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Not long after he joined the Army early in World War II, and was posted to steamy hot Fort Knox in Kentucky, passionate skier Nick Hock opened a magazine and saw a dramatic photo of a white-parka’d mountain soldier on skis leaping off a cliff into a swirling sea of powder. The soldier in the image belonged to the newly formed 10th Mountain Division. That was enough for Hock. He requested a transfer to the unit, which was training on Mt. Rainier and in the Colorado high country. Here soldier-moviemakers Otto Lang and John Jay and still-photographer Winston Pote were generating exotic and exciting images designed to entice young skiers like Hock to enlist. Love of skiing was at the 10th Mountain’s core. At least half of the 14,000 men who joined the Division came through the National Ski Patrol system. Like Hock-who went on to become publisher of SKI Magazine in the 1970s-they dreamed of helping to defeat the Germans with their skiing skill, perhaps in the Alps or Norway, or the Japanese in Alaska.
It never happened. The 10th Mountain troops didn’t need hickory boards or their now iconic white ski suits when early in 1945 they were shipped off to fight. In Italy’s Apennines, there was little snow to ski on…only mud and cliffs to climb. The assignment was to dislodge German soldiers dug in high on Riva Ridge. In what has by now become an almost mythic battle, the men of the 10th impossibly scaled the cliffs and drove Hitler’s soldiers off the strategic high ground.
That the 10th never did use skis in meaningful battle shouldn’t be surprising. Skis, in fact, have rarely been employed in a fight. The Germans themselves set a futile example. In 1940, after the Nazi government persuaded citizens to send 1.5 million pairs of wooden skis to the frigid eastern front to fight the Russians, the soldiers instead burned them to keep warm. During World War I, Austrian and Italian mountain troops employed rock-climbing and tunneling skills, not skis, to savagely fight one another in the high mountains of the Sud Tirol.
When skis have been used in battle, the results have been mixed. Historian John Allen reports a disastrous 1915 skirmish by 40 French alpine troopers who schussed with fixed bayonets in a downhill attack. They were mowed down by German riflemen at the bottom of the hill. The most famous success was the heroic defense of their homeland by ski-equipped Finns against the Russians at the outset of World War II, but the outnumbered Finns eventually lost.
Notwithstanding the history of military failures, armies for 150 years have favored the idea of training ski troops. And for good reason. The soldier who is already a skier is healthier and fitter than the general recruit. Moreover, skiers enjoy a special camaraderie among themselves that is ideal for shaping an elite fighting force. No better example exists than the brave men of the 10th. They didn’t fight on skis, but the skiing in their hearts may well have helped win the battle.