“Who hath a greater combat than he that laboreth to overcome himself?”
Thomas A’Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
Years ago, when I was still kicking in doors for a living, serving search and arrest warrants and chasing dopers of various sizes, shapes, and ethnic origins, I began keeping a book of personal debriefs. I did this because I cared deeply about — and still train scrupulously in my civilian incarnation — small unit tactics. When I was in the big leagues – the regional Narcotics Task Force — I was generally number one through the door on warrant services, which is both an art and a skill, and in every case extremely dangerous because one never knows what awaits on the opposite side, and also because narcotics enforcement is not synonymous with good tactics. While most every well-trained SWAT team has moved away from dynamic entries in favor of surround and call-outs, or breach and hold techniques, dope units are still under the impression that dynamic entries are a good idea and that somehow the dope needs to be rescued. Dope never needs to be rescued, and far too many good cops have been injured or killed for what amounts to stupidity. I am sad to say that I’ve seen guys on my own teams do incredibly stupid and risky things for almost no good reason at all.
Nevertheless, it’s what dope teams still do, by and large, and particularly when they can’t road-kill the suspects away from the stash. But because I was also a SWAT Team bubba, it was important to me that I document, study, and learn from each of these entries which, when the team was really humming, we were serving every day and sometimes more than once a day. I didn’t want to get killed for complacency, bad decision making, or because someone on my team did something stupid I might have prevented or — and this is the worst part — because poorly considered department policies were getting in the way of officer safety, which they often do.
When the results can be life or death, there is no such thing as training too much.
I modeled my personal debriefs after the kind that MSG Paul Howe used in his excellent books. Howe is a retired “Unit” guy from the US Army and now runs an excellent school in Texas called CSAT – Combat Shooting and Tactics. I highly recommend his books for those whose work in, or whose curiosity finds them interested in the intersection of mindset, tactics, and leadership.
Here is a sample of one my personal debriefs, to give you the flavor. This was from a 2007 warrant service when I was still on the street-level narcotics team.
Santa Barbara Police Narcotics Detectives, Gang Detectives, and Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department Narcotics Detectives to serve a narcotics search warrant at 1422 Almond, Santa Barbara. Warrant is endorsed for night service.
Detectives obtained a narcotics search warrant after several controlled purchases of cocaine. Intel from a reliable CI suggested that up to a kilo of coke would be found inside the house. Two story residence with attached garage; multiple Mexican Nationals known to live inside. No barricades or counter-surveillance noted.
Numerous surveillances of the residence were conducted both prior to and after the controlled purchase in order to identify additional involved parties. A controlled purchase was conducted just prior to the service of the warrant, which indicated that numerous parties were currently inside the residence.
Entry teams were divided by agency. SBSO detectives breached the front door after knock and notice, at which time SBPD detectives made a dynamic entry. Immediately upon making entry a group of four to five subjects in the kitchen, located straight ahead from the front door, began scrambling to escape through a sliding glass door in the rear of the residence. Other subjects, who had been close to the front door, attempted to flee by running upstairs. Detectives swarmed into the house, detaining individuals. I moved straight into the kitchen area and tackled a subject attempting to flee. After a brief struggle he was handcuffed, as were all of the other subjects on the first floor. These subjects were all searched and detained and consolidated on the searched sofas downstairs. Two detectives maintained security on the stairwell during this evolution, and once the first floor was secure detectives assembled and moved up the stairs to clear three additional bedrooms.
The subjects who had fled upstairs were called out to the landing at the top of the stairs, where they were handcuffed by detectives holding the landing. One of the subjects turned out to be a high school aged girl who was distraught. She came out of the master bedroom in which we ultimately located a kilo of cocaine and thousands of dollars in cash. During the search-phase several customers arrived at the house and were arrested. One of those subjects was known to me from a prior arrest.
