Most Americans have heard of the 10th Mountain Division, but there are many who know very little about just what it was that made the troops of the 10th so unique. Few are aware of what role these brave men played during the darkest days of World War II, or of the deep impact the 10th’s survivors had on the world of recreational skiing. Luckily for readers, there is Peter Shelton’s engrossing 2003 book, “Climb To Conquer,” a thorough and well-researched documentation of that overlooked history.
Shelton introduces the 10th Mountain Division from its moment of inception to it earliest days, when the war that would consume much of Europe was little more than a series of troubling rumors and reports from overseas. Hitler, of course, dominated the news, but a lesser-known angle of the conflict, the “Winter War” between the Soviet Union and Finland, made for an intriguing David-versus-Goliath sort of tale, with a battle scenario playing out that was evocative of the uneven conflict between the Persians and the Greeks at Thermopylae.
The Finns, though greatly outnumbered by the invading Soviet forces, held their own, and the value of having a home terrain advantage became evident when the Finnish soldiers took to their skis.
Far away in America, in a slope side mountain lodge in the Green Mountains of Vermont, four men, all heavily involved in the fledgling ski industry, discussed the news reports of the astounding efforts by the Finns, and the men speculated on how their brave efforts could inspire a similar home defense in the mountainous regions of America. At this point, there was still a real concern that Germany might cross the Atlantic, and it was feared that the well-trained mountain troops of the Nazi forces could inundate a vulnerable and unprepared nation.
The result of this fireside chat was a relentless push of their idea for a skiing army against the American military establishment bubble. Shelton details the persistence of the men, most specifically, of Minnie Dole, who is often named as the father of the 10th Mountain Division. A skiing enthusiast, Dole had created a ski instruction guide, designed to stream line the teaching process of alpine skiing, and he had initiated the formation of a national volunteer ski patrol organization, which had hundreds of members across the country.
His doggedness eventually paid off, and the first volunteers for the elite mountain troops met on the slopes of Mt. Rainier for initial training and gear testing. Shelton introduces individual members of the newly formed mountain corp, and uses their own words, in the form of letters and diary entries to build his timeline of the 10th’s build up to a real fighting force. Given the elite skills of some of the recruits, the 10th took on a reputation of prestige. But, even with their skiing talents, there was plenty of learning and relearning, as style was quickly replaced by more the practical applications of war. Everyone, for instance, had to learn how to carry heavy loads, which was a challenge even for expert skiers.
As the early stages of training ended, a new base for the mountain troops was established at Camp Hale, Colorado, which was a pop-up city built for no other reason than to house and train the 10th Division troops. The barracks could house 15,000 men, so there was ample room when the first trainees arrived from the west coast. The plan was to take good skiers and train them to be soldiers, rather than the other way around. Finally, when fully filled, the ski corp had 10,000 men.
As the war raged on, it seemed less likely that an attack on the mainland would occur, so questions rose about what role the ski troops would play. Many believed that if they were deployed at all it would be to the Pacific theater, where their summer training—rock climbing skills, rather than their skiing skills—might be of use.
As Shelton details in the heart of the book, the roles the 10th Mountain Division ended up playing proved to be a surprise to all, for many believed the specialty corp would be a homeland protection only. But, some pivotal battles in Europe were fought with the direct support of the mountain troops. Tightly bonded and highly skilled, the men of the 10th Division fought bravely, and many lost their lives, including some of the first, famous skiing recruits. Shelton’s clear and gripping writing makes the history of the skiing warriors come vividly to life.