Originally appeared in EnCompass magazine.
It is late summer in Vail. There’s not a snowflake in sight. Yet I spot a skier dressed in white, his skis slung over his shoulder, his goggles in place. Some passersby pose for pictures under his larger-than-life shadow, but most take no notice of this determined giant.
He is, of course, the 13-foot-tall bronze statue near the covered bridge in Vail Village, memorializing in the U.S. Army’s fabled 10th Mountain Division. Trained in Colorado’s mountains, these soldiers entered battle in February 1945 in the Italian Alps against Axis enemy forces. Books and movies capture the drama and heroism of the division, but what remains of the 10th’s legacy today? And what can you still see and feel? A road trip to the high country illuminates the past.
Too often I’ve driven Interstate 70 and failed to appreciate the complexity of this engineering feat. Yet it is easy to forget when ski traffic clogs the roadway, particularly when the weather turns dire. That is less of a problem in summer. On my way to Vail, I count at least two commemorative 10th Mountain license plates. This is the first sign that the “invisible men in white” haven’t been entirely forgotten.
Before World War II, adventurers who wanted to slide down the mountains purely for fun spent their summers clearing trails and their winters dodging avalanches. The earliest ski races go back to the late 1800s. While ski clubs were popping up all over, the enthusiasm was there, but the technology had some catching up to do. And the roads, well, they could be treacherous.
When WWII broke out, defense experts recognized that the United States was ill-prepared for combat against Nazi Germany’s mountain-trained troops. The hardening of U.S. troops began on Mount Rainier in Washington, but then the Army established a permanent base in Colorado and recruited skiers, especially those in the Northeast. One recruit, 19-year-old Sandy Treat Sr., had competed on Dartmouth College’s renowned ski team and saw a recruiting message on a bulletin board. After some initial training, he boarded a train for Denver. When Treat saw the white peaks, he thought to himself, “This is going to be great.” Still physically active, he’s one of the dwindling number of surviving 10th Mountain Division veterans.
For many troops, the training at Camp Hale would forever connect them to Colorado. Some veterans survived near-mortal wounds and, with the market flush with Army surplus ski gear, returned to create resorts like Arapahoe Basin, featuring skiing above tree line. They helped convert Aspen into a European-inspired skiing community, which would set the standard for other former mining towns. They also created ski programs for children and amputees.
The late Peter W. Seibert cofounded Vail Ski Resort in the 1960s, while other veterans started shops, restaurants and lodges. John Tweedy purchased the land that now represents the heart of Vail Village. Bob Parker became a ski industry journalist and later on, as Vail Associates’ marketing guru, used his connections to highlight Vail’s pristine conditions.