This is the inaugural post in our new series “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus.”
The French army has done things its own way since at least the Revolution and nurtured a distinct military tradition quite separate from those of the Anglo and Germanic countries. And this independence has showed up in its gear.
After World War II, France relied on hand-me-downs from the United States. Her army struggled through the Fifties to reassert itself and met with ruin in Indochina, Suez, and Algeria, finally ending the decade with a failed military coup. After those demoralizing débacles and the irksome dependence on the US, the French military was going out of its way to be different again. President de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO and reasserted French uniqueness and its independence from even its Western allies. For the military, this meant that the Sixties were a decade of reequipping itself with uniquely French designs in weapons, clothing, and gear.
From the beginning, the French government had always designed and built its own equipment in-house, rather than contracting with private companies. Instead of famous brands like Colt, Remington, Heckler & Koch, and Steyr Mannlicher, France’s arms manufacturers were state-owned arsenals like Saint-Étienne. These government designers could approach engineering problems differently from their commercial counterparts, since they worked within different constraints.
That is one reason that French gear can look as different as Australian fauna do from Asian or African animals: they are the products of separate lines of development and evolution.
One moment in this evolution had huge downstream consequences, one of those junctures where it doesn’t pay to be an early adopter. In 1884, French government inventors devised the first rifle firing “smokeless powder,” a propellent that drives rifle bullets much faster than old-fashioned gunpowder. Eager to capitalize on their discovery before their German rivals, the army rushed the new cartridge into service.
Had they waited, they would have discovered bugs in the new cartridge, like its severe taper, that would soon make it obsolescent. And they could have fixed these bugs (as the Germans did) while they still had time. Instead the French swiftly committed themselves irretrievably to a dead-end design and remained saddled with the Lebel cartridge for the next 60 years.
Unchastened, the French took their own direction again in the Seventies with the FAMAS rifle, which is effective but incorporates so many delightfully weird approaches that I’ve wondered whether the designers in Saint-Étienne were just trying to be novel. Some of the differences are eye-catching, like the “bullpup” configuration (with the magazine behind the trigger), the distinctively huge carry handle, and the three-point sling that lets the rifle seem to float in mid-air at the chest. Other differences are internal, like the virtually unique and superbly cool operating system (called “lever-delayed blowback”).
But systems are systems–they’re integrated. When you make one unconventional change, that can have ripple effects throughout the system and obligate you to change still more elements. Before you know it, your country’s whole system of équipage is the kangaroo, going it all alone at the end of a long branch of isolated, independent evolution.
In the French case, their cool operating system could not quite handle NATO standard ammunition, so they had to devise and manufacture their own special version of the NATO cartridge. Their design also could not use NATO standard magazines either, so they had to invent their own, smaller magazines too. And the French sling attaches the rifle to soldiers’ chest, so in order to free up space there, the designers then also needed to devise an asymmetrical load-bearing vests with pouches only on the right side of the chest and the left hip. And voilà, the French soldier was now the kangaroo of the Western world, with distinctive pouches in odd places.
Though not exactly rare, France’s alien-looking gear shows up in our surplus market less often than castoffs even from the tiny Dutch and Belgian services, and it’s hard to find information about the peculiarities of its design and use even in French, much less in English. Much as with Russian gear, trying out la tenue française is an engrossing exercise in gearological anthropology, tracing the thoughts of the designers who were tackling all the familiar problems in novel, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes brilliant ways.
Other than kettlebells, if any object screamed aloud for the attention of Lean, Solid Dogs, it would have to be some kind of (a) surplus outdoor equipment (b) made to carry heavy loads over long distances, (c) especially in hot, dry climates, and (d) with a Communist parentage. What if I told you that such a thing exists? And that it’s been upgraded by Western capitalists for comfort?
Ladies, gentlemen, lean solid dogs, I present to you [drumroll] … the South African Pattern 83 chest rig.
The weird brown bib got to South Africa by a circuitous road from China that led through Israel.
During the Cold War, what did South Africa and Israel have in common? Both were Western-style states outnumbered by neighboring hostile Soviet client states, but for political reasons they had to be as self-sufficient as possible for arms and so they produced more of their own military equipment than would otherwise have been rational for countries their size. This included everything from nuclear weapons to small arms and “soldier systems,” the everyday items of individual clothing and equipment.
In the Sixties, both Israel and South Africa were using the standard rifle of the Western-leaning world, the FN FAL. Dubbed “the right arm of the free world,” the Belgian-designed FAL was used by most Commonwealth and NATO countries (except the United States) and their African and Latin American client states, being as ubiquitous and iconic among anti-Communist armies as the Kalashnikov was among their enemies.
The FAL and the Kalashnikov also symbolized the very different strategies of the Cold War’s two rival camps. In the Kalashnikov, the Communist Bloc had pioneered a new direction in small arms: a rifle requiring little training. The Kalashnikov used a small, light-shooting cartridge that conscripts could learn to use adequately with less marksmanship training. And famously, the Kalashnikov tolerated abuse, neglect, and harsh climates. It was ideal for the mass conscript armies for which the Soviets designed it, and later for Third World insurgents and part-time guerrillas.
