Learning To Suffer

by Chris de Serres

I had a nice day in the climbing gym today.  The goal of today’s workout is to climb El Cap in a day.  El Cap is about 1500 feet of climbing.  So I climb about 1500 feet worth of routes.  In my gym that’s about 50 pitches.  In a little over an hour I did 24 pitches.  It’s a good start, but I may need 2 hours and greater stamina to reach the 50 pitch goal.

I’m lucky that my body will still go when I need it.  39 years old.  I do have the aches, pains, and limitations of my age.  Warming up properly is a requirement now.  Working out actually keeps some of the pains at bay.  If I take too long of a break some of my old bones because to get stiff.

I’ve been thinking about becoming an mountain guide.  There’s a school I want to do.  Just for the hey of it.  Not even sure I would use it professionally.  But the experience would be something.  It would allow me to extend myself.  Push myself to do some things I normally wouldn’t think about.  I want to keep growing.  I need new experiences.  New challenges.  I remember some of the trainings I did in the Army.  Airborne School.  Basic Training.  It fulfilled something inside of me to be part of a team of individuals working toward a goal together.

I remember the first day in South Korea.  It was about 20 of us new recruits.  We were in the processing office.  The clerk was assigning us to units.  Two sargeants came into the door.  We all lined up at attention.  One began explaining that he was looking for two professional soldiers who had what it takes to be in the Scout Platoon.  It was a special unit in the Battalion.  Scouts were the eyes and the ears of the Infanty Battalion.  You would have to be in really great shape because all you did was scramble up and down mountains.  You watched everything around you and reported back to the Battalion.  In any combat maneuver you were the first one in and the last one out.  The Scout Platoon had a sniper squad.  These were the guys who were tasked with taking out ‘high value targets’ when the opportunity arose.

So I stood there at attention with butterflies in my stomach.  I had felt so demoralized being shipped to South Korea to this no man’s land unit.  I was assigned to the only Infantry unit left on the Demilitarized Zone.  It was a restricted zone on the border with North Korea.

I only had a few seconds to think about it.  The sargeant asked for two motivated recruits to step forward.  So I stepped forward.  Almost immediately I asked myself what the hell did I get into?!  Yet I was so happy.  It was better than being some nameless faceless infantry soldier in a line unit.

I’ve never been part of a more tight knit team of individuals in my life.  We were all very different, but at the end of the day I could count on these guys to jump on a grenade for me.

In my year in South Korea I did two things.  I trained or I didn’t.  There wasn’t much else to do on the DMZ.  The local town was off limits because a soldier in the past raped a local girl a couple of years back.  It was difficult to even get passes to Seoul for the weekend.  So we trained alot and we got really good at what we did.  Which is moving quietly and staying undetected.  We didn’t walk on roads or trails.  You could be spotted there.  We scrambled straight up mountains.  We had over 100 pounds on our back.  It was pure suffering.  We learned to move well at night.  We had night vision goggles that provided no depth perception.  So you’d run into that tree that looked like it was 20 feet in front of you.

The Scout Platoon was where I really learned what suffering really meant.  We stayed out for weeks in the freezing cold.  We often hid in old Korean War bunkers at night to sleep.  I shared a sleeping bag once it was so cold.  We were often rained on in monsoon season.  Everything I owned would be completely soaked.  We hiked, climbed, and scrambled hundreds of miles over the course of weeks.  It got so cold and so icy that an entire operation got cut short.  We had to walk 30 miles on a icy road that resembled a skating rink.  Every one of us fell countless times.  I distinctly remember zig zagging up a hill I was so tired.  It was so bad I was crying to myself.  We were so exhausted we couldn’t even keep in formation.  Yet I looked around me and I knew everyone here was suffering just as much as I would.  That’s the only thing that kept me going.  We finally made it back to the barracks.  We were all livid.  We were supposed to be picked up by trucks, but our LT called the trucks off because he wanted to give us a character building exercise.  It’s a good thing LT didn’t show at the barracks that day.

The death march made it’s way into Scout Platoon lore.  No matter what fucked up things happened from that point forward we could always say, well it can’t be as bad as the death march.  Nothing i’ve done has ever been as bad as the death march.  It’s my bench mark for physical suffering and it hasn’t been surpassed yet.  It allows me to easily get by on even the hardest day of climbing in the mountains.

Maybe it’s because of my time in the military, but I have to say I have a taste for suffering.  If I have to suffer for something then that brings greater meaning to it.  I guess that’s one of the reasons I climb.  It could be the reason people climb in general.  It’s fucking hard.  It’s grueling.  The dangers are real and always present.  Resources are finite and the potential for help in crisis situations are not always there.  Maybe i’m just finishing something I started in the Army.  That suffer experience.

Thinking back to the Army, most of it sucked.  Yet, my memories are fond of it all.  I can’t believe I did all that crazy shit, yet I say that with a smile on my face.  As much as I hated the Army I know that I missed those moments in time.  They solidified me.  It was character building in the hardest possible way.  I crave more of it.