Wednesday, June 20, 2018

GORUCK Custom Land Navigation Heavy AAR

GORUCK Custom Land Navigation Heavy AAR - Class 259

Where to even start with this event? It has been in the works for a long time and the day finally arrived Saturday 6/16/18.  A bit of background on this event. First and foremost, it is a Heavy which means 24ish hours, lots of miles and hard work. The “theme”, if you will, of the event was Land Navigation which is a great topic and being able to learn skills from the Cadre would be awesome. The location was going to provide some fantastic terrain for us, especially since we live in flat-as-a-board Ohio. How hard could mountains near Los Angeles really be?  Over a few months the gear list grew and adapted to accommodate the situation. As we’d be in a very arid environment in June, it was mandated that 9 liters of water per person must be carried, at a minimum. We also needed maps of the Areas of Operation (AO) which there were 2, compass, map protractor, pencils, notepad, machete, clear glasses for night operations (nobody wants a stick in the eye), headlamps with extra batteries and whatever else you think you might need for 24 hours of movement.

TL;DR - This event was awesome, educational, very challenging, 26+ hours of fun and 32+ miles covered in the mountains. Cadre Shredder and Cadre DS obviously put a ton of work into planning this out and it showed. The support crew from Super-D was awesome and we couldn’t have been as successful as we were without them. Details (lots and lots of details) below.

We acquired the items we didn’t have, like bigger bladders and protractors and training. The cadre selected for this event was Cadre Shredder. I’d never done an event with him but certainly knew of his legendary style and awesome events.  As an Army Special Forces operator, Shredder knows how to navigate like a beast. A few weeks out from the event, another cadre was added, Cadre DS. We’ve done a Light with Cadre DS in Indianapolis and we also saw him when we were in Iceland for the Spartan Ultra World Championships. We were excited to see him added to the roster not only as a familiar name and face but because we knew his background as an Air Force Combat Controller.  Those dudes knows navigation better than almost anyone. Our leadership was going to be top notch. We had a private Facebook group that we used to communicate logistics about the event and both cadres were dropping hints about the activities we’d be engaged in. My favorite was Shredder’s post early on “Whatever training you are doing, it’s not enough.” This comment haunted my thoughts and literally my dreams for weeks. More on all of that later.  He also shared some intelligence about the operations and devised an entire scenario. This event was going to be freeking awesome.

Let me level set, my wife is awesome. When this event came about she was game for letting us go have some fun in the woods. We also decided to make it a family vacation so planned for a week of “out west” time for us. We hit the Grand Canyon (it’s big!), Petrified Forest National Park (stone trees are cool) and the giant meteor crater (another big hole and really cool).  We also saw Hoover Dam where I realized I hadn’t totally overcome my fear of heights, cruised the Las Vegas strip and hit Death Valley. Death Valley was a real surprise for us as we all had low expectations and it was amazingly beautiful. We went stargazing the night we stayed in the park and it was mind blowing. We could literally see the Milky Way. Our drive out of the park we found a nice treat with some Top Gun pilots practicing low flights, like, so low we were above them as the were dog fighting through the narrow valley. We also saw some F18s and a F35. We hit LA and did touristy stuff there, too. So we had a lot of fun before the event. I think this balance is a big part of what makes our family work so well.  Work hard, play hard and do it together.

The morning of the event finally came and we were up a 4:30 and on the road at 5:00AM to meet up at Super-D Fitness in Rancho Cucamonga. This crossfit gym would be our base of operations for the Heavy. Danielle was kind enough to let us park there and let some of the participants sleep there Friday night. I can’t say enough about her and her crew of volunteers that helped make sure this event went as well as it did. We arrived and almost immediately were put to work getting coupons and gear pulled out of two U-Haul vans. I was asked to give out contractor bags to everyone and collect their halfway ziplock bag of food and comfort items. This was getting real.  We formed up and started the admin tasks of checking in, gear check, etc. Both cadres briefed us a bit and then we loaded into the vans for the 1 hour ride to the start point of the Tough portion of the event.

