An uphill battle
Monday, March 4, 1:30 a.m.
Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Our CH-47 helicopter bumps down onto LZ 15. Less than 12 hours before, we were waved off the same landing zone because of mortar fire. Now it's quiet.
We stumble off the rear ramp -- loaded down with our backpacks -- and enter a landscape of cool, soft sand studded with briar bushes and rocks but no trees.
Overhead, a three-quarter moon illuminates the contrails of the fighter jets making lazy loops in the sky. It's a reassuring sign. So is the drone of a C-130 Specter gunship armed with a 105 howitzer and Gatling guns. Both aircraft can work quickly to suppress the mortars, if necessary.
Of course the first mortar rounds will get through.
We begin moving up a sandy slope in the center of a squad of soldiers. We've been advised that this is the safest place to be ringed by firepower but out of the line of fire -- of friendly fire, at least. Around us, in the distance, we hear other helicopters landing, dropping off more soldiers. Soon the cautious job of linking up begins.
As cameraman Scott McWhinnie and I pause to catch our breaths -- we're down on one knee -- a sergeant shows up. He's been doing a head count and suddenly finds he has two extra bodies on his team. Two unarmed bodies.
"Who the fudge are you?" ("Fudge" is not the word he uses but you get the idea.)
We say, "We're with CNN."
"I don't like the fudging media," is his reply. "Who are you supposed to be with?" (It's the first time he hasn't used the "fudge" word in a sentence.)
"Captain Poole, a public affairs officer. Only he got on a different chopper."
"Captain fudging Who?"
"Poole," we answer.
"He's fudged you!" the sergeant snaps. "And if you fudge up my formation, I will fudge you!"
He tells us to stick with him. I do, like glue. I don't want to get fudging shot. (To be honest, the sergeant later warms up nicely to us and I've found him to be one of the most astute soldiers on the dangers of the front.)
We push onward and upward on what we were told ahead of time would be a six-kilometer hike, all uphill.
Before the trip, Scott and I had gone through our backpacks three times, looking for something to take out and lighten the load. Now we're carrying the most basic of TV equipment and personal survival gear, not to mention 40 pounds of body armor.
Every couple of hundred yards I'm doubled over, trying to take the strain off my back as my lungs desperately search for oxygen molecules. We keep following the soldier in front. Trying to remember to maintain a 30-foot separation. That way, if the mortars start falling, fewer of us will be hit. It's bitter cold and my toes are starting to go numb.
We make it to the mouth of a narrow valley with a bubbling stream, and begin pushing in.
There's a sense of silent urgency. We're supposed to be in place at the other end, in front of an al Qaeda cave, before sun-up. It's perfect ambush territory.
The main body moves up the valley floor, barely 50 yards wide. They hang close to the valley walls for cover, eyes straining upward, not speaking, using only hand gestures that we pass along.
The soldiers catch a glimpse of moving shapes overhead, up on the ridges. We stop and take cover. Three heads are seen. And then just as quickly they're gone. As the sun starts to rise, the mortars start to fall.
It begins with a soft pop.
One's on the way.
In your head you begin to count while your eyes search for shelter. They hit anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds after being launched. I hear three more soft pops, and my mental stopwatch is growing confused. Suddenly the canyon echoes with their booms. They fall where we've come from -- good for us, but bad for the soldiers following in the rear.
Soon the air is alive with the sound of a diving "fast boy," an Air Force fighter. Louder explosions punch the canyon and large gray plumes of smoke rise from a nearby ridge. The mortars go silent.
A sniper team begins a daring climb up the canyon walls. They'll try to watch our backs from the high ground and take out the bobbing heads.
We push on. The mountain stream, clear and pristine, gurgles at our feet, oblivious to the war around it.
Oh, to be a rock.
Coming, as the uphill battle goes on, Savidge writes: "I fear we'll be spotted any second and all hell will break loose. We stagger on, slipping on ice-covered rocks. Fall down, get up, keep moving, gasping, swearing ... "
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