Today's 10th

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Today's 10th Photo 1

Master Sgt. Billy Cole's team digs in for the night at 11,800 feet, just below the summit of Ptarmigan Hill. It is Day One of a five-day Tactical Procedures/Skills Exercise in central Colorado's Gore Range. Cole and his seven mountain troopers drop their 80-lb. "rucks," step out of their camouflage-white skis and commence digging shelters in the snow.

The men curse a sugary January snowpack. "This is soup!" they shout, employing an oft-used and versatile disparagement. Every shelter turns out different. Capt. Jeremie Oates, an Aspen native and former junior racer, fashions an underground shelf with a fragile snow roof, just enough room for him and his sleeping bag. Radio man J.T. Winborn covers his straightforward trench with a poncho. "Look at those guys!" Billy Cole calls out, pointing at photographer Tim Hancock and me fussing with our EMS tent. "They haven't even had 'class,' and already they've got a sheltah!"

The accent is Bridgewater, Mass. The attitude is pure "Car Talk" guys, preternaturally delighted. His eyes and nose crinkle up together when he smiles. Billy is the NCOIC, the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge, the leader by example, the teacher. His shelter has an elaborate overhang constructed of interwoven fir branches, skis and poles. "Check it out!" he crows, his crewcut fin of white-blond hair punching the air. "My 'don't ask, don't tell' condo!"

After dinner ("RATION, COLD WEATHER NO. 1-B" it says on the packet of beef stew), we stand around a bonfire as the temperature drops to 0° F. "If this was tactical," the 40-year-old Cole says, referring to a more realistic type of exercise involving night moves, bad guys and blank ammunition, "we wouldn't have a fire. But..." As it is, the mesmerizing flames and easy camaraderie add warmth to a sober game: These men are an elite fighting force, part of the Army 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), proud inheritors of the mantle "ski troops" once worn by the famous 10th Mountain Division. And this is, in fact, combat training. Dodging smoke and sparks, conversation moves around the circle. Billy tells about an arctic training mission with the Brits and the Norwegians when, under live fire, they purposely drove their snowmobiles into holes chopped in the sea ice to practice cold water survival skills. And of the time last winter when his car was bombed in Serb-held Bosnia. Oates recalls that his great uncle George served in the 87th Infantry Regiment, which trained, along with the rest of the 10th Mountain Division, at Camp Hale, no more than a long day's ski from where we are camped this night.

The 10th, as every skier, snowboarder and skiboarder should know, brought together America's first generation of mountaineers, "college boys to cowboys," to fight Hitler's alpine troops. The list of instructors at Camp Hale during the winters of 1943 and 1944 reads like a skiing Who's Who: Sun Valley ski school director Friedl Pfeifer; Dartmouth coach and Swiss world champion Walter Prager; Stowe's Kerr Sparks; Alta's Sverre Engen; racing and jumping champions Robert Livermore, Toni Matt and Torger Tokle; and ski filmmaker John Jay, to name just a few.

The ski sport was in its infancy then, so gear for the "ski army" came from unlikely places. The 7-foot skis were manufactured by prewar propeller factories and furniture makers. Poles came from the Orvis and Montague fly rod companies. Climbing skins were made by handbag and girdle manufacturers.

In December 1944, the 10th shipped out for Italy and by February 1945 they were pressing the German "Gothic Line" in the Apennines Mountains. A few advance patrols went out on skis, but it had been a warm winter; for the most part the snow was gone. Hand over hand, 10th companies scaled an icy cliff on Riva Ridge, catching the defending Germans by surprise. The rout was on, though weeks of fierce fighting remained. The 10th suffered the heaviest casualties per combat day of any American division in the war. Almos1,000 men were killed, and nearly half of the 10,000-man force was wounded. But on May 2, the German army in Italy, with their backs to the Alps, surrendered. That day, the men of the 10th got out their sticks and held a ski race on the snowfields of Mt. Mangart.