We all piled into the vans and were headed off to Green Valley campground in the San Bernardino mountains. There was plenty of discussion, joking and fun for the first 30 minutes or so, then everyone settled down a bit and started getting mentally prepared for the task at hand. I won’t lie, I was intimidated to be in a group with people who have done multiple Heavy events, Selection, Spartan Death Races, World’s Toughest Mudder, Spartan Ultras and way more. This is my first Heavy and I had some serious concerns about being able to finish this. I’ve had IT band issues, knee surgery, am overweight, elevation could be a factor and more. These niggling doubts were with me the whole time. I was happy to see this was the first Heavy for others in my van so I wasn’t alone as the newb. We finally arrived, which was good as we had some people that were minutes away from getting car sick. Riding in a van with little ventilation, cramped conditions and twisty mountain roads made for a memorable start. We more or less fell out of van and hit the campground’s bathroom and formed up under some trees.

Cadres started with some very basic land nav skills instructions like how to orient a map, true north vs. magnetic north and what the notation and information in the margins of our maps actually mean. It was a great start to navigation. We quickly moved into the grid system we’ll use for coordinates, called Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM). We then learned how to use our map protractor to get more detailed coordinates within a grid location. It was very, very cool to see this all come together. Next we used our protractors to start to determine distance. There were a lot of questions and we worked as a team to share maps, ideas and helped each other get more comfortable with what we had just learned.

It wasn’t long and we broke into two teams and were given a mission to reach a coordinate using our maps. I was in the team led by Cadre DS and we had a brave soul step forward to be the Team Leader and after some discussion, we headed out. This movement took us from the Green Valley Campground towards a communication tower in the map. We stopped multiple times to shoot new azimuths (direction of travel - aka bearings, expressed in degrees of a compass) to course correct. We also used our skills of observation to correlate what we saw on the map with our surroundings and tried to make some intelligent decisions from there. Cadre DS taught us an acronym, Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA), to help us from getting so focused on the map, that we get lost. Sounds hard to do, but it is pretty easy. We like to go Geocaching and call it “Getting GPS Stupid” where you focus on the tool and don’t really stop to look around around. We took a wrong turn, corrected it and found a nice trail to the destination, or so we thought. We had stayed focused on the communications tower when our destination was really just down the hill a bit. We made our way down just in time to meet Cadre Shredder’s team and we all moved to the destination.

We took a quick bio break and the support vans were there to top off water. We were at altitude in this AO (~6,800ft with a max of ~7,600ft) and you can get dehydrated quickly.  After this break we crossed the road to work on our distance reckoning and were asked to shoot an azimuth to a peak nearby and using the contour lines determine the altitude. We were taking enemy fire and needed to do this while heads down against an embankment. The data we were asked to provide would in turn be used for an airstrike. Some of us were better at this than others and I heard a team called in a strike on themselves. In all fairness, it is easy to see how this could happen if you were in a hurry, under fire and in our case, new-ish to Land Nav.

After this exercise we were asked to provide the most efficient route to a new destination. After a lot of discussion on pros and cons of various routes, the answer was right in front of us. Everyone hop in the vans. Haha! Another example of us getting so focused on the task that most of us overlooked the easy answer. We piled in and took a short ride to the next area for our activity.

We rolled out of the vans and were split into teams of five, given new coordinates and off we went. This activity was all bushwhacking and the terrain was no joke. We made our way up and down. The altitude really hit me and I was consistently the slowest person with every segment of movement. I didn’t stop though and gave it my all. We reached what we thought was our first point and shot another azimuth to the next one. We trekked our way there and met up with Cadre Shredder who gave us another point to reach that was within sight - uphill the whole way.  LOL. This is a Heavy so isn’t not meant to be easy. We made it to the top and the view - wow. Words won’t do it justice. The vista before us was exactly what I had envisioned months ago when we signed up. After some more discussion and instruction from the Cadre, we moved down the mountain a short distance to load back into the vans.

Our next destination was the campground we started this event and the Cadre had us form up quickly. This event was designed to be executed in two parts - a Tough and those who
would continue had the opportunity to earn a Heavy. This was the endex of the Tough and we had one participant who could do the Tough only due to time constraints. We quickly loaded back into the vans to head back down to Super-D. This time the ride was a bit more uncomfortable as we had covered quite a bit of ground and a lot of vertical. Everyone was shifting and trying work work out knots in muscles. My hydration and electrolytes at this point were still on point as I didn’t have any cramps or similar dehydration issues. Everyone was trying to catch some cat naps on the ride down the mountain as well as we still had a long night ahead of us. Apparently thing in the other van were not going as smoothly as we were going one of the participants got car sick and was vomiting into a contractor bag.

