Things have changed on the Colorado slopes since the U.S. Army’s Soldiers on Skis prowled these mountains more than 70 years ago.
This morning Jimmy Nassar, Hugh Evans and Dick Dirkes, all 90 years old, all original members of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, were back in Vail for their annual ski-in.
The men trained at Camp Hale, just west of Vail, in the early 1940s. They learned to rock climb, ski and survive outdoors during the winter, then headed to Camp Swift near Bastrop, just down the road from Austin, for infantry training before they headed to Italy to fight in the mountains during World War II.
“Skiing in the woods with a 90-pound pack is not like skiing today,” Evans told me as the men and family members met at the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum in downtown Vail. “Recreational skiing is entirely different. Our skis were a means of transportation.”
Evans couldn’t ski today because he broke his ankle skiing last month, but Nassar and Dirkes took their traditional cruise down Riva Ridge, a run named in honor of the 10th Mountain Division’s capture of Riva Ridge in Italy in 1945. The ridge was considered unassailable, but the American soldiers climbed it in the dead of night and surprised the Germans who held it, ultimately leading to the liberation of Italy.
Today’s run down Riva Ridge was far different from those training runs the soldiers took so many years ago. Ski technology and clothing have advanced. And we’ve got lifts to whisk us up mountains so we can glide down in comfort.
Nassar and Dirkes looked far younger than their 90 years as they zigzagged through the snow, a bevy of admirers at their heels.
Visit Vail and you’ll surely hear about the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division. They’re credited with launching the ski industry in Colorado. After returning from the war, many of them went on to develop and operate ski resorts throughout the country.