How the 10th was built |

How the 10th was built

Deb Luginbuhl
Special to the Daily Montrose-based author Peter Shelton chronicles the history - and what would become the future - of that group in this spring's Valley Read pick "Climb to Conquer: The Untold Story of the 10th Mountain Division."

When an elite group of men reported to training during World War II in the middle of the Rockies, they didn’t just change the face of winter warfare. They went on to be major players in the development of ski areas and outdoor life in general.

Montrose-based author Peter Shelton chronicles the history – and what would become the future – of that group in this spring’s Valley Read pick “Climb to Conquer: The Untold Story of the 10th Mountain Division.” Anybody is invited to join in the “virtual bookclub,” which culminates with a discussion at the Colorado Ski Museum April 7.

In the late-1930s, rock climbing and downhill skiing were relatively new sports in the United States. But World War II brought a need for soldiers who could handle extreme mountain conditions – and the 10th Mountain Division was born. It was the sole Army division trained on snow and rock, the only division ever to grow out of a sport.

The 10th had an unmatched number of professional athletes, college scholars, and potential officer candidates, and as the last U.S. division to enter the war in Europe, it suffered the highest number of casualties per combat day.

Shelton follows this unique division from its conception in New England, through its rigorous training at Camp Hale, to the ultimate revolution it inspired in American outdoor life in his recent book.

“These men not only revolutionized ski sport in America after the war,” writes Shelton, “they represented a revolution in the way Americans today think about the outdoors, how they spend their money and their leisure time, and how they view the planet as a whole.”

10th Mountain Division veteran and Denver resident Earl Clark will attend the discussion at the museum, offering perspective, memories and slides. As the division has had a direct and lasting impact on Vail, it should be both informative and pertinent to the general public.

Clark chose to volunteer for the Army in the fall of 1941 when, as a 22-year-old living in Chicago, he learned through his membership in a mountaineering club about a new mountain battalion being formed. Clark had spent his adult summers working and climbing peaks in Colorado and Wyoming, and had been skiing at ski resorts in the Midwest since he was 13.

“It was before Pearl Harbor, I was 22 and single,” he said. “The draft was on. It was logical that we were going to have to serve in the military. By volunteering, we could choose our service and this proved to be a great motivation.”

Clark reported for duty at Fort Lewis in Washington in the fall of 1941 and arrived in Colorado the following summer when the battalion was moved to Camp Hale for training. He was quickly sent to Officer Training School due to his mountaineering skills and his first assignment was as supervisor of Ski Instruction.

“Camp Hale was built in a period of six months in 1942,” he said. “At the time it was the fourth largest city in Colorado with 1,000 buildings, capable of housing 18,000 men. The first tow ropes were located in the south end of the valley until the t-bars were built on Cooper Hill (now known as Ski Cooper).”

Clark eventually retired from the armed services as a Lieutenant Colonel. Between 1942 and 1944, the battalion grew to a division strength of more than 14,000 men and was sent to Italy in the winter of 1944 to take part in a daring nighttime attack on the German forces in the northern Apennine Mountains.

“I was part of the night attack on Mount Belvedere,” he recalled. “Everybody was scared to death – if you didn’t have fear you weren’t normal. Our training – the hardship of our training, the extra winter (spent at Camp Hale), the training at a high elevation had prepared us all. We were in marvelously good shape.”

The attack began as a nighttime ridge climb at 10 p.m. Silence was imperative as the soldiers crept upwards.

“Then all hell broke loose,” he said. “The Germans had fortified the ridge, we started running into barbed wire, mine fields – it was a nasty fight. But elements of our division reached the summit of Mount Belvedere by the next morning. Two key spots (Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere) were taken in 48 hours by our division.”

Much of the success of the mountain division can be attributed to the depth of training received, and to the trust and camaraderie cemented during the time its members spent at Camp Hale. However, there was an intrinsic factor unique to this division.

“The men of the 10th had something most in the armed services didn’t have – a great love of the mountains, which had led most of us to volunteer for the new mountain division,” said Clark. “We were able to keep our love of the mountains and try to forget the horrors of the war. This was the glue that kept us together. It led to tremendous penetration in the ski industry in the years after the war.”

As Shelton chronicles in “Climb to Conquer,” a number of 10th veterans who survived the war returned home to create a score of new ski areas in the United States including Arapahoe Basin, Aspen and Vail in Colorado, as well as resorts in California, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Vermont, New York, New Mexico, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. Sixty-two ski areas were either managed by or had ski schools directed by 10th alumni, and an estimated 2,000 ski troopers became ski instructors.

“The 10th Mountain Division veterans played a vital role in the development of the skiing industry in Colorado. The fact that they trained at Camp Hale, in the heart of the Rockies, brought many of them back to Colorado to live permanently,” said Katie Bartel, executive director of the Colorado Ski Museum, located in Vail Village. “We are honored to have many 10th Mountain Division veterans in our Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame including Earl Clark, Pete Seibert, Bob Parker, Sarge Brown and John Litchfield, just to name a few. Their commitment to the sport of skiing and their vision of the future of Colorado is something we should all be grateful for, as they made our state what it is today.”

Other 10th veterans turned their love of the mountains into a thriving outdoor industry that transformed the way Americans played in the natural world, including Dave Brower, who became the first executive director of the Sierra Club, Paul Petzholdt, who founded the National Outdoor Leadership School, and Nike Co-Founder Bill Bowerman, who developed the waffle-sole running shoe

Many innovations came out of those days at Camp Hale. One of the major equipment technological advances was the use of nylon rope for mountain climbing. Hemp had previously been the material of choice, but it came from the Philippines, and during World War II, that source was no longer available.

“Almost everything used in mountaineering and camping was affected by the war and our experiments at Camp Hale. The Army didn’t know what would work in the mountains and would send everything to us,” said Clark. “It was up to us to boil it down to the necessities, including the special outdoor uniforms that were created for the division.”

The 10th was deactivated after World War II but the Army returned the division to active duty in 1985 as a light infantry unit which has since become the most deployed unit around the world, currently battling the remaining Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan on the Pakistan border.

“We were delighted when they reactivated this division because they chose to use our colors and our insignia,” said Clark. “We are all quite pleased and proud. Just think, the officers in this division are our children’s ages, and the soldiers are our grandchildren’s ages.”

The Valley Read is attached to the 2004 Festival of Words, a three-day event April 16-18. It kicks off with an evening of poetry, “Wine and Wit,” and continues April 17 with an afternoon of listening to and interacting with five authors, including Peter Shelton. The event wraps up with an intimate “Footnote Breakfast.” The entire festival will be held at the Park Hyatt Beaver Creek Resort and Spa. For more information on the event or to purchase tickets, call the Vail Symposium at 476-0954 or visit

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