To a man, 10th veterans today talk of the unit as "a fraternity, a brotherhood." They sang songs and became fast friends. "We had a philosophy to helping each other," says Pfeifer in the 1996 documentary Fire On The Mountain. "That's the main thing in the mountains."

When the brothers in arms came home, they revolutionized the ski world. Robert Parker, Pete Seibert and Bill Brown invented Vail. Pfeifer and Fritz Benedict resurrected ghost-town Aspen. Larry Jump started A-Basin. Bill Healy imagined Mount Bachelor. And so on. Parker says in the film that "our mountain training gave us two things, an unusual work ethic and, two, we knew we could do almost anything...in terms of physical effort and mental effort. Obstacles didn't seem particularly difficult to us." By Seibert's reckoning, 2,000 men of the 10th went into some aspect of the ski business. In skiing's golden age-the post-war period through the Sixties-10th alumni founded, managed or ran the ski schools of no fewer than 62 American resorts.

One almost never hears these men identified by rank. The 10th was an informal and egalitarian outfit. When I first met Billy Cole, he pulled me into his room with a powerful handshake, then filled my palm with a cold beer. We were at the Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs, Colo. It was early January, and Billy and his team of ski instructors were conducting alpine ski training. By day, 136 soldiers in camouflage Gore-Tex stormed the lifts. The evenings were given over to drinking beer, playing pool and staying in touch with battalion headquarters at Fort Carson, Colo.

Capt. Oates was in the room, as was J.T. Winborn and Chief Warrant Officer Steve Hoffa, who at 40 is looking to retire soon. ("There's a bar with my name on it in Telluride.") Oates, 28, was the youngest man and the only officer present. I never got used to Billy and the other enlisted men addressing Oates as "sir." They did it out of habit and respect for the institution, though their military and life experience far outweighed the kid's. Up in the mountains, I never did see anyone salute.

The 10th Group is not your regular army. The average age is a mature 33. Most of the men have families. They've all volunteered at least three times to get here: once into the service, then again into Airborne ("We've been known to jump at night from 35,000 feet and drift for 40 miles if there is heavy anti-aircraft fire at the LZ," Billy told me matter-of-factly), and a third time into the rigorous qualifying school for Special Forces, the Green Berets of Vietnam, John Wayne and Sgt. Barry Sadler fame.

"I'm a teacher," "Chief" Hoffa told me on a lift ride, blue eyes scanning his own history. "Not a Rambo. Not a Terminator. I've been to some hell holes I can't tell you about, but..." The crest the group wears features a Trojan Horse, the classical symbol of stealth. As "quiet professionals" and masters of "unconventional warfare," these guys have been on some missions about which they are not at liberty to speak. At least not to a writer.

The secrecy goes back to the Special Force's origins in the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, which sent non-uniformed soldiers behind enemy lines during WWII. As the Cold War heated up, the U.S. Army in 1952 created the 10th Special Forces Group to "conduct partisan warfare behind Red Army lines in the event of a Soviet invasion of Europe." Early volunteers included refugees from behind the Iron Curtain who brought valuable language and cultural skills. Today, Green Berets are expected to be conversant in at least one foreign language. In 10th Group, those languages are likely to be Russian, Polish, Serbian, and so on.

With the winding down of the Cold War, 10th Group's assignments have evolved. Billy Cole's team spent time in northern Iraq after the Gulf War, feeding Kurds and enforcing the northern no-fly zone. They are credited with saving half a million Kurds from extinction. "That kind of stuff makes you feel good," Billy says. The threat of fighting in the snowy north (read: Warsaw, or Moscow) has abated. But there is still a commitment to skiing as one of many wild-terrain skills, and these guys take to the task with gusto.

Some of the skiers at Sunlight came in pretty raw. A young Texas recruit staggered away from Defiance, one of Sunlight's toughest double diamonds, coated from head to toe with powder. "I saw the sign at the top there that said 'Experts Only.' But our instructor, Sergeant Torrens, told us that was for civilians only." Chided a teammate, "You look like a frozen pickle, man."

