There are a lot of custom GORUCK events out there and they’re all pretty cool, but every once in a while something epic comes along. This AAR will recount my experience at the epicness of the Red Dawn event series, held outside of Denver Colorado in June 2016. You’ll hear a little about my experience, a lot about the event, and by the time you’re finished I’m betting you’re going to want to sign up yourself (that’s foreshadowing by the way, read to the end).
Red Dawn was the brainchild of GRT John Steele, who quite possibly has done more events than any other GRT out there, over 100 at the time of this writing. To say John loves GORUCK would be an understatement. For whatever reason, he got it in his head to do a Red Dawn themed event, inspired by the movie Red Dawn. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s about a group of teenagers who fight as rebels against communist forces invading the United States. For you movie buffs out there, he’s referring to the 1984 version, not the 2012 monstrosity that makes you feel sad inside.
Before I jump into the AAR, you should know that doing the event wasn’t just a matter of signing up, like everyone else I was required to complete an application and be accepted just to attend. It was made clear in the application that there would be no gray manning, this event only wanted the most serious GRTs and everyone needed to be on point, all the time, or risk being performance dropped. Because I saw the movie when I was 15 and have wanted to run around in the woods shooting Russians invaders ever since, I did an application immediately and was lucky enough to be accepted, which was somewhere around September 2015. Over the next 9 months, what started as a custom Challenge event grew and evolved into a multi-day GORUCK experience, encompassing a total of 5 distinct events in 4 days. Like a lot of people, I arrived a day early, making it a 5-day experience.
Preparation: John kept all the participants, including myself, involved in preparations. 100 participants were accepted into the event and made up Echo company, and we were further broken into 3 teams, each of which was organized with a lieutenant and 4 cells with their own sergeant. Yep, it was serious. Our packing list included interesting things such as the history of the Red Dawn scenario we would be entering, directions on knot-tying, and the basics of conducting an ambush. Working together as a team ahead of time was one of our tasks and I enjoyed getting to know some of the other participants ahead of time. While participants chose many different options for where to stay (some stayed in casino hotels a few miles away, others brought RVs), I chose to rent a campsite within the Golden Gate Park near to where the event was happening, and I opened my site up to others who needed a place to stay as well. I’m glad I did this, as I got to spend down time with several GRTs, both those at my campsite and those in adjacent sites. We spent a lot of time together over the 5 days, and I’m happy to be able to call them friends today. I should also note that while many GRTs were solo, there were more than a few families who turned the event into an excuse to take a vacation. There was even one couple (both participating) on their honeymoon.
Wheels down: I arrived in Denver on Wednesday, June 8th, the day before the official events began. I met two other Red Dawn participants at the airport and we carpooled to the campsite, stopping along the way to pick up some last minute supplies. Being in touch with people ahead of time really paid off. A local GRT brought a few tents (which made it a lot easier for out-of-towners), and we had already made arrangements for some group supplies and food (mostly MREs). We had started to develop a sense of community amongst ourselves. There was a palpable sense of tension as we realized that none of us really knew what was going to happen and we had different expectations. We spent a lot of time speculating, and it became clear that none of us knew every bit of information we were supposed to (which amounted to dozens of pages of material). Much of our social time was spent comparing notes and practicing knots. As someone who lives at sea level, it also became clear the altitude was going to be a challenge for me and just about everyone else (Denver is roughly 5000 feet above sea level, the campsite around 9000 feet). Many folks were complaining of headaches and shortness of breath.
On a side note, I’ll tell you all I have an autoimmune disorder called sarcoidosis that has caused me some lung scarring and the loss of some lung functioning. It’s also contributed to me developing asthma. This doesn’t affect me much at sea level, but I was distressed at how much difficulty I was having just moving around at elevation. For me, the altitude and my subsequent difficulty catching my breath was another factor in the Red Dawn event being challenging. Sitting in one place was fine, but that evening, walking even a few steps could result in me feeling light-headed, my heart starting to pound, and needing to stop and take deep breaths for a short time. I had made it a point to drink tons of water to stay hydrated and I had been taking baby aspirin daily for a week before the event. While I think these things helped, the truth was I was hurting.
