Mountain troops rope up and strengthen bonds during the Partnership for Peace program in Switzerland

Posted on: April 2, 2020


The author Nathan Fry and his fellow classmates approach the Chli Bielenhorn, located near the famous Furka Pass (Furkastrasse) road during the 2019 NATO Partnership for Peace Program in Switzerland. [Photo] Tyler CaseyThe author Nathan Fry and his fellow classmates approach the Chli Bielenhorn, located near the famous Furka Pass (Furkastrasse) road during the 2019 NATO Partnership for Peace Program in Switzerland. [Photo] Tyler Casey

Swiss Army Mountain Warfare School, Andermatt, Switzerland. June 23, 2019, 1930 hours.

I'm lying on my bed at the end of the first day of the Swiss Army's Partnership for Peace mountaineering course, when a guy I'll refer to as "Stas," one of the Polish climbers, pops his head into my room. "Hey, guys," he says. "You want to party?"

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My American partners and I, all members of the US military, are here with soldiers from Poland, Ukraine and Canada. Our technical skills entrance exam for the course is the next day. It is the test that will separate the basic mountaineering course from the advanced mountaineering course students. As a climber with 20 years of experience and as the Training Division Chief at the US Army's Mountain Warfare School, I'm aiming for nothing less than the advanced course.

Stas, meanwhile, is wearing only his underwear and flip-flops, and he doesn't seem to be concerned about the test. He shakes his Nalgene bottle knowingly, and then he offers it out to us. I have no idea what's in it, but I suspect it's not water.

"Sorry, brother," I say. "I'm in for the night."

Stas shrugs. "You know what we say in Poland." He looks up at the ceiling and he belts out a string of unintelligible Polish words, gesturing with his Nalgene bottle in hand. From down the hallway, someone shouts his name. He turns and disappears.

The next morning, I arrive in the briefing room 15 minutes early, expecting a punctual start. In the US military, a course like this typically features a rigid in-processing system, complete with formations and shouting, and duffel bags that burst with too much gear. Here, students filter in only a few minutes before the briefing starts. Justin, an ex-Army Ranger and now team leader in a mountain infantry company, leans toward me.

"I keep expecting someone to stomp in here and throw us in the shark tank," he said. "This is more like Camp Do-Watcha-Want."

When he sees me, Stas puts his hands on his forehead and shakes his head, and then he winks as he takes his seat. We are all dressed in our own nation's camouflage—American, Polish, Canadian and Ukrainian climbers with Swiss instructors—except for Tyler, a climber, photographer and Army lieutenant from Colorado. His bags are still somewhere in the Zurich airport, so Tyler sports a red plaid shirt, jeans and sandals. Camp Do-Watcha-Want, indeed.

But when the commander of the Swiss Mountain School addresses us, he's clearly not concerned about Camp Do-Watcha-Want.

"The Partnership for Peace program was established in 1994," he explains, "and the purpose is to build relationships between all countries involved in the program. A country can choose any theme for its program. Over the next two weeks, you will build relationships with each other while also learning to be better mountaineers."

Fry on the Perrenoud Route. [Photo] Tyler CaseyFry on the Perrenoud Route. [Photo] Tyler Casey

I am only partially listening. My trademark notebook is out on the desk and, pen in hand, I am jotting down notes about the locations where we are going to climb so that I can do a map reconnaissance later. The commander's comments on the purpose of the Partnership for Peace program barely register.

After the introduction speech, we meet our instructors and head out to prepare for the exam. Separated into four smaller groups, we learn that the test will consist of completing three toprope climbs at our highest possible onsight grade, setting up a rappel with a hands-free backup, and completing a fourth-class scramble so that the Swiss instructors can observe our cardio fitness and technical abilities.

I am paired with Tyler and a Ukrainian soldier who speaks very little English. Although I speak Russian, I had been hesitant to engage the Ukrainians in Russian because of the political sensitivities between the two countries. At the rappel station, however, our Ukrainian partner seemed confused about the instructions for the test—translating "anchor" and "hands free backup" from Swiss German to English to Ukrainian wasn't working out. I took a deep breath. "Ya govoryou na ruskom. Ti tozhe?" (I speak in Russian, you also?) The Ukrainian soldier looked at me for a moment. "Da," he replied. Yes. Thankful that he hadn't punched me in the face, I proceeded to explain the instructions in Russian to him. "Oh, bez problem. Spaseebo," he replied when I finished. (Oh, no problem. Thanks!) He finished his test with no issues. At our next station, Tyler traded his sandals for my rock shoes and flashed a 7a (5.11d) on his climbing skills test. Pascal, a Swiss military mountain guide and one of our instructors, looked pleased. "He has not the right clothes, but he has the right skill," Pascal said.

