YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The Army this week started handing out more than $11 million in new mountain-climbing gear to U.S. troops, who count on the equipment to move across rough terrain in places like Afghanistan.
For years, the Army’s inventory of climbing equipment has focused on utility, meaning soldiers were equipped with items such as carabineers that were plenty strong, but also plenty heavy.
Since 2007, however, engineers at the Project Executive Office Soldier program have been testing equipment used by sport climbers with a view to upgrading the combat gear. As a result, soldiers will now be traversing cliffs and crags with the same ropes, harnesses, carabineers, crampons, ice axes, avalanche transceivers and rock anchors used by mountain climbers throughout the world.
The only difference is that the Army’s new equipment — which includes brands such as Black Diamond, Misty Mountain and Pelican, to name a few — comes in more subdued color schemes.
Product Manager Soldier Clothing and Individual Equipment engineer Darren Bean, a former mountain warfare instructor and recreational climber, helped select the new gear, which is certified by the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation.
“It is my job to keep abreast of what is out there in the mountaineering world,” Bean said. “We tested every item out there to get to this point.”
Mountaineering skills are used regularly by troops in Afghanistan to move across rough terrain, deliver supplies and set up observation posts. Personnel have used climbing skills to search wells, tunnels and caves for hidden weapons caches and to disarm bombs placed on highway overpasses, Bean said.
The new gear was fielded last week at the Army Mountain Warfare School in Vermont, which trains 600 to 700 personnel each year.
“Increased mobility in mountainous regions is definitely a combat multiplier,” said 1st Sgt. Nate Chipman, an instructor at the school.
The gear is divided into kits that allow infantry platoons to climb in urban terrain and over rock, snow and ice. There’s also a kit for Special Forces troops with advanced mountaineering skills.
Chipman said he’s used ropes, hauling systems and techniques taught at the Mountain Warfare School to move equipment in high terrain and through snow in Afghanistan. On one patrol, he helped hoist an injured soldier off a ridge at 10,000 feet, he said.
“This gear has been used time and again overseas to get the job done,” he said.
The climbing gear allows the Army to move personnel, equipment and supplies without helicopters, which can be grounded by weather or might alert the enemy to an operation, according to officials.
The Mountain Warfare School’s commander, Lt. Col. John Guyette, said the new gear was developed as a response to the challenges faced by troops making do with older equipment in combat zones.
The new equipment will help troops move casualties in rough terrain, Guyette said, noting that the school developed a rough terrain evacuation course after a soldier bled to death in a ravine because a helicopter couldn’t reach his position.
About 80 percent of the newly issued items are also contained in the Marine Corps’ Assault Climber Kit, so soldiers and Marines will be able to work together if they find themselves climbing the same slope in a war zone.
The gear will be sent to mountain warfare training centers in Colorado, Alaska, Vermont and Georgia first, but starting next month, active-duty brigade combat teams and National Guard units will also get the new equipment.