It’s too cold for them sud­denly, and so as we keep driv­ing north there are only stunted shrubs on the Alaskan tundra, and lit­tle whorls of snow dust that spin in the wind be­neath the white-creased peaks of the Brooks Range. I fo­cus on the dash, on the ther­mome­ter. When we roll down a long gen­tle slope and reach the dark shad­ows at its base, the tem­per­a­ture is mi­nus 27 de­grees Fahren­heit, and I fill with a cool an­i­mal dread, for we will be camp­ing out on this trip, in tents, in the crisp Arc­tic air, on a mis­sion that al­ready has a dis­con­cert­ing back­drop.

I’m trav­el­ing with the U.S. mil­i­tary, which has of late had rea­son to worry about the vast swathes of land and sea that sit north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, lat­i­tude 66°33’, oc­cu­py­ing parts of eight dif­fer­ent na­tions. A Fe­bru­ary 2017 Depart­ment of De­fense re­port notes that, amid cli­mate change, the Arc­tic is “warm­ing more rapidly than the rest of the planet.” Ac­cord­ing to the DOD re­port, “Hu­man safety” is now threat­ened, as is the “pro­tec­tion of a unique ecosys­tem that many indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties rely on for sub­sis­tence.”

There are also strate­gic and eco­nomic di­men­sions to the Arc­tic’s warm­ing. As the ice melts in the Arc­tic Sea, its boun­teous oil re­serves will be­come more ac­ces­si­ble, its now-frozen sea routes more nav­i­ga­ble.

Rus­sian pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin re­gards the Arc­tic as “a promis­ing re­gion” where Rus­sia needs to “have all the levers for the pro­tec­tion of its se­cu­rity and na­tional in­ter­ests.” In 2015, Putin sub­mit­ted to the United Na­tions the long-shot claim that Rus­sia should be granted do­min­ion over an Alaska-sized chunk of Arc­tic sea ice off its shores—never mind that much of this frozen ex­panse now be­longs to Den­mark. He’s also spent what would be val­ued as bil­lions of dol­lars to build up Rus­sia’s Arc­tic pres­ence, which fea­tures 16 new air­fields and ports, 40 ice­break­ing ships, and four Arc­tic bri­gade com­bat teams, each thou­sands of war­riors strong. U.S. of­fi­cials are now gaz­ing war­ily north.

The U.S. does not have a sin­gle mil­i­tary base in the Arc­tic, and one of its two ocean-go­ing ice­break­ers is now bro­ken. We are, how­ever, mak­ing ef­forts to an­swer the Rus­sian com­bat pres­ence, and I’m here to be­hold an early step in that cam­paign.

I’m about to join 10 mil­i­tary men—six Army sol­diers, three Marines, and a Navy of­fi­cer—and our leader, a re­tired Army sergeant, for a three­day, 30-mile nordic ski trip over wind-scoured Arc­tic ter­rain. We will drag 30-pound sleds through fresh, fluffy pow­der and test the tim­bre of clunky, metal-edged, camo-white “mil­i­tary skis” as we galumph for­ward wear­ing gi­ant white plas­tic “bunny boots”—not made for ski­ing, but none­the­less ex­cel­lent for staving off frost­bite. We will boil snow to sur­vive. My fel­low trav­el­ers are all mil­i­tary ski in­struc­tors. They in­clude, ar­guably, the na­tion’s most deeply trained bat­tle skiers, but no one here, save for our civil­ian leader, has ever un­der­taken a jour­ney so cold and so long.

As we drive nine hours north from Fair­banks to our start point, there is bur­bling spec­u­la­tion as to what, ex­actly, is needed to pull this one off. “I’ve got two cans of Spam with me,” says Marines Staff Sergeant Jona-

thon Cam­pos, “and two pack­ages of ba­con. I’m gonna eat like an Eskimo.”

Cam­pos teaches cold-weather tac­tics at the Marines’ Moun­tain War­fare Train­ing Cen­ter, a base high in Cal­i­for­nia’s Sierra Ne­vada that schools about 1,200 novice skiers each year. He is a heavy­set in­di­vid­ual, 33 years old and given to pat­ting his belly as he ex­tols what he calls “the in­su­la­tion“there. He just got deep into ski­ing last year, both alpine and nordic, and he likes bomb­ing hills. In­deed, he’s al­ways been a thrill-seeker. When he was 10, he tells me, he rode a mat­tress down a rain-swollen Los An­ge­les River with his three broth­ers. “That was awe­some,” he says, “so much fun.”

