Harsh conditions
test cadets’ rescue-readiness © April 18, 2008 Norwich University Office of Communications

Mountain Cold Weather Company Rescue Team Cadets [l-r]: Daniel York, Rescue Team Leader James Powers and Trainer Scott Sylvester

photo by Jay Ericson Mountain Cold Weather Company Rescue Team Cadets [l-r]: Daniel York, Rescue Team Leader James Powers and Trainer Scott Sylvester

On a grey afternoon in Vermont, sleet pours from the dark sky over Norwich University and its surrounding area. Just off campus, the 911 dispatcher in Northfield receives a call from a frantic mother reporting her 7-year-old daughter is missing on nearby Paine Mountain. Officials waste no time in calling on an organization intimately familiar with the terrain: the Norwich University Mountain Cold Weather Company’s Rescue Team.

This hypothetical scenario is one of many that company members train for year-round so they can respond at a moment’s notice. In a typical drill, Rescue Team Leader Cadet James Powers uses a communication tree to gather cadets. The assembled crew loads up outdoor gear, including a warming pack that contains a tarp and sub-zero sleeping bag. A portable stretcher called a Sked is also part of the team’s equipment. Within 45 mintues, they are on the mountain and have begun their search.

The team’s tool list, expertise and discipline have been honed over many years: Norwich University’s Mountain Cold Weather Company (MCW) celebrated its 60th year in 2007. Being a MCW cadet is no minor commitment. There are many critical skills to be learned and tests to pass from the first days in the company.

They seamlessly moved into our search-and-rescue environment. It displays commitment and focus to the mission and a personal interest in the work.

~Lt. Jocelyn Stohl
Commander of the
Rockingham Station,
Vermont State Police

“Students who are certified at the end of their freshman year receive their Black Hat and certification as a mountaineer,” said CPT Christopher Fiorentino, a recruiter for the U.S. Army and advisor to the MCW. “Their training prepares them for many terrains.”

The company works together continuously, reserving four mornings a week for physical training (PT) and two days a week for skills. Rescue Team members add an additional morning of PT and a third day to work on specialized skills. The MCW also spends several weekends a year outdoors, practicing skills that include skiing, snowshoeing, first aid, and wilderness survival. In January, they spend an entire week on a snowy mountain testing their knowledge.

On a recent afternoon boasting a brilliant blue sky yet a biting wind, Cadet Daniel York, a sophomore history and Spanish major, works with two company members. One team member lies prone in a metal stretcher and is wrapped in multiple, alternating layers of camouflage tarps and maroon sleeping bags secured with straps.

 York has earned his Black Hat and is training to be a member of the Rescue Team. “I love climbing, whether it is on ice or rock,” York said. “It is satisfying to look up at a mountain thousands of feet high or down a cliff to hundreds of feet below and know that you have the ability to climb that mountain or get down that cliff.”

Nearby, Cadet Scott Sylvester, a first sergeant and MCW trainer, watches closely from atop a 50-foot climbing tower, his bright red helmet contrasting against cloudless sky. His eyes are trained on two of York’s team members as they work on rescue techniques. One hangs 20 feet above ground, unable to move himself up or down, as though stuck on the side of a cliff. A second cadet rappels to the victim and pulls him to safety on the squad’s rope system.

Sylvester, a junior studying mechanical engineering, has an Army scholarship and is planning to commission after graduation. The MCW’s goals of training cadets adept at performing in harsh, mountainous terrain appealed to his desire to develop leadership skills. “The communication, planning and problem solving will be invaluable,” he said.

Team members frequently learn that their drills aren’t just in preparation for longer-term goals. As the word has spread of their rescue-readiness, the squad has earned the respect of the local community and has served alongside northern Vermont’s search-and-rescue professionals.

“I have known about the team for over 25 years,” said Lt. Jocelyn Stohl, a commander in the Vermont State Police. “They are organized, disciplined, professional and courteous. They project a positive image that they want to help people, and they have skills to utilize.”

Stohl saw the students in action again recently, when the MCW Rescue Team was brought into the search for a missing Middlebury, Vt., resident. “They seamlessly moved into our search-and-rescue environment,” Stohl said. “It displays commitment and focus to the mission and a personal interest in the work.”

“Being called on to assist the Vermont State Police was a very sobering experience,” Sylvester said. “But it also made us see that we can be an asset in searches and reinforced the training that we do.”

Developing the focus to provide this level of support for the local community takes sustained effort. Getting up for PT every morning at 5:45 a.m., including dawns with temperatures at 20 below zero, can be challenging. Both York and Sylvester cite the close-knit aspect of the team as a motivation.

“One of the reasons to get up is knowing there are a bunch of your close friends out there with you,” York said, while Sylvester added,” “I don’t want to let down everyone else who is doing the right thing and showing up.”

Equally important, said York and Sylvester, is the confidence gained by building life-saving skills few of their peers posses. “There is always the feeling that you are pushing your boundaries and bettering yourself,” Sylvester said.