Off the Beaten Path!

By Ray Sarlin
Copyright 2003: Ray Sarlin. All rights reserved. (Copy permission at bottom)

Webmaster's Introduction
Webmaster's Comments: Author/philosopher Henry D. Thoreau wrote, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Like Walden for Thoreau, Vietnam had a way of confronting an Infantryman with the essential facts of life... and of death.... We didn't even have to seek out Walden Woods as Thoreau did; our woods were assigned to us by the Green Machine.

"In Nature there are neither rewards nor punishments - (only) consequences." (Robert Ingersoll)

While cleaning my office the other day I found an old box that I hadn't thought about for years. It included badges, patches, insignia, medals and other memorabilia from my activities decades ago… from Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts; junior high school and high school letter jackets; police, fire fighting and Army units; martial arts clubs; and so on. Almost lost among so many long-forgotten but treasured momentos was a small green diamond shaped patch embroidered with an ice axe, the symbol of the Seattle Mountaineers.

Formed in 1906, the Mountaineers is one of the premier outdoor recreation and conservation clubs in the USA, if not the world. Its members were among the first Americans to climb Mt Everest and K2. More importantly, it offers some of the best climbing instruction available. While attending the University of Washington in the 1960s, the Mountaineers not only tutored me in rock, snow and ice climbing but also helped put me on top of many peaks in the Cascade Mountains. As my skills progressed, I also became involved in Mountain Rescue.

In a sense, I couldn't have asked for better preparation for Vietnam… a preparation that saved my life in the mountains of Lam Dong Province!

"Wait a darned minute," you ask, "you used an ice axe in Nam?"

I'll let the story tell itself.

It hardly seems that long ago, but my time-worn copy of my old climbing textbook, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, is a First Edition published in 1961. The very first book published by the Mountaineers, it's now in its Sixth Edition with 500,000 copies sold, and is still the leader of the 450 or so titles that the Mountaineers now produce. When I got my copy it seemed as if the ink was still wet, so proud were the instructors of the then brand new book being distributed. My copy still has notes scrawled in the margins, just like my textbooks on more mundane topics like calculus, fluid dynamics and mine surveying.

The Mountaineers' Basic Course hasn't changed much. It still starts with knots, knots and more knots; rope handling; belaying and rappelling at Camp Long in Seattle; high exposure at Mt. Erie near Anacortes; crevasse rescues at the Nisqually Glacier on Mt Rainier; and three experience climbs. The Intermediate Course extends the techniques of safe climbing on rock, snow and ice, and introduces further technical and leadership techniques. It says a lot for the Mountaineers that they don't have an "advanced" course; they believe that that level comes only from experience.

Along the way, I learned how to use crampons and snowshoes; to cut steps; to set belay and rappel anchors; to use the ice axe for climbing, descending and self-arrest. The self-arrest was particularly useful when sliding down packed snow or ice at high speed, and we learned to arrest whether sliding head first or feet first, face down or butt up. The key was to flip into a face down feet first slide and then self-arrest.

I also learned to glissade. Oh, did I learn to glissade! "Glissading" is just a fancy name for sliding down hill without skis. It's said that there are three types of glissade - standing, sitting, and uncontrolled. One usually leads to the next pretty quickly. I found that it helps to keep your balance, and having a trusty ice axe handy to steer or stop the glissade abruptly with a self-arrest can give one a lot more confidence.

In addition to club climbing, climbing for fun and mountain rescue, I practiced many of the skills while working summers in the Coconino National Forest in Arizona. By the time I arrived at the Dahlonega Mountain Ranger Camp in Georgia, the knots, rope work, free climbing, lead climbing, glissading and other technical skills were old friends, and I could focus on the many unique skills on offer. Moving troops over mountainous terrain and across swiftly flowing rivers in the middle of winter was both new and challenging, especially under tactical conditions.

