The ski industry came from the 10th Mountain Division
VAIL – The portrait of a soldier with skis slung over his shoulder autofeeds to one’s memory when thinking of ski pioneers. And, according to veterans, it wasn’t until the World War II success of the 10th Mountain Division that skiing really skyrocketed in the United States.”There are over 60 ski areas, built or directed by men of the 10th,” said retired 10th Mountain Division Lt. Col. Earl Clark, who, at 86, is still the honorary commander of the new 10th Mountain Division, which stands as the most deployed division in all of the U.S. military, and is now stationed in Afghanistan.”In the 1930s, skiing was still a European sport,” Clark said. “It was several years of ski training that led to men of the 10th literally fathering the ski industry in this country. We pat ourselves on the back as being the fathers of the modern ski industry.”In honor of Ski Heritage Week, the Sonnenalp Lodge in Vail is screening a tidbit of Abbie Kealey’s “Last Ridge” documentary. Kealey’s uncle was killed in the division’s attack on Italy’s Mt. Belvedere that followed the attack of German troops on Belvedere’s Riva Ridge (not just the name of a ski run at Vail) on Jan. 28,1945.Clark was not part of the 1,000 men that scaled the ridge with ropes in the middle of the night in winter, but he was a staff officer during the Belvedere attack the following day. A mountaineer in Grand Teton National Park, Clark viewed joining the 10th Mountain Division as an opportunity to use some of his specialized skills.”I was a climber who lived in Chicago at the time,” Clark said. “I did extensive, technical climbing in the Tetons. I learned from the American Alpine Club.”
Clark sent in the required three letters of recommendation to the national ski patrol attesting to his outdoor skills, and he was in. He said his mountain prowess came in very handy during the division’s intensive training over three winters at Camp Hale, and how the most challenging aspect of his 10th Mountain Division experience was combat. He held a “double role” as staff officer, meaning he had to watch out for his own survival as well as that of his troops.Mountain friendsThe most rewarding aspect for Clark, outside of the pride that came from the division’s overall military success, is the camaraderie he formed with other soldiers. “It’s a wonderful comradeship,” said Clark, who no longer climbs mountains, but is still a skier. “We had something the average army didn’t have. We had this common love of the mountains. It was the glue that bound the group together as long as we lived.”Dick Over jokes that there aren’t many original members of the 10th Mountain Division left to tell about it. Over was also a 10th Mountain Division veteran who trained at Camp Hale and was then deployed on a mission on Alaska’s Aleutian Islands to combat the Japanese in WWII. He agrees that the tight friendship among division soldiers stands as his fondest memory of the experience.”The camaraderie we built after the war, the fellas who were all there, that’s what’s kept the 10th Mountain Division alive,” Over said, pointing out that the division was disbanded after WWII until 1985, when the American government resurrected it.Over, who, at 82 is still teaching skiing at Winter Park, initially joined the division because he was a skier looking for adventure.
“I was a young skier,” Over said, pausing to chuckle. “They were recruiting skiers and mountaineers. When I heard about it, I signed up. At that time, almost all the fellas were volunteers.”Hardships of high-altitude livingMore than deployment or combat, for Over, the most difficult aspect of his time with the division was surviving the freezing winters at 9,400 feet at Camp Hale.”Living outdoors at 30-below-zero in six-foot snow drifts was rather difficult,” he said. “We had a series of simulated battle conditions at Camp Hale called the D series. Six feet of snow and 30 below. We were out for six weeks at a time living in that.”Division veterans say that no conditions, not even those on Riva Ridge, paralleled the severity of weather and temperatures during training at Camp Hale. It was this dedication to duty, however, that led to the division’s astute success, and to its everlasting pride.”From a military standpoint, one of the most rewarding aspects is being with an organization that performed supremely well,” Clark said. “It something that we could be proud of for the rest of our lives.”
“Last Ridge” documentaryWhat: Special glimpse at Abbie Kealey’s documentary of the 10th Mountain Division, from it’s World War II origins to its most current deployment in AfghanistanWhere: Sonnenalp Lodge in VailWhen: 6 p.m.Information: 476-1876Staff Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext.14632, or firstname.lastname@example.org.