August 23, 2017

Babes in the Woods: GORUCK Custom Lake Tahoe Navigator

Photo by Bryan Calo

Photo by Bryan Calo

If I could list a single thing that I learned from GORUCK Custom Lake Tahoe Navigator it would be this — it’s easier than you think to get lost in the woods.

GORUCK Navigator is a four day land navigation and survival training experience that teaches you the basics of handling yourself in the wilderness including a culex (culmination exercise) to test your skills. It’s vastly different than a normal GORUCK Challenge because it leans more towards skill development and mastery instead of let’s do 1,000 8-count body builders while sitting in your favorite ocean. Now, find a pole!

The venue was picturesque Homewood Ski Resort and Sugar Pine Point Campground in beautiful Lake Tahoe, CA from May 14th-18th, 2014.

Attention to Detail

GORUCK is one company that really listens to its customers. Past Navigators (as best I can tell only three others have been held — see here for an ARR (After Action Review) from Nav 002) had some anecdotal rumblings of being kinda random and not having a real blueprint. This navigator was none of that. It was well planned, wonderfully communicated and precisely executed right down to the excellent meals prepared by Chef Grant, the flow of the program by lead Cadre Joel, rock star photography by Tosh (who got patched for shadowing Team Orange) and the professionalism and deep knowledge of all the Cadre. Thanks for your service and putting on a fantastic event.

Everyone Needs a Den Mother

A special thanks needs to be extended to den mother Laurie who took on the challenge of setting up this event over a year ago. Without her tireless efforts, infinite patience and true care for whose who participated, this event would never have happened. Thanks Laurie for spearheading one of the most fun and well organized events I have ever attended.

Event Schedule

The Custom Lake Tahoe Navigator was a 4-day course (with an optional Firearms Day) that adhered to the following schedule:

  • Day 0 (Optional): Firearms Day.

  • Day 1: Navigation Classes. Map and compass skills plus a ~4km hike

  • Day 2: Skills Classes. First aid, basic survival, finding water and shelter building.

  • Day 3+: Skills Practice + Culex. Time to ask any Cadre questions and practice followed by a practical test of all the skills learned. Lasted well into the morning of day 4, especially if you were Team White. They got “owned” by the night.

  • Day 4: Brunch & Beer: Camp breakdown and After Action Reviews (AARs).

Each day had several lectures followed by the opportunity to practice the taught skills. Overall, the material was fantastic and the lectures were engaging even for those who might have been hungover from the night before and fell asleep during class. You know who you are.

One recurring theme that I heard from participants was that there was no handouts of the excellent material (Cadre Big Chris did offer to email it around) or field manual to keep with you (according to Cadre Joel, this is in the works). That might have helped most of us un-fuck ourselves when we got lost. Well, maybe not.

Go Shoot an Azimuth. A What?

The first course was land navigation using a compass and map. Cadre Joel did a stellar job getting us up to speed on reading maps and shooting azimuths. One of the hardest things to figure out is how the contour lines on a map translate to real terrain. This is a critical skill to master since it can really help plan a route that avoids thick brush and steep elevation climbs. Remember this point, it comes up later.

Along with terrain feature recognition, we got to practice looking up grid coordinates and correcting for declination, which is the degree difference between the map and the compass. All of this is important to remember when in the field since it’s these small errors that build up to big errors. nav_map

Let’s Try Not to Kill the Patient

No course on surviving in the wilderness is complete without a class on basic first aid. Cadre Dakotah and Cadre Bert did a masterful job of giving us the basics of how to treat common first aid issues (before attempting any type of first aid, make sure you get the proper training).

Basic wilderness first aid boils down to the handy acronym SMARCH which is used to assess a patient in the field. SMARCH stands for:

  • Situation: Is it safe to help. The only thing worst than one patent is two patients.

  • Massive hemorrhaging: Stop the bleeding quickly since lack of blood leads to all sorts of nasty things.

  • Airway: Check that the patients airway is clear before trying to see if they are breathing.

  • Respiration: Check the patients breathing rate and depth.

  • Circulation: Check the patients pulse.

  • Hypothermia: Check the patient for hypothermia by looking for shivering and blue lips. Blood loss can make you hypothermic even if it’s 100 degrees outside.

