It's 0600 hours. Twelve 18-man platoons from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson's 501st (Airborne) parachute infantry regiment offload from buses at the foot of Arctic Valley Road on the outskirts of Alaska's largest city and prepare for a friendly Arctic survival skills competition. It's the first battalion-level games since the paratroopers redeployed to JBER from Afghanistan last October.

Some are bleary-eyed as they organize their gear, each soldier carrying a 35-pound pack and each platoon hauling a 150-pound Ahkio sled. Their packs are stuffed with everything they would normally carry in an Arctic environment: parkas, sleeping bags, canteens, etc.

After a short rules explanation, the first team sets off on a 5-mile course, running up the mountain and dragging the sled -- at times having to carry it. At the 2.5-mile mark, the teams switched to snowshoes, ran a 0.6-mile course through the snowy woods, switched back to boots, and then raced down the mountain to the finish.

The 2nd Platoon, Comanche Company was declared the winner.

To civilians, it might sound like punishment. To the 501st, it was a highly-anticipated event the soldiers look forward to.

"They join the paratroopers to do this kind of stuff, not paperwork," says Lt. Col. Tobin Magsig, the battalion commander.

The competition is held quarterly, and the winning team gets to set the parameters for the next competition. But overall, says Magsig, the goals are to reinforce teamwork and improve physical and mental toughness.

Contact Loren Holmes at loren(at)