The placard above the entrance to the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School says, “The Gods of the valleys are not the Gods of the hills.” Those are the words of American Revolutionary War Maj. Gen. Ethan Allen and they were as true then as they are today.
Students from all Army military occupational specialties and all U.S. service branches are eligible to attend the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School. But the goal for graduates is the same: to gain an appreciation and understanding of the difficulties of operating in harsh, mountainous terrain.
“If you look at where we operate and many of the places we operate,” 1st Sgt. Andreas Bond, an instructor at the school, told Task & Purpose. “It should be a key component to have soldiers trained in that environment.”
Located at the Camp Ethan Allen Training Site in Jericho, Vermont, the Army Mountain Warfare School provides basic and advanced military mountaineering training, as well as specialized instruction in the Rough Terrain Evacuation Course, the Mountain Rifleman Course, and the Mountain Planner’s Course. Around 1,000 students attend annually, both active duty, Reserve, and National Guard soldiers, as well as service members from other branches and foreign militaries. Graduates from the Basic Military Mountaineer Course earn the skill qualification identifier “E” – Military Mountaineer, as well as the Military Mountaineer Badge, commonly referred to as the Ram’s Head Device.
“Mountains, regardless of where they are, whether they’re in Africa or in the Antarctic, offer some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet and require a different skill set, more than what basic training and other aspects of military training really offer,” said Staff Sgt. John Hampson, an AMWS instructor, in 2022. “The ability to dominate certain terrain features is really a big asset when it comes to maneuver warfare. This is base level for an individual to be able to start taking on some of the mastery of the skills that are necessary to dominate that kind of terrain.”
While the instructors are all Active Guard Reserve soldiers and the training is conducted at a National Guard Camp, the school operates under the U.S. Army Infantry School.
A brief history of the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School
The Army activated its first dedicated mountain unit during World War II, with the 10th Mountain Division, training at Camp Hale, Colorado. With the demobilization of the 10th Mountain Division in 1945, though, that kind of specialized training was restricted to special operations units.
Thirty-eight years later, in 1983, the Vermont Army National Guard Mountain Warfare School was established to train members of the 1st Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment as a mountain warfare unit. In the beginning, the cadre operated out of a single farmhouse located on the grounds of Camp Ethan Allen.
“It was just completely innovative, creating a functional specialty Army unit out of nothing. You really have to respect those guys for accomplishing that with no existing example in the Army,” said former instructor Evan Hughes in 2022.
In 1994, it became the sole producer of the military mountaineer skill qualification identifier – the “E” identifier – and in 2003 it was redesignated as the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School.
Since then, the school and its cadre have established themselves within a unique niche. “Alaska has the Northern Warfare Training Center, and there is the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in California, but overall it’s probably less than 100 instructors force-wide,” said Bond.
U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School courses
The Mountain Warfare School conducts five courses. There is the Basic Military Mountaineer Course (BMCC) and the Advanced Military Mountaineer Course (AMCC), both of which run for the majority of the year. The BMCC is two weeks, while the AMCC is split into two separate two-week-long phases, one for summer and one for winter. There are also the more specialized Rough Terrain Evacuation Course, the Mountain Planner’s Course, and the Mountain Rifleman Course.
BMCC was previously held in both winter and summer phases, but since 2008 has been combined into a single course that runs for 10 months out of the year. A typical class has around 64 students.
“This is really the broad strokes of military mountaineering, general sustainment for operating in a mountain environment,” said Bond. “That’s intelligent behavior in extreme weather conditions, basic considerations for movement in that terrain, weapons care, and learning the basics of climbing.”
According to the Army, this includes land navigation, high-angle marksmanship, first aid, casualty evacuation, and ascending and descending techniques..
“We start with tying knots, going over the basics of the equipment they will use, and then an assessment of their physicality,” Staff Sgt. Joshua Richmond, an instructor at the school since 2009, told Task & Purpose. “Moving into the second week we go through group activities – how to move through this environment. And it culminates with exercises where they can replicate what they’ve learned with what they’d see in an operational environment.”
Once completing the BMCC, students can attend the advanced course, although the instructors say that graduates should take some time to apply what they have learned.