GORUCK Red Dawn Day 1
This was when the actual events started. While not an official GORUCK branded event, Cadre Chris Way (folks who have done Navigator and Ascent likely know Chris, and he is also the inventor of the Pace lid) led a group of whoever wanted to go up a 14’er, essentially climbing a mountain to above 14,000 feet. About 40 of us showed, mostly those attending the event but also a few friends and family members as well.
I was looking forward to this, and but during the prior months of planning I had incorrectly assumed it wouldn’t be that big a deal. We were going up a regular trail right? Just a few miles (about 3.5 each way)? I was wrong, big time, this was one of the most challenging parts of the Red Dawn event series for me.
Even getting there wasn’t easy. Besides a drive into the mountains (to be at the start and ready to go at 5:30 am), the trailhead was up a few miles of barely passable roads and started somewhere around 11,100 feet. After a few safety briefings (mostly Chris Way telling us to stay in groups and to not push ourselves if the altitude got to us), we started to move.
The trail started deceptively, as it looked like a trail, but it quickly morphed into snow fields and brush.
It was easy to fall through the top of the soft snow, and I quickly lost count of how often this happened. It was deep too, falling up to my crotch was not uncommon and I saw many people need to be helped out. The brush was, at times, 5-6 feet tall, making for a slow traverse. The air was even thinner here, and climbing into even higher elevation combined with the exertion made for slow and difficult going at times. A friend lent me a trekking pole (which was a lifesaver), but I had to stop often to catch my breath. I’m unashamed to say I was close to tears at a few points.
It’s hard to explain how mentally stressful it is not to be able to breathe, I was reminded of a few times I’d ended up at my doctor’s office in physical and mental distress because a cold or pneumonia had clogged my lungs to the point I was really struggling. It’s also hard to explain how frustrating this was for me as well. I’ve arranged my life and workout regimens to train my lungs and keep them supple exactly so this doesn’t happen, I refuse to let my lung problems affect my ability to do what I want. During the early parts of the climb especially I was hurting, frustrated, and angry at myself and the situation. Once we got high enough the snow patches were more infrequent and we were on solid ground I was able to get more into a routine and a pace I could maintain. I was happy to see that while I was no longer close to the front of the pack, I wasn’t in the rear either despite my difficulties.
I wish I could convey how beautiful it was. The terrain changed from snowy and brushy to rocky and hilly as we got closer to Grey’s Peak. It was stunning, and as a group we stopped frequently to look in wonder at how stunning the landscape was. As we approached the peak, it again became snowy (as well as windy and colder) and there were several steep switchbacks that led to the peak itself. While I tried this section, eventually I had to tap out at about 12,600 feet. I was taking only a few steps before needing a break and my boots weren’t gripping well on the steep and slippery hillside. I was officially at the point I didn’t feel safe going farther, so I turned back with another GRT who had hit his limit, eventually meeting up with one of the group of folks who had stopped behind us. I enjoyed the chance to rest, as we watched the other groups try to reach the peak. A mountain goat running down the hillside was fun to see. In the end, I’m not sure how many of our 40 made it to the top. Sometimes I estimate about 20%, sometimes my estimate is closer to 40%, but I don’t think any more than that. My struggles aside, this was not easy and I decided to be grateful for how far I did make it. The trip back was not easy either, but at least it was downhill. After some photos and a late lunch, we headed back to camp for the rest of the evening. For only a few miles (and without additional bricks!) we were all pretty well exhausted.
GORUCK Red Dawn Day 2
Day 2 we again got up early to head to the Red Dawn FAD. This was a part of the event series I was really looking forward to, as it was my first FAD and was the first (and only FAD so far) that was both pistol and rifle. I had made arrangements to rent a pistol from GORUCK and to rent a rifle from another participant as well. John had arranged for us to pre-purchase ammunition and have it waiting for us at the range, which made it very convenient. A few of us rented weapons, but most of the participants brought their own and I was amazed to see the array of ARs. On a side note, we were at a range not far out of Denver and at roughly 5000 feet. Cadre Chris had actually suggested sleeping close to the range (rather than at the 9000 feet where most of us were staying). I had stayed at camp, but regardless was not feeling the effects of the altitude now that we had come down out of the mountains. It was probably affecting me somewhat, but I was no longer struggling.
