Among the coastal hills at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., the Reaper rises from purgatory and ascends toward a promised land where every Marine recruit on the West Coast wants to be.
Each man can see his title from the crest of the Reaper.
At 700 feet, it climbs approximately 150 feet higher than Mount Suribachi, the famed Iwo Jima volcano upon which five Marines and one sailor hoisted the American flag in 1945 during bloody World War II fighting. Though smaller, that volcano’s spirit oozes through the Reaper’s veins like magma.
Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego recruits traditionally contend that by marching together to the summit. They tip the scales in boot camp comparisons with MCRD Parris Island, S.C., which has its own trials but no discerning landmark like the Reaper.
After hiking about seven miles in the Crucible’s final hours – culminating the 54-hour severe test of will – recruits approach the Reaper’s scythe exhausted and hungry. Sleep and food have been minimal, but a warrior’s breakfast sizzles beyond the summit.
Pfc. Jeremy Eason, guide, Platoon 3099, Company I, leads his platoon up the last hill of the 700-foot Reaper. The Reaper is the largest obstacle recruits face in training on the West Coast, and its completion is a right of passage.
Dawn breaks and daylight exposes the challenge ahead: a third of a mile with an average incline of 25 degrees. On paper, the climb draws out like a suspension cable ascending a Golden Gate Bridge tower.
Sports drinks and apples offer pre-climb nourishment as the company first sergeant gives a history lesson on something that took place on a battlefield far away, long ago. This makes the Reaper seem a little smaller.
“This is nothing. It’s a hill,” said a I Company drill instructor to his platoon waiting at the base. “We don’t stop until we reach the top of the hill. We never stop, because there is no top!”
On the Crucible, drill instructors give recruits time to change into a fresh pair of socks and check their feet for any wounds or blisters.
With packs and rifles weighing them down, the company steps off by platoons in one-minute intervals. They stay formed as tight as possible, each man whittling his distance to the top. Hopes dim as the morning fog thickens in the ascent. Pack straps dig deep into shoulders and boots hit the dirt harder. Platoons start to spread out as drill instructors shepherd formations.
A few brief plateaus taunt the climbers until they approach the last stretch and surge to the top.
At the peak, the recruits find pictures of Medal of Honor recipients mounted in wooden frames and drill instructors congratulate the men on their accomplishment. After marching almost 40 miles, the Crucible is over.
With a couple more miles back to garrison, it’s all downhill from there.
Company I drill instructors and recruits ascend to the summit of the Reaper at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Pvt. Timothy Shelton, Platoon 3099, Company I, and his platoon march three miles back to the barracks and a warrior’s breakfast, the first hot meal in a few days, awaits them.
Marines from Weapons and Field Training Battalion supply recruits with fruit and sports drinks to fuel them on their climb to the Reaper’s peak.