THE COOL SCHOOL - The Student classroom is a frozen wilderness, and the lesson plan? ... Survive!

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Matthew and Marisa Hannen
  • Torch Magazine
Many people recall the tragic death of James Kim, the San Francisco man who became stranded with his family in Oregon's snowy back roads while returning from a Thanksgiving weekend vacation near the end of November.

After being trapped in an icy blizzard for a week, the 35-year-old Kim walked more than 10 miles in rough terrain to seek help for this wife and two children, an infant and a 4-year-old girl. Apparently disoriented, he died of exposure and hypothermia only a half mile from the family's car. Rescue crews found his wife and daughters after they had been missing for nine days. They fully recovered.

While Kim's efforts to save his family were heroic, they were misguided, according to wilderness experts at the Air Force Arctic Survival School, better known as "The Cool School." Located in Fairbanks, Alaska, the school is set up to help people survive in an austere, cold-weather environment.

"You must prioritize, be properly equipped and expect the unexpected at all times," said Master Sgt. Robert Blanchard, Detachment 1, 66th Training Squadron, Arctic Survival School superintendent. "When faced with tough weather terrain and environments, one has to be ready mentally and physically."

In Kim's case, he could have benefited by knowing the "rule of threes" for cold-weather survival:
1. You can survive for three hours without shelter.
2. You can survive for three days without water.
3. You can survive for three weeks without food.
He had shelter (his vehicle), he had access to water (by melting snow), but food was an issue. While the family was hungry, they still could have survived nearly another two weeks without food, according to the "rule of threes." Shelter and water needs win by a landslide.

Because of deployments and unique mission requirements, military members are at increased risk of finding themselves in a cold-weather survival situation. That's why Arctic Survival School was created in 1947. The school was designed to give Department of Defense troops the needed knowledge and confidence to survive if stranded in an unfamiliar environment during the winter.

"The main emphasis of the course is based on learning and remembering how to survive with very little or nothing until you are rescued or affect your own rescue," Blanchard said. "It's perfect for aircrews who might have to eject in an austere area, but the techniques we teach can even be passed on to families and friends. These survival techniques can be used if you have a problem driving, hunting, fishing or anything else during the winter months."

The Cool School teaches students to address basic needs in the field: personal protection, finding shelter, sustenance, health, signaling, recovery and travel.
Instructors even teach students to deal the psychological stressors, like staying put in a protected area with access to water when every instinct might be telling you to try to walk your way out. If water is scarce, they show you how to find it, as well as how to catch food. Perhaps most importantly, the students are taught how to build shelters and different types of fires. Then, instructors show them how to build and maintain a signal, and how to call in an aircraft with a survival radio.

"Most people aren't equipped to live in arctic environments, and students typically become a bit more difficult to deal with the colder it gets outside," Blanchard said. "They want to be like moths and hang around the fire, which is good, but not all survival lessons can be taught by the fire."

What are some of the top survival mistakes that people die from when situations turn bad?

"The biggest ones, I think, are prioritizing, dehydration and being properly equipped," said Tech. Sgt. Brian Kemmer, one of the school's instructors. "A great deal of survival is just common sense, just thinking about what you are doing. A lot of people would decide they need to keep on walking. They will take off, when they really could have met their needs right where they were."

Even under the watchful eyes of trained instructors, students still make mistakes.

"Several years ago, I found a student trying to melt ice inside his boot," Kemmer said. "At first we couldn't figure out what happened. It turns out he woke up in the middle of the night and had to urinate. Instead of leaving the warm shelter, he tried to go right there and ended up filling his boot by accident. It froze solid. He didn't think it was that funny at the time, as he had to break up the ice to remove it from his boot. But he was able to laugh about it later that day."

Blanchard said students get in trouble when they ignore or forget the rules.

"We teach students to avoid touching skin to metal while in freezing temperatures," Blanchard said. "But one captain was using a mini flashlight while he was trying to build a fire. He was having trouble holding the light while attempting to build the fire, so he held the light in his mouth to free up his hands. But it was 35 below zero. He pulled most of the skin off his lips as he tried to rip the flashlight out before anyone else noticed."

Going through that pain proved all for naught. An instructor had been watching the captain the entire time.

"Most people don't experience temperatures like these," Blanchard said. "It's a shocking experience the first time that you do it."

Second Lt. Alexander Hathaway from the 7th Operations Support Squadron at Dyess AFB, Texas, can attest to that.

"I am from Southern California; I'm used to being in shorts and a T-shirt year round," Hathaway said. "So I was like, 'Damn, I'm going to freeze my butt off.' I thought my feet were going to get frostbite the first night. I've never been this cold in my life. But it's that whole will to survive thing -- especially if you have family. So you're motivated to learn.

"I think one of the coolest things they taught us this week was if you sweat in the arctic, you die in the arctic. Ironically, you could be building a shelter to stay warm, but if you work up a sweat while doing it, you'll freeze anyway. So you have to pace yourself."

That's just one of the many lessons the instructors teach students. In the end, learning these survival skills make passing the Cool School "no sweat."