KOLAšIN, Montenegro - The platoon halted on the ridge. A peak lay before them, covered in nearly two meters of snow. The Soldiers from 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry Regiment (Mountain), needed to find the safest route across the face and to the summit, seeking to avoid both the enemy and an avalanche. Despite going against tactical movement wisdom, the ridge provided the least risk of getting caught in an avalanche — though the platoon was exposed to observation and biting wind.
Led by an Austrian military mountain guide, the platoon began to cross the hundred-meter face one by one, trudging through the snow, before they determined it was impossible.
Hampered by fresh snow, harsh winds, and dangerous terrain, the risk was just too high. The platoon leader and mountain guide convened to discuss a new route while the platoon maintained its security posture. A few moments later, the platoon picked up and began retracing its steps, ready to find a new way up the mountain.
For two weeks, Vermont and Maine Army National Guards Soldiers joined Montenegrin, Austrian, Italian and North Macedonia partner forces in exercise Common Challenge 2023 in the mountains around Kolašin, Montenegro.
Common Challenge 23 focused on multinational interoperability in mountain warfare. A squad of Soldiers from 3rd Battalion integrated with a Montenegrin squad to form a multinational platoon led by 1st Lt. Zachary Dalrymple and Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Nadeau, both from Bravo Company from Maine.
To prepare for the field exercise, each country came together to train on mobility, survival skills and tactics in alpine environments. Avalanche rescue was emphasized, with the Austrian mountain guides training partner forces on how to use avalanche beacons and search procedures.
For many Mountain Battalion Soldiers, this was the first training event where avalanches posed a serious threat.
“Most of us only had what I’d call Vermont mountain skills,” said Sgt. Andrew Barton, a scout from the 3rd Battalion Headquarters Headquarters Company from Vermont who served with the platoon. “[We] did things for the first time in a military application and had to … adapt or get left behind.”
And adapt they did. At the end of the exercise, their counterparts commended them for being flexible and quick learners.
The Mountain Soldiers stepped off into the highlands and built snow shelters to bivouac in for the first night of the field exercise. Sgt. Sam Rathbun, the senior medic from Alpha Company and acting platoon medic for the exercise, said the environment complicated every aspect of their training.
“Prioritizing warming up and time for checks on all the guys was also not an easy task, but … we worked through it and came out the other side ready to fight.”
The exercise allowed Soldiers to work with their State Partnership Program partners and build relationships between their units. Maine is the state partner of Montenegro, and Vermont has been the state partner with North Macedonia since 1993 and with the Republic of Austria since 2021.
In addition to the Soldiers serving within the platoon, several Vermont Guardsmen filled staff and exercise control positions. Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Bates and Sgt. Nicholas Chegwidden, both from HHC, 3-172 IN (MTN), served on the exercise’s mountain rescue team, always ready to evacuate wounded Soldiers or respond to any emergencies throughout the training area.
The two were selected for the mountain rescue team based on their experience; Bates is a seasoned veteran of the Mountain Battalion and avid outdoorsman, and Chegwidden is a ski patroller and medic.
They “fell in with the Austrians smoothly and … worked well together,” Bates said, adding that the experienced Austrians welcomed them to the team. Fortunately, there were only minor training injuries; no disasters occurred, though the two got plenty of experience skijoring (being pulled by a snowmobile while on skis), conducting snowpack analysis, and hoisting casualties out of rough terrain with a helicopter — something neither had too much experience with but are eager to practice with the Mountain Battalion.
After several days of practicing maneuvering across deep snow and navigating the mountains, the multinational company began the exercise’s final phase, culminating with a company attack.
The platoons ascended the mountain on ski and snowshoe, moving toward their enemy combatants. As the American and Montenegrin platoon neared its objective, 1st Lt. Dalrymple ordered his two squads to begin bounding through the trees.
The American squad, on the platoon’s right side, made contact first. The Mountain Soldiers reacted well, returning fire and seeking cover. One Soldier threw a smoke grenade to screen the other squad’s movement in the woodline. To the east, the sounds of a battle could be heard — another platoon had engaged its objective.
The platoon closed on the opposing force’s machine gun nest and knocked it out. While Sgt. 1st. Class Nadeau and Sgt. Rathbun established a casualty collection point, the team leaders began establishing security around the objective, covering avenues of approach and checking on their Soldiers.
After linking up with the rest of the company, the exercise ended and the Soldiers made their way down the mountain.
This was the second Balkan exercise for many of the Bravo Company Soldiers, who had joined Alpha Company during exercise Swift Response 2022 in North Macedonia. Still, the cold and the snow presented significant challenges.
“I think there’s something to be said about how you as a Soldier must adapt to the environment,” Rathbun said. “[It] will always win, so adapting is your best way to sustain lethality.”
The Mountain Soldiers consider this another learning experience.
“It definitely opened my understanding that this is probably the one area that [we] could be considered outclassed by our allies,” Barton noted.
Many finished the exercise with ideas for future training in Vermont and Maine and a desire to bring more “mountain” back to the Mountain Battalion.