The northern lights shined greens and purples like I had never seen before in nature, wrapping through the horizon like cold-blooded serpents. It wasn’t snowing because it was too damn cold. Twenty-five below freezing will do that to nature. It's as though everything shuts down. The animals, the plants, the water, and mother nature herself give up. They all can wait until spring. Everything shuts down. Everything but us. We have a mission. We have a task. And we don’t care that mother nature threw in the towel. She left this forsaken land in the hands of the Norse gods, and they left it a long time ago.
It was only two in the morning but the daily grind was soon to start. “Savage two, Savage six.” It was my commanding officer. The mission was inbound in the form of a six-digit grid and an estimated enemy time of arrival. Time was of the essence. As we jumped out of our vehicles you could see the bite of the cold affect each man differently. As I inhaled, everything in my nose froze. I gave a quick brief as the guys put their snowshoes on and then we were off. Into this desolate land, northern lights overhead and rifles in hand.
Ironically, the Marine Corps had trained us in just about every environment but this one. We had spent months in the field wading through the swamps and humidity of Camp Lejeune, fending off the mosquitoes and chiggers. We had training in the thick vegetation, but relatively forgiving terrain of Virginia. Months were spent learning how to reduce prepared enemy positions in the Mojave Desert; even spent some time in the surrounding mountain ranges. Many of my guys had spent months learning jungle warfare in Japan. On the surface, we had next to no preparation for operating on skis or snowshoes for weeks at a time north of the arctic circle. Melting snow just to drink it, digging through feet of snow just to get some sleep, skiing with sixty pounds on your back, moving a defense because of an avalanche, or like tonight; snowshoeing into the abyss in temperatures twenty-five below with twenty mile per hour winds. All to set up a blocking position for an enemy that would never come.
The reality was that most of what we did on deployment we had never been trained for. Operating in the arctic circle is just one example. Although on the surface we seemed unprepared, we still always accomplished our mission. Our ability to do this was made possible by the one thing common to any environment. Your mind. A functional mind is like a master key that can open any door. We had trained our Marines to endure, to block out pain, and to realize that this suck is the same suck you’ve been in before. No matter the environment. It didn’t overcome you then and it won’t overcome you now. Perseverance: that's what we were shaping in the Mojave Desert and that’s what we were instilling in the swamps and jungles.
Many of us will go to the range and shoot hundreds of rounds, or go spend hours perfecting a new wooly bugger pattern. You put a thousand arrows through our bow. Maybe you run five miles every day. That stuff is all great, but when are you training your mind? When are you building that functional mind? The mind that is the master key that will open the door for you the next time you are in an unfamiliar, unforgiving, austere environment.
A functional mind payed big time for the Cro-Mag team in Colorado. We were getting our asses handed to us by the harsh Colorado conditions. It was our first time hunting out west. We thought we were winging it, but the reality was just like in the arctic circle. We may have not been there or executed under those exact conditions, but we were able to use our functional minds as a master key to open the door. We realized that even though we hadn’t done this before, we know what we are doing. We have patterned deer using bedding and feed before, just add in water as a factor. We have spent hours studying topographical maps to find that perfect tree stand location to ambush a mature whitetail in the rut. We have navigated hundreds, if not thousands of miles by foot in the Allegheny National Forest. We hadn’t called in elk, but boy have we called in plenty of turkey. We may have not dealt with the weather and terrain above ten thousand feet before, but we sure have been in worse conditions at lower elevations.
A functional mind will help you focus less on the suck, focus less on the odds stacked against you, and in turn help you focus on your mission and how to accomplish it. So, one naturally might ask, how do you train to achieve that mindset? The simple answer is experience. Get out there and push your body to the limit so you know how much you are capable of. Get out of your comfort zone. You want your training to be harder than the real deal. You don’t want it to be your first time on game day.
Quite possibly the best thing you can do to achieve a functional mind is gain experience through others. This comes from reading, watching youtube channels, or listening to podcasts. Chances are whatever you want to do someone has done and someone probably has more experience on it than you. Use that to your advantage and listen to what they have to say, learn from their mistakes, use their knowledge and apply it the next time you are in the field. The single best lesson that has guided me the most in the military came from reading the book The Mission, the Men, and Me. Always trust the guy on the ground. A delta commander learned this lesson the hard way when his team didn’t listen to a park ranger before hiking the Bob in Montana. Long story short, they didn’t bring snow shoes like the range had recommended. This nearly caused his team to fail their mission. This simple phrase has so much meaning and use both in the military and in the outdoor community. The point is: Pete Blaber doesn’t know I exist, but since I read his book I can use and apply his life lesson into my life.
Just remember you can have a functional body and you can have functional tools, but without a functional mind you won’t be successful in overcoming challenges in the field. That night we met our timeline, set up that blocking position, and held that position for hours in the frigid cold; but we had been through worse. In Colorado we harvested a bull elk, with a bow, the first time any of us had set foot in the state. If you want the master key, all you have to do is train your mind.