By the morning of the next day, we had organized into two classes—one of basic-level students and one of advanced level. In the advanced course, Tyler, Justin and I joined Chris, a Canadian Pararescue technician, and Julia and Kamil, two Polish military academy cadets who had crushed the entrance exam to the advanced course. Pascal would be our instructor. The team was clearly strong, especially considering that Tyler had finally received his bags, and he now had something more substantial than sandals to use for glacier travel. Over the course of the next week, we trained together on glacier rescue on the Rhone glacier, summited classic alpine peaks such as the Gross Bielenhorn, and climbed at sport crags in the afternoons when thunderstorms rolled in. The team members were tentative with each other at first, but we gradually developed the sarcastic interactions and dark humor that is typical of climbers and soldiers. Our approaches to our climbing objectives evolved from silent trudges up the glacier to boisterous ascents up the well-maintained Swiss climbing paths. Yet when we stopped for the inevitable afternoon coffee break, I couldn't help rolling my eyes.

"Here we go again," I would comment to Justin as the van rolled into a quaint roadside cafe en route back to the barracks. "Camp Do-Watcha-Want coffee hour." Raised in the US Army's culture of "100 mph training," I felt that the afternoon stops were a waste of training time.

"You've got to relax," Justin would reply. "Maybe it's not all about training all the time. Did you ever think of that?" As the group sat together and enjoyed the afternoon sun, I shifted uncomfortably in my seat and wrote notes in my notebook. It's all about training, I thought, we should be pushing harder, not sitting here socializing.

In the brief moments when I allowed myself to sink into the group's rhythm, however, I caught glimpses of the learning that was occurring between nationalities. Justin and Chris discussed various approaches to anchor building, Tyler and Kamil compared our two countries' approaches to mountain warfare tactics, and I even allowed myself to get into a conversation with the Ukrainian team about mountaineering training methods. Even so, bagging peaks was still forefront on my mind.

Fry descends a couloir on Chli Bielenhorn [Photo] Tyler CaseyFry descends a couloir on Chli Bielenhorn [Photo] Tyler Casey

I soon got my chance. We finished the first week of the course on a Friday and the next day celebrated with an outstanding personal outing up the South Ridge of Salbitschijen (IV 6a/b, or 5.10). Climbing in a joint US-Canadian team, Tyler, Justin, Chris, and I wove through the stone spires of the aesthetic ridgeline, moving with surprising efficiency given that we had only met each other five days prior. We all had different ways of approaching the challenges, but our concentrated week together had helped to us understand each other's personalities and approaches to climbing.

On Monday, the course resumed and the advanced team assembled early for a push up the Direct South Ridge of Gross Schijen (III 6a, or 5.10-). Thunderstorms were predicted for the afternoon, so our guides encouraged us to move quickly and be off of the ridge before noon.

By 8 a.m., we had completed the easy hike across lingering snowfields and had started up the southeast face. The Swiss guides led in a party of two, with Julia and Kamil behind them. Tyler and Chris moved behind the Polish team, and Justin and I brought up the rear of the pack. The granite was warm, and the climbing engaging—a layback up a flake followed by crisp, secure edges. Bolted protection allowed us to move swiftly up the pitches.

Tyler was midway up the third pitch without a cloud in the sky when the shouting started from above. I squinted upward and continued to belay Justin up behind me. Kamil, one pitch ahead of us, shouted again and pointed off to the northeast.

"What are the Polish yelling about?" Chris asked. He and I were sharing a belay.

As if in answer to Chris's question, a gust of wind nearly blew us off of our feet. Chris turned and looked at me, his blue eyes wide. "Did you just feel the pressure drop?" I nodded. Tyler had just arrived at the belay ledge above. "Hey, looks like the Gates of Mordor just opened up over there," he called down in his Texas twang, jerking his thumb in the direction Kamil had pointed. "Rain's coming fast and I think it's time to end this party early."

