Alpine touring series: 10th Mountain legacy
Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum
The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village Parking Structure and features a treasure trove of ski history and heritage.
Without warning, the United States was plunged into World War II in 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. With all good men and metal suddenly at a premium for the war effort, the early development of skiing in America was definitely slowed. As a result, however, necessity once again proved to be the mother of invention.
High in the Colorado Rockies at Camp Hale, about 14,000 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division were learning skiing skills and training for winter mountain warfare. The extremely demanding exercises served two purposes, according to the Army. First of all, the 10th established a vehicle for the testing and development of clothing and materials for winter warfare operations, while also procuring skis and other equipment with which to begin ski instruction in certain divisions.
Interestingly enough, a good deal of the early research and development for current day alpine touring equipment came as a result of the war and the 10th Mountain Division’s need for ski equipment that could transport troops both up and down through a wide variety of rugged mountain terrain.
“The 10th Mountain Division definitely had an impact on the evolution of alpine touring equipment,” said Chris Anthony, longtime Vail resident and on-screen ski talent for Warren Miller Entertainment. “There was so much money and effort that was devoted to developing ski equipment in a short period of time for the troops because of the war. The Army had to push hard to come up with skis and bindings that would allow the soldiers to go up and down the mountains.”
The 10th troopers were provided with two lengths of stiff wooden ski: 7 feet 2 inches and 7 feet 6 inches, courtesy of the Groswald Ski Co. in Denver. Early models used Dovre and Goodman bindings, a bear trap binding system that would permit the heel to come up for uphill and cross-country skiing or lock down for downhill descents.
This new technology was put to a stern test in February of 1944 when a small group of 10th Mountain Division soldiers made a winter crossing of the mountains between Leadville and Aspen. Now known as the Trooper Traverse, the trek was the only military training operation to take place in the dead of winter as 33 soldiers traveled from Camp Hale to Aspen, traversing up several ridgelines and across Tennessee Pass.
The Trooper Traverse, along with the D-Series, a month and a half-long battle-ready mock war exercise conducted a month later, tested the division’s ability to operate in the mountains in sub-zero weather, pushing men, mules and machines to the limit of their endurance.
While skis were never actually used in combat by the 10th Mountain Division, they were used for patrols before the Riva Ridge operation, and at least one of those patrols participated in a brief gun battle after removing their skis and proceeding on foot.
The 10th Mountain Division was successful in removing the German forces from the Italian Alps, but other significant achievements were still to come following the end of the war. All of a sudden, the U.S. found itself with a surplus of unemployed highly trained skiers that were looking for new career opportunities in the rapidly booming economy.
“Today’s ski industry owes a lot to these guys,” added Ski Magazine editor Greg Ditrinco in the 10th Mountain Division documentary “Climb to Glory.” “They came home and the ski industry took a quantum leap in the quality of equipment because the Army got involved in training troops for the hills.”
Their legacy also continues to this day as a network of backcountry skiing huts in Colorado were constructed in their honor. A total of 34 huts are now popular destinations for today’s touring enthusiasts and extreme freeriders.
“The major equipment manufacturers are really starting to embrace the AT gear,” Anthony said. “We even have a new sport called side country where we’re going beyond the lifts, beyond the ski area boundaries, hiking and descending. What the 10th Mountain guys were doing out of necessity back then at Camp Hale, we’re doing it now for recreation. I know how lucky I am because of the things that they’ve done.”
Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.