The FAL continued to use an older style full-strength rifle cartridge like those of the World Wars, which offered terrific knockdown power and accuracy at the longer ranges where the NATO armies planned to engage any Communist spearheads in West Germany. The powerful FAL was commensurately harder to control and slower to shoot, but the NATO armies could afford the extra time and expense of training their troops to a high standard in traditional rifle marksmanship, so they accepted the tradeoff. (The big NATO round is also just a lot heavier, and this is not a small thing—ammunition gets heavy. It may have helped that NATO expected to be fighting a defensive battle with supply lines only getting shorter as their armies sagged under the impact of Soviet tank armies. In contrast, the Soviets planned for their columns to race forward at top speed, and they always had to worry about keeping them supplied from their own fairly primitive logistical infrastructure. They must have been happy to save weight and bulk.)
Being in the Western orbit, Israel and South Africa kept things simple and used the FAL in the Sixties. That is, until the Six Day War of 1966. Israeli soldiers had trouble keeping their FALs clear of airborne sand and dust, and many soldiers armed themselves instead with Uzi submachine guns or captured Kalashnikovs. After the war, when the Israeli Defense Force looked for a new rifle, they ultimately chose to manufacture their own version of the Kalashnikov!
South Africa enters this story in 1980, when they replaced their own FALs. The international pariah had few other sources of arms and military expertise than Israel, which was almost as hungry for allies as the South Africans, and the Israelis had proven the worth of their homegrown Kalashnikov variant in dusty conditions like the ones in which the South Africans were fighting the Border War. So the South African Defense Force (SADF) chose to manufacture a licensed variant of the Israeli rifle.
In selecting a Soviet design and improving it, the two countries were doing something that China had been doing expertly for decades. China was also a country surrounded by enemies, beginning with the Soviet Union itself. The two Communist countries divorced messily in 1956, and China abruptly lost access to Soviet help for its arms industry. Nevertheless, by then the whole Chinese military was already outfitted in basically Soviet style, so henceforth their designers would begin from inherited Soviet designs (even reverse-engineering later Soviet inventions, like the famous RPG-7) and then improve upon them.
Their proudest achievement was the chest rig. When the Soviets invented the Kalashnikov, they created a great rifle but never got around to inventing a good way to carry those big, heavy “banana magazines.” Soviet soldiers were given long, floppy belt pouches holding almost 5 lbs. of ammo to hang on their belts, along with a canteen and a shovel and other items. The Chinese copied this set-up at first and hated it. When you stood, the gear pulled the back of your pants down—the Chinese are a slender people and this was not working for them. When you crawled or climbed a tree, you might accidentally crawl right out of your equipment belt. And when you ran, gear flopped in all directions like a beaded dress on a go-go dancer. As we say in Chinese, bù xíng: “no-go.”
In response, they invented the chest rig. Or to use its colloquial Chinese name, the “belly bag” (肚兜). Other people had experimented before with ways to carry gear, guns, and ammo on the torso instead of the waist—people in America began wearing shoulder holsters in the 1870s for pistols, ammo, and other items, and the British tried a “jerkin” full of pockets and pouches. But the Chinese chest rig hit some kind ergonomic sweet spot. It let you carry plenty of weight and bulk reasonably comfortably. It was quick to get on and off. It’s cool to wear and does not chafe. It leaves your arms free and stays snug when you run. You can crouch, lie, crawl, and roll. And you can access your gear, with either hand, without looking, even while sitting or walking.
The South Africans took notice—and southern Africa now had plenty of Chinese armaments floating around—and when they adopted a Kalashnikov, they adopted the Chinese idea of the chest rig too and upgraded it along the way. The South African chest rig was now made of a water-resistant nylon instead of canvas, adjusted easily with slide buckles, and closed with Velcro instead of Chinese frog buttons. And South Africa padded the straps for despicable capitalist comfort.
And in the age of Iraq and Afghanistan, chest rigs seem to have gone mainstream around the world, a fact of which the Chinese internet is extremely proud. “Score-keeping” of national accomplishments, inventions, and slights is a prominent feature of national psychology in the People’s Republic, and one site features multiple articles with titles like “Even the US Military Likes Our Army’s Soldier Systems and the Soviets Copied Them Massively” and “Even American Soldiers Like the Chinese Type 56 Chest Rig.” But they are right. In Afghanistan the Soviets picked up the Chinese chest rigs from their enemies and came up with their own version in the Eighties dubbed the lifchik (“bra”). And we have photos of American troops wearing Chinese chest rigs in Vietnam and early in the Allied war in Afghanistan.
