I want to share an article I wrote back in 2008 when I had the great pleasure of training with the highest caliber operators France has to offer. In addition to the training we provided, they had something very special (and challenging) in store for me! I hope you enjoy reading about my unique experience…
Brett and I just returned from France where we combined training and vacation. This year we trained the members of G.I.G.N. We are the first trainers to have ever been brought in from the outside to do so and this only after considerable vetting.
Now these guys are tough! I mean real tough. They are the equivalent of our SEALS or DELTA only they speak lots of French and drink lots of fine wine. They are parachute and dive qualified. They are climbers, shooters, hostage rescuers and respond to all SWAT related missions within the entire country of France as well as military missions overseas. They have a rich and storied history including the famous Air France hostage rescue they performed. They are beyond physically fit and throw themselves into the most dangerous training with great enthusiasm and total aplomb. To give you a taste of what was in store for me during the week allow me to proffer the following. After the first day of training at their compound in Versailles, they turned to me. “Uncle Scottie, (with a French accent) tomorrow we are going to climb the Eiffel Tower. Why don’t you come with us?” Now I haven’t climbed in years; that’s point one. I didn’t want to be the guy (especially as an American and LAPD type) that ultimately pulled three other members of the G.I.G.N. down to their demise from over a thousand feet so that’s point two. Brett would have killed me, so that’s point three. And these guys will pull this arduous climb off in about three hours time as they are in their thirties which is a full twenty five years younger than I so that’s point four. If I were to be involved we’d still be there. To be sure this would have been a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity but discretion being the better part of valor I spent the day trekking all over Paris with Brett, which lasted from the morning hours until dark. My declining of this wonderful climbing offer only served to resolve their determination to test ‘Uncle Scottie’ in other ways, which brings me to the main thrust of this article. After two more days of training they had, as they gleefully stated, ‘some really fun things for me to do.’
When ‘special forces’ types ever tell you they have really fun things to do it means that you are not really in for a fun time but something altogether different. The first ‘fun thing’ was the tunnel. (See photos on page 6) This is not your ordinary tunnel but a rather small diameter tunnel that is filled with fine dirt that is finer than flour. First and foremost they tell me to take off anything that is not absolutely essential. This is always a bad sign with these guys. Then they hand me a set of overalls that completely cover you…this is a really bad sign. Then they simply tell me, “Okay Uncle Scottie (still with a French accent) start here and come out over there.” In order to even get into this thing you have to lay down flat and extend you arms well out in front of you and slowly inch your way into the opening. From this perspective, the end of the tunnel which is only a small circle of light – looks very much to be a yellow dot at the end of a long cardboard tube. So this is what I found out very quickly as I started off on my first ‘fun thing’ with these guys. You can only move at about an inch if even that, at a time. You have to contract your abdominal muscles and then push with your toes and pull with the bottom of your wrists to move forward. (They do have a rope tied off to your right ankle so they can extract you at their leisure should you get stuck, panic or get turned around, which is really impossible). They shout encouragement from both ends of the tunnel – well not really encouragement but what they define as encouragement is to not wet yourself, why aren’t you faster? Are you having problems breathing? Doesn’t it feel tight in there? Why aren’t you finished yet? Each time you move you stir up more fine dirt that makes you feel as if you’re sucking on a vacuum cleaner put in reverse. You can’t really breathe in fully as your chest is contracted too much so this makes the fun event well- all the more fun!!! You are pouring sweat and have to keep your head down between your biceps as there is no comfortable way to raise your head and you can’t see much anyway. If you have even the slightest inkling that you are claustrophobic – then this is not the event for you. Even watching someone going through this would give one pause to reconsider participating.
I eventually emerged at the end of the tunnel some fourteen minutes later covered in a sweaty exhausted, dirt encrusted condition a condition which they refer to as a re-birth of sorts. These are really fun guys!
Now these guys, being at the top of their game, and Alpha males to boot – want you to really have a rip roaring good time despite your protestations that your fun meter might already be pegged. “Come on Uncle Scottie we have more fun stuff!” (Still with the French accent and now even more enthusiasm.) I am not a fan of heights. Never have been and probably never will be. While it is true that I have fast roped and rappelled and climbed and worked inside elevator shafts I’d always rather be doing something else that isn’t so gravity dependent – or unforgiving. We set off for another section of the compound on which we are training to a zip line. (See photos page 7) This is nothing more than a steel cable that is attached at one end of a structure to somewhere else that is always considerably lower that the point where you start from. A simple pulley is attached to the cable and a nylon handhold is your only safety device which coincidentally, is exactly what you hold onto when you descend this thing. In other words if you let go or lose your grip you’re frapping in – no ands ifs or doubt about it! I made the roof and then out on the parapet and then held onto the handles. The GIGN Officer who ran this evolution looked at me and I looked at him. “Go Scottie!” (Still with the French accent) I didn’t move. “You alright Scottie?” Sure… “Whenever you want Scottie.” This is no different from leaping off a cliff – once you go your gone. Gravity is a funny thing this way. In any case I finally just went off in the most unorthodox and contorted position imaginable. Now this thing gets going pretty quick which is really not a problem…it’s the landing. The officer had told me in no uncertain terms, “When you get to the end start running fast!” There are many types of fast I found out. There’s fast then there’s real fast then there’s really fast and then there’s a fast which I never experienced before. These guys must have had some people frap in sometime in the past due to the fact that they had placed a considerable amount of gravel at the end of the cable run along with a tire to cushion your impact into a solid steel bracing structure that is designed to stop runaway locomotives. If you’ve ever seen ducks land on ice in the winter you get a partial picture of the grace with which I lawn darted into the ground. This was met by cheers and colorful French comments and laughter to no end. As I said these are really fun guys! I made a second attempt hoping against all odds to clean up my initial run and subsequent landing to no avail. Still frapped in and still landed like a duck on ice.
