- Buyer's Guide
GORUCK Trek: Spy Games
I’m blindfolded. Plastic zip ties, pulled tight, slice into my wrists. It’s somewhere around 4:30 AM and speed metal blares out of loudspeakers overhead. A torrent of cold water gushes over my head and face and the questions come thick and fast.
“Why are you here?”
“Your friends have sold you out, why are you protecting them?”
I hear the distinct clicking of a taser near my face. It’s hovering closely enough to my neck that I freeze. This is a game, right?
I’m 48 hours into the GORUCK Trek, a three-day spy simulation held by a brand that makes bags, and now I realize that a ‘game’ is probably not the right term for what I’m caught up in. An ‘experience’ feels more like it hits the mark, and that’s what GORUCK seem to do best – they’re the carry kings of experiential marketing. Their events, ranging from spy camps to physical challenges, are designed to conjure up memorable and emotional connections between their consumers and their brand by immersing them in awesome, military-inspired experiences – and Carryology was keen to learn more.
So I was drafted and shipped off with a single mission: to discover whether this type of thing really works? The experiment: by the end of my spy-play would I feel more enamored with the bag brand that is GORUCK. But, it’s safe to say, I didn’t know what I was getting into…
After I’m released I find my way back to home base, thumb 18 on the elevator deep inside the Harrah’s Casino and hobble in. A group of tourists, who look nearly as thrashed as I, stand chatting. “How much are you behind?” one in the group asks another. “Two or three thousand” he responds, and then redirecting “you know, there is so much to do in Vegas other than gamble. The food is amazing; there are girls, clubs, and amazing parties. This place is just crazy!”
I connect eyes with the one talking and deadpan “I agree. I was taken out into the desert and interrogated for three hours last night.”
The elevator goes silent and all eyes fix on me. My clothes, face and hair are the color of desert. I am leaning wearily into the corner of the elevator.
“You okay?” one asks. “Sure” I say, looking up, “You know…Vegas.”
Before departing for Trek my tact was that I would watch spy movies and pick them apart for useful data. Movies like Munich. The Bond series. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. North By Northwest. Spy Game. The Bourne Trilogy. My movie watching served little but to realize how many ways I was underprepared. In the movies ideas and connections simply materialize for the hero-protagonist, while in real life it is the kind of work that would be terrible to fill two hours with. The available reading on Trek is nearly non-existent. The marketing materials often describe Trek as “The greatest thing that never happened”. What I did know from the company’s site is that it would:
“Expose me to the underworld of spies and operators. Trek Cadre train you to develop and maintain an undercover alias prior to being read into a mission case file. You and your team will plan and execute a clandestine operation that puts your learned Trek skills to the test. An infiltration exercise initiates the Alternate Reality Environment (ARE) that may include the following challenges: security checkpoints, live role-playing exercises, cache retrieval, interrogations, escape and evasion, information gathering and dissemination, and a large group movement.”
Trek’s location: Las Vegas. It was perfect. The chaos of your experience barely registers for the swarms visiting here, regardless of the intention of your visit. The immensity of the casinos on The Strip is absurd. Every building is a glossy themed edifice layered with high-end boutiques, restaurants, art galleries, cyan waterfalls, endless marble and, of course, floors upon floors of gambling debauchery. This is our Area of Operations for Trek; it’s vast and utterly overwhelming.
0900 hours. Around 35 participants from all over the U.S. sit down for the first time together in a conference room inside Harrah’s Casino for the classroom portion of Trek. They are a mix of GORUCK regulars and newbies alike: men and women, mostly in their late 20s and 30s, black and grey shirts, lots of smiles. Many have military backgrounds, and more still have completed other GORUCK events. GORUCK regulars are a dedicated crowd, and there are many at Trek. GORUCK considers events like Trek “capstone” events, until recently only available to people who have completed a GORUCK Challenge.
Our meeting place looks like any hotel conference room. There is a podium and projector in the front, pastries and coffee in back. Fluorescent lights shine brightly, millions of GORUCK GR1 bags litter the feet of those sitting, mine included.