Each part of SMARCH has specific treatment techniques that are applied to stabilize the patient. A recurring theme was prevention since it’s 1,000 times better to prevent an injury than it is to treat one in the field. Being prepared was also stressed since it’s what you have with you and your training that takes over during a stressful situation.

What the Heck is a Swiss Seat?

Cadre Chris and Danny taught probably the most challenging and fun part of the whole weekend — knot tying and rope bridge construction. For the culex, we had to learn three basic knots (figure 8, alpine butterfly and bowline) along with two others (square and half-hitch) to construct a rope bridge across an obstacle.

These particular skills are critical to get right since it’s a major safety issue if your rope bridge falls apart as you traverse a 100 ft crevasse or you fall out of your Swiss Seat (which looks dam sexy if cinched with the proper force and determination as Dan and Amy can attest too).

Photo By Chris Way

Photo By Chris Way

The rope bridge crossing was an absolute blast and probably the single coolest thing we did during the whole weekend except for maybe seeing bears and Lake Tahoe at night.

Cadre Manzanita

Out of all the Cadre at Navigator, no single one inflicted as much pain, suffering and learning than Cadre Manzanita pictured below. This stuff is nasty and can really ruin your whole day. Manzanita is the reason why you need to fully understand your sectional maps and what the lines and shading means. This knowledge can help you work smarter not harder. Climbing up through dense brush is not working smart at all, it’s the ultimate in working harder and costs time and energy, which Team Yellow learned the hard way. ManzanitaShrubBranches_wb

Making it Home to Fort Living Room

Cadre Hawke and Cadre Big Chris took us through the basics of survival with death by a thousand Power Point slides. Honestly, it was not that bad since both Cadre Hawke and Cadre Big Chris were engaging, funny and told awesome stories based on real world experiences.

Cadre Hawke’s approach to survival is a mix of common sense, be prepared and do what the locals do. Everything he taught us just made sense. He even debunked some common myths such as you can’t drink seawater (you can if it’s diluted) and you can drink urine to a point (urine is sterile but you need to worry about the ureic acid concentration). We also learned that it’s best to always carry a mini-lighter in your pocket, have a fixed blade survival knife, the meat left after you shake a carcass is good and anything over 12-inches is just a waste. The field part of the survival class had us look at different kinds of shelters and how to build a solar still. Everyone enjoyed this part because we got to get out of the classroom and into the field.

Shelter construction techniques vary widely but the principle message was that a shelter needs to protect you from the elements you are in. If it’s windy, you would build it one way as opposed to if it was raining. A shelter also needs to be close enough to your fire so that you can reach over and stoke it but not too close that you set your shelter on fire. All common sense but good to have reinforced.

Construction of our solar still was a lot of fun. The basic idea is that you dig a hole, throw in a bunch of green vegetation in, place a cup in the center, put a plastic bag over it and wait for the sun to evaporate the water from the vegetation. This evaporated water then collects on the plastic bag and drips into your cup. We never did confirm that it collected any water but I’m sure we got some.

Photo by Alvin Louie

Photo by Alvin Louie

Aha. Look what I’ve created. I have made FIRE

Primitive man must have felt the same joy that my fire team felt when our magnesium shaving drenched pathetic attempt at a birds nest engulfed in flames. And I’m also sure that during their version of a touchdown dance they promptly blew the fire out just like we did.

Starting fire by means other than a match or lighter is thrilling. It’s also an extremely valuable survival skill since fire can warm you up, signal your location and generally improve your morale. Cadre Joel gave us some great advice about always looking for materials to start a fire. He told us to always try to gather up dry moss, birds nests, small sticks and anything that can easily be set ablaze. Another important thing was to over do it on the magnesium shavings — you can never have too much of that. During our culex, our team found a functional lighter that we got to use to start our end of culex fire. It pays to have your head on a swivel and to be always looking at your surroundings.

Photo by Capt. Paige Bowie

Photo by Capt. Paige Bowie

Babes In the Woods

The range of skill sets and experiences of the participates (60 total) ranged from “I hike in my city park” to “I volunteer for mountain search and rescue.” Of course, all were GRT’s which meant we were used to rucking 12+ hours while hungover.