We were broken into 3 groups. Beginner, intermediate, and expert. I joined the beginner group. I shot trap in high school at a near competitive level but have limited experience with AR rifles and pistols of any type. I’d spent some time shooting with friends in the months before the event, to try to acclimate myself to shooting a range of weapons and was glad I did.
Cadre Machine, Cadre Danny Lorenz, and Cadre Chris were our instructors (Cadre Chris Way and his wife were there as participants), with Cadre Machine being the head Cadre. All were very safety and technique oriented, putting our group through our paces with safety procedures and proper handling. There were 3 stations, a pistol station, a rifle station, and a station dedicated to more advanced shooting techniques (moving in a team, barriers, etc). The beginner group spent it’s time first doing the pistol station, then the rifle station, then going back to the pistol station for some more practice. We started with basic skills, but moved quickly into different drills. Reloading, firing under stress (we would start in a pushup or squat position and hold that for a while before being told to shoot), how to properly turn and shoot a target behind you, practicing shooting at multiple targets. This form of immersive training really worked for me. I gained confidence quickly and my aim improved as the day went on. I spent most of the day with Cadre Danny Lorenz and came to appreciate his training style a great deal. Watching Cadre Chris and his ease of technique taught me a lot. By listening to Cadre Machine talk about different scenarios and the principles of shooting decisions I learned a great deal about decision making in a shooting situation. I can’t say enough positive about the 3 of them, how they taught, the quality of the instruction, and how much I learned. I cannot imagine learning anywhere close to as much as I did in any other training situation.
All told, I arrived at the range around 745 am, and we drove away at 545 pm. Another long day, another satisfied customer.
GORUCK Red Dawn Day 3
This was Saturday, the day of the actual Red Dawn Challenge. The Challenge started at 4 am, so we were up by 2:30 to get ready and carpool up to the start point. We had been encouraged to dress appropriately in 80’s garb like we would be if we were actual teenagers in Calumet, and folks came out in style. I would say a majority of folks were in jeans (which weren’t as bad as I thought to wear during an event). We were all starting to feel the strain of the series of events. In addition to the altitude and the intensity of events thus far, typically participants were getting no more than a few hours of sleep a night. We organized ourselves into our Teams, and then into our cells. While everyone was outwardly calm and prepared, you could practically taste the group anxiety.
There WAS a welcome party. This welcome party was the most unique welcome party I’ve ever been involved with, and if you’re lucky it will be similar when you do a Red Dawn event. You’ll just have to experience it for yourself. I don’t know how long it lasted. A long time, a very long time. I won’t tell you anything beyond that… As to the altitude, we were in the 9000 foot range. I couldn’t move fast, but was no longer wheezing and suffering like I had been in previous days. I was finally acclimating. Cadre Chris Way told me that most people acclimate to about 85% of normal within 4-5 days of getting into the mountains, with the final 15% of improvement after about 3 weeks. All I knew is I was feeling almost fine.
After the monster suckage that was the welcome party, we headed to our first objective. It took some time to get organized, we were tired and a bit off-center, but we did get going. By chance, I ended up leading Echo Company. We were ambushed, and while we managed to stay together as Echo company, I managed to both head in the correct general direction and get us lost all at the same time (sorry everyone!). Eventually, we made it to our objective, a lake.
What happens at lakes? What always happens. We got wet, which felt fabulous after our Welcome party. Our next task was the last of the Challenge as Echo company, as a group we climbed a rock face (more hiking than climbing, just hiking straight up). In our packing list we had been told to bring an American flag, and at the top we all took our flags out and a photo was taken from down below. 100 GRTs and 100 American flags. It is a fabulously cool photo and one of my favorite parts of the event.
We broke into our respective Teams at this point, and our teams cycled through 3 stations. For those of you who have done a Jedburgh, this was similar in that we headed to different parts of the area for different scenarios. Cadres Chris and Chris Way did some rock climbing and belaying, and everyone had a chance to try both activities. Cadre Machine taught a session on self-defense. Cadre Danny taught a session on land navigation. Personally, I love doing events that have these kinds of activities. As much as I enjoy the physical challenge of a GORUCK event, I’m at the point where I want a little more from them, and the opportunity to learn new skills and to spend time with Cadre is something I seek out. I had no idea these sessions would be part of the Red Dawn event so they were a welcome surprise.
