Aspen Times Weekly: A legacy revealed ‘Climb to Glory’
What: “Climb To Glory: Legacy of the 10th Mountain Ski Troopers”
Who: Produced by Warren Miller Entertainment and the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum, presented as a benefit for Aspen Historical Society and the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, April 4. Doors at 5:30 p.m., presentation including 10th Mountain Division WWII vets begins at 6 p.m.
Tickets: $15/adult. $10/kids 12 and under. Tickets available at the Wheeler or aspenshowtix.com
In the wee hours of the night on Feb. 18, 1945, a volunteer division of American ski racers, rock climbers, mountaineers and ski patrollers scaled the frozen flanks of Riva Ridge in the Italian Alps, intent on cracking the vaunted “Gothic Line” and dislodging the occupying Nazis from their key vantage points on the mountains flanking the Po Valley, which led to the strategic city of Bologne.
After training for months in the mountains of Colorado for this highly specialized mission, the newly-formed U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division launched a meticulously coordinated assault. Hauling heavy packs, the lightly-armed, elite soldiers quietly tapped in their piton rock climbing aides to fix ropes for the men to follow. In as much silence as they could muster, the troops ascended five separate routes up a 1500-foot, vertical wall of snow and ice.
For reference, imagine a team of kids who are barely old enough to order a beer silently scaling the Maroon Bells in the middle of a winter night to wage all-out war on a deeply entrenched enemy.
As a fortuitous morning fog blotted out the first rays of the new winter sun, the soldiers topped out at the rock wall rimming the ridge and surprised the dug-in German observation and artillery units that stretched along the ridge.
The efforts of the 10th Mountain Division were instrumental in keeping the advance of the large Allied 5th Army unbeknownst to the Germans, who had spent years fortifying the “last bastion” of their southern defenses and had successfully fought off previous campaigns in large part because their command of the high ground.
Due to the extreme angles that they commanded, the Germans didn’t even assign patrols at night on Riva Ridge. They refused to believe that the Americans could mount such a steep-angle assault, in day or night. The unlucky Germans were reportedly “dazed and surprised” when two 10th Mountain sergeants appeared out of nowhere from below the ridge and pointed their Tommy guns at them.
Thanks to their intense training, conditioning and a (now) textbook plan of attack hatched by commanding Gen. George Hays, the 10th Mountain Division suffered relatively light casualties during the successful one-day assault on Riva Ridge.
The following day, however, things did not go nearly as easily for the fighting men of the 10th Mountain Division.
Next in line in the series of ridges that had to be taken in order to ram the 5th Army through the Gothic Line fortifications and break out into the Po Valley was the heavily defended Mt. Belvedere.
Again using the cover of night, the 10th picked its way through minefields and barbwire until they were discovered by German forces while scrambling up an exposed position in the early morning light. With no choice but to fight, the 10th fought a desperate path to the top of the precipitous mountain under withering mortar and machine gun fire.
Many fine men were lost that day. All told, after the initial assault on Mt. Belvedere, the 10th Mountain had lost 553 troopers on the first day alone.
Five days later, after valiantly fighting back seven counter-attacks from German forces intent on regaining the Italian high ground, the 5th Army achieved their historic breakout, ultimately cutting off the German escape route over Brenner Pass and permanently evicting the Nazis from formerly fascist Italy later that May.
The 13,000-man 10th Mountain Division had spearheaded nearly the entire Italian mountain campaign, suffering 1,283 casualties in just a week’s time. By the end of the war, their unit would endure the highest casualty rate of any single division, with nearly 50 percent of their troops killed or injured in action. But the toll was far more punishing to the enemy. The gritty soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division completely wiped out five entire elite German mountain divisions.
Despite their tremendous losses, due to their being a relatively “fresh” unit, the 10th was designated to be part of the planned assault on mainland Japan later that year. It was a fearsome task that thankfully was never needed of them due to the Japanese surrender following the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945.
Almost immediately, 10th Mountain soldiers flocked home to the mountains that they loved, seeking a lifetime of peace that had eluded them for 144 hard days in that alternately horrific and triumphant year of 1945.
Many remembered their dulcet days of training at high altitude in Camp Hale, near Leadville. They recalled the joy of descending in formation into the sleepy town of Aspen after a brutal, pioneering mountain ski traverse, now known as the “Trooper Traverse.” Who could blame them? It’s hard not to when you’ve finished a multiday winter ski tour, only to be feted by an awed, appreciative local population, and put up for the night in the blissful comfort of the Hotel Jerome.
Anyone who has ever enjoyed the sublime sensation of skiing on an American ski mountain should tip their helmets to the brave, innovative men of the 10th, for without them, an entire industry would likely not exist.
That skiing legacy is the focus of Warren Miller’s film “Climb To Glory,” a historical documentary produced in conjunction with the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum, which will be shown as a benefit for both the Aspen Historical Society and The Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club on Friday, April 4 at the Wheeler Opera House.
The film is decidedly Milleresque in tone and humor, but also features historic footage of the 10th Mountain Division training at nearby Camp Hale in the days leading up to the Italian Campaign, interviews with veterans, and historically accurate reenactments starring Chris Anthony, who has starred in or produced 23 Warren Miller films, as well as 10th Mountain descendants Scott Kennett and Tony Seibert, the grandson of Peter Seibert, the 10th Mountain veteran who co-founded Vail.
The younger Seibert, who Anthony related in a recent Vail television interview was “so honored to strap on the same gear that his grandfather had worn in the war,” was tragically killed in a January avalanche near Vail.
Mike Monroney, the History Coach of the Aspen Historical Society believes that both the town of Aspen and the entire industry of skiing were forever changed for the better by the brave men who returned from their wartime ordeals. “They saw the potential. The population of Aspen was at less than 1000 residents at the time of their return from war. They saw what Aspen could become and took the risk. They were bold,” says Monroney.
In her historical accounting of Aspen, Mary Eshbaugh Hayes writes that Friedl (10th Mountain vet Friedl Pfiefer) took one look at Aspen (during the halcyon Camp Hale training days) and saw the possibilities of a north-facing ski slope coming right into town. He skied Aspen and vowed to return after the war and create his idea of a perfect mountain town.”
Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club executive director Mark Cole is in awe of what the soldiers did on what was at the time revolutionary equipment, but which today seems hardly viable. “You might as well strap a couple of two-by-fours to your feet!” he says, recalling his days with the National Outdoor Leadership School, which had a cache of old hickory wood, “bear trap” binding-clad 10th Mountain skis.
He marvels at the list of accomplishments by the “Greatest Generation” of skiers: more than 60 ski areas (including Aspen) were founded, developed and managed by 10th Mountain vets, 2,000 of whom entered various ski patrols upon returning home.
Their ranks include presidential candidates (Sen. Bob Dole,) peace activists (Sierra Club founder David Brower,) inventors (Nike founder Bill Bowerman,) and filmmakers (Dick Durrance.)
Countless innovations in skiing were forged by 10th vets, whose love of the mountains and boundless, can-do spirit and energy infused a love of skiing in America that continues to this day.
For his part, Cole is proud to help keep the legacy of the 10th Mountain Division alive in Aspen, whose surrounding mountains served as the tough training grounds nearly seventy years ago, when ambitious boys became mountain men.
“The story of the 10th Mountain needs to be kept alive,” says Cole. “It is a huge part of the history of the state of Colorado and the ski industry. And, they played such a significant role in our World War II efforts.”
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