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Know the West

The legacy of the 10th Mountain men


South of Vail, Colo., in a mountain meadow framed by 14,000-foot peaks, deep snow hides the ruined foundations of Camp Hale. In the winters of 1943 and 1944, 15,000 men equipped with rifles and skis swarmed the surrounding terrain, training for alpine combat in the Army's 10th Mountain Division.

When I drove by in February, a dusting of overnight snow sparkled on the meadow's quiet expanse, and on the few concrete buildings left standing.

Five miles farther south, atop Tennessee Pass, I pulled into the parking lot at Ski Cooper, a four-lift, community-owned hill with its roots in World War II. I had come to spend the day with 10th Mountain veterans, who gather in ever-shrinking numbers for an annual Ski-In at Cooper. Two years ago, 50 of them took the chairlift to Cooper's 11,700-foot high point. This winter, only about a dozen stalwarts braved gravity and the oxygen-poor air.

Dick Dirkes (E Company, 86th Regiment), who lives in Edwards, just down the freeway from Vail, grew up skiing in New York. "I'm one of the babies," he told me, grin lines creasing his tan. "I was 18 when I came to Camp Hale. Now I'm 83, a geriatric ski bum." He wore orange-tinted shades beneath his khaki 10th cap, and had the newest K2 shaped skis on his feet.

He introduced me to Andre Benoit (B-86), of Falmouth, Maine, who just turned 87. Benoit is the father of Olympic marathon champion Joan Benoit Samuelson. As young men, Benoit and Dirkes signed up for the romance of the ski troops, when skiing itself was very young and when the Army thought we'd need to fight the Nazis in Norway or the Alps - or maybe even defend New England in winter. Today, both men ski with an upright elegance born of countless turns and miles. They are still athletes, still members of the only U.S. Army division ever predicated on sport.

During their training, 10th Mountain men built Ski Cooper - they called it Cooper Hill - and what was then the world's longest T-bar right on the Continental Divide. Thousands of soldiers learned to ski here, and fell in love with the mountains and the snow. Most of them fought in the Apennine Mountains of northern Italy during the last months of the war, though an early thaw precluded the use of skis. And most of them came home eager to jumpstart America's post-war boom in outdoor recreation. The resorts at Vail and Aspen were started by 10th men, as were Sugarbush and Crystal Mountain and Ski Santa Fe and Mount Bachelor. Sixty-two ski areas were either managed by or had ski schools directed by 10th alumni, and an estimated 2,000 ski troopers became peacetime ski instructors. Millions of Americans took up the sport after 1945, many of them riding on war-surplus, camouflage-white wooden skis and white-painted bamboo poles.

In his thoroughly modern gear - all but the cap - Dirkes led the way to a secret stash of powder. "Nobody goes here," he said with devilish glee. And it was true. The old T-bar lift line was untouched, like a sheet of blank white paper on which we drew in curving longhand.

Back at the top of the chairlift, we watched a snowcat disgorge backcountry skiers on the treeless flank of Chicago Ridge. "I remember being up there once on maneuvers," Benoit said. "Of course, we didn't have snowcats then. We walked up with skins on our skis."

"We had the Weasels," Dirkes interjected. "But they couldn't even get out of their own way!" The Army did, in fact, invest time and money to develop an over-the-snow vehicle for the 10th. But the Studebaker-built Weasel didn't climb well and couldn't handle snow deeper than a foot or two. Still, Weasels were used at dozens of post-war ski areas and are considered a progenitor of the modern snowcat.

Scores of innovations came out of the 10th Mountain's experiments: the stretchy, super-strong nylon climbing rope; the Vibram boot sole; gasoline-powered camp stoves; dehydrated camp foods; the zipline; the double-goose-down sleeping bag - to name a few.

Even more important than the gear were the post-war enthusiasms of many of the vets. The explosive growth in skiing still gets most of the ink. But others were just as important. Paul Petzoldt (10th Medics) was the best-known American mountaineer before the war, having made it to 26,000-plus feet on K2 in 1938. After the war, he helped bring Outward Bound to the United States. Then he created NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, in his native Wyoming, and popularized the "leave no trace" wildland ethic.

Bill Bowerman (G-86) returned to his home in Oregon, where he coached numerous Olympians at the University of Oregon track program,and started a little shoe company called Nike.

No one had a bigger impact on landscapes and national attitudes toward the land than David Brower. Capt. Brower (3rd Battalion, 86th Regiment) was an elite climber and backcountry skier before enlisting in the 10th. In the Alps after V-E Day, he witnessed not only the damage war inflicted on the mountains, but also the irreversible impacts created by burgeoning populations: dams, roads, cities and pollution. He returned home to his beloved Sierra Club and transformed it from an outing club into the most powerful environmental organization in the country. He was crucial to the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and to the saving of the Grand Canyon.

I heard, just before the Ski-In, that an effort was under way to rename a peak in the eastern Sierra for David Brower, who died eight years ago at 88. Hugh Evans (C-85) who lives in Boulder, is on the committee petitioning Congress. The energetic, fast-skiing Evans is often at the center of 10th reunion events, and at the Ski-In, he led the afternoon ceremony at the 10th Memorial just off Tennessee Pass.

Near a massive piece of Italian marble inscribed with the names of the 992 division men killed in the war, white-haired John Woodward (HQ-87) stood at attention. Woodward, 92 years old, is still racing in international masters competitions. Nelson Bennett (I-87), one of the first Sun Valley ski instructors, stood next to him, rail-thin but steady. Descendants read from the list of names. Then Evans did his best, tears streaming from his aging blue eyes, to sing a song written by an 85th mate soon after the division's bloody assault on Monte Belvedere in Italy in February 1945.

Later, I asked Evans about the "Brower Palisade" renaming project. "There are lots of peaks named for people who did less," he told me. But Evans, who worked in mining most of his life, also acknowledged the irony in his participation. "Here's me, the dirty old coal miner, and here's Brower, the environmentalist. I was involved in the Sierra Club as a kid. But I dropped out when it became political. I guess Dave Brower was responsible for that, wasn't he?"

In fact, Brower was often at odds, at least philosophically, with the ski-lift builders among his wartime comrades. He said he had "nothing against the practice slopes and standard runs," but he also rued the loss of wilderness to big-time ski development.

I asked Dick Dirkes about the changes he's seen around skiing. "You know," he replied, "I saw so much growth in the East, so much crowding and so on. ... The people are here. What are you gonna do? I do miss the days when there were so few skiers, you'd see another car with skis on the roof and you'd both honk and wave at each other. It was a different world."

Peter Shelton is the author, most recently, of the 10th Mountain Division history Climb to Conquer. He lives and writes in Montrose, Colorado.