Imagine side stepping up a steep, snowy mountainside on nine-foot long wooden skis carrying a 90 pound ruck sack. Gore-Tex was yet to be invented and all you had was layers of wool. You were a soldier of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, so while you were skiing, climbing mountains and repelling off cliffs, you were also fighting the Nazi’s.
The 10th Mountain Division recruited some of the world’s best skiers and mountaineers. Their home was Camp Hale. Nestled in the mountains between Leadville and I-70, Camp Hale received 250 inches of annual snowfall and is located at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. The training was so effective, 10th Mountain Division soldiers were able to capture Nazi-held Riva Ridge and later Mount Belvedere in Italy. More than 990 10th Mountain Division Soldiers died and 4,000 were wounded during WWII, but those that came back started the modern day ski industry, including skiing resorts like Vail and Ski Cooper.
WWII 10th Mountain Division veterans are now in their 90’s. As my family pulled into the parking lot of the Columbine Inn and Suites in Leadville, I saw the 10th Mountain Division patch on Colorado designer license plates, on window decals, and on the jackets of people returning to the Inn from a day of skiing.
“You’re too pale to have spent the day skiing,” said an older man as we walked in. A clear line separated the tan of his lower face from the lighter skin where his ski goggles once were. He had 10th Mountain Division patches on his ski jacket and the jovial bounciness of a soul 60 years younger than his physical age.
“We’re going skiing tomorrow!” I said with a smile.
“Well enjoy it!” he replied.
We learned the next day at Ski Cooper that we had met one of the WWII 10th Mountain Division Veterans. Ski Cooper is located on the Chicago Ridge, exactly the same place where the Division’s soldiers trained in the 1940’s. I had my whole family enrolled in classes our first day of skiing. Throughout the class, our teachers pointed out 10th Mountain Veterans riding up the chair lift to the top of the mountain where the green runs are more like blues and the blacks are more like double black diamonds. It was President’s Day weekend and the 10th Mountain Vets were having a reunion.
The walls of Ski Cooper’s Mountain Lodge are filled with oversized photo reprints of 10th Mountain soldiers camping in the snow and lines of men marching in formation at Camp Hale. A pair of 10th Mountain skis, a tent, and several articles of clothing is also strapped to the walls and a giant equipment sled hangs from the ceiling. It’s wonderful fodder to spark a child’s curiosity. While my husband tackled the harder runs, my kids and I warmed up in the Mountain Lodge and I told them all about WWII and the heroism of the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division. They were fascinated and their reactions reflected their feelings of respect and admiration towards those brave soldiers who could do so much on skis.
We skied for two days at Ski Cooper. The kids and I stayed on the beginner slope with the “EZ Street Magic Carpet” standing lift. Both days, although the kids were exhausted and the runs were closing, they did not want to leave. The staff and facilities at Ski Cooper very much embody the genuine love for skiing and the outdoors that was so pervasive in the 10th Mountain Division during WWII. Our vacation at Ski Cooper passed this love onto my children, keeping the legacy of “The Soldiers on Skis” alive for generations to come.
Jennifer Smith-Daigle is a stay-at-home mother of a third grade daughter and twin kindergarten boys. She and her boys are survivors of Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome, being some of the first 200 people in the United States to be cured by Fetoscopic Laser Ablation surgery. Jennifer’s life before kids included world travel, historic preservation, and archaeology digs. When she’s not busy with a house full of kids and enough mammals to constitute a small zoo, Jennifer finds freedom in freelance writing, martial arts, and gardening.