Monster Mountain

It was time to move. We packed up all of our equipment, attached our night vision goggles to our helmet mounts, took a last sip of water and began heading down the mountain.


We’d been high up in the Afghan mountains for a little over 18 hours. We were conducting an overwatch mission and were given a new task, which required our team to move locations approximately 3 kilometres away.


The descent was steep and treacherous, with guys in our team losing their footing on a number of occasions and sliding part way down the hill. This made the going slow.


We reached the green belt (the lush, populated area located close to a waterway) after about an hour and began to make our way south to our new proposed location.


It was pitch dark with little ambient light so our night vision equipment wasn’t operating particularly great, although still much more effective than normal eyesight.


It was hard to maintain stealthy movement as almost every mud brick home we came into close vicinity with erupted into a cacophony of noise from the local barking canines. We tried to avoid this as much as possible, but continually had to halt our position, go to ground and remain dead quiet to avoid detection from the locals coming out to inspect the disturbance.


We made our way through the small village, successfully navigated a creek, avoided more locals moving about the area and continued south. We reached the base of a steep mountain of our new intended hide and surveyed the ascent.


It was steep and was going to be a brutal climb.


We all took a minute to readjust our equipment, take on some water and prepare for the hard slog. What was going to make the trek that much harder was the day we’d already spent in the hot Afghan sun. It had been a balmy 50 degrees. Temperatures such as this made it hard to eat and drink enough water, and we were all a little dehydrated.


We got on with it and stepped off.


I was the lead scout and continually had to scan up the mountain looking for potential danger. The going rate was snail pace slow and, with the barometric pressure as it was, the density altitude was around 10,000 ft. This equated to the 7,500 ft mountain we were actually climbing feeling like it was 10,000 ft high – a significant difference, which affected energy output and oxygen uptake.


It was literally one foot at a time. Every three paces required a rest and readjustment of my 70kg pack and, after a little over an hour, we were maybe halfway to our objective.


We required regular sit-downs to catch our breath, preventing lactic acid overload, and our backs from breaking. This mountain was a monster and the hardest pack climb I’d ever had to endure. It was even more difficult than the pack climbs on the Selection course.


This climb came down to focus. Focusing on a specific task to complete and breaking down that task into manageable steps… literally. I concentrated on maintaining a rhythmic breathing pattern, each block of three steps to take before a short rest, scanning the ground up the mountain, and maintaining contact with my team commander.


Just after midnight we finally reached the top of the mountain, exhausted, content and happy with our efforts. Half the team threw up, including myself. This was probably due to a number of factors such as dehydration, inadequate food intake, and possibly a little altitude sickness.


Nonetheless, we had achieved our objective, were able to rest and recover that night, and continue applying our trade the next day.


I learned a few things that night:


  • When you’re in a tough situation, break it down into manageable steps. Literally, if need be. You’ll be able to focus on exactly what you need to be doing at that very moment and prevent being overwhelmed by the overall task.
  • Consistency of effort over an extended period of time will yield results. Guaranteed.
  • Be persistent and dogged in your determination to complete any task. Mental toughness is like a muscle – the more you work it, the stronger it becomes.
  • Remember to breathe! Deep, rhythmic and consistent breathing will allow you to handle stress better and remain calm, focused and in control.
  • I just can’t seem to throw up quietly. Never have, never will.


Rhys Dowden

Operator Edge

Mindset is a choice

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About the Author

Rhys Dowden is the owner of Operator Edge, a company through which he provides to his clients extensive mental conditioning along with military, self-defense, and physical training.

Growing up in Queensland, Rhys enlisted in the Army as soon as he was 18 and then served a little more than four years in the Royal Australian Armored Corps. Later in his career, he served on Steve Irwin’s personal security detail at the Australia Zoo for six months and then worked as a private security contractor in Iraq between 2004 and 2006 before re-enlisting in the Army and going through the Commando Selection and Training Course in 2008.