American Ranger in Vietnam, Soviet airborne soldier in Afghanistan, and some kind of American specops ninjas early in the Afghanistan war, all wearing the Chinese Type 56 prior to their services developing their own chest rigs. (Photos from kknews.cc)
* * *
I tried the South African rig to replace the Coaxsher radio harness I was issued for search & rescue work. Though many people like the Coaxsher, I kept loosing things out of its tight elastic sleeves. I would try to shimmy my radio in hastily with both hands, often while moving or juggling other tools, and soon I would find that it was wriggling out under pressure from the stretchy sleeve material. One night during a long search, the radio popped right out and went missing in the underbrush. Happily a teammate found it hours later, but I now had to dummy-cord the radio to prevent it from inching out. Yet on my very next search I lost my GPS unit! The reason was the same: it did not fit into the tight elastic sleeve well and would squeeze out if I put it in hastily, without stopping to coax it in with both hands.
The big chest rig solved that. Even while moving, I can drop my clunky brick of a radio into the roomy pouches one-handed every time, and when the Velcro closes over it, it’s not going anywhere.
Still being a search and rescue newbie, it’s often enough that I’m nervously looking at a map in one hand, a GPS in the other, dangling my radio by its antenna with my teeth, and trying to grow an extra hand to flip open a compass. If I have to be all thumbs with the equipment that I do have, I’d rather not lose any extra bits.
And like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, the chest rig seems to fit everything I try to stuff in. Presently mine contains various batteries, pens, a notebook, a radio, a GPS unit, two compasses, drink mixes, food, plastic bags, gloves, gauze, sunglasses, cellphone, a flashlight, and a pair of chopsticks (long story). Everything is right under my nose, like a toolbox that floats in the air in front of me, and I can get at most things with either hand without looking.
Thus I love and cherish this chest rig more than any other piece of equipment: I have many boots, many rucksacks, many tents and sleeping bags and kettlebells, and though I have my preferences, I can make do with any of them. But the chest rig is the best damn piece of outdoor gear I own and I’ll never go back.
And nowadays they are everywhere. Capitalism has done its magic and made chest rigs available cheaply for thirty bucks on Amazon, in lots of different configurations. For whatever it might be worth, among new production items, the closest thing I know to the South African is made by Blackhawk for AKs, and they offer an innocuous gray color that does not make you look like a door-kicker.
After prolonged talk and little follow-through, I finally camped in the Marijuana Highlands for the first time this year. Since the lockdown, I’ve seen over 10 times more people up there than ever before, but as usual everyone is exceedingly neighborly. Hikers being almost non-existent there, people in trucks and ATVs routinely slow down to offer a ride, a bottle of water, or a beer. (The really scary thing isn’t even the people driving with an open White Claw. It’s the guy at the roadside who turned to offer me a beer while operating a chainsaw.)
On this outing, I was experimenting with food (i.e. bringing some) and a new bivvy sack, but I also got a bonus lesson about how to not fall on rocks.
Cooking and Eating
I usually do this trip with minimal food, but I was inspired to try Officer Rob’s Thanksgiving Dinner: a freezer bag with instant mashed potatoes, sausage, and some chili. Great! Next time I’ll just add some butter for calories, so I don’t have to gobble down five servings of mashed potatoes.
I forgot my beloved Esbit stove but improvised successfully with just a perforated coffee can. It’s still nice to have the stove, if only to hold up the water kettle stable (which is so small that it fits inside the coffee can), but I made do with some stones.
Because I’m paranoid about wildfires, I was terribly proud of my brilliant idea to cook on a boulder in the middle of the creek. And indeed, this worked reasonably well at dinner, but at breakfast it was a different story. When I woke up in 50 degrees (10 C), I wasn’t thrilled to get naked and wet and do my cooking waist-deep in a cold stream. And though I’m a huge fan of morning polar bear swims, it’s one thing to do it near my house before work but quite another to get shivering cold in the middle of nowhere. So maybe I’ll just face the inconvenience of meticulously grooming a large patch of earth near my sleeping bag.
Speaking of my sleeping bag, I had success with the new Gore-Tex bivvy sack. When I first tried a bivvy sack, I loved how cozy it makes me feel: it insulates me and blocks breezes. But as I noticed this winter, I was waking up with condensation in the bivvy sack. It was trapping my breath and getting my sleeping bag damp. Not good! So on this jaunt I tested a surplus Dutch bivvy sack (which seems to be a copy of the famous British one) made with something like Gore-Tex that lets moisture out, and it worked as advertised.
Furthermore, I tried leaving my tent at home and just using the bivy sack. This one has a collapsible hoop that holds the top of the bag up off your face, so that you have a sort of tiny micro-tent. That went well too.
What will happen in a light rain? Will I suddenly wish I’d brought a proper tent? We’ll try some backyard science. I’ll ask Lean Solid Girl to tuck me into the bivy sack and then hose it down. We’ll update you soon.
Pride Cometh Before the Fall
Just last week I looked at my now-battered boots and mused, “I wonder when I should replace them…” Apparently that time is now, because I lost my footing and skidded on a slope that is bad but not truly noxious. So I checked my boot soles, found them pretty worn, and did some mental math. I bought them for last year’s 50-mile Star Course, and though they don’t yet have a thousand miles on them, they’re probably getting close, with a lot of miles on scree and other nasty surfaces.