Introductions are swiftly made with Trek Cadre, a group of active and former intelligence and Special Forces operatives who will be serving multiple roles during the event as both our teaching staff and adversaries “The Forces of Evil” (FOE). Their opening slideshow illustrates perfectly, with candid photographs of us all taken in the few hours since our arrival, that “we are always being watched”. It is a chilling reminder that we need to be on the lookout for…we don’t yet know.
Throughout the rest of the day we learn skills that are designed to assist us during the following 36 hours of the event. Cover story creation and defense, open-source intelligence gathering, social engineering. There is a keynote address from former FBI international hostage negotiator Chris Voss. After the event, I saw the guy being interviewed on TV. He was the real deal, and a hell of a nice guy. While none of what we learned was classified material in any way, the information was well organized and useful, with carefully chosen real-life anecdotes from all over the world.
To end the day, we were briefed. Receiving our overall objective we entered the Alternate Reality Environment of Trek. Our mission as the operatives for the Forces of Good (FOG) was to gather intelligence on the enemy organization thought to be responsible for a spike in criminal activity in the area. Beware, we were warned, this group was known to be violent and potentially had already taken hostages. Missions were handed down from the Trek directors/FOG managers known to us as “Higher”.
On arrival, our team found our hotel room totally trashed. This was a warning from our adversaries, presumably FOE. The note they had left behind confirmed it. “LEAVE NOW”. We settled into a short, uneasy sleep, not knowing what lay ahead.
We woke to an early morning knock on the door. Hastily packing our things, we began our mission of collecting information on FOE. We performed missions determined by Higher to combat their advancements. While gathering intelligence we often found ourselves being tailed by FOE baddies, and we did our best to evade them. Throughout the day, the intensity of these tails ramped up, eventually becoming confrontational. Every minute outside of our “safe zones” seemed risky. The paranoia was more real than ever and taking root.
Our first flash of real action: We were assigned to pick up a cache in a parking garage, contents unknown. We had spotted someone sitting in a car by the glint of a camera lens casing the pick-up. Was FOE spying on the cache? It seemed likely. We hatched a plan to extract it without being seen. It was overblown and we all knew it – but we were having too much fun.
There’s an art to traveling unnoticed through a city when you know someone is looking for you. You have to look cool. Frantically looking over your shoulder is a constant temptation, your eyes want to dart around and lock on the people trying to find you. You look paranoid when you do this though, and easily stick out in a crowd. In Vegas, it’s much better to get a tallboy of your Grandpa’s favorite beer, wear a neon tank-top, board shorts and cheap Wayfarer sunglasses and gaze up at the buildings like everyone else, stumbling a bit for effect.
Being that this event is run by GORUCK, the temptation is to bring their GR1. Ubiquitous as it may seem to be in our world of carry, I guarantee seven people with the same pack will stick out. Carry a GR1, DO NOT carry a GR1 seemed to be the message in this case.
In the afternoon, while working our way through the list of missions handed down from Higher we were ambushed. Our seven-person team had previously broken into two groups, and while sussing out the Riviera Casino, three of us were plucked from the floor by a FOE thug, driven out into an abandoned parking lot nearby and grilled about what we were doing in the casino and why we seemed to be casing the place. We left not being able to glean much other than the heat was turning up, and most importantly, our cover stories held. FOG: 1, FOE: 0.
At around 4 AM, we were scheduled to meet with a contact that might become a good source for leads on the FOE. This person is unvetted, but considered a high-value individual, thus risk would be worth the reward. Our exposure was significant, and we were all rattled from the lack of sleep and long-worn paranoia. Our contact, it turned out, had intentions to smuggle us out of the city to protect us from the FOE. Speaking quickly, panicked and paranoid, he instructed us to get into the van he drove and to get low, as to not be seen. En route, we were stopped at a checkpoint only to be stormed by the very people we were looking to avoid.