Our last activity was a group paintball battle and variant of “capture the flag”. Late in the event planning we had been told to have a few people with paintball guns. The group must have been excited about this because I was one of the few without a paintball marker as nearly everyone else was locked and loaded. After a pitched battle that must have lasted close to an hour (those of us without weapons carried paintballs to participants so they could reload), we headed to our endex.
As an endex, this was probably my favorite endex of all time. After being patched, we moved directly into a pig roast and a WSFB. After a 16 hour Challenge event where I had eaten a sum total of a peanut butter sandwich, about a bag of peanut M&Ms, and few caffeinated gummies, that pig roast was the best meal I have ever eaten. The WSFB started immediately after.
I’ll always tell people that the most meaningful parts of events for me have to do with the Cadre. Hearing their experiences and reflections on their service, in my opinion, is worth every bit of money an event costs me and more. As much as I’ve gotten out of events, I’ve gotten more spending time with Cadre after events. To the Cadre at Red Dawn (and to all the Cadre I’ve ever met), thank you.
The WSFB ended around 11 pm, ending a day of 2 events totaling around 19 hours of total GORUCK immersion. To say I was thrashed would be an understatement.
GORUCK Red Dawn Day 4
Sunday, we headed to the Scavenger portion of the Red Dawn event series, the final event of the series. This was my first Scavenger. For those who haven’t done one, they’re basically what it sounds like, a big, weird, scavenger hunt. You’re broken into teams, and your teams are given a set of tasks to complete. You have the directive of taking photos along the way and posting them to Instagram. The team that completes the most tasks and earns the most points, wins. I had been lucky enough to have done the previous 4 events with nearly the same group of people the entirety of the previous 4 days, who also happened to be the same people at the campsite(s). I ended up with an entirely different group of people for the Scavenger, which turned into another wonderful experience as I got to spend some time with a completely new set of GRTs. I really enjoy this part of events, getting to meet and spend time with new weirdos. We trekked around downtown Denver, doing such tasks as ambushing other teams with water balloons and silly string, taking photos at different landmarks, or other silly tasks. I really appreciated the more relaxed pace of the Scavenger, as it gave me time to interact with others and to relax a little. John Steele and his daughter were following different teams around and observing, and sneak attacks from his daughter for no apparent reason added yet another fabulous layer to an already great event. I had to leave shortly before the Scavenger endex to catch my flight home, but was there for the majority of the event and I was glad for this. Of course, we were back 5000 feet above sea level and I was finally feeling completely acclimated to the altitude. That figures! It was all great fun.
I should briefly mention the patches. There were patches galore. Many of the teams did team patches (we did for Team Whiskey). While the event series was a la carte and no one was required to do any event they did not want to, you could earn individual patches for the FAD, the Red Dawn Challenge event, the WSFB, and the Scavenger. If you completed the 14’er, the Challenge, the WSFB, and the Scavenger, you earned a special “compilation” patch, affectionately called “The Swayze”, with what looks like a scene from Road House on the front and the statement, “Pain Don’t Hurt”. Only folks who participated in all of these 4 events earned the Swayze. Mine has become one of my favorite patches and has lived near constantly on my tac hat.
And there you have it, an epic series of events. All told, this was GORUCK immersion, 5 distinct events in 4 days, and it wasn’t for the faint of heart. I headed home without injuries but felt like I just couldn’t get enough sleep for about 2 weeks after. This was a massive undertaking by John Steele and I can only imagine how much work it took. There were many, many positives about the event. Could anything be improved upon? It was pretty near perfect, but I would say there are some opportunities to build more upon the Red Dawn theming and Alternate Environment scenarios. I’ve participated in and role-played Jedburgh events, and there were some places during the Red Dawn Challenge event that building the scenarios more could only add to the event.
And let me say, I think John knows this. He’s told me that Red Dawn XL is already in the works. And, participants will have the opportunity to choose whether they want to be American or Russian. John has also told me that the Red Dawn XL Swayze patch will be the most unique GORUCK event patch ever. You heard it first here, keep your eyes out for information. Any GRT would love Red Dawn, fill out your application when the time comes and hope you’re accepted. You won’t regret it. Wolverines!
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