FIVE 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, soldiers recently trekked up, over and around three of the world's mightiest mountain ranges, becoming the first Americans to attend and complete the Pakistan army's High Altitude Mountain School.
The soldiers, from Fort Campbell, Ky., trained for two months in rugged, cloud-covered terrain with lung-busting mountains and narrow passes. The school, in northern Pakistan, is considered one of the world's premier climbing institutes. It is located near the junction of the Himalaya, Karakoram and the Hindu Kush mountain ranges.
Pakistanis have developed a reputation as masters of high-altitude warfare, their experience gained from many years of border clashes with India on the Siachin Glacier. Known as the world's highest battlefield, the base camps used by the two armies are well above 19,000 feet. For this reason, 80 percent of the casualties are from either the extreme cold or high-altitude sickness.
To prepare for the training, the special forces soldiers spent the first few weeks in Pakistan running everywhere. And when they weren't running, they were climbing.
"Fortunately, our training program prior to Pakistan had us in the kind of condition in which we could not only keep up with them, but excel," said SFC Patrick O'Kelley.
Prior conditioning also helped the U.S. soldiers gain the respect of their Pakistani instructors and peers.
"At first, the only ones who would talk to us were the instructors. You really have to work hard to earn respect there," said O'Kelley. "The instructors don't respect the fact that you're a guest. They only respect you if you can perform. If you're not in shape, they will torment and dog you to no end. Rank doesn't matter."
SFC Dave Miles, another U.S. participant, went a long way toward helping gain that respect by finishing second in an eight-kilometer, cross-country run.
The run consisted of four checkpoints, each at the top of a different mountain. Participants were allowed 70 minutes to reach the checkpoints. There are no trails between the points so runners got to each point any way they could.
"The finish line is on the other side of the town of Kakul. There's no getting around the town, so you literally have to go over it," said SFC Charles McPherson. "You're running across village roofs, leaping fences, running through yards. You're scrambling your way through this centuries-old town, soaked with sweat, gasping for air. The wonderful thing is that the villagers all turn out to cheer you on. Little kids point the way to the finish line."
Miles was clocked in one second behind the winner, at just over 56 minutes, and only four minutes behind the school record for the mountain-to-mountain run. "Once we demonstrated that our guys were always among the top three physically, we began to earn their respect and build rapport," he said.
The soldiers confronted other difficulties during the course. Training 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week, and living only on Pakistani rations, the constant physical exertion began taking a toll -- the soldiers lost an average of 20 to 25 pounds.
"One of the problems of working above 16,000 feet is that at those altitudes, while you're always physically exhausted, you're just not hungry," said McPherson. "You know you should be hungry, and you know you should eat. But then two days go by and you realize you haven't eaten anything. You try to force down your rations, but nothing tastes good. You only get extremely nauseated. On the other hand, when you come back down, all your body wants to do is eat and sleep."
The series of mountain climbs throughout their training constantly challenged the soldiers. The training culminated in a 28-hour bus ride to the Khunjerab Pass on the China-Pakistan border, where the soldiers made a successful climb to the snow-covered summit of Mount Khushik.
The 20,190-foot ascent followed a highly dangerous route along a knife-edge cornice, the upper reaches of which traced the edge of a 4,000-foot drop. Sgt. Ian Gerdes said the challenges and risks involved were worth the exhilaration he felt upon reaching the summit, with its unmatched view.
The climb gave the soldiers another unique opportunity. Being so close to the Chinese border, they could walk to "Chinese Checkpoint One," where they met of group of Chinese border guards.
"None of them had ever met an American before, and besides being a little surprised, they were very friendly," said Miles. Knowing only a few words of English, the border guards asked if the Americans had any coins for souvenirs. No one did, so O'Kelley walked back the next day to take them a couple of American dimes.