So I’ve already replaced them. I won’t risk falling with my leg folded under me the wrong way and spending six months on the couch with a knee injury.
Henceforth I’ll replace boots on a schedule, like they do with critical machine parts. For my lightweight Rockies, I’ll give them five hundred miles before I retire them to “second-string” status: still OK for ordinary training hikes on roads and other tame surfaces, but no rugged terrain and no use for SAR. And if I save my “first-string” boots for just the rough stuff, I think I can milk a year or more of use from them.
I’ve long preached that you should do workouts that you enjoy. It’s actually pretty easy to make progress, and if you’re consistent about doing those easy things, you’ll soon be achieving milestones that put you far, far, far ahead of the general population.
And how do you know if you’re continuing to make progress with your easy, enjoyable training? You just keep track of some key benchmarks over time, including some standard workouts. If you keep improving in those numbers, you’re doing something right!
For example, easy running guru Maffetone has his athletes run a standard test workout periodically. They run three miles at a pre-determined, low heart rate: if their time improves, they know their aerobic base is improving.
One of my benchmarking workouts is the hike to my favorite camping spot in the Marijuana Highlands. It’s 15 miles of bad, steep terrain. On my first romp out there in 21 months ago, I took a pack weighing 45# (wet) and needed 7 hours to arrive in camp. When I got there I was delirious and sore all over, my feet looked like raw chicken breasts, and it took a long, painful time just to strip off my clothes and boots. On future trips I cut the hike down to 5.5 hours and didn’t wreck myself getting to camp, but it was still a substantial hike.
So I was blown away by my last trip. Despite taking it very easy, I arrived in camp an hour faster than ever before and fresh as a bowl of strawberries. This being my first big romp of the year, I assumed I would be tired and slow, but on the contrary it was barely lunch time and I was sitting in camp with hours of daylight left, tons of pep, and nothing to do.
So I packed up and did the whole thing in reverse! I spent 95 minutes eating nuts, swimming in the stream, and having coffee, and then I rucked up and marched all the way back. It was a joy! I didn’t push myself on the return march (and in fact had to slow down several times to keep my heart rate under control), but without trying I ended up equaling my best-ever time of 5.5 hours.
This was a huge surprise. I figured it would be possible to hike straight back, to save someone’s life or as a stupid stunt, but I supposed you’d have to do it on pure gumption and willpower.
But now I know better because I just did it, out of boredom and with a smile on my face!
Today’s game was to test out rain gear on a 3-mile ruck romp with Lean Solid Girl and our team weight, the Canadian Brick Bag (CBB), a sturdy canvas antique loaded with 35# of bricks.
The rule was that the bag had to be carried in one hand at all times, by either one of us, and could not touch the ground unless one of us was doing weighted pushups.
I was testing the reputed king of rain ponchos, issued (like so much of my favorite gear) by Germany’s exquisitely equipped Bundeswehr. The “BW-poncho” doesn’t have the hobbit-like appeal of my Soviet plash-palatka, because it closes at the sides rather than the front, but that produces a wonderful advantage: it gives you makeshift sleeves, instead of just an arm hole like its Soviet cousin, and keeps you sealed up and wonderfully dry.
Except for your legs. I wanted to make this a pure test of the BW-poncho, so I wore no other rain gear, just a cotton shirt and khaki pants. The rain rolled down the poncho but then directly onto my shins. That’s no knock on the poncho—not a drop of water wandered inside—it just means that you need rain pants.
As it happened, Lean Solid Girl was testing the REI Talusphere Women’s Rain Pants, which she rated as excellent. The pants got a good soak but kept LSG dry. She appreciates particularly that REI sizes these like the Austrian Bundesheer, with separate length options within each size, and the pants stretch a little so that they fit closely and do not swish much, making them “not only functional but flattering.”
Our other takeaway was that the Canadian Brick Bag is a delight. Thirty-five pounds is a serious encumbrance when you have to carry it suitcase-style, but it’s light enough that by trading it back and forth between hands and between teammates, you can carry it indefinitely. All it needs is a pair of gloves and/or some padding on the handle to keep it from grinding up your fingers.
When you’re rucking with a group and you lag behind like a boat anchor, worse than the physical burning of sucking wind in white-hot lungs is the embarrassment of being the weak sister. No one says anything, of course, and probably few people are even thinking anything, but it is dispiriting.
When the ego is hurting, the mind searches for reasons, and I was forming a theory. A couple months earlier, I had attended our team PT qualification, an 8-mile hike on rocky terrain with 20# (dry) as fast as possible. As an experiment, I added an extra 15# to see how far it would slow me, and the result was unexpected: I finished in the usual time of about 120 minutes–pride wouldn’t let me fall behind–but it escalated the effort more than I anticipated, from a literal walk in the park to a gasping, sweaty, painful struggle.
Now, as my throat tasted that hated anaerobic burn, like rancid hot butter coating my trachea, I was forming an educated guess.