Led aggressively from our escape van, we’re blindfolded (as you might remember), separated then commanded to do a series of exercises. I am told to lie on my back, holding my legs in a pike position, straight up. I desperately want to orient myself but cannot. The smell of rain on desert soil floods my nose, mineral-rich with vague mesquite sweetness. A floodlight is the only thing registering from beneath my blindfold. The task of holding my legs straight up seems simple at first, but soon they feel heavy and my legs dip. Maybe no one will notice, I think to myself. My whole group was likely nearby experiencing the same treatment. “Weak man!” I hear one of my captors shout, addressing me, “Keep your weak legs up!” I struggle to do so. A deep laugh bellows from above, water gushes onto my face.
After what seems like an hour, someone comes over to me and gently grabs my shoulder, leading me away from the place of my torment. My blindfold is pushed down around my neck and I am instructed to sit on a padded stool. I see for the first time since arriving at this place; my eyes dart everywhere – not knowing if I’ll be blindfolded again. My interrogator’s tone softens. “Would you like some water?” I’m asked. “Something to eat?” In solidarity with my group, some of whom I can now see, I refuse – but am brought both anyway. One in my group is on the ground in front of me, in plank position, blindfold off, wrists still bound with a heavy zip tie. We can see each other, but are instructed not to talk. I begin to feel guilty then realize that was the point. She can see and hear me sitting above her, being offered food and water and she’s smashing push-ups, dirt digging into her palms. “Sign this confession, and we’ll let you both go. Sign this confession and it all stops. Doesn’t she look uncomfortable?”
I didn’t give in, but the tactics used by FOE were cunning. We were again blindfolded and put in a holding area. We eventually discover an escape route from our captivity and load into a 14-passenger van and head back to the safe house.
After Higher was informed of the abduction, our mission went “critical” and a plan for FOG was launched to attack a known FOE headquarters in the outskirts of Las Vegas. We are dropped off on the west side of a large hill in the desert and climb it to gain vantage over their stronghold. It was the same place we were interrogated, and we could see in the distance a number of FOE operatives. Wind whipped over the ridge and made normal conversation difficult. Forming assault groups, we determined a plan of attack – eventually settling on descending a gully mostly blind to the FOE fort, then southward along a tall fence, concealing our approach.
Then the best thing that might ever transpire in my life happened: We are issued paintball guns to battle the FOE. We commenced a strike and had a two-hour paintball battle with some of the most highly trained warfighters on earth. It took all 35 of us ages to finally beat just 10 of them back through the corridors of the FOE complex. It was truly epic. Hundreds of paintballs zinged across the sky. Our adversaries were unfathomably good at shooting and fighting tactics. The point was driven home with regular “double-taps” to the head; FOG was dropping like flies. A few of us encouraged former hostage negotiator Chris Voss to join in the battle vs. the FOE and he somewhat reluctantly agreed. I lent cover fire as he ran in the battle, spraying paintballs across the field. When the last of the paint either found its mark or exploded against a barrier we congregated under another fading sun around beer and new friends.
Trek 007 Las Vegas was over. I took from my time with these people, participants and Cadre alike, that each one of us seeks – not bound by our ideology, philosophy or politics but by our common humanity and passion – to grow the things that make traversing a full life better: self and peer leadership, having a vision and executing it efficiently, being a team player, self-awareness of skills and limitations, competence and perseverance in tough times.
GORUCK founder Jason McCarthy likes to espouse that his events “make better Americans”, and he may be onto something. GORUCK events are designed to challenge the participant immediately and deeply, so they can learn and straightaway utilize new skills to traverse obstacles which are beyond their control. So they can push outside their comfort zone, knowing they have a cohort of people beside them, supporting them. There will be no one winner because the success of a GORUCK event is contingent on everyone working toward a common goal, efficiently and effectively.
With this we arrive at the heart:
GORUCK events make better people. A tall order for a backpack label for sure, but it would seem that after this experiment GORUCK is much more than that.