Even though everyone came from different backgrounds, we all felt like babes in the woods when it came to the culex. Human nature is fascinating especially when you have a bunch of GRT’s who are used to action. When a person or group is under stress, a lot of strange things happen. Logic and reason fly out the window and the “gotta get there” mentality takes over. Out of all the potential hazards in the wilderness, the one that posses the most risk to you is you! The reason for this is simple. We tend to over inflate our abilities, rely on “this feels like the right way” and get fixated on easy to do tasks. If you can control that, you’re a lot better off.

Learning by Failing Safe

The method of teaching at navigator was to fill our head with a lot of information and skills and then send us out in the wilderness to fail safe. This may seem cruel or even counterintuitive to most people but as Team Yellow’s Cadre Chris Way put it, “you have to experience getting lost in the woods before you appreciate how easy it is and how hard it is to get un-lost.” This is spot on. I could tell you a 1,000 times what to do when you are lost in the woods but until you are tired, hungry, stressed, second-guessing yourself, melting down, bickering with teammates and in the dark, it will never fully register.

Even though you must experience this for yourself to appreciate it (I highly recommend you sign up for one if you are interested), here are some of the lessons Team Yellow (and most other teams) learned by failing safe:

  • Trust your equipment over yourself: Your equipment will not lie but you will lie to yourself.

  • Humans make mistakes: Never assume that something is correct on a map. Double and triple confirm.

  • Verify your assumptions and be data driven: Don’t just assume something is correct. Look at the data you have collected and adjust your thinking if that’s what the data says.

  • Altitude is your friend: Get as high as you can so you can see the terrain.

  • Remain calm: Being calm will allow you to make better decisions and will reduce the anxiety level of the people around you.

  • Know the strengths and weaknesses of your team: Give tasks to people that cater to their skills especially during stressful situations.

  • Have a plan and a backup plan: Always have a plan when you enter the woods as well as a backup plan if things go wrong.

  • Follow the terrain contour not just the straight line path: Don’t hard charge up a hill because it’s a straight line path. That will just tire you out.

  • Map bearing and compass bearing are different: Your map is what you are walking on. Your compass is wrong and needs to be adjusted.

  • At night, constantly check your location: The night makes navigation extremely hard. You can drift a lot easier with no frames of reference.

This may seem like common sense to most of you (frankly it is) but when you are in a survival situation, common sense is not so common and our experiences and training (or lack thereof) take over quickly.

Team “Just Go South”

My team, Team Yellow, learned the above lessons the hard way. We were doing great right until it got dark. Once the sun dipped down below the horizon, our pace slowed, we got disoriented and we started to make simple mistakes. One mistake was not properly correcting for declination (e.g. The different between the map and the compass). Our mantra was to “just go south” when we really need to subtract the declination and go more south-east.

Another simple mistake was that we never picked a close by landmark to navigate too. This meant that as we zigged and zagged around obstacles, we just kept a southerly bearing, which is kinda like walking while drunk. We may have been going “south” but we more like drifting south-west, then south, then south-east and back again.

All of this added up to Team Yellow getting lost and hacking our way through Manzanita grove after Manzanita grove. At one point, we crested a hill with a beautiful view of Lake Tahoe, which as Cadre Chris put it,“”Well, you can still see the lake so you aren’t THAT hopelessly fucked.” Yes, it’s always good to know that it can always get worse.

Photo by Chris Way

Photo by Chris Way

A Deep Sense of Camaraderie and Respect for Nature

For me and a lot of my fellow participates, the whole navigator experience boiled down to being in nature with a bunch of great people that are as weird as you are. From the pre-nav birthday BBQ (hosted by Dan and Amy) for Amy and Cynthia, seeing bears above Quail Lake, Rebecca “One Pole” trying to set up her tent, the tragic news of fellow GRT Jeff Proietti’s passing, Rocco’s insistence on hydrating, the funny and touching moment when John helped Laurie wash her hair and rockstar photographer Tosh barking out “I need 4 people to move this table in 10 seconds. Hurry up!”

Everyone I talked to about their navigator experience felt it was wonderful and they learned a lot about themselves and others. The lessons learned go far beyond how to survive in the wilderness because anytime you get a bunch of good people together, you share priceless moments that no social media feed, picture, tweet or blog post can reproduce. As Cadre Bert says, GORUCK makes Facebook friends real friends. It’s these bonding experiences that allows us to grow towards being the best people we can be. For that, we should all be eternally grateful.