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A Look at the Army’s Most Famous Group of Soldiers this Memorial Day Weekend

The gear may have evolved from 7-foot wooden planks, but today's ski culture owes its creation to the 10th Mountain Division. Fort Drum photo.

The ski troops of the 10th Mountain Division endured incredibly brutal combat in World War II, battling frostbite and hostile alpine environments during their short but violent campaign against German forces in Italy’s Apennine Mountains. Casualties in the winter of 1945 were staggering, but when the ski troops returned home they poured their heart and soul into the newly-evolving ski industry, opening ski resorts, managing ski schools and influencing innovation.

Unlike most of Europe, prior to World War II, the American military had no specialized division of soldiers trained in mountain combat. But after learning of a small unit of Finnish ski troops that held off a powerful regiment of Soviet forces in a 1939 winter battle, Charles “Minnie” Dole wrote to the War Department imploring them to add a mountaineering unit to the U.S. Army. Dole is best known for creating the National Ski Patrol and was well connected in the small ski community that existed in the U.S. President Roosevelt gave Dole the green light and construction of the Camp Hale training facility began in 1942.

Turning Skiers into Soldiers

Dole was convinced it would be easier to turn skiers into soldiers rather than teaching existing troops to ski. Recruiting from his community in the National Ski Patrol, Dole brought in gold medalists, accomplished mountaineers, and wealthy skiers from all over the country to endure vigorous high-altitude winter training in the remote Colorado mountains between Leadville and Vail.

Veterans of the 10th Mountain Division stand below a sign denoting the 10th Mountain Division Memorial Highway in Colorado. Denver Public Libraries photo.

Seasoned mountaineers like Fred Beckey and twins Jim and Lou Whittaker were brought in to train the medley of eager yet disorganized skiers who had heeded Dole’s call. Dressed in winter camouflage, travelling through the mountains on seven-foot long hickory skis with rifles in hand, the 10th Mountain troops quickly became celebrities—it wasn’t long before this unique and exclusive brotherhood of ski troops had captured the nation’s attention.

In his book The Last Ridge: The Epic Story of America’s First Mountain Soldiers and the Assault on Hitler’s Europe, McKay Jenkins describes how the 10th Mountain became a source of comfort for the anxious and fearful American public. He observed that, “In the hands of the nation’s newspapers and filmmakers, the mountain troops were used to reassure a frightened nation that old-fashioned, even virtuous, soldiering would stand up to the Axis threat.”

Pictures of the soldiers in white camouflage littered the front pages of the paper.

The 86th Infantry medical detachment of the 10th Mountain Division. Denver Public Libraries photo.

“Everyone wanted to join the 10th,” Lou told TGR. “There was a huge risk of getting injured in training or abroad but it was a hell of a lot better than getting shot at on the front lines.”

When the soldiers were finally deployed to Italy’s Apennine Mountains in 1945, they succeeded in capturing a line of Italian ridges in what are considered among the most daring nighttime attacks in military history. Countless bone-chilling nights training in thin Rocky Mountain air served them well when the ski troops scaled the steep, icy face of the east side of Riva Ridge. Taking the Germans by surprise in the middle of the night, they easily gained control over the ridge before conducting another successful assault on Mount Belvedere.

Despite heavy casualties and the harshness of war, the 10th troops came away with an even stronger connection to the mountains, their passion contagious to the rest of the country.

“We never got tired of it,” Lou said. “After we’d be training in the snow all week, we’d go out on the weekends and ski or climb something else just for fun.”

The Post-War Ski Boom: No Longer A Rich Man Sport

Their campaign in Italy drew plenty of attention from the rest of the US Army as well as the captivated public back at home, and the glamour and publicity of the 10th Mountain ski troops stirred up plenty of interest in the sport.

In the years before the war, skiing was left almost entirely to the upper class. The few ski areas that existed were populated with those who could afford to fly across the country on their holidays or shell out a few dollars a day for a lift ticket during the Great Depression.

The inaugural 10th Mountain Division troops. Denver Public Library photo.

After the war, over 150,000 pairs of military skis went to government surplus stores. Skis were sold for two or three dollars, with a pair of leather boots costing about 50 cents. Increased amounts of leisure time in the post-war economy sent middle class America sprinting for the slopes, eager to lace up their leather boots and try their hand on a pair of tall wooden planks.

Many veterans returned to open ski resorts, the proliferation creating a much lower ticket of entry. Austrian expat and part of the 10th Mountain Division, Friedl Pfieffer, returned in 1945 to run the Aspen ski school before working to develop and expand the mountain. Veteran Jack Murphy founded Sugarbush in 1958 and Peter Siebert founded Vail in the early 1960s with lift tickets running about five dollars.

Another veteran, Fritz Benedict, founded the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, a system of self-service huts in the Colorado Rockies that caters to backcountry skiers. After his time at the 10th Mountain Division, Lou Whittaker returned to work in a ski shop in Seattle before opening RMI Expeditions in 1969.

Members of the 10th following the famed assault on Riva Ridge. Denver Public Library photo.

“I’d already finished pre-med and was supposed to go on to medical school,” Whittaker regaled TGR. “After my time at the 10th I returned confident that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the mountains.”

A Call For Innovation

Training at Camp Hale, the ski troops trekked through the mountains between Aspen and Leadville with 60-90-pound packs, leather boots strapped onto seven-foot long wooden skis with thick cable bindings.

“The boots were so soft you couldn’t get any response out of your ski,” said Whittaker, reminiscing of his time training soldiers at Camp Hale. “The skis were long but they couldn’t handle much—we’d snap them all the time.”

Lou’s wife, Ingrid Whittaker, remembers trying to button up a thick pair of wool army ski pants. “Back then even your clothes weighed 100 pounds,” she laughed.

Lou Whittaker climbs Mount Rainier in this undated photo. Washington Sports Hall of Fame archival photo.

The explosion in popularity quickly became a catalyst for new innovation. In 1947, Howard Head created the first metal ski. Frustrated with the difficulty of maneuvering colossal hickory skis, he fixed layers of scrap aluminum together in what we know today as a sandwich construction. The new metal ski was significantly lighter, stronger, and easier to turn than the traditional wood models.

When President Roosevelt granted Charles Dole permission to recruit an elite mountaineering division of the U.S. Army during World War II, no one expected it to have such a monumental impact on American culture. What began as a frantic effort to push back the seemingly unbreakable German defense high in the mountains of northern Italy blossomed into a strong community of winter sports enthusiasts that have truly made skiing what it is today. Stories of the 10th Mountain troops flow through the veins of the modern ski industry, a deep-rooted love for winter sports that has flourished throughout generations and advanced the technology that we all use today to get down the hill.

From The Column: Adventure Archives

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I served with the 10th Mountain Division as an Infantryman for 4 years and was first introduced to skiing while stationed at Fort Drum, NY. We were the only Army unit at the time that did the infamous 100 mile road march with full battle kit of 50-75 lbs of gear. We spent more than 200 days a year in the field training for combat. I also was in the first Airborne unit in 10th Mountain as a Recon soldier. I have met numerous men that started the unit in World War II. I retired from a Mountain Search and Rescue Unit I’m Special Forces 20 years later. TGR thank you for that great article on the history of 10th Mountain Division.

Howard Head disappointed the first metal ski with the difficulty of mixing in the huge Hikori ski. They repaired layers of aluminum waste that we call sandwich constructions together.

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The increased amount of vacation time in the post-war economy sent the middle class America to the slopes, eager to pay fees to their leather shoes and tried to fix a few long wooden pieces.
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