“How much water do you have?” I asked The Spider, a rangy veteran climber. He pursed his lips. “Probably too much. A couple of liters.” I asked the same question to Bonanza, a SAR prodigy with energy levels that an ordinary man could only get from cocaine. His answer? “About a liter. But keep in mind, I’m kind of a camel. I really should have a liter and a half.”
Mystery solved! I’d made a classic intellectual’s mistake, seizing upon something I once heard in a lecture and clinging to it like gospel. In my case, the decontextualized nostrum was, “Hydrate in cold weather just as you would in hot weather.” And so I packed 8.5L of water. That is my standard intake for a day’s backpacking in triple-digit heat, so being a dutiful student, among my snow gear I packed a plus-sized water bladder and five canteens.
That’s almost 19 pounds of water. Instead of three.
On top of that, I’d gotten blubbery too. My best rucking weight is a maximum of 170# and 10% bodyfat, but on this day I was carrying an extra ten pounds of fat. All told, I was hauling 25 unnecessary pounds.
On the spot I dumped out the two canteens I could reach, and that helped somewhat, jettisoning close to 5 pounds on the spot. But down in the recesses of my bag, I still had six more liters (13+ lbs.) squirreled away, and there was no getting rid of those til we made camp.
By that time, I had vowed in three different languages that I would form a new relationship to pack weight. Sure, it’s fun to do things the hard way when I’m romping around on my own, but not when I have a group to keep up with and some group mission to serve.
Other Useless Weight
Food: I had zero interest in food. I was in ketosis (and drinking extra ketones in my water too), and when I exercise in ketosis I almost forget about hunger and food. There was close to a pound of nuts ready to hand, but I barely touched them. For dinner I also brought a mess tin with riced cauliflower, salmon groats, and pine nuts, and though I forced myself to heat it and eat it, it was pretty vile. For trips of just 24 hours, I think all I want is ketones and nuts, and some chaga and coffee for drinking. And by leaving the mess tin and the cauliflower and salmon, I’ll save a full kilo.
Poncho: I brought a Bundeswehr rain poncho (1000g!), but I only used it as a kneeling pad. Since we weren’t expecting rain, I should have left it. (I still had my usual kneeling pad anyway.) That would have saved another full kilo.
Hip belt: The Swedes who made the LK-70 only gave it a minimal, 1960s canvas hip belt. For looooooong hikes, I substituted an enormous padded one. It’s extremely comfortable for walking all day under heavy load because I can alternate miles supporting the load on my shoulder straps and on the plush belt. But for this relatively short hike of just a few hours, the belt was a waste. I could have saved about another kilo here by replacing it with the original, simple canvas belt.
Suppose I had left those items behind, and carried a reasonable 2L of water instead of my actual truckload of bladders and canteens: I would have saved 20 pounds.
What Worked Great
Ketones! I should keep these in my regular SAR pack too for long night searches when I get “hangry.” Better just to plunge into ketosis, live off body fat, and forget about hunger.
Esbit stove: This little thing was a champ. I carry mine with half of a coffee can that I sawed apart and perforated, so it shields the stove from wind, contains the heat, and improves fuel efficiency. At sea level I need six Coghlin fuel tablets to boil a pot (750mL) of water, and up at our campsite I needed almost double that.
As it happened, I guessed my fuel consumption just right: at 9000 feet I used twelve tablets (half a box) each at dinner and in the morning, and had another box in reserve. At 125g, that’s cheap insurance.
Chaga: I don’t exactly love the taste of chaga, but it’s nourishing and it’s something warm to drink in the evening that won’t spoil my ketosis. This was a winner.
Wool pants: I prefer wool pants to synthetic. Though a low-tech traditionalist by temperament, I’m also following the advice of two influences who have massive “snow cred.” My friend and mentor Sgt. Šileika knows cold–in Canada, Kandahar, and Lithuania–and he insists on wool and won’t touch synthetics. Then there’s Lars Grebnev, a Dane who became a homesteader in Siberia (!!), whose rule of thumb is to default to Scandinavian wool army surplus from during/before the Sixties. Those armies lived in the field for months at a time as a matter of routine, in sub-Arctic conditions, and the clothing they used was optimized for warmth and durability..
On their advice, I combed the best brick and mortar surplus store I’ve ever seen for a surplus pair of THICK wool Swedish army trousers from some time in the ancient past: as best I can tell, these were made in the 1940s or 50s. They were divine for wearing in camp. Other parts of my body got cold at times—my upper half, my feet, my hands—but never for a second were my legs or butt chilly, even when kneeling in snow.
And for that matter, they kept my midsection pretty warm too, since they come up almost to my ribs. Sgt. Šileika has pointed out that these old-time trousers take suspenders, which is wonderful when carrying a pack so it doesn’t pinch skin at your belt line. The only downsides are that they can get too warm if I’m hiking in full sun—I actually had to strip them off for the climb up.
Running tights: Speaking of stripping off my pants, I sure was glad I had running tights underneath! They keep the wool pants from itching too.
