Vail icon Sandy Treat keeps the history of 10th Mountain Division alive with his stories
Treat treats a standing-room only crowd to tales of famed mountain combat division at Colorado Snowsports Museum
VAIL — The standing-room-only crowd gave Sandy Treat a hero’s welcome as he opened his weekly “Tales of the 10th” presentation. He deserves it, as do thousands of others.
Treat fought with the famed 10th Mountain Division across the mountains and valleys of northern Italy during World War II.
He took his time Friday afternoon, making his way to the front of the room at the Colorado Snowsports Museum. Shaking hands, greeting people, smiling and thanking everyone for coming as many thanked him and others of The Greatest Generation.
Finally, he sat down, cleared his throat and began to weave stories.
“Let’s make this a happy thing. I’ve seen a lot of unhappy things, lots of terrible things,” Treat told Friday’s crowd.
He’s 96 years old and tack sharp. He was 19 when he shipped out to Europe for the war.
The presentation shifts from week to week, depending on the questions he is asked and the stories that follow. Someone always asks, “Were you scared when you went to war?”
“Sure!” comes Treat’s reply. “When someone next to me was shot, I was damned scared!”
Treat was raised on a farm in Orange, Connecticut, where his father, who fought in World War I, taught him to shoot. His mother wrote to him every day he was in the service.
He was Dartmouth’s No. 1 cross-country skier when the U.S. entered the war. The legendary Minnie Dole, who founded the 10th Mountain Division, the National Ski Patrol and so much more, personally recruited Treat.
When Dole asked him about his qualifications, Treat told him, “I can ski fast and for a long way.”
Treat boarded a train in New York with 15 other guys and headed west to Camp Hale, Colorado. Hundreds were already there. Thousands would follow. The Army recruited skiers and other outdoors types, reasoning that they could be trained as soldiers. Very few washed out, Treat said.
“We were going to a war we knew very little about,” Treat told the crowd.
‘To toughen them up’
They knew it was cold in Camp Hale, 25 below zero when they arrived. One of the other guys advised him to grab a top bunk because heat rises … assuming there was much heat. Treat rolled out of his bunk the next morning and said he uttered an admonition that cannot be repeated in a room where “ladies are present.” His sergeant was unmoved as they started calisthenics, beginning with pushups in the snow.
Skiing in warfare was not well known at the time, Treat said. To toughen their hands, the soldiers trained without gloves.
They carried weights along with their rifles and other gear, to toughen them up. They carried those 100-pound rucksacks up what seemed like every mountain in Colorado, to make them tougher.
They learned to climb 60-foot spires and rock walls.
They learned to dig holes in the snow to protect them from the wind.
The Germans were very well trained and battle-hardened.
“You gotta learn to deal with tough stuff,” Treat said. “We were a bunch of college guys with no experience.”
‘I’ve had a lovely life’
There was fun among the frostbite.
One day an officer walked up to him and barked, “Are you Sandy Treat?”
“Yes sir,” Treat replied.
“We want you to climb up in that clump of trees so the photographer can take a picture,” the officer ordered.
So he did, except the photographer told him to take off his clothes for the picture.
Treat may or may not remember the picture, but he remembers it was so cold that the photographer fumbled around and dropped his camera. He also remembers it took a long time.
“I thought, ‘I’m gonna die before I even get started,’” Treat said.
He didn’t die. He survived Camp Hale, the Battle of Riva Ridge and so much else. Ironically, the skiing soldiers did not ski during combat in Europe, Treat said. It was spring when they arrived in Italy and a few guys skied on a patrol. Their skis made such a clatter on the rocks that it gave away their position.
“We didn’t ski in combat. We didn’t even have our skis in Europe,” Treat said.
At 96 he has outlived three wives and one of his children. During his weekly talks, he weaves their stories into his “Tales of the 10th.”
“I’ve done it for years. I’ll do it as long as I’m able,” Treat said. “I’ve had a lovely life.”