Many of the instructors got their ski training in Germany where 1st Battalion is stationed. Billy skis in the self-described "Iron Cross position," with hands out to the side and feet glued together, skis clacking through wedeln-inspired turns. Capt. Oates, as one would expect of a racer, steps dynamically from edge to edge. He is arguably the finest skier in the bunch, but compared to the older guys, he lacks teaching experience. Early in the week, he led his class down Defiance, where one of his men fractured both bones in his lower leg.

This is not a common injury anymore on civilian slopes. But, in fact, there were two such breaks at Sunlight in five days. (Billy put off several ski dates with me in order to check in on his wounded at the hospital in Glenwood.) One reason for the accidents, I'm convinced, was the soldiers' gear: not as primitive, certainly, as the war-surplus gear that flooded the market and allowed so many Americans to start skiing in the Fifties, but seriously behind the times. The skis, from Karhu and Erik, were long, stiff and straight. The Lowa boots were low-cut lace-up models. And the alpine-touring bindings were several generations behind what Silvretta currently has on the market. The only really up-to-date pieces of the kit were the climbing skins from Ascension Enterprises.

Capt. Paul "Doc" Crowl, a Jimmy Stewart lookalike who grew up skiing at Lake Arrowhead in Southern California, put me on the gear for an afternoon. I felt a direct connection to Art Furer in his prime. You had to stand right on your feet; there was no support from the boots, no room for error. It was reminiscent, as Doc Crowl said, of "your first experience on skis when you were 4."

It seemed so incongruous, that the finest army in the world would issue 25-year-old technology to its best and brightest. The rationale I heard from the guys was that one, the Army is not out to create stylish skiers but simply efficient ones; and two, the 10th Group follows the lead of the German mountain troops with whom they train, and the Germans are just now starting to look at newer skis and bindings. Whatever the reasons-and some of the men told me unofficially that the labyrinthine military bureaucracy and its current, down-sized mindset are chiefly to blame-no one complained about the gear, and everyone made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in high-tech turn shapes.

It snowed every day we were at Sunlight, making for soft landings-and there were a lot of them. Neophytes crashed and hooted their way down the bumps. Others banked big, unsteady arcs on the groomed, much like the Camp Hale trainees in Fire On The Mountain, one balance glitch from frozen pickledom. The good skiers crouched and drove forward, looking like Friedl in '44, finessing turns with considerable skill and not a lot of ankle support. Following the Thursday final skills test-uphill stem; downhill stem; open parallel/medium-radius turns; closed parallel/rhythmic turns; aggressive skiing in mixed, difficult terrain-it was time to party. Beer flowed freely downstairs at the Sunlight Mountain Inn as did aold War, 10th Group's assignments have evolved. Billy Cole's team spent time in northern Iraq after the Gulf War, feeding Kurds and enforcing the northern no-fly zone. They are credited with saving half a million Kurds from extinction. "That kind of stuff makes you feel good," Billy says. The threat of fighting in the snowy north (read: Warsaw, or Moscow) has abated. But there is still a commitment to skiing as one of many wild-terrain skills, and these guys take to the task with gusto.

Some of the skiers at Sunlight came in pretty raw. A young Texas recruit staggered away from Defiance, one of Sunlight's toughest double diamonds, coated from head to toe with powder. "I saw the sign at the top there that said 'Experts Only.' But our instructor, Sergeant Torrens, told us that was for civilians only." Chided a teammate, "You look like a frozen pickle, man."

Many of the instructors got their ski training in Germany where 1st Battalion is stationed. Billy skis in the self-described "Iron Cross position," with hands out to the side and feet glued together, skis clacking through wedeln-inspired turns. Capt. Oates, as one would expect of a racer, steps dynamically from edge to edge. He is arguably the finest skier in the bunch, but compared to the older guys, he lacks teaching experience. Early in the week, he led his class down Defiance, where one of his men fractured both bones in his lower leg.

