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Steamboat Magazine

Winter Soldiers

09/27/2023 07:00AM ● By Dan Greeson
(Photo: 10th Mountain Division soldiers, taken by Frederick Buhrmaster, a Sergeant with the 85th Mountain Infantry Regiment. Photo courtesy of History Colorado.) 

From Steamboat Magazine Outdoors Edition 2023.

Steamboat Springs, CO - When President Joe Biden visited Camp Hale in the Eagle Valley last year, he designated the area as a new national monument, in honor of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. This group of soldiers not only played a crucial wartime role, but also in the development of Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry. 

(President Biden names Camp Hale a National Monument in 2022. Courtesy of Nancy Kramer.)

During World War II, 10th Mountain Division soldiers trained at Camp Hale, where they learned to climb, ski and navigate rocky mountain passes – while fully armed. 

Steamboat Springs resident Nancy Kramer, chairman of the 10th Mountain Division Foundation board, grew up knowing very little about her father’s military service during World War II. But when she saw him revisit it firsthand on a family trip to the 10th Mountain Division Tennessee Pass Colorado Monument, the 10th Mountain Division’s story of bravery and brotherhood came to light. 

“He was always very quiet; he didn’t talk about it growing up,” Nancy says. When Nancy’s father, William Robertson, arrived at the monument, he jettisoned out of the backseat to search the list of names for those of his friends killed in action. “He started talking about all of it,” Nancy says “Being in that place – just knowing the impact that experience had on his life – changed my life.” 

The Camp Hale – Continental Divide National Monument encompasses the ridges, peaks and valleys where ski troopers ran maneuvers and learned their brand of alpine mountain warfare from 1942 until 1965. “This place means something,” Nancy says. “It’s a special place that visitors need to understand. If we tell the story in a compelling way, it encourages preservation of the story in perpetuity. This place is important, and its story and impact need to be preserved.”
The 10th Mountain Division has a special connection to Steamboat Springs, as many soldiers returned to Steamboat following the war. Many of them were skiers, including Gordy Wren, who coached Buddy Werner and his siblings, and brothers Rudi and Karl Schnackenberg. Rudi, a Steamboat legend, was named to the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame for his years of service as a ski instructor, coach and manager of Howelsen Hill. More than 20 10th Mountain Division veterans lived in the Steamboat area after the war. 

The formation of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II was a feat of military innovation and training. “World War II caused the Army to realize they wanted to address some of their shortcomings, so they started looking into some new technologies and doctrines that the Army hadn’t pursued in the interwar years,” explains Chris Juergens, Anschutz Curator of Military History at History Colorado. The National Ski Patrol offered the U.S. Army assistance in creating a new mountain warfare division, despite skiing being a niche sport at the time and the pool of potential recruits being small. “It’s easier to make soldiers out of skiers than skiers out of soldiers,” noted Charles Minot Dole, founder of the National Ski Patrol. 

“They all had to go through basic training, like any other recruit, except that they were doing that same training at a 10,000-foot elevation,” Chris says. “That already presented a few new challenges for these troops. ‘90 Pounds of Rucksack’ became the song of the division because, when they weighed their gear, it would weigh about 90 pounds.” The average World War II soldier was only around five-foot-six, 125 pounds. 

The 10th Mountain Division made a late but crucial arrival to the European theater of WWII. “The division arrived in Italy in January 1945 and, despite only being deployed for three months of combat, made an invaluable impact,” Chris explains. The “ski troops” took heavy casualties but never lost a battle in their campaign. Their expertise in mountain combat culminated in the breaking of the Gothic Line, Germany’s final defense in the Italian Apennine Mountains. 

“In the fall of 1944, the Allies had gotten stuck on that Gothic Line,” Chris says. “It wasn’t until the 10th Mountain Division showed up with all their specialized gear and skills, that they were able to scale the backside of Riva Ridge in the middle of the night and surprise the Germans from behind.” 

“Just imagine the courage, the daring and the genuine sacrifice they all made,” noted President Biden at the monument’s dedication. Following the war, the 10th Mountain Division played a pivotal role in developing the outdoor sports industry in the United States, taking on roles as leaders in the skiing and mountaineering communities. Veterans taught skiing and worked in management at ski areas, while also making innovations in climbing gear and outdoor clothing. “Roughly 65% of the ski industry was directly influenced by 10th Mountain Division veterans,” Nancy says. 

The 10th Mountain Division’s bravery and innovation continue to inspire generations of Americans. Today, the division remains an integral part of Steamboat’s heritage, and Camp Hale’s designation as a national monument will ensure that this heritage is protected for future generations to experience and appreciate for many years to come.