The wind gusted again insistently. I went into the anchor direct and untied, and I handed the rope end to Chris to take with him so he could set up a longer rappel. As Chris started to clean Tyler's pitch, I searched the skyline for the other teams. The Polish climbers were still making their way up; the Swiss team was out of sight. Justin pulled himself up to the ledge. "SITREP?" he asked, using the military term for a "situation report." "Nicht gut," I replied. Justin rolled his eyes at my weak attempt to speak German. "Tyler says the Rain God is about to pay us a visit. We're pulling the plug."

Two minutes later, Tyler touched down on the ledge. I had the rope pre-threaded and ready to pull as soon as Chris arrived. We waited. Chris lingered above, fiddling with his autoblock. A few drops of rain fell, and Chris started down the rope. He was halfway down when the sky exploded with a torrent of marble-sized hail. The three of us on the ledge responded with expletives. "Come on, Chris!" Justin yelled, laughing as he dodged hailstones. Now this is the type of training we're used to, I thought as water seeped into our shoes, and we cracked dark jokes about getting hit by lightning.

Within minutes, we were zipping down the final rappel to the ground, soaked, shivering, and a little rattled by the lightning strikes as the bolts got closer. On the ground, as we collected ourselves and our packs, we peered toward the summit for signs of the Swiss and Polish teams. "When did you last see them?" someone asked. "Why did they keep going up?" We mused about them bailing off the back side of the route to the closest cafe, our humor belying growing concern for our teammates. We were thankful when we spotted them descending the right side of the ridge and, within about 20 minutes, they joined us.

Pascal sat on a rock and dumped water out of his climbing shoe, visibly relieved to have everyone back together. "OK," he said. "Maybe now we go drink a beer together." Justin smiled and flashed a thumbs-up. "Now we're speaking the same language," he said.

As we descended the fields of snow and talus, I walked ahead of the group, already in a hurry to move to the next task, feeling the weight of having only three training days remaining. Behind me, I could hear the Swiss Army mountain specialist Philip relating their team's experience to Justin and Chris. "So I am here on the rappel ledge...totally alone on this ledge and thinking, 'Oh, God, I will die here all alone because I have no place to go.'"

Then, it's suddenly clear to me—the cragging, the afternoon coffee, Pascal's comment on the first day about Tyler having the wrong clothes but the right skill. The point in soldiers and climbers from five different nations being here together wasn't about doing everything to a perfect military standard. It was about emphasizing the relationships behind the training. For perhaps the first and last times in our military careers, the Swiss Partnership for Peace program was giving us the chance to simply concentrate on building relationships and understanding, bound by a common love for the mountains and mountaineering. There was no higher headquarters looking over our shoulder and driving a training timeline, no demands that we achieve anything other than understanding each other a little better. And I'd been missing it all with my refusal to take a step back and see the larger picture.

Fry and his cohorts run aboard a helicopter. [Photo] Tyler CaseyFry and his cohorts run aboard a helicopter. [Photo] Tyler Casey

As we made our way off of the slippery boulders and into the snowfield below, I slowed my pace, allowing the group to catch up. Justin walked with his iPhone out, showing Julia and Kamil his footage of our swift retreat. As we loaded into the van, the group was all laughing over Justin's plans to make a video meme of the day, and we were still laughing as we pulled up into the roadside cafe. The sun was shining again, as a cold wind pushed away the dark clouds. I regarded my training notebook for a moment, then dropped it back onto the van seat as I got out.

In the closing days of the course, I managed, with no small degree of effort, to remain conscious of the larger meaning behind our time in Switzerland. I put the notebook down more often than not. I went out to the bar on the final night with our international crew of climbers and sat around a table late into the night listening to Philip and Sam, our favorite Swiss Army mountain specialists, debate topics that ranged from the Swiss military's conscript program to the best features to have in a dirtbag climber van. But as we loaded our bags on the morning of our departure, the notebook came out again, this time so I could write down names, emails, and phone numbers.

At a time when international relationships seem to be fracturing, engagements such as the Partnership for Peace mountaineering course have taken on a new value in creating a shared appreciation for other cultures. As we all shook hands for the last time, the strong grips and identical calluses on each hand were evidence that our various paths and approaches to climbing all shared the same end.

Salbitschijen in afternoon sunshine, Switzerland. [Photo] Tyler CaseySalbitschijen in afternoon sunshine, Switzerland. [Photo] Tyler Casey

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