The Mountain Troops and Mountain Culture in Postwar America

“The Mountain Troops and Mountain Culture in Postwar America,” a loan exhibit from the New England Ski Museum, is on view in the Valentine Gallery through 2019.

On November 15, 1941, a new kind of specialized U.S. Army unit, the 1st Battalion of the 87th Mountain Infantry, was activated at Fort Lewis, Washington. Within the next few years two more mountain infantry regiments would be combined into the legendary 10th Mountain Division. The War Department engaged the National Ski Patrol to fill the ranks of the new mountain troops, and this unique recruiting method brought together thousands of like-minded men oriented to a life in the outdoors. Three intensive winters of experimentation with military mountain doctrine and high altitude training, two of them at Camp Hale, Colorado, hardened 10th Mountain Division soldiers to an elite level of fitness and skill in mountain operations. When the 10th entered combat in the Apennine mountains of Italy in January 1945, they distinguished themselves in a series of brutal battles in the waning days of World War II.

After the war, many of its veterans drew upon the skills that had gotten them into the mountain unit, and turned them into modes of living, and of earning a living, in the mountain environment. Some of their efforts resulted in thriving educational and business in the outdoor recreation field that would boom in the 1950s and thereafter, and a selection of these veterans and their contributions are profiled in the exhibit. In 1958 the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mountain Leadership Committee organized outdoor leadership workshops leading to certificates for those who led summer camp and other groups in the White Mountains. This effort was seen as generally very successful, and disseminated mountain sense to a good number of youth leaders. In this way, lessons in mountain living learned in the harsh winters of 1943 and 1944 at Camp Hale were not forgotten, but passed on to future generations of highland travelers. Skiing and ski area development would also prove to be a fertile field for 10th veterans searching for a way to make a living in the mountains. Colorado was the first state to see the influence of returning 10th soldiers, not surprising given that thousands had been exposed to the alpine allure of the high Rocky Mountains at Camp Hale. Aspen, Arapahoe Basin, Vail, and Beaver Creek all had veterans among the founding fathers, as did Mount Bachelor in Oregon and Crystal Mountain, Washington. Former mountain troopers were important in hundreds more ski-based activities that were not in the limelight. For decades after their self-selected military service in the alpine world, veterans of the 10th shaped how America skied.