“Uncle Scottie you’ll really like this next one!” This is clue number one that I won’t like it in the least. They didn’t let me down on this one. You’re on a second story and you crawl out through the window onto a five inch ledge. (See photos page 8) That’s all – five inches. Here are the rules of engagement on this one. With your back to the solid brick wall you must edge along the ledge then negotiate a corner and then continue down the wall until the second open window frame at the end of the building. Now all of this is done with nothing more that balancing on five inches of ledge. There are no handholds – nothing to grab onto – and only a safety line that you absolutely cannot grab onto. Here’s the problem. You feel from the very first second that you’re falling off the ledge. Your upper body has nowhere to go except against the wall which in turn pushes you away from it at the same time. You don’t have fancy climbing shoes just regular range shoes that are next to worthless for balance. Each fraction of an inch that you move causes your body to go off balance. These guys must be part cat to do this well. I managed to get from the first window to the corner with my back to the wall and then around it all the while I was in a state of mind, just this side of panic. It is the most uncomfortable feeling in the world…at least for me. I turned into the wall for the last and longest section of the ledge climb.
Now this is sort of cheating I later found out, as the real fun of all this is to stare straight off into space not knowing if you’re going to fall into oblivion at any moment. One of the GIGN guys, Francois (A huge strong guy that is a judo champion and whose hands are as big as my back) was with me on the climb and encouraging me and hoping I didn’t hyperventilate off the ledge. (He became my best friend for about eight minutes.) I made it to the window and they were appreciative down below and then it was off to the next obstacle.
We now have two steel cables – one on top and one on bottom, with about six feet of separation between the two. You balance on the bottom one with your feet and hold the upper one with your hands and cross over the asphalt deck down below. (See photos page 9) This is not too difficult as you feel somewhat secure. It’s only at the end of this that was the problem. The end of this ‘fun’ event led into the next cable problem which was not fun! Now either these guys had a surplus of steel cable from somewhere or they’re just plain masochistic and highly inventive at the same time but in any event there it was. Two steel cables, about a foot and a half apart and parallel to one another, stretch across two buildings but they don’t just go from one building to the other…THAT WOULD BE TOO EASY! This cable problem starts on a first floor roof and angles upward towards the roof of a three story building. Now I stood there and stared up at the cables and then down at the asphalt and then back up at the cables. (See photos on page 9) I tried to envision how this would work. “Come on Uncle Scottie we’ll show you!” These guys are so enthusiastic you almost believe that it’s going to be fun! You brace your legs over the cables and keep your arms perfectly straight and locked out with maximum strength throughout the climb. You can’t sway in the least or you fall off to one side or the other. If you don’t keep the cables perfectly in line with one another you fall straight through them. It’s a no-win proposition. You have to go real slow and very carefully as the cables sway the more to the center of this ‘fun’ event you are. It is the ultimate in isometric tension. Every muscle of your body must be very, very tight and locked out with full strength which meant that I rested three times towards the end wondering if I would ever finish. As you get towards the end, the cables angle sharply upwards which is just when you don’t need them to angle up as you’re exhausted beyond belief. I finally made it and felt like a wet noodle. The men were very encouraging throughout all of this and each exercise was greeted with more enthusiasm than the last. They are great, great solid guys and I already miss them but not their obstacles. They have a lot more ‘fun’ events such as the chimney climb that forces you to keep your arms to your side and work your body back and forth while climbing about fifty feet up through the chimney which goes off at different angles throughout its length. This is done in absolute total blackness so that you can’t see where you are going, where you have been or where you are and it becomes narrower the higher up you go! These are real fun guys! I did not do this as fortunately for me, we had a night shoot to get to. Saved by the setting sun.
At the end of the training the men presented me with one more test which I cannot go into and then awarded me with a plaque with all their names and a memento affixed to the center which I also cannot go into. It is now in my office and is one of my most prized awards. Like I said, these guys know how to have fun!