This is not a common injury anymore on civilian slopes. But, in fact, there were two such breaks at Sunlight in five days. (Billy put off several ski dates with me in order to check in on his wounded at the hospital in Glenwood.) One reason for the accidents, I'm convinced, was the soldiers' gear: not as primitive, certainly, as the war-surplus gear that flooded the market and allowed so many Americans to start skiing in the Fifties, but seriously behind the times. The skis, from Karhu and Erik, were long, stiff and straight. The Lowa boots were low-cut lace-up models. And the alpine-touring bindings were several generations behind what Silvretta currently has on the market. The only really up-to-date pieces of the kit were the climbing skins from Ascension Enterprises.

Capt. Paul "Doc" Crowl, a Jimmy Stewart lookalike who grew up skiing at Lake Arrowhead in Southern California, put me on the gear for an afternoon. I felt a direct connection to Art Furer in his prime. You had to stand right on your feet; there was no support from the boots, no room for error. It was reminiscent, as Doc Crowl said, of "your first experience on skis when you were 4."

It seemed so incongruous, that the finest army in the world would issue 25-year-old technology to its best and brightest. The rationale I heard from the guys was that one, the Army is not out to create stylish skiers but simply efficient ones; and two, the 10th Group follows the lead of the German mountain troops with whom they train, and the Germans are just now starting to look at newer skis and bindings. Whatever the reasons-and some of the men told me unofficially that the labyrinthine military bureaucracy and its current, down-sized mindset are chiefly to blame-no one complained about the gear, and everyone made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in high-tech turn shapes.

It snowed every day we were at Sunlight, making for soft landings-and there were a lot of them. Neophytes crashed and hooted their way down the bumps. Others banked big, unsteady arcs on the groomed, much like the Camp Hale trainees in Fire On The Mountain, one balance glitch from frozen pickledom. The good skiers crouched and drove forward, looking like Friedl in '44, finessing turns with considerable skill and not a lot of ankle support. Following the Thursday final skills test-uphill stem; downhill stem; open parallel/medium-radius turns; closed parallel/rhythmic turns; aggressive skiing in mixed, difficult terrain-it was time to party. Beer flowed freely downstairs at the Sunlight Mountain Inn as did a wicked, clear firewater in a duct-taped bottle from Bosnia. Billy Cole presented a new American flag to Pierre and Gretchen DuBois, the Inn's owners, saying, "I noticed you have an American flag up there. And it's soup! I think you need to bring it down, send up a new one." Awards were handed out, and farewells said. The Army was reassigning Jeremie Oates to NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Billy Cole expected to be sent again to Bosnia on a de-mining mission. Big men with close-cropped heads and muscles bulging under their shirts hugged each other and occasionally wiped away tears. I huddled for a while with battalion commander Col. Tom Rendall, telling him I thought some of today's fatter skis could really help his men, especially with packs on in the backcountry. He said he'd look into it. Around 2:30, a call went up for the singing of "The Ballad of the Green Berets," Barry Sadler's Vietnam-era hymn to "fighting men who jump and die...Silver wings upon their chest/These are men, America's best..." None other than the colonel himself stood and belted it out. Billy Cole put a burly arm around my shoulder and said, "Just write that we're a bunch of nahmal guys, working hahd, doing our best."

Somewhere between Ptarmigan Hill and Sugarloaf Peak, on the way to the next RON (Remain Overnight) site, photographer Hancock and I decide to leave C Company and head back to civilization. We've been traversing single file across the face of a massive, windblown ridge, well above timberline. Five miles and 3,000 feet down to the west sits the abandoned site at Camp Hale. A few remnant foundations and a small monument there attest to the heroics of the 10th Mountain Division. Beyond Camp Hale is the alpine jumble of the Sawatch Range. At the north end sits Vail, which was an isolated sheep ranch back then. To the south is Aspen, where men of the 10th went on weekends to unwind for a dollar a night at the Hotel Jerome and to which they returned, as Fritz Benedict said, "with a sense of purpose born of survival."

Billy Cole's team is wearing their nylon "overwhites," M4 automatic rifles either slung across chests or strapped to heavy packs. But for the modern weaponry, they could be right out of one of those black-and-white photographs from 1944. The pace is deliberate, the snow alternately wind-pressed and rotten: soup. Tip over in this stuff and you either need a hand getting up, or you need to be incredibly strong and stubborn. I see instances of both.

