Sunday, July 6, 2014

Into the wilderness

FIVE HILLS TRAINING AREA, Mongolia – Survival is more than just instinct, it is a skill that is honed through rigorous training.

For a platoon of approximately 30 Mongolian Armed Forces service members, led by a training contingent of five Alaska Army National Guardsman and U.S. Marines, the survival-training course served to create a better understanding of techniques in surviving in the wilderness.

The survival-training course portion of Khaan Quest 2014 began on a cloudy morning, June 21. Khaan Quest is a regularly scheduled, multinational exercise co-sponsored by U.S. Army, Pacific, and hosted annually by Mongolian Armed Forces. This year’s exercise marks the 12th installment of this annual training event.

Now in its second year since being added to the training schedule, the survival course began with a ruck march away from the comfort of hard structures in the form of bunkrooms, bathrooms, and a dining facility. For the next nine days, the participants of the survival course would have to live out of their backpacks, and find what they might need along the way.

“We’ve taken a Mongolian Armed Forces platoon out to the different environments around Five Hills Training Area here in Mongolia,” said Staff Sgt. Colin Oppegard, a survival lane instructor from the Alaska Army National Guard. “We’re training, evaluating and giving them an opportunity to practice various survival skills, including things like shelter building, traps, snares, foraging, hunting, water collection, tactical considerations for hide sites, that sort of thing.”

To start the course, the group hiked to the rock walls rising above the grassy plains behind the field training exercise lanes at Five Hills Training Area. Within hours, the rain began to fall and continued to follow them for days.

On the mountain, they spent two days learning different techniques in rappelling.

“The first two days were cliff operations,” said survival lane instructor Staff Sgt. Gayle Anders, division current operations chief, 3rd Marine Division. “We practiced ascending and descending using ropes, and we practiced different types of techniques to do that.”

After two days of practicing rappelling techniques, the platoon of Mongolian Armed Forces and instructors climbed into the mountains, and made their way to a forest, nestled above a valley filled with herds of horses, cows and sheep, grazing slowly across the panoramic scene.

Scattered in small groups throughout the forest, the platoon dug in and built their shelters. Afterwards, they set out practicing the skills they had learned in classes taught throughout the days. Traps and snares were set in the hills and forest; land navigation techniques were practiced and honed.

“We came down to the forest and we built shelters, practiced fire starting, water procurement, and land navigation,” said Anders.

“Land navigation was my little piece of the puzzle, just getting them to understand how to plot points and trust the compass. At first when they went out there, they didn’t really trust the compass, but then teaching them dead reckoning and how to find the points and pace counts, they came back with four out of five boxes in the majority of the cases.”

After four days of living and training in near unrelenting rain, the clouds broke, and the sun lit up the forested valley; the green grass glowed as the birch trees swayed in the warm breeze.

On the morning of the sixth day, the group broke up their scattered camps, and met in a clearing near the edge of the woods.

“We just got done with living inside the tree line,” said Anders. “It’s simulating as much as we could with the forest, a jungle environment. And now we’re going to move to the open plains and simulate just being in an open environment and having to survive off of what they’re able to forage for there.”

The group, loaded with packs almost as large as the individuals carrying them, readied themselves for the hike back up the mountain.

“All the way up!” shouted the instructors. The march was on.
With the sun warm on their backs, they hiked back up the mountain on a twisting, muddy trail. At the top, just as the rocky summit emerged from the forest, lay a Mongolian shrine; a pile of rocks called an ovoo. In Mongolian tradition, the passers-by drop a rock on the shrine as they walk three times around it clockwise. This is said to bring the travelers safe travels.

The journey continued down a vast valley, and back into the wide, grassy steppes. The spirits were high as people sang, laughed, joked, and descended into the valley. From there, the group made their way to a river, where they practiced fishing and river crossing techniques.

A common perception regarding the Mongolians among the instructors was that their professionalism and dedication to learning and exchanging knowledge of field craft was consistent with every step of the way.

“The Mongolians are doing really well,” said Anders. “They’re probably the only foreign military force I’ve worked with where you’re able to tell somebody once and they get it, but not only do they get it, they take it and make it their own.”

“It’s always a pleasure to see how other people do business and see what we can learn from each other,” added Oppegard.

For more information regarding exercise Khaan Quest, visit the official Facebook page at

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