Cold Weather Rescue Company
takes it from the top © May 1, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

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video by the Norwich University Office of CommunicationsMembers of Norwich's Mountain and Cold Weather Company practice mountaineering skills on Camels Hump mountain in central Vermont.

A cutting wind and sunshine dried sweat on the faces of Norwich University cadets as they arrived at the undeveloped peak of central Vermont’s Camels Hump mountain—a rough field of boulders broken by patches of dry grass and snow.

The ascent, ranging from two to four miles, had been steep and hot for March. Their crampons tore paths through thawing snow. Backpacks full of cold-weather gear, climbing ropes, food and other rescue gear dug into their shoulders. For some members of Norwich’s Mountain and Cold Weather Company [MCW], the summit was a chance to rest and heat MRE rations for lunch. For more experienced members, however, the mission was just coming to a head.

David Faville, a senior and commander of Alpha Company—a division of the Northfield, Vt., private military college’s Corps of Cadets—strapped on a climbing harness and began to check the knots of an intricate pattern of ropes and webbing strung between several boulders. This would support him as he rappelled over the edge of the summit and down a cliff face. Other cadets moved deftly from rock to rock, preparing the system. Ropes flapped in the howling wind.

You’ve got to lead these guys safely as well as conduct the mission.

~ MCW Cadet Commander
Scott Sylvester

“There’s no trees. There’s no posts. There’s no safe spots to tie into,” Faville recalled days after Hawk’s Watch, the MCW’s annual search and rescue exercise that is conducted on the second-highest spot in the state.

Overseen by Army ROTC instructor Master Sgt. Dan Allard, Faville eventually lowered himself partway down the cliff until he was close to a volunteer, Army 2nd Lt. Joe Snipes, suspended in a “parachute” harness after an imaginary plane crash. He tied a “Texas Kick” into the victim’s rope, allowing Snipes to take some weight off his harness by standing in a loop. Then Faville tied into Snipes, released him and rappelled them both down the stone face to walkable terrain. There, another team of cadets waited with a rope gurney, sleeping bag and other gear to continue the rescue.

Despite the wind, harsh landscape and ever-present need to be careful, Faville said it wasn’t a complicated rescue. Scott Sylvester, the company’s cadet commander, said Hawk’s Watch has more to do with leadership and giving members a glimpse of the full scope of a rescue than mountaineering skills. While exciting, the exercise also makes you realize how difficult a real operation can be.

“The guys on the rescue team realize they have a responsibility,” said Sylvester, a senior who will commission into the Army Corps of Engineers following his 2009 graduation. “You’ve got to lead these guys safely as well as conduct the mission ... It puts a sense of gravity to it.”

Initially founded in 1947 as an Army ROTC unit to teach mountaineering and winter fighting, MCW is open to cadets preparing for all branches of the service, and is the only program of its kind at a private U.S. college. Members learn wilderness survival, skiing, navigation, advanced first aid and mountaineering. They participate in actual rescue operations and several major off-campus training exercises each semester.

Hawk’s Watch began the afternoon before the rescue, when volunteers camped on Camels Hump to await their role in the exercise. At 3 a.m., company Sgt. Trevor Sparkes, a junior, received a phone call from campus security saying that a plane had crashed on Camels Hump and four pilots were missing. At that time, ROTC instructors were heading up the mountain to get ready.

“We know the weekend it’s going to happen,” said Sparkes, who was in charge of overseeing the search and rescue. “We don’t get any details. ... They try to keep it as realistic as possible.”

Two dozen MCW members divided into teams and assembled the gear they would need. Company leaders mapped out the search area and planned routes to the summit. By 7 a.m., teams headed up three separate routes on different sides of the mountain. Sparkes’ team ended up rescuing a volunteer suspended in a tree about two-thirds of the way up one trail. He left the climbing and rappelling to newer members and stood back, observing for safety.

“We just supervised,” Sparkes said. “We had a hands-off approach.”

Sylvester said much of the mission’s success fell on Sparkes’ shoulders, and things went very smoothly. “He was really thrown into the leadership role.”

Faville, who will commission into the Marines to train as a pilot, said the exercise is most effective as a way to get everyone off campus, practicing the skills they’ve learned in a real setting.

“There’s so much technical stuff to learn. A lot of people burn out on it,” he said. “This is how we apply it. This is how it works ... We had a lot of fun with it.”