Timing and entry techniques. Again, the interoperability problem raised its head. PD and SO work together frequently but have different ideas about the speed with which we should enter a house. The SO team essentially ran inside the house behind us, which is nearly always unsafe. In the event we were able to detain all of the subjects, but I still don’t think we had any kind of rear perimeter in place. Those who made it out the sliding glass door in the kitchen were tackled by those of us who came in the front door. Bad. Luck is not a skill set, and this entry clearly revealed that we were lucky, not skillful. Big egos too often drive these things and have the potential to get someone hurt, particularly in mixed units.
Search phase awareness. Again, alert detectives were able to detain and ultimately arrest several subjects arriving at the location after the service was conducted. Also, the consolidation of numerous subjects on the first floor, while holding the as-yet-unsecured upstairs, was handled well. This is particularly true because a handgun was located inside a shoe in one of the upstairs bedrooms. Calling the subjects out to the landing was a late arriving good idea and if there was going to be a shootout it would have been contained that space.
I wrote dozens of debriefs like this because I was a professional and cared about the work I was doing. They were for my own consumption but I wrote them because I cared about my team, and about sending everyone home safely. This attention to detail and focus on problem-solving created a habit of mind which continues to aid me in what is perhaps the most important takeaway from daily exposure to volatile situations: the ability to remain calm under extreme stress. John “Shrek” McPhee says this trait, which can be learned, is the most important takeaway from his experiences smashing scumbags in Iraq. If you have ever had the misfortune to witness a human being melt down under stress, you realize quickly how disturbing and contagious it can be. I have often joked with my wife that if I can’t find my favorite belt I might lose my mind, but if mortars were falling on the Figure 8 I would feel right at home. The larger point, and I know I took a long way around to ge there, is that it was this trained habit that became necessary for my survival on a random, non-descript, not especially interesting hillside in the mountains near Durango.
I wasn’t thinking of Mallory — enveloped by the mists near the summit ridge of Everest in 1924, only to reappear 79 years later at 27,000 feet, his clothes torn away by the jet stream winds at that altitude, his body mummified into alabaster — when I started up the mountain. I had all I could do to navigate the deep snow in the dark, the path upward and forward lit by the cone of light from my headlamp, the snow driving through the light like a storm of bewildered moths.
Rough conditions work hard on our physiological responses – auditory exclusion, tunnel vision, the loss of fine motor skills, so I wasn’t thinking of Mallory but maybe I should have been. His first two failed attempts at Everest only stoked the fires within him, drove him mad for the summit, and ultimately destroyed him. I’m not comparing this hunt, or myself, to Mallory’s tale by any means, but anyone who has a go at any mountain in bad conditions draws at least some heat from Mallory’s flame.
My drive for the summit was multi-fold: I wanted to hunt, badly, and put some meat on the ground, and I wanted to push hard in these unfamiliar mountains as a kind of statement against the shitty hunt we found ourselves involved in. And I wanted to push hard just for me, to rekindle some of that youthful vigor and determination that powered me through challenging conditions and two deployments as a leader of Marines. That flame never dies, and I’ll be hearing Marine NCO’s in my ear until the day I keel over.
But it’s likely my priorities were skewed.
What I should have been thinking about was where the elk might be headed under such conditions, and what my most efficient way to cut their trail was going to be. And maybe, in my own defense, I had some of that in the recesses of my mind. But it wasn’t in the forefront, where it needed to be. I was heading straight up, and it was likely the elk were heading straight down, and so with limited visibility and zero familiarity with the terrain, I was going to need some divine intervention to find them. Nevertheless, I persisted, pushing through deep timber and powdery snow, inexorably climbing to the first hints of a sunrise and grateful that, after a couple of hours, the snow began to let off, the clowds began to part, and what would ultimately become a bright, brilliant day in the rockies was in the offing.
By ten a.m. I was considerably higher on the mountain, the snow had stopped, the clouds had largely parted, and I was gifted with a view to the north unlike any I have ever enjoyed. The peaks ran off to the far horizon, a crenelated wall of celebrated snowcaps and a terrific reminder of our smallness in the universe. I was bushed from the tedious haul up, which was a combination of consistent mountaineering and occasional hunting, and I think this may have been something of the case with Ötzi the Iceman as well, though the evidence seems to suggest he was ambushed or hunted down by rivals. But then again he might have been surprised and jumped by people who were doing the same thing he was: mountaineering and occasional hunting. We’ll never know what really happened, of course, but whenever we are out hunting in the mountains — regardless of the Gucci gear or the modern rifles — we are touching the sublime, embracing the majority of our history as human beings, on a direct line all the way back to our cousin Ötzi. That by itself is a remarkable thing, because — just imagine hunting with Ötzi. I have, and probably far too often.
