In MCW, the bonds make it all worthwhile

Members of the Cold Weather Mountain Team stand atop a frigid peak during a training outing this winter. Photo by Darwin Carozza

“If you pass, you’re in the company.”

“If you fail, you’re out of the company.”

Those are the clear rules, says Allyson Cleary, a senior “black hat” in the Mountain Cold Weather Company.

The Mountain Cold Weather Company has been around since 1947 on the Norwich University campus. To join the ranks of the company, candidates must take on a year of training to prove they have what it takes to uphold everything the Mountain Cold Weather Company stands for.

“Black hat testing is the end of first-year training and to see how (mountaineering) skills have developed over the year,” explained Cleary. At that point a whole year of training can be cut short in an instant by failing to meet the requirements of earning a coveted black hat designation.

Candidates are referred to as “greensticks” during their time of training as they attempt to join the company.

“My greenstick year was probably one of the hardest parts of my college career,” said Cleary, a 22-year-old senior from Alton N.H., studying civil engineering.

“We slept outside, made fires, tied knots, rucked up and down the mountain and got yelled at a lot,” joked Cleary. The best part of greenstick training for Cleary was building the bond with everyone around her, she said.

“Having that kind of family is something great. You can be like, ‘Hey who wants to go hike or go do something on the mountain?’ We all have that same like-minded point of view,” said Cleary.

“It is tight,” agreed another black hat, Johnathan Sprout, a 21-year-old junior, studying construction management from Sandwich, Mass.

“You’ll see other black hats all around the campus and you may not know them well but because you are both in the Mountain Cold Weather Company, you just greet each other because you have this bond through this year-long training towards earning your black hat,” said Sprout.

The Mountain Cold Weather Company was founded by Master Sgt. Leslie J. Hurley with a clear and concise mission statement: “The mission of the Mountain Cold Weather Company is to teach leadership, train and develop cadets into potential mountain combat soldiers using the techniques of military mountaineering and the tactics of small unit patrolling. “

Cleary has been in the company for four years and says she has learned just about as much as anyone can. “I’ve learned how to lead my peers,” said Cleary. “One of the hardest things to do is lead people who have the same experience as you,” she added.

“I also learned that things don’t always go as planned outside… and that things will go even worse if you don’t have a plan at all,” said Cleary. “I think MCW has taught me how to plan for anything in life. Whether it be a small thing, or big thing.”

“Since coming to MCW company, I’ve learned to double-check my work,” said Sprout. “It doesn’t matter if you are tying a system or filling out paperwork. You want to catch any mistakes, so you don’t lose gear and maybe no one falls during a rappel.”

A unit that has been around as long as the Mountain Cold Weather Company develops a character and personality through traditions. One huge tradition within the company is the one of colors.

After a greenstick has made it into the company, they are presented with a black hat to signify their transition and are then given an option.

One option is to become a greenstick training sergeant and pass on the knowledge they have perfected to the next class of candidates. The other option is to pursue more advanced mountaineering, which is called level 2.

As black hats progress through level 2 training they are given a mentor who has already been qualified in the advanced training who will train that prospective black hat. At a certain point during their training, black hats go through a ceremonial process of selecting a color, which will forever be a representation of that black hat. The color that is selected is placed on all of that black hat’s gear and on their locker representing ownership and taking responsibility for everything that happens to and with that gear.

“It signifies that I’m getting there. It’s my first little ticket and I’m on my way,” said Cleary, describing the milestone. “Anything that happens with this gear kind of hit me hard.”

Eventually, the black hats will be bestowed the color of their mentor and create a two-color combination. This bestowing of the colors is a representation that the mentor trusts the black hat and by passing on their colors, takes responsibility for all actions the black hat does as a mountaineer.

“At the end of training, your mentor gives you their color. Everything that happens with your mentor’s colors on it, is also (your mentors) responsibility too,” said Cleary. “It’s that sense of trust that they know that you know what you’re doing.”

There are around 65 members in MCW company and they train two or three times a week and often have weekend expeditions. Traditions have a big role in the Mountain Cold Weather Company training. Sprout’s favorite tradition is the push-ups at the end of every session. It builds muscle, but it also lets the greensticks know that they have made it through another day of training.

“Right after final formation, there’s push-ups right before you’re dismissed. It also builds a kind of camaraderie,” explained Sprout.

Each day after training the company has a formation where information is passed out and other important things are told. After everything that needs to be said is said, the company is called to attention where every person, black hat and greenstick, shouts the company motto, “Climb to conquer.”

They then do push-ups that increase day by day so the company members become a little bit stronger with each passing day.

Everyone has different reasons for why they want to be accepted into the MCW. For some, the reason was years ago, for others, it’s still in their heads now.

Nicholas Kilgallon, 18, is a freshman studying construction management from Windham, Maine. He‘s a greenstick and says. “I enjoy the mountains and using my hands.” But he also wanted to get more hands-on skills in field craft.

“I want to get more military training outside of the corps and even more in depth than ROTC,” said Kilgallon. When Kilgallon heard that the MCW offered all of those things, he knew it was for him.

“The Mountain Cold Weather Company also gives you more practical skills that are a lot more useful in life,” added Kilgallon.

One of the most common reasons people join MCW is because they were influenced by someone close to them, such as Cleary, who says she joined “because of a huge influence from my platoon sergeant as a rook.”

Sprout was influenced back when he was a rook. “My platoon sergeant was in the company my freshman year and he really hyped it up,” said Sprout. “Also, six of my other rook siblings are black hats and I wanted to join.”

Sprout joined the Mountain Cold Weather Company his sophomore year. He initially tried to be accepted to the company but fell short during black hat testing.

It takes a full year of training for a greenstick to be taught, coached and eventually perfect the basic skills of a military mountaineer. It isn’t until the end of the year where all the greensticks are finally tested on everything they have learned.

The grading standards are simple. Greensticks are expected to know every knot and rope system. Fail a system, make a mistake, and you earn a deficiency. After three deficiencies they are dropped. After every deficiency on a rope system, greensticks are retrained and have one more chance.

If they fail the system twice, they get dropped. The greensticks that don’t make the cut have spent an entire year of training just to come up short and leave empty handed.

“It’s a test of how prepared you are to set up systems and if you know when to use each,” said Kilgallon. “You have to have a feeling of not worrying about it,” added Sprout. You’re taught to be cool and calm under pressure. To perform how you were trained and nothing more.”

“If you pass black hat testing, you earn your black hat and stay in the company. If you fail, you’re out of the company,” said Cleary.

It might seem harsh to some, however members of the Mountain Cold Weather Company have, and will always be, needed to perform at their very best in the worst scenarios.

During the flooding devastation caused by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, the Mountain Cold Weather Company’s elite corps were called into the town of Northfield to help.

“Mountain Cold Weather Company’s rescue team were the first people called to help people get out of their flooded homes,” said Cleary proudly. “They got people out. They helped out the Mayo clinic in town and many others.”

The MCW holds on to traditions and remembers the alumni that were once active members in the company. One of the largest traditions in the company is a dedication to two fallen alumni mountaineers.

“Army Capt. Anthony Palermo and Sgt. Adam Kennedy have a week devoted to them to remind members of the company that you’re not only doing this for yourself, but you’re doing for everyone else who was once a black hat,” said Sprout.

KAP week is the acronym used to remember the two fallen alumni members: Kennedy And Palermo.

MCW continues to make great leaders as it teaches leadership through military mountaineering, continuing the traditions begun in 1947. “The big things I’ve learned from the Mountain Cold Weather is speed and confidence,” said Sprout.

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