Exhibition on Display at Ski Santa Fe Winter/Spring Ski Season 2024
After soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division returned home from World War Two, they formed what we know today as modern recreational skiing in the mountainous regions of the Unites States. If it wasn’t for the 10th Mountain Division, returning veterans to the American West and establishing ski basins, formed from their experience and passion for the sport, American Recreational Skiing and ski culture would not be what it is today. Many Ski areas today in New Mexico owe their foundation to the 10th Mountain Division. Upon their return they published magazines and journals on the subject. They established ski areas and ski schools to impart their passion and knowledge of the sport. Originally founded as an obscure experimental battalion serving as U.S. Army Ski Patrol, the 10th Mountain Division evolved into a squadron of elite fighters that served as an embodiment of covert stealth in the harsh and brutal alpine terrain of the Western Front.
The naissance of the 10th Mountain Division was conceived from the mythos of the Finnish defeat of the Soviets during the 1939 Winter War, when Stalin fearing the Nazis would forge a strong hold in Finland, decided to attack and occupy Finland. In the Karelian Isthmus the Soviet forces failed to send reconnaissance into the dense forest that surrounded them to scout the territory. Advancing the Karelin Isthmus to the Finnish Border, the soviets boasted their numbers and vehicles would give them the advantage in this unknown territory. The Finnish forces were determined to use their skill set and knowledge to defend their land. They owned the advantage; with familiarity of the land and landscape they utilized their specialized training to derail the Soviet transport. Camouflaged in all white, quietly moving through the dense forest on cross country skis, armed with long rifles and each with a bottle of gasoline, the Finnish Troops were able catch the Soviet forces off guard, dismantle their tanks with Molotov cocktails, and vanish into the night. Their escape route, the frozen canals that crisscrossed the landscape, using ice skates to quickly evade capture. The innovation and heroics of their victory spread, and these soldiers became revered as fabled winter warriors. Fascination with the Finnish unit spread to and inspired Minnie Dole.
Minot Minnie Dole, founder of the American Ski Patrol, forceful, dogged, tenaciously fought for the United States to begin preparing for an Alpine advance. Minnie Dole, who after an injury while skiing laid waiting in the cold snow for help, or a plan of how to help him. Waiting as two friends devised a plan to carry Dole off the mountain on a piece of tin they found, dragged by the skiers. His personal incident as well as other notable losses due to ski injury inspired Dole to advocate for the formation of the National Ski Patrol. Through his advocacy he developed relationships with world-class skiers and others dedicated to the sport, becoming a key figure in American Skiing, building his connections with Ski Patrol Advocacy to the political realm. Minnie Dole, inspired by the Finns and seeing how crucial it was to have highly trained specialized forces, became their chief advocate.
An Otherworldly mythos developed and surrounded the 10th Mountain Division which drove recruitment into this elite unit. Films, publications, magazines, featured stories of these men, secreted away to some high-altitude outpost to train for a clandestine mission, bound for the European Theater. Recruitment qualifications were sent out to members of the National Ski Patrol, “Seeking men accustomed to living and working in the high mountains –packers, prospectors, trappers, forest servicemen, timber cruisers, guides, and men who have mountaineering as an avocation whether or not they can ski.”
Our country faced with an enigmatic foe to our west and the terrifying mechanical advances of the Germans, Americans hopes were renewed by the rumors of a venerable fighting force forming the Alpine outposts of the American west, training to take up Arms, and Skis in order to affirm victory for the Allies. The romanticized mystique of these troops was spurred on by the press and encouraged many hopeful enlistees contending for a spot, there were strict criteria for who was accepted. Candidates must have experience with Alpine equipment, know and be able to teach alpine technique, rock, ice, and snowfield climbing. Having hiked or climbed a mountain trail was not justification to apply. To some it appeared as a fully paid ski holiday to the mountainous outcroppings in the American west, or a getaway for an Ivy-League varsity ski team. It was anything but, it was boot camp at above 15,000 feet in temperatures below negative 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
When they describe the 10th Mountain Division as Elite Mountain Troops, they were truly that. Their ranks held professional instructors, coaches, and Olympic skiers, mountaineers, members of ivy league ski teams, and world class foreign born European skiers, who were able to escape prior to World War two and wanted to return to defend their home countries. They were better than good, and they knew that. A local Colorado Judge was quoted as saying, “these men are some of the finest mountain soldiers in the world, and examples of marvelous physique and endurance” they were elite out of necessity rather than out of arrogance.