At any rate, I had reached a flat spot on the the ridge I was moving up and determined to rest a while and glass the far side of the valley below. The one upside was that I wasn’t cold. I had kept my pace reasonable to keep from sweating because I was at least mindful of the trouble that might cause. I sat glassing the dark timber until I started to get cold, then shouldered my gear and started up the mountain again. The glare off the fresh snow was painful when I wasn’t wearing sunglasses and the air was cold and clean and I felt strong despite the altitude. I was climbing out of the treeline now and more mindful of any movement in the open. And there was a moment, a sharp, intensely focused moment, when I thought for certain I had smelled them.
Elk have a distinctive odor. A herd of elk carry a strong scent that is left behind where they bed down and wafts on the air around them. It is difficult to describe accurately, but it is a kind of sweet musk that remains distinct from any other animal I have ever smelled. I caught what I was certain was a hint of it on a draft coming up from the offside of the ridge, and so I began an hours long investigation. I descended and cut for sign. I glassed. I tested the air. I focused my binos on any number of elk trees and elk rocks and elk shadows in the timber on the far side of the valley. I repeated the process numerous times and was, in the end, bedeviled by it all. And so I climbed some more.
By midday I was near 10,000 feet and certain I was not going to find any elk in this part of the country. Sometimes you just know. I’ve had the opposite feeling too, which was an absolute certainty that I was about to stumble on to a stalk. At the top, which was less any kind of summit and more an elongated ridge circumscribing broad, deep, timbered bowls on either side, I sheltered in the rocks away from the wind and brewed up some tea on my pack stove. I drank my tea, ate some jerky, and took an extraordinary nap at altitude with the sun warm on my face.
“Everything a person does is created twice — once in the mind and once in its execution — ideas and impulses are pre-incident indicators for action.”
–Gavin de Becker
Kinesics is the study of body language. Interview and interrogation schools spend a great deal of time on this aspect of humanity because there are tells that we can study and gain an advantage from. Kinesics can be broken down into different categories generally known as Universal Behaviors and Clusters. Kinesics usually avoid dealing with facial gestures because the human face is overwhelming in the number expressions it is capable of forming, and even after millions of years of evolution we are often fooled by them. The face is deceitful above all things, and nobody can really tell anything by looking at the eyes alone. But by observing clusters of clues in context we can often come to very accurate diagnosis of a person’s intentions and/or truthfulness. Kinesics, obviously, is a much deeper study than I can do justice in this piece, but from my own experience kinesics have been exceedingly helpful in eliciting confessions from suspects, predicting behaviors of people on the street, or even people I work with or just interact with as friends. Knowing what a “stress-stretch” looks like, or why a suspect sits a certain way in a chair in an interview room, can go a very long way in solving a crime, or preparing to fight. The Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter program teaches these methods of profiling and police agencies benefit greatly from similar programs like Street Survival, which breaks down thousands of hours of video of criminals, and personal experiences with criminals, to aggregate pre, or even post-incident indicators to look for in human beings. The training is valuable and has saved lives.
I bring this up only to debrief my own kinesics on the side of this mountain. What would a disinterested observer see about me, and what lessons can I take away from that?
If we broke this hunt down in phases, we would likely see a man moving, for most of the day, in a determined, studied manner. He was at least comfortable enough in his environment and appeared to be making good, rational decisions. Toward the end of the day we would see something else entirely. Not panic, but urgency and out of that urgency a more random pattern. The random pattern is indicative of mindset, and by late afternoon my pattern was a mess.
