Sweat and Sand

By Capt Brent Peters
20 October 2010

It's 0530 hrs. The air is still cool. We shake the dirt off our body armour and gear up for the climb up the mountain to the best of the boulders. Shoes and chalk bag, check. MP3 player and speaker, check. Water, and extra water, check. Gloves and ballistic eyewear, check. Helmet and assault rifle, check. I close up my small pack and throw it over my shoulder. Even though our destination is within the perimeter wire of a Forward Operating Base (FOB), we are still often targeted by small arms fire and must travel prepared. Ma’Sum Ghar (“ghar” is Pashto for mountain), is one of many such peaks that thrust up from the flat desert expanse that is Kandahar Province. Fifteen minutes later we reach the rocky ridge. The sun is rising over the distant horizon, but we have not seen the sun now for five days. The soil that makes up the countryside is fine, like talcum powder. When the humidity and wind align, it creates the perfect suspension of fog-like dust that hangs in the air for days, even weeks.

I am deployed with the Canadian Forces in southern Afghanistan. I have been here now for almost six months. I am the Battle Captain for A Squadron, responsible for coordinating the movement of our vehicles within the battle space and to maintain communications and tactical awareness. My passion is mountain climbing and something I have tried to continue while deployed.

The camp is built in a draw on the side of the mountain, which affords a degree of natural protection. The Canadians have been mentoring Afghan troops in this area for the past three years. The camp is fairly developed, as far as FOBs go; but conditions are still austere. We get two hot meals a day, six days a week, served from the “flying kitchen,” a mobile kitchen trailer that has become a permanent fixture next to the plywood clad dining hall. A collection of bunkers, sea cans and tents make up the personal sleeping quarters; cots are the bed of choice. Mobile bath trailers provide adequate ablution facilities; “combat showers” limited to 3 minutes to conserve water, the ever meagre commodity in the midst of this desert.

The roar of jets echoes between the mountains. This sound is a constant amidst the heat below. Characteristically, it would be punctured intermittently by the thump of helicopter blades. But today, as the dust has limited visibility to less than 500m. We own the skies here in Afghanistan and use them extensively to observe and engage the insurgents and to move troops and supplies between the supply hubs and the forward operations bases and combat outposts.

We trade our combat boots for climbing shoes and begin to work the boulder, always vigilant for the venomous critters that lurk in the cracks. The virgin rock is volcanic in nature, razor sharp and surprisingly solid in spite of the numerous cooling cracks that score the face. We find an interesting start to an arête and open up a new boulder problem. There is a lot of rock here in southern Afghanistan. Unfortunately, even though the weather is generally conducive to climbing, the years of war have resulted in most of the approaches being covered by obstacle belts (aka as legacy minefields). The personal risk of stepping on a mine is equally high whether you are a soldier, civilian, or livestock. The ghar across from the camp could have amazing multi-pitch climbing, but it is not uncommon to view a goat cut in two by a misstep, as we patrol by on the cleared route. After an hour, our finger tips are raw. We head back down to the kitchen for breakfast. My partner is leading a dismounted patrol into the local village. He needs to conserve his energy in the event of contact with the enemy.

The ground battle is a unique challenge. The enemy is a specialist at blending into the daily pattern of life. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are the weapon of choice and their emplacement is easily disguised amid the routine tasks associated with farming: a hole dug while irrigating a wheat field; a package of explosives dropped when checking a “motorcycle malfunction”; a detonation cord attached while washing in a wadi. The insurgent wears the same clothes as the general populace; they are difficult to single out. Positive identification can be lost as easily as a triggerman slipping out of sight behind a grape hut or into a mud walled compound.

As this is still a developing country, domestic construction practices consist of soaking the soil and “stacking” the sticky mud clumps into walls. Walls are often 12 to 18” thick as a result. Residences are half buried in the earth providing for natural cooling during the summer and thermal heating during the short winter. The economy is agriculture based. Grapes and wheat are grown from the parched earth, irrigated from ancient hand dug wells called “kariz’s”. Each grape field is marked by a grape hut, a large mud structure built above ground in which to hang the vines. The walls of these huts are gridded with ventilation slits to allow the winds to pass through and dry the raisins. Goats are herded daily from living compounds to the river valleys to graze and water. The majority of local travel is on foot, or by bicycle. A motorcycle is a luxury. It is not uncommon to see an entire family balanced upon one Honda. Public transportation often consists of a wagon pulled behind the town tractor; the wagon overflowing with water jugs, sacs of wheat sheaves, and a multitude of men, women and children perched on top.

A week has passed and the dust storm has finally cleared. Fall is arriving slowly, and the days are getting shorter. I heard from a friend that he had scrambled Mt. Temple, in the Canadian Rockies, in 4.5 hrs car to car. I want to be in similar condition for my return in a couple of months and I need a few big elevation days to add to my Crossfit regime. Today I’m hiking the switchback trail up to one of our camp guard outposts near the top of the ghar. Its about 250’ of elevation gain up the hillside. Some of the soldiers have nicknamed the route “Destruction” due to the steepness of the grade. This morning my goal is 16 hills, before the temperature begins to rise. I start out in the dark, by red headlamp. Just after first light, I hear the first sounds of today’s battle. Whumpf. Whumpf. The Americans are under contact a mile to the north and are dropping mortar rounds on suspected enemy positions. Two attack helicopters arrive minutes later and add rockets to the fray. I dash back down the mountainside for another lap, as the assault unfolds. This is just another day.