From 2005 to 2008, I was an active duty paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where I also became hopelessly addicted to climbing rocks.
I had always enjoyed climbing, but with two amazing climbing gyms near Fort Bragg, it became an obsession. I climbed every day of the week, to the point that trying to do pushups or pullups for PT in the morning was a fairly pathetic sight. I just worked up to being a near-solid V6 boulderer when word came down the pipe that I would be joining my fellow paratroopers on a sandy, sunny, 15-month vacation to Afghanistan.
As a soldier and paratrooper I was prepared for the deployment, but as a climber I was freaking out. Aside from not wanting to be blown to pieces, which was certainly first on the list of concerns, I didn’t want to lose the strength I had gained and then have to come back and start from scratch. I decided that I would get family and friends to mail me a hangboard and chalk, or possibly some climbing holds if that type of thing was permissible or even feasible.
After finishing off the train-up required for deployment, I boarded the first of many planes and it all began. I was headed off to fight in Afghanistan. Scary, but incredibly exciting all at the same time. I ended up staying in FOB Salerno for a while, which as any good soldier can tell you who has spent time there, it’s is a pretty cushy place to be if you have to be stationed in Afghan-land. The only place better is Bagram, which hardly counts as a deployment unless you’re out running the roads. Salerno had a big indoor gym, a phone and internet center, a landing strip for helicopters and planes that facilitated efficient mail delivery, and even a little shop for gear, coffee drinks, snacks, and so forth. The place had all of this going for it. But it also had a rather ominous nickname that it was quite proud of; it was called “Rocket City.” Located at the base of a mountain ridge, the tail end of the Hindu Kush, that served as borderlands for Afghanistan and Pakistan, it was a favorite target for the Taliban to hone their rocket-propelled grenade and mortar round-shooting skills.
Within the first few days, I received my first taste of exploding airborne projectiles as the incoming sirens sounded and little balls of hatred started raining down. This became routine, and I never went to sleep without having all of my gear ready so I could sprint in the pitch black of night to one of the many small fortified bunkers. I swiftly learned the noises that mortar rounds make, and how to differentiate between low flying and high flying rounds. Some make a “fluttering” noise as they (hopefully) pass, since they are twirling just overhead. Ones that are farther away or flying in a tighter spiral make the signature “whistle.” Neither is comforting. The one round that you can do nothing about, just like shots from a gun, is the very first one. Mortar rounds are usually triangulated and “walked in” onto their target. If you’re lucky, they will first hit far enough away to where you can run like hell for cover and hope for the best. If it’s your turn to be a part of the QRF (Quick Response Force), or if you’re part of an artillery crew, or an Apache pilot, the sirens and explosions are your signal to go shoot at and kill whoever is shooting.
As I became more familiar with the base, I eventually found an unused GP Medium (General Purpose, Medium sized) Tent and started asking questions if I could build a little climbing gym in it. I worked up the chain of command, listing all of the physical benefits of rock climbing, training, and how we could use the scrap wood discarded from the post to build it. It got approved, and some of the civilian workers on the post even donated matresses, providing that they could use the climbing wall as well. We also went out into the town and bought sleeping pads from the locals to further protect the floor from our falls.
Building it took a long time. We were quite busy during the day and most nights, with obvious war-related tasks more immediately important than a climbing gym. Scrapping for supplies wasn’t easy, either. By the time the structure was built, however, the climbing holds had arrived and that night we had full tent of soldiers psyched to climb. Some guys brought music and speakers and we had a great two-hour long bouldering session before we called it a night. This became the norm, and we climbed every night that we didn’t have a mission or something military related.
I was pretty stoked on the idea that I wouldn’t return to the States a weaker climber. But then my happy little climber bubble burst — I received word that I would be moving. Although I was excited to go somewhere more exciting in terms of military activities, where I was being deployed sucked. Aside from not having a bouldering wall, it had no store/landing strip/running area. It was a firebase and I would be with the Polish Special Forces and a small group of guys from my unit. I was psyched on the Army element but bummed about everything else.
I left with my tail between my legs, sad to say goodbye to the awesome little wall we had built. I took a handful of holds with me just in case I could screw them into a post and hang off of them or something and left a bunch for my Salerno buddies so they could continue to climb.
It wasn’t a week after I got to my new Afghani home that I received the email.
Not three days after I had left, the Salerno base was attacked. The Taliban launched a barrage of mortar rounds and the very first round landed directly on top of the climbing tent. It was destroyed. Blown to woody bits with a charred, smoking center. The attack came during the exact hours that we normally would have been climbing. I would have been blown all to hell along with anyone else in the tent. No one was climbing at the time, thankfully, but the thought of it sent cold chills down my spine. It still does.
Aaron Parlier writes Edges to Ledges when he’s not too busy developing new boulder problems at Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park. His guidebook to the area, Grayson Highlands Bouldering, will be published in April 2013.