Ah yes… the Nasty Nick Obstacle Course. If you are an aspiring Special Operations soldier in the Army, you will become intimately familiar with this obstacle course. It is one of those rites of passage gated events that you have to complete.

Part of the reason we do so much upper body training while preparing for selection is that you’ll need that upper body strength to make it through the selection and especially the obstacle course out at Camp Mackall. And not just for the course. To be an “operator,” what we used to call “team guys,” you will find that you need a lot of upper body strength.

The “Nasty Nick” is named after Special Forces Colonel James “Nick” Rowe. Rowe was a 1LT who was captured in a Viet Cong ambush. He was held as a POW for five years before escaping his captors as they were about to execute him.

Rowe used what he learned while being a POW into creating the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) course at Camp Mackall. All Special Forces personnel must go through the SERE course in the qualification course.

The Nasty Nick is a smoker of the nth degree. Nearly every obstacle requires some kind of rope climb and will test a candidate’s will, especially if they have a fear of heights or small confined spaces. Besides the requisite rope climbs, there are rope ladders, tunnels, a cargo net, and other assorted wonderful ideas that someone thought up. It covers about a mile and there are more than 20 obstacles to overcome.

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Not so, coincidentally, the obstacles get harder as the course progresses. You didn’t expect anything else now did you? One of the most underrated ones was (at least when I worked out there) the obstacle in which a candidate had to walk across a narrow ladder. Because there was nothing to hold onto like a rope, that used to freak out a lot of candidates, especially the ones who were afraid of heights. Many don’t even realize this phobia until it hits them square in the face. If you begin to linger too long on any particular obstacle, the cadre will offer encouragement (sarcasm). “Navigate the apparatus and Move OUT, candidate!” was the frequent sound heard over the pines in those days.

Prospective Special Forces soldiers have to accomplish the obstacle course on their own. This poses a mental and very physical challenge that the prospective candidate must overcome. It is just another of the many ways the candidates are assessed constantly. Other units in SOCOM will send their troops through Nasty Nick as a group to build esprit de corps and teamwork. But if you want to be SF, you do this alone.

I haven’t been out to Camp Mackall in a bit and understand that they’ve changed a few of the obstacles but overall the course remains the same. We would walk a class through the course in the morning before the candidates ran it in the afternoon.  The cadre would explain how each obstacle had to be negotiated. If a candidate asked for a demonstration, the cadre member assigned to each group would correctly demonstrate how each obstacle needed to be done. Of course, there were always a few wise guys in every class that would ask the cadre to demonstrate each one. When that happened, my answer was, “since there is some confusion here, each one of you will now attempt the obstacle on your own. If there aren’t any questions, we’ll move on to the next one.” It didn’t take long for the candidates to realize that it was best to save their energy for the course itself.

Some of our cadre members were awesome rope climbers. Lee K., a stud from 10th Special Forces Group, would demonstrate by climbing the 30 ft. rope feet first in a head-down position. He would climb the rope faster than I ever could doing it the “normal” way.

My buddy Doug P. had the wild idea of making the candidates do it with rucks. Go figure. So one evening to test out his idea, he ran Nasty Nick in the dark with a 45-lb. ruck. And he completed it. But the command element at the time decided (and wisely so) that it was best to leave the candidates running it as it was designed.

The Nasty Nick will be run in just about any weather condition save for hurricane-force winds or lightning. Rain, snow, or shine. On those rainy days, some of the obstacles can get slick and muddy. There are no safety lines, ropes, or nets. Candidates fall and although the pits under the high obstacles have sawdust or mulch padding, guys get hurt. That adds to the stress level of the candidates. But hey, at least now the candidates run Nasty Nick with those cool hockey helmets. Us dinosaurs didn’t get that “luxury” back in the day. Maybe that’s why we all have CTE now? Just joking.

We get questions on our social media pages about Nasty Nick and the best way to prepare for it. The answer is simple. Do our PT Prep program that will get you ready for Selection. There is plenty of upper body exercises and rope climbing in there to get you ready. Then it is just a matter of approaching each obstacle one at a time, negotiating it correctly, and moving on to the next one. There’s no magic formula. While hard, Nasty Nick has been successfully negotiated thousands of times. Now “navigate the apparatus and move out smartly, candidate!”


This article was originally published in 2017.