Love Mountain Sports? You Have These Guys to Thank - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Out of sacrifice, these men turned intensive training into skis, shoes and a whole new way to have fun.

Scaling Italy’s Riva Ridge in the dead of winter, the men clawed their way past the Nazi’s Gothic Line — a once impenetrable German observatory — and into history. But their work and love for the great outdoors would help bring us more than just wartime success.

If you’re planning an American camping trip or time on the slopes, you have the 10th Mountain Division to thank. Back in 1940, when the U.S. was gearing up for war, the country realized that its troops weren’t ready for combat in the Alps. The 10th was formed to address that concern, and soon, at Camp Hale, Colo., 30,000 men, camouflaged in white snowsuits, trained for the mountain conditions. The training was intense: They slept in the open in blizzard conditions; hiked up and down icy mountain ridges; and fired guns while racing downhill on wobbly wooden skis, thrown off balance by their heavy packs. By the time they were deployed, these men — former Sen. Bob Dole and a couple of von Trapp singers among them — were ready for anything.

As it turned out, the 10th fought mostly from hillside foxholes, their ski training put to little use. A quarter of the division’s 20,000 men became casualties of the war. After the war, the survivors returned to the U.S., only to find that their unique and finely tuned skill set had no useful application. They soon changed that. 

Historian David Little, founder of the Living History of Colorado group, estimates that fewer than 10,000 Americans knew how to ski back in 1940, and most of them weren’t doing it for fun. Many were Minnesotans, for example, commuting to work. Recreational skiing was seen as a sport for only the most elite. Equipment cost more than a month’s salary for the middle class, and there weren’t many places to practice, nor instructors to teach it.

What happened to these guys in Italy 70 years ago translates into what we take for granted now.

Steve Coffey, president of the 10th Mountain Division Descendants Association

The fact that 20 million Americans ski today harks back to these mountaineering vets’ accomplishments. Upon their return from Europe, many of these men migrated back to the mountains. Perhaps the most notable was Pete Seibert, who returned to Colorado, just 20 miles from where he’d trained. He leased a plot of land from the Parks Service on his favorite mountain, and slowly and strategically began chopping down trees. You may have heard of this mountain, today one of the world’s most famous ski resorts: Vail.

Like Seibert, veterans returned to launch and manage some of the most famous ski resorts across the country: Cooper, Sugarbush, Aspen. All told, Little says, the group is connected to 62 of the 96 ski resorts in the U.S. today. They also founded ski schools, setting up the training framework for a new generation of skiers. One vet even founded Skiing Magazine. Simultaneously, the government was selling off the division’s surplus equipment, and soon the price of a full set of gear — skis, boots, poles ­— dropped from $35 down to $1.50, opening the sport up to a whole new class of Americans.

The returning veterans also brought back their on-the-ground expertise and applied it to some of the technology that underpins today’s mountain sports. The first steel-edged ski was designed by a vet, as was that waffle pattern on the bottom of your Nikes. The men scaled mountains never before conquered. One founded the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Outward Bound; another led the Sierra Club. “They really pushed out to the public the mountain lifestyle,” says Steve Coffey, president of the 10th Mountain Division Descendants Association. And now, he adds, that “translates into preserving open spaces.” 

Today, many of the men have passed away, but some are still skiing in their 90s, taking advantage of the sport their division trained so hard to learn. “What happened to these guys in Italy 70 years ago translates into what we take for granted now,” says Coffey. So the next time you’re tempted to complain about a lift line, remember that it’s better than training for war on wooden skis.

All photographs are courtesy of Trudy Richardson and 10th Mtn Photos. Richardson’s father, Norm, trained at Camp Hale during World War II and documented the experience with his camera.

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