When we arrived we were told we had 30 minutes to get ready for the Heavy. I took this time to change socks, eat, and drink and rest a bit. The one thing I didn’t do was use the bathroom. I waited too long and there was a line and I didn’t want to be late for the start. Our team formed up and Cadre DS taught us how to tie an alpine butterfly knot in a climbing rope. We were then instructed to clip in with our carabiners. One everyone was secured we were told by Cadre Shredder that we were doing a timed 4.5 mile ruck to our next AO and were warned that unclipping would result in being dropped from the event.

We took off and eventually figured out that we could do a double file group instead of a 200’ long single file line. We moved through the city and to a multi-purpose trail of crushed gravel/packed dirt, crossed a few road and made progress. Our pace was a bit slower than we needed for the time hack and I did my best to push and keep up. I was reminded of the phrase I’ve seen on the Heavy Drop Training patch - “Nobody Cares What You Can Do Fresh”. Maybe I should sign up for that training next time. As we made our way to the AO there were times that the guy in front of me was more or less dragging me. I apologized to him at every stop for traffic lights and gave it my best. We finally reached the end point and missed our time hack by a few minutes. While we were standing there, I decided that it was a good time to relieve myself on the wall next to where we were standing. I had to go since we left the gym and there were no stops along the way to take advantage and like I mentioned, my hydration was on point. I had to go….a LOT. While I’m going Cadre Shredder tells us to get into a handstand with our feet against the wall. Everyone drops and gets into position, but I’m still going. This is bad.  I finish up as quickly as I can and assume the position while apologizing to my team. We were reminded that we were a team, this is a Heavy and we were going to earn this patch. I dropped to my face a few times and struggled to get back into position. We were then told to stand up and get ready to take some coupons.

I was in a pretty bad place mentally at this time. My performance in the ruck was bad and then causing my teammates to be in the handstand position while I finished whizzing, and my own internal self-doubt all created a very bad state of mind. I approached Cadre DS and asked if I drop, could my son, who is a minor, continue. He started at me for a moment and said I can’t drop, get back in line and find a way to be an asset to my team. I shared my reasoning about being a performance detriment to the team and he reminded me to get out of my own head and focus on the team and the next activity. I’m not a psychology expert but that sort of did it for me. I got back in line and brushed the doubts out of the way. I truly wanted to finish and be an asset and not be a boat anchor for the team. Thank you Cadre DS for helping me out of my funk.

Our coupons were in the U-Hauls and consisted of 2 big tires, sandbags, rope bags, metal poles, 12” PVC pipes that were maybe 4-5’ long and two 10’ metal slosh pipes. Shredder selected some of the larger guys, of which I was one, to work the tires. We were told to put the 60lb sandbags into the tires along with one rope bag and then use our carabiners to clip ourselves together in a triangle back to back to back. We were then instructed to carry them 1.5 miles up the hill towards the AO we’d spend the rest of the event. It took a lot of communication and teamwork to carry these tires. We had 3 guys on each side for a total of
6 people per tire, but only 4 could really carry it at any given time. Our team worked to move our tire and rotate people around to share the load. I used 2 extra carabiners I had in my ruck to give us a bit more room to move so that we could avoid anyone walking backwards. I was unable to lift the tire up on my shoulder when it was my turn and my team bore the brunt of the load. I tried to help as best I could being a shoulder to lean on or whatever else I could do. I was also trying to zero in on not sinking back into the funk from just a bit earlier. Shredder told us that we could take the tire down and roll it so we did just that. It was still work but I could help push it along and try to contribute. We all made our way to the end point and looked back on Rancho Cucamonga at night. We had made some very steady increase in altitude during the 6 miles from the gym to the AO.

After a brief rest, we were given a briefing and moved out to the next point down a gravel/rock road. As we moved our coupons in whatever fashion we wanted down the road, some of the local cartel agents attacked us with flour. Yeah - you read that right, like baking flour and a few eggs - LOL. We were instructed in how to make a security circle where we all face outward and also told that if we were attacked again our “defense” was to use to word “flashbang.”  We picked up our stuff, dusted off what flour we could and moved further down the road. A few hundred meters down we were attacked again but “flashbang” seemed to save us. We reached the end of the road and the vans were waiting for our coupons so we loaded them up and prepared for the next movement.