The 10th Mountain Division trained in mountaineering and became expert skiers. Their practice and training taught them to live in and on the snow, living and sleeping on their skis. Most crucially they developed a refined skill set of shooting and fighting while skiing. The training made them self-sufficient in these harsh environments, this quality was vital to allied advances in the European Theater. They set out on weeks long outings into the extreme elements, temperature, and altitude of Camp Hale, where they developed their tolerance, refined their abilities, and met these distressing conditions with a purpose.
This was an experiment, and these men served as the testing ground. They lost extremities to the bitter cold and faulty equipment, it was through these tragic losses that they were able to learn from their mistakes and develop equipment, clothing, tools, and techniques that would aid and benefit in such extreme elements and conditions. Be it a mountain top, battlefield, or both, having the proper gear made the difference between life and death. Soldiers needed to be provided with special cutting-edge equipment and such equipment concludes as useless in the hands of untrained soldiers. Fancy skis and equipment couldn’t help the flatland warm weather soldiers, but it was urgent and necessitated its use by the elite mountaineers and western sportsmen it was designed for. The 10th Mountain Division required innovation from within. Out of necessity they developed the materials, equipment, and gear by themselves, for themselves to serve this specific purpose. They were the first to use such equipment, and invention was their leading edge. By gathering these specific experts, world champions, athletes, hobbyist, and those with generational knowledge, they were able to compile this esoteric knowledge into usable stratagem, products, and equipment for the 10th Mountain Division to use, succeed, and survive. “Putting on the uniform does not make the man a mountain soldier, Training and equipment for mountain warfare could not be improvised or faked.”
One key and vital tool developed by the 10th Mountain Division was its mountaineering ropes. During World War Two the premiere rope used throughout the world was Manila Rope and was considered the best cordage fiber, but due to the Japanese invasion of the Philippines all worldwide rope supplies had been cut off and American reserve supply of the manila fiber stockpile would not withstand the needs of war. A revolution in all technologies was at a precipice leading up to and during the war, and it is the same with scientific advances especially in chemistry. The development of Nylon synthetic fiber stood to revolutionize many industries due to its strength and elasticity. Polymers formed into short filaments were able to be pulled into long durable elastic fibers. The strength, durability, and ability of Nylon to hold tension became the ideal rope for mountaineering uses by the 10th Mountain Division.
The generally issued uniforms and gear were not going to be suitable for the extreme mountainous conditions the 10th Mountain Division would be training, living, and fighting in. Standard issue military gear posed as a possibly dangerous or even deadly option. The previous experience of the American Alpine Club, adjustments and experiments they had made with a variety of clothing, materials, and techniques they had settled on. The Alpine Club recommended multi-layered wool clothing, covered by a wind proof outer cover, rather than one large bulky outer jacket. A multilayered approach created pockets of warm air to keep and retain heat. Each man was outfitted with: Multiple layers of wool clothing in a variety of thickness, covered by a topped and covered by camouflage top shell, boots with a special felted insole and toe cover to keep, and retain heat.
In a time when the Army had moved on from horse drawn artillery guns to tank destroyers, a technological revolution had eliminated the need to rear and tend to livestock, while the 10th Mountain Division was making advances in materials, equipment, and gear, they held fast to one bygone tool, the mule. They held a barren of 5,000 mules. Mule were twice as strong as a horse and half their size. They could excel in fridged temperatures and had the ability to climb and scale mountains. They were rugged beasts and just like the 10th Mountain Division they were brought to do an expert job. The 10th used specialized 75mm howitzers which were robust enough to do what large guns could but compact enough to be broken down and carried by their mule pack.
Throughout the many years of training spent at Camp Hale, the men grew frustrated in a state of unknown, wanting either to be deployed or for the war to be over. The skills they had developed were being refined and preserved for a pinnacle moment. Committing the troops was a thoughtful decision, ensuring their most effective placement. Placing them too early and you may lose an opportunity to use them later at a more crucial point for strategic attack, likened to a game of chess, the 10th Mountain Division had been considered numerous times, but indeed were held to the perfect moment. After years of grueling winter and mountain warfare training,10th Mountain Division was deployed to the Mediterranean Theater and would aid in the Italian campaign.
