Mountain Cold Weather Company endures frigid trek up Mt. Washington


Members of the Norwich Mountain Cold Weather Company survived a real training test ascending New Hampshire's Mt. Washington in frigid temps and dangerous winds. (Photo by Timothy Smeddal)

Members of the Norwich Mountain Cold Weather Company survived a real training test ascending New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington in frigid temps and dangerous winds. (Photo by Timothy Smeddal)

Every winter break, cadets from the Army ROTC special unit Mountain Cold Weather Company (MCW) head off for a week-long training exercise known as Ice Trek.
This year it more than lived up to its name.

Trying to ascend to the top of 6,288-foot Mount Washington, the 22 company members and three commissioned officers participating in the summit attempt faced whiteout conditions, 80 mile-per-hour winds and a wind chill that sank to minus 75.
“It’s not just a walk up a hill, it’s one of the deadliest environments on the planet,” said MCW Company Commander James Dicesare, a senior at Norwich. “It’s exceptional that I can bring 20 guys up there and bring 20 guys back and safe, not many people can do that.”
Bringing cadets and midshipmen to the alpine zone of Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast, allows them to experience extreme cold weather conditions and apply all of the cold weather skills they have been taught, Dicesare said.
“(MCW) puts them in an environment to apply themselves, apply what they’ve learned, do a little limit testing, and bring back experience to the organization when they return,” Dicesare said.
Dicesare said this year’s weather on the ascent initially was favorable but suddenly turned deadly.
“We went up with crampons and trekking poles,with ice axes in the event of encountering steep snow. It was cold, temperature at the base when we stepped out was minus 14 and it only got colder as we went up,” he said. But the sky was clear with little to no wind and the unit could see the summit ahead all morning. However, just before reaching the alpine zone above treeline, Dicesare got a weather report that said temperatures had dropped to -75 with the wind chill.
“We progressed until we hit the Lakes in the Clouds. I got a frantic weather report on the radio and then we were slammed with wind. One of my guys fell and hit his knee on the way there, and given the conditions at the summit – we were not equipped for that temperature – we turned around,” he said.
The hike took about seven hours and was invaluable despite not making it to the summit, he said. “You need the time and the experience to see how your body behaves in the cold,” said Dicesare, “it’s not something (MCW) can train, it’s something the cadets need to experience.”
MCW is an Army ROTC special unit, founded in 1947 by Master Sergeant Leslie J. Hurley, at Norwich. MCW trains volunteer Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC cadets and midshipmen how to survive and operate in cold, mountainous environments, by teaching “skiing, snowshoeing, wilderness survival, first aid, climbing and mountaineering, day and night land navigation and (treating) cold-weather injuries,” according to the MCW program.
MCW training is divided into two training levels which reflect US Army military mountaineering as close as possible, according to ROTC contractor Cory Ryder, a US Army level two military mountaineer in the Vermont National Guard who supervises MCW.
MCW is led by Army, Air Force, and Navy ROTC cadets and midshipmen, under Army ROTC cadre supervision, with precedence for leadership positions given to Army ROTC cadets. However, “it really boils down to who’s most qualified for the positions,” Ryder said.
Cross training between different ROTC cadets and midshipmen are beneficial as cadets and midshipmen can learn from each branch’s operating procedures, said Cliff Mullen, an Army ROTC contractor and retired Army First Sergeant who also supervises MCW.
“It’s a small military; they’re going to run into each other again. Whether they’re in the Air Force, Navy, Army, they’re going to be supporting each other, so it’s great to see them working together now, and learning other’s standard operating procedures,” Ryder said.
MCW is currently progressing toward officially qualifying MCW cadets and midshipmen as military mountaineers within the military.
The annual Ice Trek, which ran from Jan. 3-10 this year, is designed to give cadets and midshipmen experience working in cold, high altitude, and alpine environments for extended periods of time, rather than the usual two hour training blocks that MCW cadets usually train in, Mullen said. The goal is five to six days of “pure” mountain operations without any distractions which “gives (the cadets and midshipmen) confidence in their gear and their knowledge,” he said.
The base of operations for the Ice Trek is in Bog Brook, Maine, at a Maine National Guard training area. Students use the mountains behind Bog Brook base or travel to Grafton Notch, Sunday River Ski Resort and Mt. Washington to train in ice climbing, skiing, over-snow mobility operations and gain alpine zone experience, according to Ryder.