The Field Manual puts it this way, "Operations in the mountains require soldiers to be physically fit and leaders to be experienced in operations in this terrain. Problems arise in moving men and transporting loads up and down steep and varied terrain in order to accomplish the mission. Chances for success in this environment are greater when a leader has experience operating under the same conditions as his men."

So welcome to the mountains of the Central Highlands of Vietnam!

In early 1970, Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 50th Infantry was operating on foot in the southern part of the Truong Son mountain range in Lam Dong Province. This southernmost portion of the Central Highlands consists of sparsely populated heavily forested mountainous terrain, with steep slopes and deep valleys. The average altitude is about 5,000 feet above sea level, with some ridges higher than 6,500 feet and the highest nearly 8,000 feet. Over 70% of the province including the mountains where we operated was covered with leafy rainforest interspersed with great pine forests. The mountains received up to 12 feet of rain a year, with 80-90% falling between April and November.

The remote terrain and difficult weather made the Vietnamese reluctant to colonize the land until the French colonial authorities started forcing the issue in the 1920s. Even then it was only done half-heartedly, leaving the region as the domain of ethnic minorities and malaria. That of course, made the mountains a natural sanctuary for the NVA/VC command structure during the Vietnam War.

Charlie Company was part of a two-company sweep searching for an elusive enemy Regimental Headquarters. We were patrolling along the ridges above a tributary while a troop of the 2/1 Cavalry was patrolling the main river valley across the mountains to the north. We were due to meet up when our tributary emptied into their river some six days downstream.

Like everything in combat, military mountaineering is characterized by long periods of boredom and physically strenuous drudgery punctuated by short periods of sheer terror when least expected. We were working across the military crest of a steep ridge high above a stream cascading in waterfalls and rapids through a rocky chasm far below. It was a clear, dry day, a bonus in the damp mountainous rainforest.

We'd been following a narrow, hard-packed trail that ran just under the crest of a steep ridge above the south wall of the river canyon. While we normally broke fresh trail, there were several advantages to using this particular established track. The going was easier than pushing through the dense vegetation higher up the ridge. We had run into numerous punjii stakes, foot-deep punjii pits and even some bamboo whips and a swinging spiked log, but none were freshly set and none were well hidden. Indeed, they were decades old and only partially camouflaged here and there with threadbare covers. It was a rare pleasure in Vietnam to be following a safe, well-beaten path that hadn't seen active combat since the 1950s at the latest.

Intelligence had warned that the local Montagnards hated the ethnic South Vietnamese so much for destroying their independence that they supported the enemy, so we were on the lookout for crossbow attacks. There was a certain primal fear about facing such primitive weapons, but our mission was to find the headquarters of a much more modern but equally elusive enemy.

The trail led onto a scabble-covered 45º scree slope some 50 to 100 feet wide that slid off to a majestic sheer rock cliff falling another 100 to 200 feet to the rocks and white water below. To my right was thick vegetation and to my left, empty space. Humping a 70 pound load, I moved carefully and deliberately, sometimes able to grasp a limb for balance but more often just placing one foot in front of the other and shifting my weight forward. Step, place, test, shift. Moving called for a balancing act that was very, very tiring, but there was no way off the scree but onwards... that is, no other way except down into the abyss.

Still, the main body of Charlie Company had easier going than our flank security elements in the dense jungle on the ridgelines on either side of us.

The Company C.P. (command post) was trailing the lead platoon. I didn't notice the subtle shift in degree of difficulty until about thirty men had already negotiated the slightly more open and steeper pitch. We were passing through a transition zone that could easily have justified a rope handline. All that stood between us and the rock-strewn river far below were a few gnarled trees clinging to the lip of the sloping ledge below us.

With the bulk of the company yet to be fully exposed, I paused briefly to see if we could reasonably rig a handline from the point men who had reached firmer ground.

Somehow in turning to size up the situation, I felt my feet start skating out, and then I started sliding down the scree towards the precipice. Mountaineers know that a falling body reaches terminal velocity in five seconds, so it was now or never! Without thinking I threw my accelerating body into an ice climbing self-arrest position: face down, feet downhill, body arched on three points - my two feet and my M16. An ice axe might have been better, but I had to make do. I wasn't stopping, but my descent over the scree towards the edge of the cliff had definitely slowed down.