After Allied forces won the North Africa Campaign, they developed a strategy to spread Axis forces thin by convincing them a broad Mediterranean attack was eminent from Operation: Mincemeat and The Man Who Never Was, an act of genius counterintelligence. German agents recovered the body of a British Royal Marine pilot from the waters off a Spanish beach. Documents in a briefcase handcuffed to the officer’s wrist provided a dubious mass of intelligence about the Allies’ secret plans, and German agents quickly sent their findings up the chain of command where they soon reached German leader Adolf Hitler. This strategy worked so well, the Germans began diverting resources from the Northwest Coast of France, where Allies had their intentions on Normandy. Sicily was chosen due to the British Airforce base at Malta offering cover, and Allied forces successfully drove German and Italian troops to the Italian Mainland. What was foretold to be an effortless fight to Rome, ended up being a long and arduous extensive fight to the middle. In that time Mussolini was ousted from power and arrested, the deeply entrenched German forces had embedded themselves in the natural offerings and the mountainous ranges of central Italy, and the pinnacle moment had come for the 10th Mountain Division, and they were being called upon to answer to and use these years of training. Although they had fortunately been in reserve, and they were fresh and anxious to prove themselves.
The Po River Valley was embanked by the high mountainous reaches of the Apennines, and the Germans were thoroughly anchored in its rocky alpine reaches. Taking control of the Po Valley was vital for Allied forces dominance in northern Italy and forward momentum into northern Europe. Mont Belvedere sat as the German point of observation in the valley. From there they could spot any movement and send a barrage of artillery down on the troops below. The plan the 10th Mountain Division devised was to take out the German position on Riva Ridge, that would give them access and footing to attempt Monte Belvedere and control of the Po Valley. Days of reconnaissance developed the ideal pass, it would be a rocky ice-covered outcropping leading to a cliff edge, exactly what they preferred. The 10th Mountain Division set off primed with expert mountaineers delicately ascending the unknown rockface, sticking to a pact of absolute silence. Any stray sound of shifting rock, ice, or motion would surely be heard by the German forces above. It was an arduous ascent but near dawn they crested the cliff face, and arrived upon sleeping German Soldiers, too bewildered to react. The German so overconfident in their position, were unable to read 10th Mountain Division troops as the enemy and could not hastened to react. Steadily they 10th Mountain Division hard fought and made their way through Riva Ridge, Monte Belvedere, Monte Gorgolesco, and Monte Della Torraccia. Gaining control of the Apennines, allowed a path for back up. Artillery, tanks, and vehicles were finally given access to this high-top position, which aided in the effort to force a German surrender in Italy. They had demonstrated their value, the years of training were put to use, and it was proved a success. After breaking the stalemate at the Gothic Line, they had successful breached the German stronghold and driven those who did not surrender back to the alps in Northern Europe, with the 10th Mountain Division in full pursuit. In light of their accomplishments, accolades, and efforts that undoubtedly turned the war in the Allies favor, through fortitude and endurance, there were many losses. In total 1,000 of the 10th Mountain Division were lost and another 4,000 injured during their push in the Apennines.
At the core of the experimental spirit of the 10th Mountain Division was appreciation for the earth’s natural wonder, and a determination to protect and defend their country through their extraordinary talents and abilities. At the end of WW2 when victory was at hand, in the fleeting snow of Spring 1945, they celebrated in their own particular style, with a downhill ski race. They brought their continued passion home with them, having spent years strapped to the skis, highly trained in this specialized sport, they were the world experts and could not let the skis go. Many set out to share their refined expertise in the sport by becoming instructors and coaches. They developed ski schools and published ski magazines, and many were instrumental in forming the well renowned ski basins in the American West and particularly here in New Mexico. The 10th Mountain Division veterans were integral to the establishment of 62 ski resorts in total.
“Mountains are a great equalizer, and soldiers from various countries, enemies or allies, possess a love of mountains, skiing, and snow that transcends the bitterness of war, a common thread that brings them together as friends.” – Chelton Leonard 10th Mountain Division Veteran
Jenkins, McKay. The Last Ridge. Random House, 2003.
Shelton, Peter. Climb to Conquer. Simon and Schuster, 2023.
Richards, Rick. Ski Pioneers. Dry Gulch, 1992.
Exhibition on Display at Ski Santa Fe Winter/Spring Ski Season 2024