Memorial Day, Ski Style.

10th Mountain Division, WWII, Camp Hale, CO

10th Mountain Division,
WWII, Camp Hale, CO

Most people celebrate Memorial Day as the unofficial start of summer. Swimming, boating, picnics, you get the picture. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But let’s not lose sight of the holiday’s original intent: to commemorate those who lost their lives fighting for our country. Those like the men of the Tenth Mountain Division, who served in combat for only four months during World War II, yet who suffered the highest casualty rate of any US division in the Mediterranean.

Started as an experiment to train soldiers to fight in the most difficult, mountainous terrain in Europe, the Tenth trained at Camp Hale, Colorado, 17 miles north of Leadville. The camp, which lay at 9,300 feet, had four trails and the longest T-Bar in the country. Troops were taught to ski, snowshoe, and climb with packs and rifles as well as survive in the most brutal winter conditions. They lived in the mountains for weeks at a time, working in altitudes up to 13,500 feet, in five to six feet of snow and in temperatures that dropped to 20 degrees below zero at night.

All this well before the advent of today’s technical fabrics.

After training for two years, the Tenth participated in a series of actions that played a vital role in the liberation of northern Italy. The Division breached the supposedly impregnable Gothic Line in the Apennines and secured the Po River Valley. By the time the Germans surrendered in May 1945, 992 ski troopers had lost their lives and 4,000 were wounded.

After the war, veterans of the Tenth became the backbone of the postwar American ski boom. Monty Atwater, for example, went to Alta, Utah, where he established the first explosive avalanche control system. Friedl Pfeifer designed Aspen Mountain, started Aspen’s ski school, and ran the first racing circuit. And Pete Seibert became a member of the 1948 Olympic team and founded Vail.

The sacrifices and contributions of the men of the Tenth can not be denied. So this Memorial Day week, while you’re swimming and picnicing and welcoming in the summer season, take a minute to salute the Tenth, along with the many other veterans of our Armed Forces. Remember, they fought for you.

* This post originaly appeared in May, 2010. But some things are worth re-running. :)

3 Responses to Memorial Day, Ski Style.

  1. Eddie May 29, 2017 at 10:46 am #

    The 10th Mountain Division is certainly an amazing story and should be one of the many groups to be honored and remembered at Memorial Day. I also wish to point out the amazing story, little known, of the 442nd Battalian or, as they were known, the “Go for Broke” Battalion. This was the Japanese-American group of soldiers, all American citizens, who were summarily arrested after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The men, mostly from Hawaii or Southern California, volunteered to fight and ultimately served in Europe, mainly Italy. They were deployed as cannon fodder and more than 2/3 of them received Purple Hearts. The group has the highest percentage of honor medals of any American fighting group in history. Originally the 442nd consisted of 4,000 soldiers. That original group was ultimately replaced two and a half times due to injury and death.

    This little known aspect of American history, along with those people of Japanese American heritage who were held in “concentration camps” should be known to all Americans so that we might never repeat such a horrible mistake.

  2. newboots May 31, 2017 at 11:52 pm #

    Wendy, thank you for this! I just wrote how I discovered this year, 20+ years after my father’s death, that he served with the Tenth Mountain Division. I don’t know who he may have told, but he never told his daughters.

    At my father’s funeral, his uncle told a story of how they both came home on leave before deploying. They went hiking in the White Mountains, and sat down on the summit overlooking a beautiful valley and other mountains in the distance. My uncle said my father looked out over the view and said, “I guess we know what we’re fighting for.”

    I was raised with his love of the mountains. He never skied, though. Possibly the war ruined it for him. Thank goodness he still loved to hike and camp!


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