VAIL — Jim Nassar and Hugh Evans ski pretty fast for 89.
The pair are original members of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which trained at nearby Camp Hale and fought in World War II in the 1940s. They were ski troopers, mountaineering and fighting on Mt. Belvedere and the area known as Riva Ridge in the Italian Alps, and on Tuesday they got together on Riva Ridge again, 59 years later.
Only this time it was Vail Mountain’s Riva Ridge, a run named in honor of the 10th Mountain Division’s battle there in Italy in February 1945.
“They haven’t been able to separate us since,” Nassar said of his lifelong acquaintance with Evans.
“Some people even think we’re friends, but I wouldn’t go that far,” he added with a laugh.
In addition to Vail’s Riva Ridge ski run, the veterans also took time Tuesday to examine other artifacts related to them, such as the plaque to 10th Mountain veteran Sarge Brown on Vail Mountain and the bronze statue of “The Ski Trooper” in Vail Village.
The original 10th Mountain Division ski troopers have been getting together to ski at resorts in Colorado for nearly 40 years.
Some years attract more skiers than others; this year, Evans and Nassar were the only two survivors to ski Vail Mountain. Edwards resident Dick Dirks, a regular at the event, couldn’t make it this year as he awaits a knee replacement (last year Dirks skied his age — 88 days). But during the weekend, the group’s size was doubled at Ski Cooper where the true reunion takes place — Ski Cooper is the site of the soldiers’ original ski training ground, and a memorial to the 10th Mountain Division stands there today.
Before visiting Vail on Tuesday, the veterans spent Monday skiing Breckenridge and the weekend at Ski Cooper, where they even participated in a NASTAR race.
“The kids were going faster than us, that’s for sure,” Nassar said.
They head to Keystone today for another ski day.
Evans said while he does the tour every year, he was using this year’s ski days as a chance to acclimate to the high elevation in anticipation of his 90th birthday party on March 21. On that day, he plans to hike up to 11,300 feet with his family and spend his birthday at the 10th Mountain Division hut on Homestake Peak.
“Getting there will be exciting,” Evans said.
‘A BETTER WORLD’
Nassar and Evans began the day Tuesday by visiting with a group of third graders from Red Sandstone Elementary.
“Our third-grade social studies unit is studying the history of Eagle County,” said Mary Ward, a teacher at the school. “And who could teach the history of Eagle County better than these guys?”
The veterans answered questions including “How cold was it?” and “How long did you practice every day at Camp Hale?”
The questions from the youngsters gave the veterans a chance to reminisce on their days training at nearby Camp Hale.
“For six weeks in 1944 we were in the mountains with our skis and our packs and our sleeping bags,” Evans said. “We hiked all day through the mountains from Homestake Peak to Mount of the Holy Cross and Chicago Ridge, and we slept out in the snow. You’d stomp a hole in the ground with your skis and turn your skis upside down and sleep on your skis, and then we’d get up before the sun came up and continue.
“We were fighting each other, we had a red group and a blue group, where we’d practice how to fight each other. One time the blue group was down in a defensive position on Chicago Ridge, and the red group was coming down, and the sergeant of the blue group looked at them and said ‘Hold your fire, they’re going to kill themselves skiing down the mountain.’”
Evans’ final piece of advice to the kids is the same advice the Greatest Generation exemplified through their actions back home after the war.
“Grow up and make it a better world,” he said.
Learn more about the 10th Mountain Division by visiting the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum, located in Vail on the second level of the transportation center.