Even­tu­ally we park near re­mote Gal­braith Lake to make camp. When I step out of the ve­hi­cle, into the mi­nus 31 de­gree Fahren­heit chill, the snot in my nose in­stantly turns into rock. WE MOVE OVER THE SNOW IN A SORT OF CONGA line: 10 men in green-spot­ted camo and then me, in a bright pur­ple shell. The vibe of the whole ex­pe­di­tion is highly mil­i­ta­rized, so that we go “wheels down at oh-eight-thirty” and mea­sure our progress in “klicks” as the cold air crack­les with barbed re­marks too f---ing color­ful to be printed in a fam­ily mag­a­zine.

Our leader, Steven Decker, is a na­tive Florid­ian who, decades ago, gave up his bad habits—al­co­holism and bar fights—to find Nir­vana tele­mark ski­ing be­fore dawn each win­ter morn­ing in the sub­zero chill of Alaska. Fifty years old, he runs the only other U.S. mil­i­tary ski fa­cil­ity—the Army’s North­ern War­fare Train­ing Cen­ter in Fair­banks—which teaches the di­ag­o­nal stride and the her­ring­bone climb to about 350 new skiers each year. He is a stoic. Alone in our group, he will forgo a tent. He will sleep out­side, on the snow, in the frigid cold, to sa­vor the gleam­ing night­time spec­ta­cle of the Aurora Bo­re­alis.

On the first day, the go­ing is easy. We’re just shuf­fling along—walk­ing, ba­si­cally—on gen­tle, rolling ter­rain. There’s one hour-long climb that re­quires skins. Decker calls it “Mount Kiss My Ass,” but it’s not hor­ren­dous, and for me, the real chal­lenge is the air temp, which hov­ers just be­low zero most of our trip.

It is so cold that if you ac­ci­den­tally spill wa­ter on your shirt, it could kill you—so cold that ev­ery time I take off my mit­tens I have about two min­utes to tackle vi­tal tasks de­mand­ing bare hands (chang­ing my socks, say) be­fore my fin­ger­tips start sing­ing with pain.

Thickly be­mit­tened for 23 hours and 50 min­utes a day, I feel like my hands have shape-shifted into use­less flip­pers. Worse, I feel stupid. There are many tasks I need to learn to sur­vive this trip, like how to crush my vo­lu­mi­nous seven-pound sleep­ing bag into its itsy-bitsy stuff sack, but out here the finer gears of my mind seem to have skipped town, aban­don­ing my brain cav­ity to a small pri­mal voice of sur­vival shout­ing, “Stay warm! Stay warm!”

Op­er­at­ing deftly in the cold is a learned skill, an art form, and crit­i­cal to Arc­tic war­fare. (Imag­ine try­ing to gun down a surg­ing en­emy when you can’t even get your mit­tens off....) The U.S. mil­i­tary spends mil­lions of dol­lars hon­ing


this skill in its sol­diers. At Cam­pos’ post in the Sier­ras, in­struc­tors lead pre­tend am­bushes in snow­fields and send low-level grunts to a plein air “hy­pother­mia lab,” where they tread wa­ter be­neath the crust of an icy lake for 10 min­utes, then scram­ble to warm up via a reg­i­men of squats, push-ups, and pip­ing hot drinks. I’d ar­rived in the Arc­tic with no such train­ing, how­ever, and so on our first night in the field, I’m the vil­lage id­iot, traips­ing around camp in un­tied boots, with driblets of Army-ra­tion turkey tetrazz­ini frozen to my parka. At bed­time, when Decker mer­ci­fully gives me two sealed hot wa­ter bot­tles to clutch through the night, I tuck them in­side my jacket, close to my heart. Then I crawl into my tent.

MY TENT MATE, IT TURNS OUT, IS AF INN HEREON a two-week ex­change. Otso Könö­nen, 25, is an Army ski in­struc­tor for a na­tion that puts roughly half of all its con­scripts on cross-coun­try skis. He brings a sliver of Euro re­fine­ment to our ex­pe­di­tion. His cam­ou­flage coat is a slightly sharper shade of pea green, and he’s car­ry­ing with him an ar­ti­san Fin­nish knife that sports a curly birch han­dle. He tells me that in Fin­land ev­ery school­child knows about mil­i­tary skis; the most con­se­quen­tial mo­ment in the his­tory of ski war­fare is also the crown jewel of Fin­nish his­tory. In the World War II Bat­tle of Suo­mus­salmi, in the win­ter of 1939-40, a scant con­tin­gent of 11,000 Finns, equipped with lit­tle more than skis, sleds, and ri­fles, staved off 50,000 heav­ily equipped Rus­sians by pin­ion­ing the Rus­sians’ tanks to a sin­gle moun­tain road. The Finns nim­bly kicked and glided through the snow-laden pines, then en­cir­cled the hap­less Rus­sians, and ei­ther shot them or waited for their food and fire­wood to run out. In the end, over 13,000 Rus­sians per­ished, as com­pared to only 1,000 or so Finns, and the Finns seized 43 tanks.

