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Grab your skis for Valley Read

Daily Staff Writer

By Allesandra Mayer

Special to the Daily

If you’d visited Vail in the days before World War II, the residents would have been ranchers, the hills populated by sheep and the area known as the Eagle River Valley. All that changed when a group of skiers from the East Coast arrived in a valley north of Leadville to train for a newly formed Army division being prepped for battlefields overseas.

That “band of mountain brothers” became the famed 10th Mountain Division with a legacy that expands well beyond their dramatic actions during World War II. Many of the veterans of this unprecedented, elite division went on to inspire a revolution in American outdoor life. In a story well known among Vail locals, a group of entrepreneurial 10th Mountain Division veterans returned in the years after the war to create North America’s premier ski resort, around which a community of 30,000 grew in the ensuing years.

In “Climb to Conquer: the Untold Story of the 10th Mountain Division,” selected as the 2004 Festival of Words Valley Read, Montrose-based author Peter Shelton weaves together a collection of personal stories about the men who trained and fought with the division. Shelton’s book was chosen as the Valley Read for its readability, local interest and widespread appeal. He will be one of five authors featured at The Festival of Words, which will be held at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort and Spa April 16-18.

The Valley Read, an integral component of The Festival of Words, was created with the local literary community in mind. Readers can take part in a “virtual book club” through articles written in the Vail Daily, providing participants an opportunity to gain insights from the author. Beyond its “virtual” nature, what makes the Valley Read noteworthy is the chance readers have to meet the author and have their questions answered directly during The Festival of Words weekend.

Local independent bookstores The Bookworm of Edwards and Verbatim Booksellers will offer Shelton’s book at a 20 percent discount through April 7. The Valley Read will conclude with a book discussion and a presentation by 10th Mountain Veteran Earl Clark, which will be held at the Colorado Ski Museum on April 7 from 5:30-7:30 p.m., a free event.

In the following Q&A, Peter Shelton shares some thoughts with the Valley Read participants on what prompted him to delve into the history of the division, how he went about compiling the often dramatic and heartbreaking story and what he learned about the characters of the men, college scholars and professional athletes before the war, who came of age in the North Apennine Mountains of Italy during World War II.

How did you become interested in the history of the 10th Mountain Division?

I am a skier, have been since I was eight. Everywhere I went, once I was out on my own, I heard the names of 10th men: Sigi Engl at Sun Valley; Friedl Pfeifer at Aspen; Kerr Sparks at Stowe; Bill Healey at Mount Bachelor; Toni Matt at The Big Mountain; Pete Seibert at Vail. I knew these protean figures in the ski business had a World War II story behind them; I just didn’t know what it was.

What attracted you to the subject matter?

Old photos, films and the need to connect with my skiing heritage. As a ski instructor, I have always believed that technique hasn’t really changed, that good skiing has always meant the same things: a balanced stance, edging and pressuring skills, a love of snow and of the fall line. The 10th Mountain counted among its ranks many of the greatest skiers in the world circa 1940. These guys made turns on long wooden skis, in flimsy leather boots, that are the equivalent of any turns made today.

How did you go about your research and how did you find your sources?

Beth Gage, who directed the wonderful documentary, “Fire on the Mountain,” kindly gave me the names and numbers of some of the men in her film. From there it was an obvious move to the 10th Mountain Division Association, (their veterans group) with its many resources, and thence to the 10th Mountain Collection at the Denver Public Library, by far the biggest single warehousing of 10th documents and photos in the U.S.

Through the association roster I found the names of living 10th men within striking distance of my home in Montrose (Santa Fe to Salt Lake, basically), and these men became the first-person voices in the book.

Finally, contrary to the subtitle of my book (“the untold story of World War II’s 10th Mountain Division ski troops” – a line I didn’t write nor approve of), there have been many books written about the 10th, and I devoured some of these in my research.

How were you able to personalize the stories shared in the book, particularly in regards to the soldiers who didn’t make it back?

Several of the men I worked with had diaries, journals or memoirs (unpublished and published) which they generously loaned me. A lot of the very personal flavor to the stories of Harry Poschman (Grand Junction), Bob Woody (Salt Lake City), and John Jennings (Collbran) for example, comes from their writings, which are candid and immediate.

The stories of men who didn’t come back, particularly those of Torger Tokle and Bud Winter, I gleaned from accounts by other men. And in Torger’s case, as a world champion ski jumper, there were lots of news accounts from the time. Bud Winter was beloved by his fellow ski troopers, who wrote about him in their own recollections. In addition, I had the bittersweet pleasure of reading his letters home, to his brother and his parents in Upstate New York, which are collected at the Denver Library.

Was it difficult to get the veterans to share their 10th Mountain experiences?

No. Most love the attention. And all of them want the true story to get out there. They’re not into myth-making. They want you to know that, yes, skiers (especially back then when the fraternity was quite small) are exceptional people, and this gave the 10th its “elite” reputation. But they also want it made very clear that they don’t consider themselves heroes, no more than the 89 other army divisions in the war. And they want you to understand how bloody awful war really is. Not romantic at all. Horrific.

What struck you most about the 10th?

They were unique. There had never been a mountain division before. They were the only army division ever created out of a sport. The only division recruited by a civilian organization (the National Ski Patrol). The only division trained to fight on snow and rock. Their training, at high elevations on Mount Rainier and at Camp Hale, along with the camaraderie of skiing – the passion for powder, the singing of songs, the happy, adventurous spirit – bonded them, and made them a formidable fighting force. Even though, in the end, they didn’t actually fight on skis in Italy.

Once you did your research and compiled all the information was there a particular story or soldier that stood out from all the rest?

There were many standout stories. There were, after all, 14,000 men in the division at its strength. The stories that stick in my memory are often the little ones that tell so much about soldiers in war. One example was a story Bob Parker (Santa Fe) told me about a young German soldier that he shot through a barn window and watched die. Thirty years later Parker wrote a beautiful poem about it called “Not Proudly.” I had the poem in the book, but my editor didn’t think it advanced the action and cut it. I’m sorry now that I didn’t fight harder to keep it in.

Did you unearth any interesting 10th Mountain Division trivia during your research that you did not included in the book? If so, please share.

Because the 10th was designed (initially at least) to fight in roadless or snowy places, the division incorporated 5,000 mules to haul supplies and pack howitzer artillery. Some very famous rodeo cowboys, including Jim Like of Canyon City, Col., were recruited into the ski troops to serve as muleskinners.

Is there anything additional you would like to share with the readers in regards to either the process of writing this book or the 10th Mountain Division itself?

The story of the 10th extends well beyond the end of the war. Returning 10th veterans played pivotal roles in everything from the ski industry to environmental consciousness to Nike shoes. Arguably, our very deepest notions about the outdoors were formed, or at least shaped, by America’s only mountain soldiers.

The 2004 Festival of Words is a three-day event beginning with Wine and Wit, an evening of poetry on Friday, April 16 , Afternoon with Authors on Saturday, April 17 and a Footnote Breakfast with the authors will cap off the weekend on Sunday, April 18. The weekend events will be held at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort and Spa, which is offering a $79 hotel room rate for April 16-18, single or double occupancy, tax not included, and a 25% discount on all spa services. For more information and to purchase tickets, call the Vail Symposium at 476-0954 or visit http://www.festivalofwords.org.


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