"What a beautiful day, huh?" sings out Master Sgt. Billy Cole. "I'd enjoy it even more if my ruck weighed about 20 pounds less." He'd enjoy it no matter what. When you've nearly been blown up in service to your country, cold-weather training in Colorado is a lark. We say goodbye, wish one another well. I'm thinking about Bosnia. Or maybe it'll be Kosovo or Iraq next.

It feels as if I'm sending family into harm's way. Immensely competent family but, as 10th veteran Earl Clark says in the movie: "War is still war, and men must die." As I ski away, I'm aware of the 10th Group coin in my pocket. Billy gave it to me at the Sunlight party. It has solid, silver-dollar heft. Every ski trooper carries one. On one side is the Trojan Horse. On the other I read the old-fashioned mountaineers' greeting, "Berg Heil," and the words "The Best."id a wicked, clear firewater in a duct-taped bottle from Bosnia. Billy Cole presented a new American flag to Pierre and Gretchen DuBois, the Inn's owners, saying, "I noticed you have an American flag up there. And it's soup! I think you need to bring it down, send up a new one." Awards were handed out, and farewells said. The Army was reassigning Jeremie Oates to NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Billy Cole expected to be sent again to Bosnia on a de-mining mission. Big men with close-cropped heads and muscles bulging under their shirts hugged each other and occasionally wiped away tears. I huddled for a while with battalion commander Col. Tom Renndall, telling him I thought some of today's fatter skis could really help his men, especially with packs on in the backcountry. He said he'd look into it. Around 2:30, a call went up for the singing of "The Ballad of the Green Berets," Barry Sadler's Vietnam-era hymn to "fighting men who jump and die...Silver wings upon their chest/These are men, America's best..." None other than the colonel himself stood and belted it out. Billy Cole put a burly arm around my shoulder and said, "Just write that we're a bunch of nahmal guys, working hahd, doing our best."

Somewhere between Ptarmigan Hill and Sugarloaf Peak, on the way to the next RON (Remain Overnight) site, photographer Hancock and I decide to leave C Company and head back to civilization. We've been traversing single file across the face of a massive, windblown ridge, well above timberline. Five miles and 3,000 feet down to the west sits the abandoned site at Camp Hale. A few remnant foundations and a small monument there attest to the heroics of the 10th Mountain Division. Beyond Camp Hale is the alpine jumble of the Sawatch Range. At the north end sits Vail, which was an isolated sheep ranch back then. To the south is Aspen, where men of the 10th went on weekends to unwind for a dollar a night at the Hotel Jerome and to which they returned, as Fritz Benedict said, "with a sense of purpose born of survival."

Billy Cole's team is wearing their nylon "overwhites," M4 automatic rifles either slung across chests or strapped to heavy packs. But for the modern weaponry, they could be right out of one of those black-and-white photographs from 1944. The pace is deliberate, the snow alternately wind-pressed and rotten: soup. Tip over in this stuff and you either need a hand getting up, or you need to be incredibly strong and stubborn. I see instances of both.

"What a beautiful day, huh?" sings out Master Sgt. Billy Cole. "I'd enjoy it even more if my ruck weighed about 20 pounds less." He'd enjoy it no matter what. When you've nearly been blown up in service to your country, cold-weather training in Colorado is a lark. We say goodbye, wish one another well. I'm thinking about Bosnia. Or maybe it'll be Kosovo or Iraq next.

It feels as if I'm sending family into harm's way. Immensely competent family but, as 10th veteran Earl Clark says in the movie: "War is still war, and men must die." As I ski away, I'm aware of the 10th Group coin in my pocket. Billy gave it to me at the Sunlight party. It has solid, silver-dollar heft. Every ski trooper carries one. On one side is the Trojan Horse. On the other I read the old-fashioned mountaineers' greeting, "Berg Heil," and the words "The Best."