For the majority of students attending the Cold-Weather Operations Course at Fort McCoy, when they put on skis, it's the first time.
The white all-terrain skis have been a part of military cold-weather training for decades.
"I've always called them the 'white rockets,'" said CWOC instructor Hunter Heard. "They are not easy to learn, but once you get the hang of them, they aren't too bad."
Heard was out with other instructors at Whitetail Ridge Ski Area at Fort McCoy with the 54 students of CWOC Class 18-04 practicing the first full day of skiing with the students. He would ski with the students to give them tips and encouraging words. As time went on, many of the students got better.
"Skiing can be considered one of the primary modes of transportation for service members deployed in a cold-weather environment," said CWOC instructor Bill Hamilton. "It allows the service member to quickly move from one point to another in a silent fashion with a minimal tactical footprint left behind. Troops skiing in a patrol in each other's tracks will only leave one set of prints for an opposing force to find, enabling the service member to move a small or large force quietly, efficiently and quickly while again allowing a minimal footprint for detection."
Hamilton said CWOC students spend approximately 25 hours training on skis.
"We'll do the skiing for that long provided the conditions allow it," Hamilton said. "Obviously we would love to have more snow to allow students to train more on skis, but we are at the mercy of the elements and weather. If we had the time, we would love to have 40 hours dedicated to skiing just to build up proficiency."
Through Class 18-04, more than 200 students have learned to ski during the winter 2017-18 training season, Hamilton said.
"When they start off, it is never pretty," Hamilton said. "But you can see how the students start getting better at it as they continue to practice and follow direction."
The skis have unique bindings that allow the users to wear regular boots with the skis. Plus, the skis are made to be durable enough to be used for both cross-country and downhill skiing.
During CWOC training, nearly all skiing is done at Whitetail Ridge Ski Area. Some skiing practice is done when the class completes cross-country skiing on flat training areas, but all downhill skiing is completed at Whitetail.
"They train in a 'crawl, walk, run' phase for all of the skiing in our course," Hamilton said. "It's not a race. We want them to learn about the equipment and trust the equipment they may use when deployed in a cold-weather environment."
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jonathan Reynoso with Marine Wing Communication Squadron 28 at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point, North Carolina, attended CWOC Class 18-01 in December. He said he was happy to learn to ski as well as other skills.
"This course gave me an exposure to experience that deals with operating in cold-weather environments," Reynoso said. "My level of experience and understanding of operating in this sort of environment was minimal. After attending the course, I feel confident in my skills to (operate) in a cold-weather environment."
Soldiers welcomed the chance to learn a new skill.
"The best parts of this course were building survival shelters and learning how to ski," said Class 18-01 student Sgt. Gregory Medina with Marine Wing Support Squadron, also at MCAS Cherry Point. "This course has given me the ability to pass on those skills and more."
Though skiing is a big part of the CWOC, students also learn about cold-weather injury identification and treatment, proper ways to wear cold-weather clothing, cold-weather risk management, snowshoeing and adverse effects of cold weather on military equipment, Hamilton said. Training also includes developing winter fighting positions in the field, camouflage and concealment, building improvised shelters and other areas that are important to know in order to survive and operate in a cold-weather environment.
"Combining all the skills taught in the course, including skiing, the students should leave here with a better ability to operate in cold weather and be able to share those skills with fellow service members in their unit," Hamilton said.
As long as enough snow stays on the hills at Whitetail Ridge, Hamilton said students will continue to be trained on skiing through the end of March.