10th Mountain soldiers, then and now
VAIL — World War II veteran Hugh Evans still remembers how difficult some training days were at Camp Hale. He had grown up skiing and rock climbing in California, but that still didn’t prepare him for the rigors of training with the 10th Mountain Division.
“There were about 2,000 soldiers at the division in Camp Hale, and half of those were experienced skiers and the other half were average Joes,” he said. “Camp Hale was rigorous. I wrote a book later called ‘Bad Times and Good Times,’ and we definitely had some of both. If you had a day off, it was pretty good, but once you went out and did training and exercises, it was pretty hard.”
Despite those hard days, Evans, now 90, still remembers the Colorado mountains fondly, so much so that he meets up with a handful of other 10th Mountain Division veterans and their families each year. This year’s reunion started last Friday at Ski Cooper, where nearly 100 people participated in a ski down and memorial ceremony. It continued Tuesday as Evans and fellow veterans Jim Nasser and Dick Dirkes enjoyed a ski day and lunch on Vail Mountain, along with a number of veterans’ descendants and even some of their modern Army counterparts.
Still skiing strong
The 10th Mountain Division ski troops were made famous after they won a decisive battle in the Italian Alps and took Riva Ridge on Feb. 18, 1945. After the war, many of the soldiers returned home and played key roles in starting up American ski resorts, including at Vail.
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“Vail was started by 10th veterans, and the connection goes back to our very foundation,” said Jeff Wiles, of Vail Mountain guest services. “It’s only fitting that we hold this event every year.”
The reunion was a time for old foxhole buddies to enjoy a day of skiing and catch up, culminating in a ski down Riva Ridge, named for the Italian location, that afternoon. While Evans said their numbers dwindle as the 10th Mountain veterans get older and pass away (they lost two old friends during the past few months alone), the remaining few are die-hard skiers.
Evans was actually recovering from a skiing injury and was unable to ski. Dirkes, a 10th Mountain veteran who resides in Edwards, came ready to ski despite some heart troubles, even making the trek from the parking garage to the lifts via the in-town bus system in his ski boots.
Jimmy Nasser, of Boston, has been coming out to the 10th’s Vail ski reunion for 25 years now. He’s “working on 91,” as he says, but wouldn’t miss the Vail ski day for anything.
“I told my wife, ‘I’m going to Colorado. If I don’t, I’d rather be dead,’” he said, grinning.
The reunion also brought together a number of children and grandchildren. Joy Ellison, of Lake Tahoe, came to Colorado to attend the festivities in honor of her father, Edwin Hadsell, who died in 2005.
Hadsell trained at Camp Hale and was deployed to Italy in 1945. She said her own childhood was shaped by her father’s experiences on the mountains during the war.
“When he came home from the war, they put me and my brother in his Army skis and sent us down the hill. Except he didn’t let us take the tow rope up, we had to side step up the hill like he did in the Army,” she said.
The modern-day 10th
Unbeknownst to many, the ski troops still live on in Colorado. On Tuesday, the veterans were joined by some current 10th soldiers for the ski day.
While the 10th Mountain Division doesn’t exist in the same way it did in World War II (the light infantry 10th Mountain Division is now based in New York), the Army’s 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) is based in Fort Carson, a 3,000 unit specialized group that have been deployed to hot spots like Iraq, Afghanistan and North Africa.
While most people don’t think of the pristine slopes of Beaver Creek and Vail as training grounds for American soldiers, you’ll often find these special forces honing their skills in the resort areas, including at Beaver Creek and Breckenridge.
“There have been companies and businesses up here who have been extremely supportive in helping us create a modern day legacy (for the 10th),” said one special forces soldier, listing Vail Resorts, the Vail Ski Patro, HW Builders, Gorsuch, 10th Mountain Distillery, Vail Brewing Company, the town of Vail and the U.S. Forest Service as supporters. “There’s a lot of support from the local community.”
For this group of soldiers, their current assignment involves a lot of mountaineering, skiing on various Colorado resorts and honing skills like ice climbing and glacier travel. Sound like a dream assignment? Try doing it with a heavy pack on your back and a gun in your hands.
On Tuesday, dramatically different eras crossed as several members of the 10th Special Forces got to hobnob with the WWII veterans.
“It’s humbling. Being in the military, we’ve seen and experienced a lot of stuff and lost a lot of friends, just like these guys have. We probably have three bronze stars each, but this guy over here has a silver star,” said one soldier, motioning to one of the vets. “They have these stories from WWII and it seems like a whole different experience.”
Another said that he had nothing but the utmost respect for the vets, adding that he hoped to also be skiing when he was 90.
“I’m honored — that’s really the only word I can use to describe it,” he said. “(What I’ve seen) barely holds a candle up to what these guys went through.”
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.