The second half of this hunting day took on a different aspect because, after hours of glassing the deep bowl sections below me for any sign, I had become convinced that the elk had moved on and my major issue was going to be coming down off the mountain. The snow was extremely deep and difficult to maneuver through, and although I might have come back the way I came, I decided to attempt a full circle of the mountain on the very off chance I might walk something up out of the deeper timber. I was also aware of the chance I might stumble on a mountain lion, for which I had a tag.
I began my descent slowly, switchbacking through the snow and still stopping occasionally to glass a copse of trees, or the deep bottom of the bowl which I intended to follow down and off the mountain. What I didn’t know was that between me and that ravine, buried beneath the snow, was either a massive blowdown or an avalanche field that had taken thousands of trees with it and created an endless, treacherous, and entirely concealed course of tanglefoot. As I came down the mountainside and stumbled deeper into it, I began to realize that I was in a terrible, and potentially very dangerous, trap.
Military engineers have nothing on nature when it comes to creating unnavigable obstacles. This blowdown had created layers of trees and branches buried in deep snow so that I couldn’t see where to put my next step. My foot might land on a downed tree, or drop through a trap door. My foot could, and often did, get wedged between branches and trunks and other debris I couldn’t see to understand in the snow. Every step was a potential broken ankle, or a bear trap, and one of the effects of this was to slow my rate of travel to a near standstill. Every step had to be calculated, tested, and finally executed with varying degrees of confidence. I had come down far enough that I was now out of direct sunlight, in the dark timber, and it was growing later in the afternoon. I began, for the first time, to consider that I might be stuck on the mountain overnight, and although I was confident in my ability to manage that, I wasn’t looking forward to it and didn’t want it. I wanted to be back in our crappy camp rather than shivering in a snow cave. Which was a mindset problem. But I persisted, one agonizingly slow step at a time, up and down, falling, catching myself, falling again, tripping, cussing, and finally made a point where I needed to cross the ravine. I came to this point because I couldn’t get down from the mountain on the side I was on. I discovered, after an hour or more of falling, twisting my ankles, crashing, and cursing the Gods, that it was a sheer cliff, several hundred feet down, and covered in ice fall.
The way across the ravine was, naturally, on a downed tree. The drop on either side was precipitous. I straddled the tree and began the time-honored, special-operator “scootch” method of crossing the ravine. I scootched and scootched, mindful of the growing bow in the tree as I made the middle portion, and aware that it had a slight roll to starboard — not enough to dislodge the tree, but enough to dump me off if I didn’t manage my balance carefully. I scootched with extreme caution and an acute sense of ridiculousness. But I made it across and thought, briefly, as I struggled to get my gear and rifle and body up through a snowbank and over the lip of the ravine, that I was in deep clover and a short march down off the hill and back into camp.
I was wrong.
In the excellent book “Left of Bang,” authors Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley break down many human universals for the purpose of outlining the Combat Hunter program. These universals are based on a study put out by Northeastern University, wherein it was “determined that human behavior, regarding patterns of movement and mobility, is 93% predictable. By using information collected from cell phones, physics professor Albert-Laszlo Barbasi determined that human movement patterns are predictable regardless of distance traveled or demographic categories (such as age, gender, urban versus rural, etc.).” Humans “follow simple, reproducible patterns. Not only do people follow patterns, but also humans are reluctant to change those patterns until the behavior becomes unproductive. In fact, even if faced with clear failure, people often follow the same behavioral patterns in the hope they will work again.” Anyone who has spent any serious time on surveillance of human begins recognizes the truth in these statements. And there is more, of course. Lost people tend to travel in circles. Children who are kidnapped usually have about 4 hours of life left. Changing up your route every time you leave the wire makes it harder to get hit by an ambush. These things are known because they’ve happened often enough that we can study them on a long time line and parse the lessons.
I wasn’t lost, not totally, but I wasn’t confident of my position either. I was extremely tired, and the frustration of spending hours in the tanglefoot had darkened my mood so that I was probably not making excellent decisions. Those poor decisions were leading to additional frustration. The relief I felt after crossing the ravine lived about five minutes as I sidehilled toward the edge of the cliff trying to gain some perspective. I knew that Hermosa Creek trail had to be somewhere below me, but I couldn’t see it. The mountain just dropped off as it had on the other side of the ravine where the ice fall prevented me from coming down.
