Fort McCoy’s Cold-Weather Operations Course (CWOC) may offer one of the few chances for U.S. troops to go skiing while on the clock, but recreation isn’t what their time on the slopes is all about.
“Skiing is a primary method of travel in an extreme cold-weather environment,” said CWOC Instructor Joe Ernst, who works for contractor Veterans Range Solutions. “We teach our students to do this by utilizing currently issued equipment and through a step-by-step approach.”
Skiing isn’t just a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon, it’s also an essential skill for service members operating in cold weather conditions. As the U.S. military adjusts its focus away from counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East and toward the potential for conflict with near-peer opponents like Russia, being able to perform complex tasks in cold environments will continue to gain importance.
Fort McCoy’s Whitetail Ridge Ski Area provides an optimum environment for military personnel to learn the ropes of skiing under the close tutelage of trained military instructors and contractors. In all, students spend around 16 hours on the slopes, split into two days. The first eight-hour day is devoted to getting accustomed to the equipment and learning the basic fundamentals of movement on skis. The second day, Ernst says, is all about building on those basic skills until soldiers feel mobile on their skis.
“We get a lot of students — I would say the majority of our students — who have never skied before,” Ernst said. “So, essentially, when they come here, they are starting from scratch. By the end of the skiing training, I would say on average that at least 90 percent of the students, maybe more, are competent in using the equipment.”
But just because these troops are getting to spend a few days on the slopes doesn’t mean the training at CWOC is in any way leisurely, as students are quick to point out.
“The course pushed me to my physical and mental limits,” said Sgt. 1st Class John Neira with Fox Company, 132nd Brigade Support Battalion (BSB) of Mosinee, Wis. “My squad was awesome. I had to lean on them to get through. It was a real team effort.”
Students attending CWOC are trained in a wide variety of other cold weather skills as well, including snowshoeing and the use of ahkio sleds, which are specialized sleds designed for use in extreme winter conditions. Beyond snow maneuvers, students also receive training in terrain and weather analysis, risk management, cold-weather clothing, developing winter fighting positions in the field, and camouflage and concealment in the snow.
“I learned a lot of skills from this cold-weather training that you couldn’t get anywhere else without having to pay a fortune or having to try and figure out yourself,” said Spc. Jack Johnston with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry of the Wisconsin National Guard. “The best part of the course is bivouacking and applying the skills you learned in a real scenario.”
Ultimately, CWOC is all about learning how to live, work, and fight in even the coldest of environments–a far cry from the combat deployments of the past twenty years. Fort McCoy, the only U.S. military installation in Wisconsin, has trained over 100,000 members of the U.S. military per year, each year, since 1984. In the coming years, there’s a good chance that number will get even higher.
Feature photo courtesy of Scott T. Sturkol, Public Affairs Office, Fort McCoy, Wis.