Surviving the Arctic: My struggles and rewards from cool school training

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Johnny Diaz
  • 673 ABW Public Affairs

I pulled the snow covering onto my A-tent shelter, sealing myself in my tent for the night. With nothing but my headlamp to illuminate the cramped sleeping space, I struggled to adjust my clothing and wrestle myself into my sleeping bag, careful not to knock the supporting wooden logs and collapse my tent. Settled in, I exhale and wait for sleep to set in, however distant it feels. That moment was when I finally felt the impact of what arctic survival – also known as Cool School – was about.

Earlier that week, the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape specialists taught us roughly eight hours of classroom material ranging from sustenance to clothing to the physical and psychological aspects of isolation. Many of my classmates had already gone through SERE training, which gave them an advantage in wilderness survival. Coming up on a year in Alaska, I believed I had acclimated somewhat to the cold – but going through the lessons, it was clear that there was much more to Arctic survival than just being able to withstand the harsh Alaska temperatures.

A few days after our Cool School introduction, we were on a bus headed to our camps. “Two nights,” I repeated in my head throughout the ride. It wasn’t long before our bus slowed to a stop and the driver shouted for element one to exit the bus. I and seven of my teammates grabbed our gear and stepped off to meet our instructors at the head of a trail. After a quick rundown of events, we began our trek down the trail – though not for long, as we were led into the woods for a lesson in fire building. I would soon realize that there wasn’t any downtime when survival and rescue was the goal. So much needed to be done, and our SERE instructors ensured our time was occupied.

After building and setting snares, constructing a ground-to-air signal (a large, ground symbol used to contact rescue), and building our campfire, we got to work constructing our individual shelters for the night. Of the shelters we studied earlier in the week, we would be building the A-Frame, a one-man structure similar to a tent made of logs and sticks of varying length, and a tarp or parachute covered in snow. Utilizing the lessons and practice from earlier in the week, we got to work fastening logs, poles and tarps together with our cords. Gradually, our shelters took form and as sunset came, our dwellings for the next two nights were complete.

The exhaustion from the day failed to lull me to sleep as my sleeping bag kept me restricted and made it nearly impossible to sleep. Every hour on the hour, I’d wake up, shift around in my sleeping bag, then try again to sleep. The sleep deprivation and quiet atmosphere left me with long moments to contemplate the severity of what this exercise was about.

How long could I really survive in the arctic? The first hours of isolation are critical and necessities I took for granted like food, clean water, and heated shelter weren’t available. Even in a deployed environment, the basics are covered – but out here, sources of warmth and sustenance were gathered or built with the materials foraged from the environment in which I was stranded.

After six or seven cycles of waking up and falling asleep, it was time to get the fire started and check our snares. The next 14 hours would be filled with more survival lessons – building fires with wet wood, flare use, rebuilding a GTAS after a strong wind swept it away, and replacing snare traps after successfully capturing a rabbit the night before. Each lesson or task completed was a small victory; but in my head, it was more a humbling experience than anything else.

After a while, the grime and dirt from the water tins flavored our drinks along with whatever was collected as the snow melted through the flight suit we packed with snow and hung by the fire pit. We boiled a pot of snow and threw in whatever spice we could find from our supply crate along with a few bouillon cubes for the finest broth. Our instructors stressed that we had to forego any hesitation about dirty water or food, as our hydration and survival were at risk.

As the day came to an end and we sealed ourselves in our respective shelters, I rummaged about, working my way into my sleeping bag like a larva spinning its cocoon. Sleep came much easier than the previous night, perhaps due to the exhaustion of wading through snow all day – or possibly the lack of sleep.

Our final training day arrived, and we tore down our shelters and made radio contact with rescue from our GTAS location. The hike to our pickup location was laborious, but the end was in sight and gave me all the motivation I needed to trudge on. 

I reflect on the short time I spent out here in the arctic survival grounds, and how invaluable the experience has been, gaining a newfound appreciation for the often-overlooked amenities we enjoy, made especially evident during the little downtime we had. Despite the exhaustive list of tasks, I found joy in both the challenges and the camaraderie with my team as we tackled each one.