Warren Miller: Remembering The 10th Mountain Vets
Nov. 11 is Veterans Day and it’s time to take a moment and think about a lot of men and women who fought a war that’s virtually been forgotten in today’s chaotic world. In the winter of 1941 the Italians lost 25,000 soldiers in the mountains of Albania because of lack of winter warfare training, physical fitness, and lack of proper equipment.
Minot (Minnie) Dole, who had invented the National Ski Patrol Service, offered up the NSPS to the War Department in order to train and outfit a division of soldiers that could live, fight and survive in subzero temperatures, high mountains, and deep snow.
Names that have become synonymous with the development of skiing in America quickly enlisted and reported to the Paradise Lodge on Mount Rainier in the Pacific Northwest. Their job was to test and improve all kinds of winter survival and fighting equipment.
To test some of it, they got to ski cross-country all the way around the base of Mount Rainer with a reported 90 pounds in their rucksacks. For some reason they decided that all of their skis should be 7’3” long or 7’6”. Their boots should be loose and soft with big box toes so they would not freeze their toes. They also tested many different types of fabric for livable tents in below zero temperatures.
Names of some of the first people who enlisted later became the Who’s Who of ski development in America in the 1950s and ‘60s. Friedle Pfeiffer helped develop Aspen. Pete Siebert is credited with the invention of Vail. Bob Parker was the editor of Skiing News Magazine and later went on to become the public relations and marketing director of Vail.
Steve Knowlton would develop a ski resort at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Johnny Litchfield was the assistant director of the Sun Valley Ski School when I taught there during the winter of 1948-49.
John Jay perfected his motion picture techniques on Mount Rainier filming the then fledgling 10th Mountain Division soldiers. John spent the next 50 years or so producing an annual feature-length ski film and then traveling the world and showing it.
As the regiments grew in size, they needed a place where 3,000 men and the necessary support staff could all live together. Located in the Pando Valley, midway between Vail and Leadville, the base became known as Camp Hale.
In the spring of 1945 while suffering tremendous casualties, the 10th Mountain Division turned the tide of the European war in favor of the Allies by capturing the German strongholds in the Apennine Mountains. They split the German army in half and hastened the end of World War II in Europe by many months.
I have been asked quite often if I was a member of the 10th Mountain Division and I have to say no. I joined the Navy because I wasn’t thrilled with sleeping in muddy foxholes plus I understood the water so all I did was float around on a small ship in the Pacific until it was sunk in a horrific typhoon in 1945. Thankfully with no casualties.
I also consider myself lucky because in the winter of 1939 on a Boy Scout trip to the San Bernardino Mountains, we spent one night sleeping in the snow and I realized at a very young age that it was very uncomfortable.
The next time you go skiing in Colorado, stop by Vail and visit the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum. There you can read more about the famous 10th Mountain Division and what many of the members of that division did to change your life and offer you ski experiences that are some of the best in the world.
A final note about those 10,000 pair of Army surplus skis: I bought and sold quite a few pair of them. If you shopped around you could buy all you wanted for $6 a pair. The first pair that I bought and sold went to a friend of mine who was only about 5’ four”. It was a hard sell until I sawed about 18 inches off of the back of them. Then they were exactly the right length. The only problem was that the bindings were just in the wrong place.
As I recall, I made $3 on the deal that almost bought another roll of 8mm movie film for the camera I had at the time. (My wife is muttering that I was sneaky even back then!)
Unfortunately most of those 10th Mountain Division veterans have to be over 90 years old now and there aren’t many of them left alive, but when you stop by the Colorado Ski Museum in Vail, donate the price of a one-day lift ticket to keep their memory alive. You wouldn’t be skiing in Colorado if it wasn’t for them.
Photo: Filmmaker Warren Miller (Warren Miller Freedom Foundation)