Cody Heartz: Story of 10th Mountain Division is inspiring
Steamboat Springs — Among people who live and play in the mountains, the Army’s 10th Mountain Division’s legacy is almost the stuff of myth. According to modern legend, they were a group of Olympians, ski bums, mountaineers, loggers, trappers and general outdoorsmen who banded together and became elite soldiers. A fighting force that depended on ropes and pitons as much as it did rifles, or so the story goes.
Their legacy has become a benchmark that skiers, climbers and hikers try to measure themselves against. On more than one occasion while skiing through a storm or hiking home in the rain, I’ve shaken off self-pity by saying to myself, “You know, the men of 10th did this sort of thing for weeks at a time, with 90-pound packs, in wool pants, and without Gore-Tex … sometimes while being shot at.”
In his book, “The Last Ridge”, McKay Jenkins sums up why we love the tale of the ski troopers so much: “Given a war that — especially as the century wore on — would stand out for its moral clarity, the mountain troops represented a fighting unit the popular imagination could celebrate for reasons that went far beyond fighting. … The ski troopers were rugged but irreverent, strong but smart, willing to fight but always aching to leave off fighting and head back into the mountains.”
It’s true that after the war, the men of the 10th Mountain Division flocked to the Rockies, Cascades and Sierras. Back home they racked up countless first ascents and set all sorts of records that required the skills they’d honed while training at Camp Hale. The veterans of the 10th Mountain Division helped shape the new West.
They became well-respected writers, conservationists, entrepreneurs and adventurers. In addition to founding NOLS and the Sierra Club, the ski troopers were integral to the establishment of virtually every ski school, ski club, ski patrol and wilderness rescue outfit in the country at the time. This is how we’ve come to know these men; these are the accomplishments on which the legend is built.
What I like about “The Last Ridge” is that it is a close look at mountains and war, two things that are only ever glamorous at a distance. Colored by the dark and difficult drama of armed conflict, Jenkins’ book is a sober reminder that the ski corps was made up of real men who, in addition to being great athletes, fought courageously in extraordinary conditions and sometimes died far from their homes.
The great strength of McKay Jenkins’ writing is that he doesn’t dramatize the military service of the ski troopers; the truth of their story is moving enough. A meticulous researcher who also is appropriately reverent to the humanity of war, Jenkins’ book is a complete chronicling of the 10th Mountain Division’s contributions to the campaign in Italy, drawn from the men’s own accounts. More so than other books on military histories, which are often more concerned with the historical revision of an event, “The Last Ridge” pays homage to the individual character of the soldiers.
The 10th Mountain Division always will live somewhere between folklore and history, as a group of eccentric uniformed adventurers with mottos like, “Climb to glory” and “We conquer mountains and men.” But after reading “The Last Ridge,” it’s easier to relate to them. I see them as young men who were asked to surmount seemingly impossible obstacles and did. They didn’t do this by calling on superhuman strength, or in epic displays of bravery. More impressively, they succeeded by struggling and persevering, driven always by an understanding of freedom that they could only attain in the mountains.
Cody Heartz is a full-time resident of Steamboat Springs and is pursuing an master’s in creative writing.
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