“The Rus­sian sol­diers were mostly from warm places, like Ukraine,” says Könö­nen, whose great-un­cle fought in the bat­tle. “They didn’t know win­ter, but we Finns, we know win­ter. And we start ski­ing al­most at birth.”

I’m stirred by Könö­nen’s pride, but still I won­der: Isn’t ski war­fare a bit passé to­day, in our age of drones and su­per-pre­cise sniper ri­fles that can hit a tar­get at nearly half a mile? In time, I call An­drew Hol­land, a senior fel­low and Arc­tic ex­pert at the Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity Project, a Washington think tank—and I learn that in fact cross-coun­try skis could prove quite help­ful to a mil­i­tary that, like ours, seeks to con­tain an in­creas­ingly ex­pan­sion­ist Rus­sia. “You have to think about Rus­sia’s play­book,” Hol­land says be­fore mus­ing on The Krem­lin’s most re­cent push for new turf in Ukraine. “What they did there is probe the borders. They didn’t send in tanks. They sent in a few Rus­sian sol­diers with the Rus­sian in­signias taken off their weapons.” The sol­diers then tried to fo­ment un­rest, Hol­land says, by “do­ing sab­o­tage and in­cit­ing lo­cal Rus­sians to rise up against the gov­ern­ment. I can see it hap­pen­ing else­where. We’re talk­ing about small groups of men, and to op­er­ate they’d want mo­bil­ity in the moun­tains and forests. Skis could be just what they need.”

Hol­land says that an on-skis Rus­sian in­fil­tra­tion of the Nor­we­gian or Fin­nish Arc­tic is pos­si­ble, but he feels that it’d be more likely just south of the Arc­tic Cir­cle, in the snowy Baltic—in Lithua­nia, Latvia, or Es­to­nia. “Those

are for­mer Soviet states,” Hol­land says. “Rus­sia har­bors a de­sire to get them back, and there are large pop­u­la­tions of eth­nic Rus­sians there. Ski war­fare? The ques­tion’s not as far out there as it would have been three years ago.”

ON THE MORN­ING OF DAY 2, at around 11 a.m ., we reach the shore of frozen Itkil­lik Lake and gaze left at an un­du­lat­ing, rocky promi­nence that rises 1,000 feet to a bald, windswept pass. This pass, we learn, has no name. It is noth­ing on the map of Alaska, but it is our grail, the most bru­tal test we’ll face, and for me it looms es­pe­cially large. Em­bed­ded among cold-weather sol­diers, I’m aware that my cre­den­tials as a red-blooded Amer­i­can male are du­bi­ous. I do not own a gun. I don’t know even know how to fire a gun. But I am, at 52, still in pretty good shape. I cross-coun­try ski ev­ery win­ter af­ter­noon when I’m home in New Hamp­shire. So this whole trip, I’ve been eye­ing my co-trav­el­ers, most of them ca­reer mil­i­tary men in their 20s and 30s, and won­der­ing if, on a sus­tained as­cent, I could beat them.

I start the climb at the back of the pack. But then on the first steep pitch, I close in on Cam­pos. He was a bull a day ear­lier, bust­ing trail for miles, but now he’s ad­dled by a loose skin on one of his skis, and flag­ging. I slip by him, then move along a side slope, through crusty snow, and then turn into the fall line. Könö­nen, the Finn, is in front, high above me, toil­ing through pow­der so we can all glide in his wake. I’m in fifth now, fifth out of 11, but my el­derly calves can­not en­dure the steep pitch, so I cut a long, la­bo­ri­ous tra­verse—all alone into white space for a full 15 min­utes.

When I zig back, into a now-dis­parate conga line, I’m in third place. But then Könö­nen steps trail­side for a mo­ment’s rest and it’s just me and Steven Decker, the leader, mov­ing to­gether to­ward the shim­mer­ing white mi­rage of the top. Decker cuts trail in spurts—30 or 40 strides, then a long pause as he dou­bles over his poles, gasp­ing for air. Fol­low­ing in his tracks, I’m a leech, a par­a­site. I feel guilty.