Base layer: I wore an Underarmor type of shirt (the British ones are good) and over that I had the Danish mesh shirt that is becoming a huge favorite of mine because it keeps me dry and insulates me too. Singly or together, I like these as base layers. They’re keepers.
Gloves: In my pockets I kept one pair of Bundeswehr gloves and one pair of cheap OD wool glove liners (which are incredibly warm). And in my pack I had a backup pair of the glove liners. This setup was perfect.
Portyanki and socks: Despite wearing thin boots (see below), I got by great with just a pair of flannel foot wraps (portyanki) and underneath them a pair of the awesome Finnish M05 sock liners (the all-purpose, all-weather supersock—I wear them with a suit and wingtips, I wear them on hundred-degree romps, and I wear them in the snow).
Two spare pair of socks was enough. At night I wore all the socks and footwraps over them, and my feet stayed toasty warm.
What Was a Disaster
I should have brought mini-spikes.I own a pair and they would have provided cheap insurance.
My matches weren’t working well at altitude. I finally succeeded by placing one match among a pile of fuel tablets, shielded from the wind, and then lighting it with a little electric cigarette lighter. But Charlie Rock has got the right idea: Zippo typhoon matches.
Inflatable mattress: I needed much, much better insulation. Next time I’ll need a proper four-season sleeping pad.
What to Replace
I used the Belgian surplus fleece plenty as a mid-layer, but it wasn’t warm enough to justify its weight (600g). Not when you can get the surplus Italian merino quarter-zips (275g) for cheap and those warm wool British service shirts (500g) even cheaper. Hell, I have this surplus wool Ike jacket from Finland that looks like it belongs on a gay merchant seaman or Kim Jong Il, but it’s warm AF and only weighs 1000g.
The $20 jackboots from East Germany were fine. I greased the bejeezus out of them and they kept my feet dry and remain my best all-round boot. However, for snow antics, I’ll upgrade to modern, insulated boots.
I love my Miltec bivvy sack, which is a cheap clone of the US Army one, but it’s not Goretex and doesn’t vent moisture from your breath, so it collected some condensation inside. That’s not OK for these conditions. I love it for warmer temperatures, but for winter camping I need a better sleep system.
Xenophon of Athens was a philosopher but no soft-handed coffeehouse bloviator. A student of Socrates, in 401 BC Xenophon enlisted in a mercenary army setting out to topple the sovereign of the Persian Empire. After their commander was killed, the fighting philosopher held the routed army together and led them into the Caucusus Mountains on a bitter campaign to fight their way back to their homes in Greece. Xenophon survived to record the story read by schoolboys ever since, the Anabasis. Roughly, it means “The Ascent” or “The March Up.”
I have a man-crush on Xenophon. When I was a student on winter break, I loved to cozy up by the fire and struggle through the Anabasis. I guess Xenophon is my fantasy alter-ego: the philosopher-survivalist. True, I am more Walter Mitty than Xenophon—I will not be remembered as either a great philosopher or a great adventurer and my tombstone will not say anything as cool as “Scholar and Mercenary”—but a man can have heroes to emulate, can’t he? I have at least earned a parchment declaring me Philosophiae Doctor and a lot of callouses and GORUCK patches, and with luck my tombstone won’t say “Ill-read and credulous, he was addicted to video games and porn.”
On that reduced scale, this weekend was my Anabasis. I did not swing a sword or run from angry Kurds, but I went up into some mountains, and holy crap was I tested.
For most of us, this trip was essentially a way to audition for the team’s Mountain Search & Rescue (MSR) unit. For me, it offered a hope of maybe finding a niche. In Search & Rescue (SAR) as a whole, I am still a back-of-the-pack performer and something of a late bloomer, lacking aptitude with technology and comms, vehicles and motor sports, or climbing or diving.
“But at least I can carry things!” I have consoled myself. “In austere environments, when there’s no truck or Sno Cat or helicopter to haul in the gear, I can prove my worth as the guy who can carry the medical bag, the extra ropes, the Pelican light—as much as they can pile on top of me, all night and all day!”
The plan for the weekend was simple. Charlie Rock, a granite-jawed old-timer whose demeanor marks him as surely as a facial tattoo reading “retired NCO,” would lead our merry band up to 9000 feet in two groups, day hikers and overnight campers. We would run rescue scenarios and gain some experience operating with improvised equipment at a height that you can begin to legitimately call “high altitude.”
The day hikers only planned to be out for a few hours and needed only light packs. They pranced up the mountain like fauns and snow nymphs. But I was there to camp overnight at altitude with Sgt. Rock, so I carried a tiny household on my back: snow shovel, tarp, tent, bivvy sack, sleeping bag, inflatable pads, field stove, mess kit, food, water, knife, and enough layers (I hoped) to keep me warm at night when the winds rose. My beloved Swedish rucksack, the tough old LK-70, could barely fit all my gear, so I MOLLE’ed on four extra canteen pouches. Last of all, on the shoulder straps I slotted two surplus grenade pouches (which are exactly the size of a GPS unit or a C-A-T tourniquet and a sunglasses case). I was ready to ruck!