We were instructed to move in pairs from our location to a place up the hill a bit and to take the path there. Once the team was there we moved further into the trails and worked on our night vision and footing. We had been told earlier that we needed to follow silence and light protocol for stealth meaning red lamps only and as quietly as we could. It was very dark out here as we were away from any close ambient light source and the moon was waxing crescent. Red light lamps take some getting used to and this was dark enough to really help me get used to it. We moved towards a cell tower part way up the side of the mountain and were making good time. It was all very much uphill and something in the air was really triggering my allergies. Between this and being a flatlander, I was breathing like a beast.

At the top we had a briefing about the next big movement. The views were amazing and I marveled at the size of the greater LA area. Some of the locals were kind enough to point out some of the cities below us and we could see Ontario airport and much further west. Cadre Shredder explained the boundaries of the area for this activity which encompassed a huge swath of scrub brush, rolling hills and valleys, and was bound by the gravel road from the earlier flour attack and some other landmarks. We’d be split into teams of three and given a set of points to navigate to, find a small marker flag and record team specific information on. This was going to be a challenging activity to test our skills especially in the dark. We moved down to a helipad used for fighting fires in the area and split into teams. I was teamed up with my son and one of the amazing ladies in our group. We received our coordinates and devised a plan, shot an azimuth to the first point and moved out.

The are close to our point seemed to be a bit of a “Lover’s Lane” and there was a car parked nearby so we gave it plenty of room. We wouldn’t want our red headlamps ruining their views of the city below. LOL We were warned to avoid to roads - remember our stealth protocol - so we bushwhacked as much as we could. The terrain was a real challenge given the low scrub brush, yucca plants with their sharp points and rocks. We reached ground zero and searched but to no avail. We looked around for other locations that might be the place assuming we overshot the target. After maybe 20 minutes of looking we called it a DNF and shot for the second point. This one was back up the mountain towards the cell tower so we moved in that direction. As we got closer we spotted a flag and raced towards it. Sadly, it wasn’t ours but we were close so we searched more diligently. Another 20 minutes or more we found another marker, but not ours and it was getting close to time to hit the rendezvous point. We didn’t want to be late so moved down the mountain and made our way back. Another team was still searching in the area we had been in when we headed down and we hoped they would too. On the way down we picked up Cade DS and chatting with him as we made our way back.

We reached the RP a few minutes before the 5AM cutoff and took the opportunity to sit down, fuel, and rest a bit before the next movement. Our awesome support crew was there and it was nice to see some fresh faces. 5AM came and went without the other team, who
eventually showed up maybe 20 minutes later. I think they got focused on finding the marker and underestimated the amount of time it would take to reach the RP. As a punishment for their tardiness we did some ruck ups. Also in the twilight Cadre had found some ranger beads and a pen. As we were in stealth mode we certainly didn’t want to leave any sign we had been in the AO (not to mention littering). The offenders claimed their missing gear and as a reminder we did some more ruck ups. The Cadre were nice to us as it could have been a lot worse. We debriefed about the last movement and it seems many of the other teams had more success than we had.  Bummer for us.

Dawn was breaking as we paid our penalties and it was beautiful to see the sky lightening up. We had made it through the night! We were far from done but the dark was gone. I was reminded about the Persevero patch I had bought from the GRT Masters mailer (did I mention I am 46 as well?!). It’s a pretty badass patch and I wanted to honor it by continuing
steadfastly. Between the light of day and Cadres checking in with me, my mental darkness was gone and I knew it wouldn’t be long before that red Heavy patch would be mine. We moved out for our next activity and took the gravel/rock road in the opposite direction. Along the way we were attacked again by the local cartel with water balloons and suffered two casualties. We now had to carry our casualties to the destination. Luckily for the team I wasn’t one - nobody wants to carry me. Leave me for the birds - haha. We continued moving and we all took turns carrying coupons, casualty rucks and the casualties themselves. I recalled Cadre’s words about being an asset to the team and made sure I was always carrying something or someone.