Time seemed to slow down as well, and I noticed how the rocks flowed over each other - almost like an avalanche. I wasn't aware of fear; it was as if I were watching this happen to someone else.

Using my upper body weight to press the butt of the M16 down into the scrabble, I somehow slid into the roots of a tree at the very edge of the overhang with a jarring but welcome jolt!

There I was, my outstretched arms and rucksack wedging me into the roots while my legs hung freely over 100 feet of air. I couldn't move and could barely breathe as I lay gasping in a state of adrenalin-induced shock. While sliding through the scree, I hadn't had time to be scared, but now fear washed over me and I started shaking.

I took a few deep breaths and slowly opened my eyes. The first thing that I saw was ants: glorious ants! They seemed more scared than I was and were running around in fear of ME! Fascinating, simple, beautiful ants! I saw life… the ants were life. I was alive!

Life flooded back into my body as if I'd broken through some inner reservoir, and I ascended into a place that was close to pure, undiluted bliss! The feeling was exhilarating! I thanked God for my survival.

Several men told me later that they thought I had been killed by the fall because I wasn't moving in the roots. Even if I could have moved, it would not have been a good idea. The gnarled tree clinging tenuously to the rocky escarpment was my sole means of support.

In a reasonably short time, several anchors, belay lines and rappel lines had been rigged, and two men rappelled down to retrieve my mortal remains. Although part of me watched warily as the rocks loosened by my rescuers' feet zipped by, another part was inwardly laughing at the simple joy of surviving the fall.

Balancing on the roots while belayed from above, my rescuers couldn't get sufficient leverage to lift me enough to tie a safety line on. So tightly was I wedged in that it took a few minutes just to work out how to pull me out of the roots without sending us all, tree and roots included, sliding over the cliff onto the rocks far below. They wanted to remove my rucksack to pull me out, but that was the only thing keeping me from squirting out of the roots to my doom. It was a bona fide dilemma. Finally, a safety line was hooked with a snaplink to my LBE (load-bearing equipment) and I was hoisted enough by the people up above to get a safety line around my waist.

After that, the rescue was routine. As I finally returned to the trail where my misstep had occurred only a few moments earlier, I noticed and fully appreciated the well-rigged handline that had been slung over the danger area in my absence.

Our patrol resumed. A few hours later, Charlie Company reached our limit for the day and started setting up our Night Defensive Position. While the moon rose over the far ridge and cast a pale glow on my tired and battered body, I reflected on how lucky I was to get to the end of such an incredible day.

We didn't find the NVA Regimental Headquarters, but our sister Cavalry Troop did to their great regret. On the day after my mishap, several hours before we were to link up we heard the sounds of an intense firefight reverberate up the canyon. The Cav had walked into a large ambush from the ridge to their north and sustained significant casualties including their Troop Commander. We broke radio silence to see if we were needed, but the enemy pulled away quickly before massive U.S. artillery and air power could be brought to bear.

It seems that the Regimental Headquarters had been very close, just one more ridge away to the north. By the time friendlies got there a day later, it had been moved. Charlie Company was to come close to that NVA Regimental Headquarters one more time during my tour, but that's another story.

POSTSCRIPT: On another mission in the mountains, one of Charlie Company's platoons also had a man fall off a sheer cliff onto a ledge more than halfway down and sustain very serious injuries. He was extracted from the cliff face by rocking the Medivac chopper until the extended jungle penetrator could be grabbed by the rescuers roped to the cliff near the victim. I hope that one day someone from that platoon will write this story. Ray.

Copyright 2003, Ray Sarlin.

Permission is hereby granted to copy this story to print or
on web pages at no charge provided the line below is included:
Reprinted from the 1st Bn (Mech) 50th Infantry website
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