War and Skiing

From the Top
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From the Top

This may be as good a time as any to look back on how world events have shaped skiing. It's one of our sport's ironies: If it weren't for the terrible conflict that was World War II, you and I might not be skiers. And the sport in North America certainly wouldn't be what it is today. In the quest to persecute Jews and eventually conquer the world, Adolf Hitler triggered a mass exodus of German and Austrian ski professionals to North America in the Thirties. The sport was just starting to catch a foothold here when legends such as Sig Buchmayr, Otto Lang, Toni Matt, Friedl Pfeifer, Sepp Rusch and Hannes Schneider, the father of American ski instruction, suddenly arrived on U.S. snow. They taught thousands of Americans an incredible sport¿and a way of life. Besides running ski resorts, ski schools and ski race programs, they made amazing first descents, set speed records and won ski races by unheard-of margins. They were real-life heroes from a foreign land who could do things on skis that we had not dreamed of.

In January 1943, a group of rough, young and diverse American men were trained in the snow and cold at 9,200-foot-high Camp Hale, Colo.¿just a few miles from what later would become Vail. Over the next couple of years, Hale turned out troops¿"from college boys to cowboys"¿with mountaineering skills and the ability to turn on 7-foot skis. As the go-anywhere, do-anything 10th Mountain Division, these soldiers won a series of dramatic conflicts in Italy's Apennine Mountains that would prove decisive for the Allies. It did not happen without sacrifice: The 10th suffered the highest casualty rate per combat day of any American division. In all, about half the 10,000 soldiers suffered injury.

When they returned to North America, these same men put U.S. skiing on the map. Vail, Aspen and A-Basin in Colorado, Mt. Bachelor in Oregon, Sugarbush in Vermont, Crystal Mountain in Washington, and Whiteface Mountain in New York were all started by veterans of the 10th. Roughly 60 ski schools were founded or managed by former soldiers. In all, 2,000 members of the 10th went into the ski business. And there's no question that the lessons they learned in combat helped in their success. In December, SKI will recognize the invaluable contributions of the 10th by inducting all former and current members into the Ski Industry Hall of Fame.

For a February 1999 feature, SKI Magazine went on a ski training mission with current 10th troops ("Today's 10th": Go to skimag.com, and search under keywords "10th Mountain"). We found that they share the same bond and camaraderie as their legendary predecessors. Today's 10th has been activated in hot spots around the world, and its soldiers currently are deployed in Uzbekistan, on the border of Afghanistan. We wish them the strength and courage of the original 10th and Godspeed.