At the staging point, it appeared that maybe I was packing more than the other campers, and this worried me a little. I inventoried my stuff against Charlie Rock’s packing list and, no, I’d brought almost nothing extra. In fact, I should have had less bulk than the others, because they all carried big sleeping pads lashed to the outside of their packs. I was the only one who had gone with inflatables.
I dismissed the apparently bigger size of my pack as probably just a visual trick of geometry. The others all had stretchy nylon packs that swell up into rounded lozenge shapes, I reasoned, but my LK-70 is a boxy, old-fashioned pack, a big canvas oblong on a rectangular metal frame, with a huge padded hip belt I’ve added for ultra distances. And then I’d added all the extra canteen pouches and covered the whole thing in a huge, oversized nylon ruck cover, light as a feather but almost big enough for a fitted sheet on a twin bed. That must be the difference, I supposed. My pack was angular and irregularly shaped. It just looked bigger. Right?
As soon as we stepped off, equipment started breaking and falling off me like jetsam from the space shuttle Challenger. I snapped the binding right off one snow shoe within the first 100 feet. See, my feet turn way out like a duck’s, straining any binding’s ability to hold onto my heels, and it seems that the more “teeth” a snowshoe has on bottom, the harder my duck feet torque them. Luckily, a good-natured fellow in the day hiking group lent me his, and I at least managed not to savage those.
However, I shortly broke my telescoping poles in two, and I missed them badly on steep, icy sections. We were ascending slopes with an average 10% grade, which slows you by a third to a half. Worse still was the ground surface, which army researchers studying march speed found to be the biggest factor. Sand slows you down appreciably, but snow is the worst. In 10 inches (25cm) of soft snow, they found that march time almost doubles. In our case, soft snow would have been a luxury. Since it’s been a dry winter, we were walking up icy, frozen slopes instead of soft powder. Only a couple guys had the foresight to bring mini-spikes, and under these conditions, snow shoes were almost worse than nothing.
As our footing got steeper and clumsier, I was amazed to find that I was gassing out. I’ve done romps up the Rock of Faeries in circumstances like these: no ninnyish trekking poles, just two feet on a narrow, washed out track on a hillside, with a backpack and a bonus item like a log or a 5-gallon water can. My trick is simply to go slowly, if necessary just one step at a time, and only breathe through my nose. If I have to breathe through my mouth, that’s the sign to throttle back, because mouth-breathing means you’re using emergency power. But I’d started mouth-breathing the moment the ground began rising, and the entire group was waiting for me.
This was not supposed to happen! In my self-conception, I am a mountain goat. I have little grace, athletic talent, or specialized SAR skill. “But at least,” I always consoled myself, “I can be Old Reliable, the never-quit guy who can schlep heavy gear cheerfully all day.” So it was a bitter pill that I now sucked, in public, at even the one small thing that I clung to as “my thing.”
Altitude was an issue, of course. I’d never experienced it and wasn’t expecting it to make a difference in a tame little national park so close to home. I figured altitude was only a factor if you were climbing Mt. McKinley or trekking in the Himalayas. So now I learned I’d been wrong.
But everyone else was breathing the same air as me. And now I was even lagging behind people in their sixties. WTAF?! Ok, they had poles and I didn’t, and possibly they got better use from their snow shoes. But those mishaps should only be enough to dial up the challenge level from “no biggie” to “interesting,” not enough to make me a wheezing wreck. And though I knew I was off my peak and hadn’t spent many miles under a rucksack lately, I was pretty sure I had more leeway than this between merely “off-peak” and “the fat kid from Goonies.” It’s not like I’d been huffing paint fumes and eating Oreo Burgers. So why me?!
I was beginning to form a guess. Nearby one of our group’s certifiable mountain badasses, The Spider, was flitting lightly around on cross-country skis like he was filled with f***ing helium. I turned and asked, “Dude, how much water do you have?”
After experimenting a lot, I have arrived at some hard-won conclusions about boots for rucking.
As reported earlier, I rejected GORUCK’s own house brand of boots, the MACV-1. Though attractive and wonderfully light, they have so little tread that I kept slipping and falling on down slopes. Unacceptable. They also lack a “shank,” a stiffener in the sole that helps you toe off the ground when your arches are tired.
I also gave an audition to Rocky’s inexpensive RLW or “Rocky light weight” boots, which look like the big brothers of the MACV-1. They are reasonably light, deeply treaded, and tall enough that I can “double lace” them, i.e. lace the instep separately from the ankle. However, being an economy model, they have a seam in the heel that many purchasers complain give them blisters (I did have a bit of that too, but you can counter that with an Engo pad) and their tongues are constructed in a strange way that required a long break-in before they stopped rubbing my instep raw. I could have gotten past both these bugs, but crucially, these boots lack a shank. I wore them for a 42-mile training ruck, and after twenty miles I longed for that stiffened sole. By that point I had used up my foot muscles for the day and, lacking a stiff boot sole, I could not toe off the ground anymore and instead was reduced to short, choppy steps. Never again. Not for a long distances.
