FIFTY YEARS AGO, the biggest ski school in the United States was held along the eastern slopes of Tennessee Pass in Colorado. It was organized by the U. S. Army's first mountain-infantry division, the 10th Mountain Division, which trained for World War II at Camp Hale. Its 12,000 men included ski teachers, Russo-Finnish war veterans, fur trappers, rock climbers and Jewish refugees. Thousands had never seen snow. Few had skied with pack and rifle.
After two winters, 600 instructors had been trained, more than existed in the entire United States in 1940. Recruits learned to ski with packs and rifles, walking up every run then skiing down. Sometimes an entire regiment of 4,000 men took lessons together. The amazing feat remains unduplicated. Today, there is still no resort teaching 4,000 skiers at a time on the same mountain.
The soldiers learned the "military Arlberg" ski technique, originally fashioned by Hannes Schneider to train Austrian troops in World War 1. The G.I.'s spent the first eight hours of lessons walking in their skis on flat snow. After 18 hours, they would make wide snowplow turns, requiring the tendon-stretching position that caused Southern G.I.'s to refer to their skis as "mah torture boards" After 100 hours, they finally arrived at the sliding stem Christie turn. By the time they left Camp Hale, they could ski across mountains all day and bivouac in the snow at night.
The 10th landed in Naples, Italy, at the end of 1944 and headed for the Apennine mountains. Patrols on skis led to the lOth's breakthrough of the German Army's Gothic Line. But then there was a thaw, and skis were never used again. When the 10th reached the Brenner Pass in May, it had chased the Germans faster and farther than any division in World War II. The price: 30 percent casualties, the war's highest for a military division. The men of the 10th had earned more medals than any U.S. division.
The 10th veterans became the backbone of the postwar American ski boom. To name a few: Monty Atwater went to Alta, Utah, to establish the first avalanche control with explosives. Friedl Pfeifer designed Aspen Mountain, started Aspens ski school and ran the first racing circuit. Pete Seibert was a member of the 1948 Olympic team and founded Vail. The veterans plan to gather this fall in Vail to celebrate the 50th anniversary of an extraordinary outfit.-Morten Bund