Sniper’s Day: Chapter 4
Reading the Mountain
Tuesday, July 5, 2005
To most people, a mountain is a mountain is a mountain… They are momentarily awestruck by its immense grandeur, its sheer sides, its starkness, but rarely notice much more than that and are soon bored by its seeming sameness and ready to move on. To Wade Meese a mountain was a gigantic jigsaw puzzle with tens of thousands of pieces needing to be meticulously studied, so his place and his target’s place in the big picture could be understood, his moves carefully planned out, his adversary’s counter-moves anticipated and his responses to them determined. A man of infinite patience, he wasn’t at all bothered by the mountain’s loneliness and desolation, he embraced it, he felt at home in it.
You might assume selecting the best hide from which to make a shot would be at the top of a sniper’s agenda, but that decision comes much later, after spending many hours lying on his belly in his mottled desert camo cold weather suit surveying every minute detail of his surroundings through his rifle’s scope, executing a step-by-step preparation process he’d learned in sniper school and honed over more than a dozen previous missions into the Kush.
His first need was to simply get a “feel” for the mountain. Even though it was only a great pile of rocks, to Meese a mountain had a personality, a mood. It could make you feel welcome, inviting you to explore and admire its power and beauty – people like John Muir and Ansel Adams understood this. It could be unwelcoming, even hostile to your endeavors – Mt. Everest climbers were well-acquainted with this feeling. For a sniper, an unfriendly mountain was to be avoided if possible, as bad luck seemed to flow from its flanks. Or it could be an impersonal mountain, indifferent to your presence. He spent many minutes with his eyes closed, reaching out with his feelings, letting the mountain touch him, eventually deciding this one was pretty much uninterested in him, a good thing.
Next, he listened to the wind, or as his mountaineering instructors had said, “Let the wind talk to you.” Yes, he needed to keep careful track of its direction and speed, as wind was the number one factor affecting the trajectory for the kind of long-distance shots he planned. While there was no vegetation at this high altitude, like trees or grasses whose swaying he could monitor, what might surprise the untrained observer was there was always some wisp of dust that could be used to gauge the wind.
And the wind could even warn you of danger if you “listened” carefully: the boot scrape of an enemy sneaking up on you; the distant rumble of an engine; perhaps the braying of an unhappy donkey.
He spent more than an hour considering the position of the sun and clouds and the shadows they would cast at different times of the day: shadows that could mask possible cover his targets could retreat to; shadows that could be used to hide their approach; shadows that could distort their position and throw off his aim.
On this mission, though, he would be in luck relative to the sun; for most of the day it would be at his back or off to his left, offering little chance a reflection off his scope might give away his presence.
One of his most important assessments was identifying any potential cover his targets might seek to use when they came under fire: the rocks they could retreat behind, the depressions they could throw themselves into, the crevasses they could hunker down in. He found half-a-dozen good cover spots and many more not so good spots, but they were clumped, leaving an open gap along the trail across from him with relatively little cover.
And, of course, he checked for any possible escape routes; running back the way they had come; scrambling up or down the mountainside; charging him.
There was reviewing the angle of his shots. A down-angle shot was good, because gravity was your friend, because your high position gave you the best overview of the field of fire and because any adversaries had the distinct disadvantage of an up-angle shot. A flat angle shot was nearly as good, as this was the most common angle and what they mostly trained on. As a sniper, if you could possibly help it you passed on up-angle shots, as they were the most problematic; gravity was not your friend and your field of vision was restricted.
It took six hours for him to catalog and assess all these factors, which then became the basis for the two most crucial decisions in his process, first, selecting his best possible fire zone, as well as a couple of alternatives, and then deciding on the ideal hide from which to take his shots, along with at least one alternative.
In this case though he found only one ideal fire zone, a stretch half again the length of a football field on the opposite side of the gulch; all thirty-six donkeys and their handlers would fit in the section and be in the open. The trail there was narrow, only six feet wide, and hemmed in by a steep drop-off into the gulch on one side and a severely angled, gravel-strewn upslope on the other, neither offering much of an escape route. The good cover spots he’d found were at the opposite ends; if he could drop the lead and last man with his first two shots, the remaining targets would have trouble gaining the safety of cover.
Finally, for his primary shooting position he picked a spot between two rocks a foot apart. That wide an opening gave him an ideal ninety-plus-degree field of fire yet would present a small opening for any return fire. A secondary hide thirty feet to his right was a ledge from which he could shoot down but that had the disadvantage he would be partially exposed. He thought if by chance they zeroed in on his first hide, he could scramble to his second and continue firing.
© 2019 Dave Lager