And of course I have plenty of heavy boots that could probably kick through concrete, like my plug-ugly surplus combat boots issued by Germany’s Bundeswehr. If a crocodile masticated and swallowed them, the German giants would just emerge from the other side perfectly serviceable. These are just the thing for search-and-rescue bushwhacking. And shanks, oh, the shanks! You could probably drive a nail with them. But at over a kilo each—only Iron Man has heavier boots—these are not boots you can wear for 50 miles.
No, the “Goldilocks” boot is Rocky’s S2V Predator, which is a medium weight (about 800g each) and has the all-important shank. They also scarcely need breaking in. I double lace them, use “ladder lacing” on my left instep (which apparently is bigger than my right), and it’s quick and easy for me to adjust the fit to my level of foot swelling and the terrain.
These work great with my preferred sock set-up, a FoxRiver liner sock inside a Finnish M05 liner sock. Together with my new, larger and wider boot size, these kept my toes happy, uncrowded, and essentially unblistered for the whole fifty miles of the Star Course. No burgerfeet!
Note that I still love jackboots! I still think of them as my best all-round boots, the ones I’d grab if you said, “Get your boots on, we’re going on a mystery adventure! I won’t tell you any details at all: beaches or woods or mountains or city, wet or dry, rain or snow or sun—it’s all a surprise! Maybe we’ll be gone for a day, maybe for a month.” That would be easy: I would wear my $20 rubberized East German jackboots and bring one extra pair of sliced up bed sheets footwraps.
But jackboots make sense as my ideal general-purpose boot, whereas here we’re talking specifically about walking 50 miles through a city at top speed, which is very specialized indeed.
I met The Jolly Irishman minutes into my first GORUCK event, at kissing distance. We were all told to pair up: one person would bear walk across the beach and tow the other, who lay supine and clutched him around the neck. I ended up as a “top” with Irish as my “bottom.” Not having been in this situation with a muscular man since high school wrestling, I dispelled the awkwardness I felt by promising to buy him dinner and flowers next time. But Irish is a permanently grinning barman and adventurer who could instantly form a bond of friendship with a pit viper or a kraken. No ice breaker was necessary.
Irish proved indestructible and unflappably fun through that long night of smoke sessions and sandbags. After surf torture I was a quivering shambles, but Irish was still chuckling, calmly helping people, and having the time of his life. And the message he broadcast implicitly was, “This sucks, but you’re up to it physically, so let go and laugh at the absurdity! Across the street some lonely financial planner is watching TV in his $2 million living room, and you’ve chosen to fireman carry a Filipino school teacher with sand in your nostrils! Trust me, this is awesome!”
At every GORUCK event, I’m reminded of a fragment from Heraclitus: “Out of every hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, and nine are the real fighters … But the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.” Apparently Heraclitus did a Heavy or two, because late in the game there’s always one person who undertakes the heaviest lifting and also shows irrepressible good cheer.
Thus it was that when I first contemplated doing the Star Course, my top choice for a battle buddy was The Jolly Irishman. After blowing it in San Francisco three weeks before, I wanted redemption and I would not risk the slightest chance of another failure. There are only two people I could confidently call a 100% certainty for success, and of those two the Irishman was Numero Uno. He’s incapable of quitting and I knew he’d keep walking for just as long as his legs were attached.
The question was what we would do for logistical support. Unlike other GORUCK Challenges, on a Star Course you can stop to buy food and water whenever you please. But this takes time—it’s more efficient if someone brings it to you. And more fun! It’s also more efficient if you don’t have to carry all of your just-in-case items on your back, things like rain gear, spare batteries, spare socks, baby wipes, and other essentials. And there’s no better feeling than taking out your whole hydration bladder and letting the crew car schlep it to the next waypoint! Three liters of water weighs 6.6 pounds!
Following my failed Star Course, I anatomized my wrong decisions with Lean Solid Girl, who has Napoleon’s level of logistical mentality. We worked out theories about how best to “crew” (i.e. run a support crew) efficiently and safely, and we theorized that ideally the crew needs two people.
Irish and I began asking around for one or two jockish college students we could hire to make supply drops. I even briefly contemplated what might happen if we attempted a Grub Hub order for samosas and mango lassis with instructions like “Just leave it in the parking lot at Mercerdale Park. Try to hang it from a tree branch so the racoons don’t get it.” Instead, we got the Dream Team: Lean Solid Girl volunteered to fly to Seattle on the weekend before we started our teaching semester to (wo)man the crew car, and Lady Irish did the same! This illustrates why it makes terrific sense for athletes to couple up with other athletes. Lean Solid Girl did a 50-miler long before I did, and marathons too, and she gets into projects that any “normie” would dismiss as a quixotic death march, and she is actually interested in crewing such a thing, which goes so far above and beyond the call of duty that it deserves some kind of GORUCK Medal of Honor.