as I tightened the last strap on my pack. “All done. Now let’s see how much this weighs.” I eased my pack on to the scale and stared in disbelief at the readout. What would 100 lbs. do to my back after eleven days in the frozen Sierra Nevadas?
I was preparing my gear for my first field operation at the U.S. Marine Corps’ Mountain Warfare Training Center, alongside thirty other students. In addition to the packs we were prepping, every four-man tent team was required to pull a sled with sixty pounds of additional gear. To make things even more difficult, we were required to carry this gear while trying to stay upright on cross-country skis. Most of these Marines had never stood on skis, let alone tried to carry a pack while wearing them.
Throughout history, rites of passage have helped boys find their place in the world of men. When I graduated from High School in 2009 I knew that I would have to do something drastic if I wanted to become a man, but there were no traditions for me. Following my older brother into the Marine Corps was my attempt at creating my own rite. If I wanted to be a man, I was going to have to endure some pain. I thought that a deployment to Afghanistan would be the catalyst for change, but I graduated from boot camp too late. I arrived to my unit two months after their last deployment to Afghanistan, however I soon learned that there would still be opportunities to prove myself.
Three days after first hitting the slopes in our skis, we made our way to the base of a densely wooded and forbiddingly steep ridgeline, just as the sun was slipping beneath the horizon. We began digging into the snow and preparing defensive positions for the night, while trying not to focus too intently on the dark mass to our front. We would be moving up and over that huge ridge the next day, and we knew it would be painful.
We were awake at 0400 and began filling in our positions and getting our gear ready for the movement. Initiative had been drilled into all of us since Day One, yet trying to find a volunteer to pull the sled was always difficult. Having grown up in Canada, I had spent my childhood winters skiing in the Rockies and was more at home in this environment than most of my fellow Marines. Knowing this, I volunteered to pull the sled, and we began the ascent of the ridge.
Hours past, and then, during one of several rest breaks, I glanced down the hill and was shocked to see that the other Marines looked even more exhausted than I felt. As we were getting ready to move again. I threw my pack on, then looked down at the sled which I had been scheduled to stop pulling hours earlier. Sighing, I bent down, picked up the harness and buckled it around my waist. As we continued moving up the hill, I felt a swell of pride.
It took us sixteen long hours to make it to our bivouac site that day. The sun had set by the time we began digging new defensive positions into the snow, and the sweat from our exertions began to freeze. As I sat waiting for water to be boiled by the team cook, I stretched my back and thought about the day. My legs burned and my back ached but I knew I was a man and I was happy.
By: Greg Woodard
Greg Woodard is a twenty-five year old United State Marine Corp. veteran attending Hillsdale College, Michigan. He studies liberal arts, and enjoys practicing his new hobby-piano.