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Story Last modified at 11:16 a.m. on Thursday, March 10, 2011

Winter survival program links students, military

Alaska Star


Eagle River and West high schools' Junior ROTC cadets march on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson as part of a winter survival camping trip in conjunction with the military on Feb. 25. The camp teaches skills such as building a fire and a shelter, but also camaraderie.
Photo courtesy Chief Master Sgt. Bill McNew

Daniel Heidbrier knew things weren't going well when his shivering kept him awake in the middle of the night. The 16-year-old Eagle River High School sophomore didn't bring a sleeping bag warm enough to ward off the chill of his first winter survival camping trip with Eagle River and West High's Junior ROTC programs last month.

"The whole night I did not sleep," he said. "It was a bad bag."

In the morning, Heidbrier discovered his second mistake: He'd left his gloves in his pack outside his snow shelter. They were frozen solid.

"Then I couldn't get my hand warmers to work because my hands were so cold I couldn't feel them," he said.

Soon, Heidbrier said, he started stumbling and began feeling lightheaded.

"I was freaking out, but I wasn't registering anything," he said of the disorientation he felt as he began to suffer the effects of hypothermia. "I started walking to the fire to warm up and then I couldn't see. At all. When I got to the fire I sort of fell down."

What could have been a life-threatening situation had Heidbrier been alone ended up being a valuable learning experience, said JROTC instructor Lt. Col. Dave Ennis, who helped chaperone the annual winter survival campout on Feb. 25. with help from personnel from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

"He was severely dehydrated," Ennis said. "It was a lesson learned. We brought him in the camper and warmed him up and he was OK. We told them beforehand, 'We don't need any heroes. Don't take chances and come to us if you need anything.'"

The annual winter survival campout is a tradition among the JROTC, Ennis said. The 501st Airborne Infantry Battalion assisted on the trip by providing trainers and chaperones, according to Chief MSgt. Bill McNew. Members of the battalion also brought out a SUS V, a tracked snow vehicle, to show cadets its capability, said McNew, who serves as Eagle River High's AFJROTC aerospace science instructor.

Camp participants hiked JBER to the Otter Lake campground, marching eight miles in semi-formation along a paved gravel road. For some, it is the ultimate adventure.

"This was my first camping experience," said junior Lendra Nunez, 17, the sole female Eagle River JROTC to attend. "We learned how to make fires and snow shelters, but when I got there the had already built the snow shelter."

Nunez, who was born in Belize, has lived in mostly warm climates as her father, Len Nunez, an Army engineer, has moved the family. This is her third year in Alaska and said her family is moving soon – to Georgia.

Still, Len Nunez has been here long enough to teach his daughter some valuable tips that helped her survive her winter camping experience.

"Before I went, my dad told me to put everything in my sleeping bag," she said. As a result, when she got up in the morning, her gloves were toasty warm. Her boots were not frozen.

But she was still very cold.

"This was not winter survival," she joked. "It's death survival."

Ennis said the purpose of the camping trip is to teach valuable skills – building a fire and creating a shelter are basic to survival – but it also is about creating camaraderie.

"The teamwork is important, but number one is instilling confidence," Ennis said. "This shows them they have the ability to do things that maybe they didn't think they could do."

Ask Moaz Shah if he gained confidence and you will get a resounding "yes." The Eagle River exchange student has been living in Alaska Since August after arriving from Karachi, Pakistan, a city of nearly 20 million people in the southernmost region of the country. He said the coldest it gets is the high 30s. Weather such as Alaska's is unheard of.

"We did an eight-mile hike and that was long," he said. "We built our snow shelters and ate MREs (meals ready to eat)."

Like Heidbrier, Shah said he wasn't too comfortable during the night, but not because of the cold. Shah struggled with the constricting feeling of his sleeping bag.

"I like to move around and that didn't feel so good," he said of the mummy bag. "I like more space."

The high point, Shah said, was when he got up in front of the other junior cadets around the campfire for a question-and-answer session about life in Pakistan. Someone asked about his music, and then asked him to sing a Pakistani song – which he did, in his language.

"It was a good surprise," he said. "They actually liked it."

Although he was hesitant about the idea of winter camping at first, Shah said it will likely be a memory he will cherish when he returns to Pakistan in June.

"I was really happy I did it," he said. "It was cold but I liked it."

Contact Melissa DeVaughn at or 694-2727

This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, March 10, 2011.