And so I pushed and without any warning or grace I felt my feet slide out from under me and I felt myself sliding slowly and yet uncontrollably toward the edge of the cliff. I was on my back and even with my pack on my slide was not broken and I could see the edge of the cliff and the fall looming up before me, between my feet, as in a cartoon, and still I slid and could feel, suddenly, my heart in the base of my neck and my mouth saying something close to “No” but not quite the wholly formed word, and anyway uttered in fear as gravity had me like a constrictor and I kept sliding toward what would have certainly been my death.
Van Horne and Riley discuss 9 different traits they consider human universals for the purposes of their study:
- Humans are creatures of habit.
- Humans are lazy.
- Humans are lousy liars.
- Humans will run, fight, or freeze
- Humans telegraph their intentions
- Humans are predictable
- Humans are not good at multitasking
- Humans are generally clueless
- Humans can’t do very many different things
In the book, the authors argue persuasively for each of these categories. But for my purposes, on the side of an icy mountain in southern Colorado, completely out of communication with any other human being, I was trapped somewhere between all three elements of number four. I was trying desperately, in my mind, to run away, I was mad as hell and willing to fight any creature on earth, and I was absolutely frozen to the side of this mountain when I stopped sliding toward the abyss. That’s because every time I moved, I could feel myself sliding a little closer to the edge. It was a terribly helpless, almost childish feeling, as if every bit of my self determination had been suspended just out of reach and I was at the mercy of forces I could not begin to comprehend or negotiate with. If I moved my arm, my feet lost purchase. If I moved my foot, my body slid another six inches closer to doom.
What finally got me out of this terrible pickle was my rifle, which was under my right arm. Moving very slowly, I was able to turn the rifle over so that the knob on the bolt became a kind of cleat in the ice. I pushed down on the rifle, and by combining that action with a pressing action of my heels, and my left elbow, I was able to inch upward. One inch at a time. The trick was having as little contact between the ice and the larger masses of my body as possible.
It is hard for me to say how long this ordeal lasted. Time does strange things in these circumstances. I can say that among my near-death experiences it was near the top as an attention getter, and that the entire time I was aware of the simple absurdity of it. I was aware of all of the bad jokes I had made about hunters who had gotten themselves into stupid situations. And I realized, even in the moment, how simple it is for something terrible to happen, even to people of considerable experience and capability. To say that this experience of sliding uncontrollably, and in such a slow and humiliating fashion, was humbling doesn’t cover it. What is also true is that I labored hard to overcome myself in the moment. I was fighting evolutionary impulses beyond my immediate control and had to find my OODA loop in a professional hurry. Number one was to control my breathing, which slows the mind, breaks up the autonomic reactions of the mid-brain and allows for rational thought. Number was two was remain absolutely still until I was able to form those thoughts and appropriately judge the action-reaction loop. When all of those things started happening, I began to see a way out of my predicament.
If luck truly is that place where preparation meets opportunity, then I’ll take it every time.
I’ve kept you here too long. This is a hazard of debriefs, and this one I’ve tried to leave open enough for you to draw your own conclusions. I know it rambles and I don’t care. In the end, chastened, humbled, and grateful, I made it back to camp. I stumbled in just as the sun was setting and was in no mood. Over the next few days I made some more hunts, far less ambitious, and including a great traverse through an unreal aspen grove — a single living organism — that went on for mile upon mile. Somewhere deep in those trees I stopped hunting altogether, and was just grateful to be among them. And when our trip was finally over I walked out of the canyon alone, leaving the camp behind where the guides and my hunting partners were still arguing over gear and flotsam. I was tired of all that and just started walking. After a mile or so I could hear the one horse running down the trail behind me. I stood aside on the trail. The horse ran by, singleminded, breathing hard, and hellbent to get out of those mountains. And it was waiting quietly at the corrals, head down in the dead grass, when I finally walked out of the dark timber with my pack and my rifle.