This year, dangerous road conditions forced a day’s delay in operating from Bog Brook, so MCW conducted a five-mile ski on Paine Mountain at NU to familiarize cadets and midshipmen with cross-country skiing.
Volunteer staff act as advisors, instructors, and safety supervisors during Ice Trek. This year staff consisted of four NU Army ROTC cadre, two Mountain Warfare School (MWS) instructors, and a Vermont National Guard recruiter, according to Ryder.
All cadets who complete level one training are allowed to attend Ice Trek, while cadets and midshipmen who are candidates for level two must attend, according to Dicesare and Ryder. A modified version of the Army Mountain Warfare School’s planning course was used this year, which is “designed to teach battalion staff officers how to plan and conduct operations in the mountains,” Mullen said.
Having an advanced course like this available to ROTC cadets is “incredibly rare,” and most likely has not been done before, said Mullen, who noted the idea came about through “a personal connection because of a professional association I had.” Cadets who complete the planning course are awarded a certificate of training from MWS.
The certificate of training that Army cadets receive will go into their military records, distinguishing them for mountain operations in their military services, Mullen said.
“They’ve received a week of training on how to plan operations. Yes, they did it specifically for the mountains, but the principles apply know matter what you’re doing,” Mullen said, “it’s one less thing (they) have to be taught. It’s that much faster that he (or she) can become a valuable member of a platoon and it’s easier for him to lead much faster.”
For the Army ROTC ascension process where cadets are scored for their standing on a national order of merit list, attending the planning course will count as a school that adds to an Army cadet’s national standing, according to Ryder.
Prior to the Mt. Washington summit attempt, criteria were established by MCW leadership as to whether or not the summit attempt was too dangerous. Updated information was supplied through radios from cadre at the base of Mt. Washington, according to Dicesare.
Part of the training is planning for contingencies in the event of an emergency, such as alternate routes and alerting medical and rescue services about MCW’s attempt to summit Mt. Washington. “They learn how little mistakes can end their life,” Dicesare said, “but it also shows (them) what (they) can achieve.”
Students learn how to dress in cold weather, checking each other and enforcing certain disciplines using a system that mirrors the Army system, according to Dicesare.
Risks that need to be assessed include cold weather injuries, such as frostbite and hypothermia, as well as injuries from a fall or from ice or rocks, according to Dicesare and Ryder. “We don’t assume any unnecessary risk,” said Ryder, and despite the brutal conditions, no injuries were sustained during the 2015 Ice Trek, Ryder said.
“Planning for mountain ops is difficult. You have to plan for guys’ gear, you have to consider what guys are eating, how much they’re drinking, the conditions, physical fitness, there’s a lot of components,” said Dicesare, adding that plans for Ice Trek were completed over a period of four months.
“The stuff I’ve done this year for MCW is bounds and leaps ahead of anything I’ve done for ROTC, it absolutely requires the minutest attention to detail,” Dicesare said.
Planning for Ice Trek has built appreciation for US Army planning techniques, Discesare said. According to Mullen, the crew on the trek this year were well-prepared.“They did not act like a bunch of college students, they acted like real professionals,” Mullen said, “I did not see anything that caused me concern.”
The cost of Ice Trek was less than $3000, primarily for transportation and food. The Bog Brook Training Area was free as it was not being used, and MWS instructors volunteered their own time to instruct the cadets and midshipmen, according to Ryder.
“For the amount of training, it was relatively inexpensive,” Ryder said.
Ice Trek is paid using MCW funds that come from private donations, according to Ryder.
“We’re an ROTC unit that has a special mission,” Dicesare said, “This organization is a benefit for everybody. You learn so much and you’re able to apply yourself in so many different ways in MCW.”
“For anybody wishing to drop this organization, I strongly recommend they really reconsider. You can ask any of my guys and they’ll say this has been the greatest thing they’ve done. They’re only in ROTC, but this is the greatest source of training they’ve had in their lives. I would challenge to say that this is the greatest training of their lives that they’ve ever had.”


  1. Alice Chandler says:

    My Grandson was one of the group .Jon Brewer. How can I get copies of the paper?? I would like to read the whole story, ROTC has been great for him. He did receive, Air Force Scholarship . Hope you get 5 papers for me. Thanks for the help…Sincerely Alice Chandler

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