State snowsports museum in Vail has fabled ‘ski troopers’ as its cornerstone | VailDaily.com

State snowsports museum in Vail has fabled ‘ski troopers’ as its cornerstone

VAIL — Walk into the front door of the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame and look slightly to the right. The genesis of the state's ski industry is right there — a large tribute to the 10th Mountain Division.

The newly renovated museum now has carefully crafted exhibits on several pieces of the state's snowsports history. Little of that history would have happened without 10th Mountain Division veterans, who, in the years just after World War II, were the driving force in creating the state's fledgling ski industry.

The 10th trained near what became Vail, at Camp Hale, between Red Cliff and Leadville. Division veteran Pete Seibert co-founded the resort that became Vail. Many other division veterans are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Those men helped shape America's post-war ski industry from a niche activity to a popular sport — and, eventually, a big business.

To tell the story of American skiing, you have to start with the 10th Mountain Division. That's why this exhibit is front and center.

Telling tales with artifacts

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The several walls of the exhibit tell the story of the 10th, from its creation in World War II to the men who signed up to some of the equipment the outfit used. The displays even include an old T-bar from the Cooper Hill ski area and a piece of a wooden barracks wall.

The idea to create soldiers on snow required the men to train in harsh conditions, with equipment that, viewed with today's eyes, is unthinkably primitive.

Still, the soldiers would train on their long wooden skis on the Cooper ski hill. The men would ski from Camp Hale to Aspen, spending nights in sub-zero winter temperatures in flimsy tents and heavy, down-filled sleeping bags.

The story of the 10th has been told in books, of course, but a museum is a visual space. The walls keep text to a minimum — director Susie Tjossem said there was a strict limit of 150 words per entry.

That sparse text allows visitors to put more attention on the artifacts.

And what artifacts they are.

Some of the display items will rotate — as will artifacts in other displays — thanks to the museum's vast collection stored in Denver.

But expect the 45-minute movie to remain — they'll start it from the beginning for you on a slow day. The regular and winter uniforms will stay, too, along with equipment including an unpacked backpack showing some of the roughly 90 pounds of gear the ski troopers carried — not counting a rifle and ammunition. For many, if not most, of the men, that load represented more than half their body weight.

There are also crystal-clear photos of the men who learned to go to war on skis.

"The quality of some of those photos is so good — you see these are just regular people like us," museum development director John McMurtry said.

Heavy combat, heavy casualties

But these regular people were highly trained, highly accomplished athletes. They had to be, since the unit was thrown into heavy combat and took heavy casualties.

In just 114 days of combat, the unit saw 1,000 men killed and more than 3,100 wounded. There's a display to honor the fallen.

The unit is best known for its assault on Mount Belvedere in Italy and the legendary climb up Riva Ridge, a seemingly impossible assault that sent soldiers up the mountain's sheer backside to attack German defenses from the rear.

But the unit also saw action in the little-known campaign to retake some of the Aleutian Islands near Alaska.

Even when not facing combat, danger was a constant companion.

McMurtry noted that a number of 10th Mountain soldiers were dispatched to take an Italian villa where recently deposed dictator Benito Mussolini was believed to be hiding.

In a trip across a lake, one of the unit's boats capsized, killing 24 men.

Those who survived the trip took the villa, but Mussolini was gone. Soldiers being soldiers, they quickly grabbed up a number of war souvenirs, most of which were squirreled away after the war.

In the new display area, there's a cabinet filled with Mussolini mementos, brought home by veteran Eugene Hames and loaned to the museum by his family.

There are only a few original 10th Mountain veterans left alive, but the unit remains active, now based at Fort Drum in New York.

McMurtry said a recent visitor to the museum — a man in his 20s — is an active-duty member of the 10th.

"He said every time he comes west, he loves learning more about the 10th," McMurtry said. "There's that legacy there, a legacy they're following."

There's a lot going on in the newly reimagined museum, but the exhibit honoring the 10th Mountain Division will remain the cornerstone.

"I think it's really going to be a draw when word gets out," McMurtry said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com and 970-748-2930.

About this series

The Vail Daily is taking some time this weekend and next to detail some of what’s new at the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame. The museum will hold a grand opening gala on Saturday, June 23. For more information, go to http://www.skimuseum.net.