We reached a stopping point where Cadre DS, my son and one other team member took the rope bags and moved off. The rest of us formed a security perimeter and were briefed on the next movement which would take us in a wedge formation to a hill a few hundred
meters away through the scrub brush. We moved out and made our way across the terrain to the base of the hill where Cadre DS and team had made a rope climb for us to ascend the hill. We all moved up the rope, which really helped get us to the top and again I enjoyed the view. We didn’t hang there long before we moved to another location where we had been told the local cartel may have stashed a cache of supplies. We again used the wedge formation and moved out. It was pretty clear where the cache was as we stood at the edge of a deep wash for water from the mountains and the cache was tucked in between some trees and scrub. Cadre DS demonstrated a way to descend without a rappel seat or carabiners by just wrapping your arms around the rope and across your back. We sent a contingent down to
retrieve the cache and checked it out. Clearly the cartel was planning some operations in the area and we just disrupted their ability to execute by removing the cache.

Cache secured, we were broken into small teams again and given three more points to navigate towards. We were asked to hit at least 2 with the 3rd and final point being another rally point for the team. I think we were all beleaguered as it took quite a while for to agree on an approach and shoot an azimuth. By the time we were ready to tackle the first point we were close on time and hadn’t moved out. We quickly changed plans and headed for the rally point which was the a promontory about 1km away. We made our way there and I was really dragging by now. It wasn’t a major climb but the 24 hours of movement was wearing on me.  I know, if you are actually still reading this you’re thinking - “Nobody cares; try harder.” I was thinking the same thing too and just plodded along. We made it to the top for another awesome view and we could see our beloved (cursed for some?) U-Hauls in the distance. All we needed to do was move to them.

We all moved out down the side of the hill and made our way to the parking lot. My knees are not huge fans of the steep downhill but it was the best path down. I sucked it up and kept trucking. We stopped at the bottom where the trail met the road and then rolled out as
a team. We stopped once more for pictures that one of the great support staff took of us in the terrain and finally reached the vans. It was a quick ride back to Super-D and we piled out of the van and formed up. There were a lot of smiles as we were preparing to be patched. Both cadres praised us for our teamwork and we were happy to have a 100% participant finish. The guy who was vomiting finished strong, too. Talk about puke and rally! I came close to tapping out and was happy I did not. Another guy was ready to quit but didn’t either. DFQ, right? Both cadres were patching us and they both made it a point to share some words with everyone.

We broke formation and Danielle and the Super-D team had breakfast burritos, donuts, coffee and beer ready for us! They truly rock and we couldn’t have had such a successful event without them. We took some team photos inside (but not on the mats!) and talked, sharing stories. A number of my teammates congratulated me on finishing and they probably didn’t realize how helpful their kind words were. This is exactly the community GORUCK wants. We can all have fun on Wednesdays and joke about crayons, Space Force, boots, toe pictures and more, but the goal is to build better Americans. This is how you do it. I apologized to the GRT who dragged my butt up the hill one last time and he was gracious. I’d like to think I made a few friends out there, and shared a very memorable Father’s Day with my son. There was another father/son team so that was cool to see. They both trucked their way through the event and put in some good, strong work.

So, all that said, I would have to say this is the best event I have ever done. That includes plenty of Spartan Races, Hurricane Heats and the other GORUCK events I’ve done. The work both cadres into planning this event was evident. It wasn’t a let’s show up to this area and see what stuff we can have people do. It was very scenario based and current, ripped from the headlines, kind of stuff. Laying out the lanes for the night navigation took time and in general scouting the area was a lot of work. I see why people flock to Cadre Shredder and DS events like groupies. It’s top shelf, quality experience. I would do another event like this in a heartbeat and if you want a unique challenge, this is the kind of event you want. Amazing experience all around.

Gear List:
  • GORUCK Desert Digital GR-2
  • MSR 6L Dromedary Bladder
  • CamelBak Crus 3L Bladder
  • Nalgene 1L bottle
  • Columbia SilverRidge Convertible Pants
  • Russell Athletic Dri-Power Performance Crewneck Shirt
  • Rocky RKC050 Military and Tactical Boot
  • REI Hiking Socks
  • Gasden & Culpepper Operator Boonie Hat
  • Marmot PreCip Jacket
  • Silva Explorer Compass
  • protractor
  • Vitchelo V800 Headlamp

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