“The advanced course is more skills-based,” Staff Sgt. William Thibeault, an instructor at the school, told Task & Purpose. “It’s a lot more focused on problem solving — there isn’t a single solution to a problem.
It trains soldiers in the knowledge and skills required to lead small units over technically difficult, hazardous, or exposed mountainous terrain in both summer and winter conditions.
“There is Class 1-5 terrain,” said Thibeault. “1 is flat, 2 is somewhat steep, 3 is more steep and may require ropes, 4 is steep and broken terrain and will require ropes to move people, and 5 is vertical movement.”
The advanced course is split into separate summer and winter sessions. In the summer, the focus is on rock, lead climbing, and sending ropes. In the winter it shifts to ice climbing and snow mobility, as well as instruction on avalanche rescue, glacial travel, and crevasse rescue.
Specialized courses include the Rough Terrain Evacuation Course, the Mountain Planners Course, and the Mountain Rifleman Course.
The Rough Terrain Evacuation Course teaches soldiers to care for and evacuate injured soldiers in austere conditions and over mountainous terrain.
“We developed that around 2008-2009 when there was a need for conventional forces in Afghanistan to extract casualties in these rough environments,” said Richmond, who is an instructor with the specialized course and was previously a senior medic in the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. “It’s now open to other MOSs, but they get our medical classes along with basic mountaineering, moving casualties through Class 2 or Class 3 terrain.”
The Mountain Planners Course focuses on planning and supporting operations in mountainous terrain under a variety of weather conditions. This includes the effects of altitude and weather on soldiers and equipment; planning considerations for patrols, reconnaissance, fire control, casualty evacuation, and logistics; as well as instruction on rappelling, rope management, and fixed rope route planning.
The Mountain Rifleman Course trains snipers to maneuver in mountainous terrain, as well as specialized marksmanship training.
U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School preparation
The Mountain Warfare School involves plenty of movement over rough terrain, so students should have their boots broken in and be prepared to ruck 4-6 miles a day with a 45-50 pound ruck.
“When they arrive for the basic course we start with students that either have extensive climbing background or have maybe never even touched a rope,” said Richmond.
Students should also have a familiarity with knots before attending. A guide is available on the Army Mountain Warfare School website.
What is U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School really like?
“I like to say that’s what makes the mountain school different from most Army schools, is that students are empowered to ask their instructors why do we build a system in this way? Why would we use this, or not this piece of equipment? It’s unique in that our soldiers, our students, feel empowered to be curious learners,” said then-commander of the school Lt. Col. Steve Gagner in 2022.
The ultimate goal of the courses is to produce soldiers and service members from other branches who can take what they learn at the school and apply that knowledge when training with their parent units.
“This training has made me enormously aware of the constraints and requirements of operating in mountainous terrain. As for ice-climbing, it’s pretty fun,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joey Wing from the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, while attending the BMCC in 2020.
FAQs about the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School
You have questions, Task & Purpose has answers.
Q: What is the Ram’s Head Device?
A: The Military Mountaineer Badge, known as the Ram’s Head Device, is awarded to all service members who complete the Basic Military Mountaineer Course. It is, however, only authorized for wear in certain National Guard units that have approved it.
The design dates back to World War 2, when it was first worn by soldiers training in the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale in Colorado, and continued to be worn by instructors at the Army Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command until it was retired in the 1950s. The design was brought back when the Mountain Warfare School was re-established in 1983.
Q: What is the attrition rate at Mountain Warfare School?
A: While it is a physically rigorous course, the goal is, of course, instruction and to produce graduates that can become subject matter experts in mountain warfare for their units.
“We typically weed out about five to 10 students per class,” said Bond.
Q: What kind of equipment is used?
A: While the AMCC will have students operating on vertical terrain, the equipment students use remains fairly basic tools for mountaineering – ropes, carabiners, crampons, and snow shoes.
“The equipment we use is chosen for simplicity of use,” said Richmond. “For soldiers, mountaineering is not their primary job, so what they have to carry with them in addition to their normal load should be small and simple. And we want them to be able to retain the information when they graduate.”