So even­tu­ally I surge. For a few heady sec­onds, there is noth­ing but blue sky be­fore me. We’re now over 90 min­utes into this climb. My calves are ru­ined, and I reach No Name Pass in sec­ond, be­hind Decker, but with enough spare time to pol­ish off a lan­guorous lunch (freeze-dried Beef Stroganoff ) be­fore the last strag­glers show.

Do I feel a lit­tle smug? Well, sure, but the pa­triot in me is con­cerned: How is it that a card-car­ry­ing mem­ber of the AARP reached the top be­fore the Marines and the Army guys?

Soon, Decker will pro­vide the grim an­swer. “The U.S. mil­i­tary ski pro­gram,” he tells me, “is at the cor­ner be­tween func­tion and dys­func­tion.” It’s strayed, cer­tainly. At the very end of World War II, in 1945, the Army’s Tenth Moun­tain Di­vi­sion, an elite cadre of ski­ing sol­diers, be­came Alpine le­gends when they for­ayed into Italy’s Apen­nine Moun­tains and waged a se­ries of dar­ing and bloody as­saults to help ex­tin­guish the Ger­man re­sis­tance in Italy.

The Tenth Moun­tain Di­vi­sion still ex­ists, but


it is now fo­cused on desert and trop­i­cal war­fare, on fight­ing in places like Saudi Ara­bia, Haiti, and So­ma­lia. The U.S. mil­i­tary does not have a sin­gle bat­tal­ion that spe­cial­izes in ski war­fare. There is no Seal-type force ready and wait­ing to ship off to the moun­tains of North Korea or the snowy Golan Heights, in Is­rael.

For to­day’s sol­diers, No Name Pass is a killer. We de­scend wearily, and at about 6:30 p.m. I fin­ish a mea­ger sup­per of chicken and rice and pre­pare to go to bed hun­gry, only to de­tect a salty scent on the breeze. At first it is faint, but soon it amounts to a tan­ta­liz­ing ol­fac­tory mu­sic, a keen­ing siren song. Staff Sergeant Cam­pos is, I learn, cook­ing his Spam. He is sautée­ing it in­side his tent.

I move to­ward the smell, and Cam­pos in­vites me in­side, and it is warm in there. It is so warm and so com­fort­able, so civ­i­lized, that Cam­pos, his tent mate, and I can loll on the sleep­ing bags and en­gage in ca­sual ban­ter. No more of the clipped, tense di­a­logue that has pre­vailed through­out this whole frozen trip: We chat about Cam­pos’ culi­nary am­bi­tions—about his scheme to cook Mex­i­can tor­tillas on his next Arc­tic out­ing. He comes up with a ti­tle for a prospec­tive cook­book, Freeze Your Wee­nie Off and Eat Like a

Champ. We de­vour ev­ery last morsel of Spam in the fry­ing pan and then lick our fin­gers. Then I slope off to my tent, sated, and sleep like a baby.

The next af­ter­noon, af­ter an easy fi­nal leg of our trip, Cam­pos and I talk more about what he’ll put on his next Arc­tic pack­ing list. “A choco­late bar for ev­ery day,” he says, “some ready-cooked ba­con, some ham. More pairs of con­tact gloves, so I can ma­neu­ver my hands, and also lots of Spam. I’m def­i­nitely bring­ing Spam next time.”

Vladimir Putin, say your prayers.


The Aurora Bo­re­alis lights the sky over camp in Alaska's Brooks Range, where 10 Ma­rine, Army and Navy men are rest­ing dur­ing their three-day, 30-mile trek to test ski equip­ment on the Arc­tic ter­rain.

U.S. Ma­rine Lt. Mark Stein­metz takes a look at Ma­rine Staff Sgt. Jonathon Cam­pos’ ski. The clunky boots, which the crew fondly calls "bunny boots," while not op­ti­mal for move­ment, were de­signed to pro­tect against the blis­ter­ing cold.

From top: The men dragged 30-pound sleds across the Arc­tic; us­ing the tools he has at hand, U.S. Depart­ment of Army civil­ian trip leader Steven Decker re­views a map with Stein­metz.

From top, Ma­rine Staff Sgt. Jonathon Cam­pos, Army Staff Sgt. Philip Du­bose, Ma­rine Staff Sgt. Ryan Grose, and the rest of the team en­dured temps of just be­low zero for most of the trip.

From top: The de­scent to the Itkil­lik River Val­ley in the Brooks Range, which stretches about 700 miles wide; Stein­metz takes a break above the Itkil­lik River Val­ley.

Grose pre­pares an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) in his tent over­look­ing the Itkil­lik River Val­ley, skis parked in front for the next day.

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