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Colorado National Guard takes mountain unit to new heights

By Sgt. Jennifer Lena | Colorado National Guard | December 29, 2017

CENTENNIAL, Colo. - The 1st Battalion, 157th Infantry Regiment (Mountain), Colorado Army National Guard is one of only three mountain infantry battalions in the U.S. Army. Through a new partnership between the Vermont National Guard and Colorado National Guard, the High-Altitude Mountain Training Initiative gives Soldiers of the 1-157th Infantry the opportunity to develop their unique and indispensable skills in their home state.

As a part of this initiative, the summer phase of the Advanced Military Mountaineering Course was taught in Colorado for the first time in October 2017. Previously, both the summer and winter phases of the AMMC were exclusively offered at the Army Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vermont.

The summer phase is an intense two-week course focusing on the fundamentals of analyzing and moving through rough terrain, safely building and using rope systems, high angle rescue techniques and most importantly, decision-making skills.

"We're not teaching systems for these students to memorize," U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Robert Niles, the AMMC Non-commissioned Officer in Charge, said. "We're hopefully teaching them more of a decision-making process, and along the way, giving them tools to solve terrain problems and come up with a viable technical solution to those problems."

Throughout the course, students learn how to calmly make high-risk decisions. According to the instructors, graduates will train other Soldiers upon returning to their units to practice the same skill. Graduates will also serve as advisors to their commanders.

"The big takeaway from this course is how to manage a training site, effectively teach skills to lower-level Soldiers, and how to manage risks associated with training someone who is not familiar with any of this gear," U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Ricker, an AMMC student, said.

The AMMC is open to all service members, regardless of rank or branch of service. The only prerequisite for attendance is graduation from the U.S. Army Basic Military Mountaineering Course. However, candidates are largely chosen by their units by demonstrating maturity and a continuing passion for the skill.

"Another big thing we are trying to do with these students is make this course fun so that they want to go climbing on their own," Niles said. "That's where they are going to get the experience to teach as a part of sustainment training."

Although the course is open to all branches and components, Army National Guard Soldiers likely stay within their home state for an extended period of time, often their entire career. This means that the investment made in these students may persist longer than their active-duty counterparts, who frequently transfer to units and locations which do not require mountaineering skills.

This beneficial career longevity concept also applies to AMMC instructors who have at least 10 years of experience in military mountaineering. According to Niles, this level of experience is crucial because much of the skill set is subjective in nature. Additionally, the instructors are the authors and editors of the course material, which requires a high level of subject matter expertise.

Class sizes are unusually small compared to other mountaineering courses. For every AMMC instructor, there are only two students. This ratio allows for a maximum of only 24 graduates from the winter phase and about twice as many from the summer phase each year. Given that these skilled Soldiers are such a precious resource, the COARNG is currently developing and employing the HAMTI strategy, allowing the 1-157 Infantry to meet its mission as a mountain infantry battalion.

"If we are going to have a mountain unit here in Colorado, we need to facilitate and enable that unit to be able to do the home-station training necessary in order to accomplish the mission," U.S. Army 1st Sgt. John Gilliland, the HAMTI NCOIC, said.

Though the initiative has succeeded in bringing quality mountaineering education to Colorado, the change in location presents a new set of challenges to overcome. The cadre must be able to find good examples of terrain features in an unfamiliar area while planning around abrupt weather changes, all while teaching to the strict standards of the course.

Another challenge facing mountain units is the general lack of awareness of the capabilities that mountain units such as the 1-157th Infantry can provide.

Mountaineering and climbing is a niche skill in the military and is therefore relatively rare. In order to draw attention to these unique capabilities and Soldiers, a discussion began at the grass-roots level during the course to potentially establish some type of a best mountaineer competition, not unlike many other best-warrior type competitions, in order to recognize these Soldiers' skills.

As forces specifically trained to conduct operations in mountain environments become increasingly relevant to U.S. military leadership, the CONG uses HAMTI to stay on top of the ever-changing needs for deployed forces. Through this initiative, CONG and VTNG have begun to increase the number of their qualified mountaineers, heightening Soldier and unit readiness for both state and federal missions within the National Guard and U.S. Army.