Next month, the U.S. Army will begin equipping its infantry brigades with new mountaineering kits full of high-end climbing gear, an effort fueled by a decade of hard lessons in the heights of Afghanistan.
"These kits … are really going to help provide some necessary equipment for the force to be able to get into some of these remote areas and move over the terrain a lot easier than it has before," 1st Sgt. Nate Chipman, instructor at the Army Mountain Warfare School in Vermont, told a group of reporters Wednesday.
The Feb. 19 fielding to the Army National Guard-run Mountain Warfare School was the first of a handful of initial fieldings aimed at equipping the school houses that teach military mountaineering to thousands of soldiers per year.
Next in line for fielding will be the Northern Warfare Training Center in Alaska, the Special Forces Advanced Mountain Operations School in Colorado and the 5th Ranger Training Battalion in Georgia that teaches the mountain phase of Ranger School.
Then beginning in March the Army plans to spend the next 18 months fielding the new gear to its infantry brigade combat teams. National Guard units will start receiving the gear in fiscal 2015.
The new mountaineering line of equipment features a High Altitude Mountaineering Kit, the Assault Climber Team Kit and the Snow and Ice Kit -- all of which are designed to equip platoon-size units, or up to 40 soldiers, with ropes, ice axes, crampons and other climbing gear certified by the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation.
Now the Army has one, standardized set of equipment that has about 80 percent of the same mountaineering gear used by the Marine Corps, said Darren Bean, a retired Army sergeant major and instructor at the AMWS. Dean is now an engineer for Product Manager Soldier Clothing and Individual Equipment.
"In the past, units could buy whatever they wanted, and we have no control over that," he said. "This now provides one standard set of equipment, so both the Army and the Marine Corps have stuff that integrates well together."
The equipment is the same gear used by professional climbers, but the Army versions are made in subdued colors rather than the bright, highly visible colors civilians use.
In addition to climbing anchors and snow shoes, the new kits also feature avalanche transceivers, gadgets that send a locating signal out in case soldiers are buried in an avalanche.
There is also a separate mountaineering kit for special operations units. It contains the same gear that's in the kits going to IBCTS but they are designed to equip small units of up to 12 personnel each.
The kits range from $3,000 each for the Assault Climber Team kit to $36,000 for the each Snow and ice kit, Army officials say. In total, the service plans to spend about $11 million of the effort over the next 18 months.
Once issued to units, the mountaineering gear weighs less than two pounds per soldier, Army officials maintain.
"We tested virtually every model, make and brand item out there … from harnesses to carabiners to get where we are today," Bean said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at Matthew.Cox@monster.com.