Sierra Nevada fertile ground for ‘Winter Warriors’
On Nov. 11, we celebrate Veterans’ Day as a time to honor all American men and women that have served in the armed forces. One group of veterans that deserves special recognition is the 10th Mountain Division, an elite unit of military “ski troopers” that were largely responsible for the rapid growth of the modern ski industry after World War II. The weather over the northern Sierra on Dec. 7, 1941, was cold, but pleasant. It was Sunday and there were about a dozen skiers from Reno taking advantage of an early season snowpack on the sand dunes above the Mount Rose meadows. There were no ski resorts on Mt. Rose or Slide Mountain in 1941, but there was no shortage of motivation and innovation among these pioneer skiers. A prominent Reno skier named Warren Hart had rigged a rope tow powered by a Ford engine placed at the top of hill to pull the skiers up. (Hart went on to become a combat Ski Trooper of the 87th Regiment.) The rope tow went so fast it was hard getting started and the friction could wear out a pair of gloves by lunchtime. Skiers had to let go of the rope 20 or 25 feet from the motor and then let their momentum propel them the rest of the way to the top. Keston Ramsey, developer of the Sky Tavern Resort, was there that day, as was Bill Berry, a noted journalist and Sierra ski historian. A few of the guys skiing were 18-year-old freshmen at the University of NevadaReno, including Chelton Leonard, a future coach of the University of Nevada ski team, as well as Joe “Barnes” Berry, son of Bill. Bad newsAt the end of the day, a few of them stopped at the lodge at Galena Creek for refreshments and to boast about who had skied best that day. That’s when they heard the news that the Japanese had bombed an American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States quickly declared war on Japan and began mobilizing troops. Longtime friends Chelton Leonard and Barnes Berry were among the Reno skiers who volunteered for assignment as mountain soldiers, but they were forced to wait a couple of months for the induction process. At the time, the U.S. Army was training soldiers of the 87th Mountain Regiment for winter combat at Fort Lewis, north of Mount Rainier. Movie at Beacon HillBerry and Leonard took advantage of the delay by spending days skiing in the mountains. In mid-February 1942, Leonard and Berry were working and skiing at Beacon Hill (Soda Springs) when a movie director approached them. He was using the Beacon Hill slopes to film an Abbott & Costello musical comedy set in Sun Valley, Idaho, titled “Hit the Ice.” The movie director explained that part of the script included a long, zany ski chase, but his stunt men didn’t have the skiing ability to do the scene. Leonard and Berry were happy to oblige and donned the double’s costumes. They performed all kinds of challenging ski stunts, including flips and other wacky maneuvers. In one scene you can see Castle Peak in the background. In the ski chase, gangsters are pursuing Abbott and Costello down the mountain. Chelton Leonard, playing Lou Costello, was being chased by an underworld crook named “Sheldon Leonard,” portrayed by Barnes Berry. You can imagine the confusion as the director dealt with the nearly identically sounding names of Chelton Leonard and Sheldon Leonard. Camp HaleTheir skiing enjoyment was short-lived, however, as Berry and Leonard were soon inducted into the army. They were assigned to a new military facility called Camp Hale, located near Aspen, Colorado. At Camp Hale, soldiers would be trained to fight in cold weather conditions and rugged alpine terrain. The idea for this specialized regiment was inspired by the Finnish army’s success that their skilled mountain troops were having against the invading Russians. Minot Dole, a Connecticut insurance broker and ski enthusiast who had organized the National Ski Patrol System to help injured skiers, convinced the U.S. War Department that the Army desperately needed a unit of mountain soldiers. The War Department asked Dole to utilize the National Ski Patrol System to recruit skiers and mountain climbers from all over the country. Anyone wanting to join needed three letters testifying to their skiing ability and outdoorsmanship. Recruiters encouraged all outdoor-oriented men to volunteer for mountain soldier training, which attracted park rangers, trappers, hunting guides, and ranchers. The Army wanted 2,500 men; Dole’s system provided more than 3,500. Among the brave volunteers who joined were two former Truckee residents, the late Karl Kielhofer and Pete Vanni.Grueling trainingAccomplished skiers like Leonard and Berry were perfect candidates for the mountain training and soon found themselves at Camp Hale, located at 9,200 feet. Built specifically for this purpose, Camp Hale was situated in a large flat valley bottom surrounded by steep mountain slopes perfect for skiing, rock climbing, and learning cold weather survival skills. The troops learned to breath and climb to 14,000 feet using skis and snowshoes while carrying 90-pound rucksacks and heavy weapons. It was a grueling regime that built muscle and endurance, as well as character and grit. The soldiers learned the technical skills necessary to climb cliffs and struggled to handle the newly invented “Weasel” (an over-snow track vehicle) in rough terrain. They marched more than 20 miles a day, yet there was always a lot of singing. Winter weather in the Rockies can be brutal, and the men were often cold, wet and hungry. At the end of one period of tactical training in Feb. 1944, known as the D-Series, 30 percent of the participants were recovering in the infirmary from frostbite or exhaustion. Special camaraderieThe mountain troops developed a special camaraderie, where enlisted soldiers seemed equal to the officers commanding them. Former ski instructors and college racers often found themselves teaching officers of a higher rank. Some of the most famous skiers and mountain men from America and even some from Europe trained at Camp Hale. Roy Mikkelsen, a national ski jumping champion with the Auburn Ski Club, was a second lieutenant at Camp Hale in 1943. Europeans like Austrians Hannes Schneider’s son, Herbie, (Schneider Sr. is considered by many the Father of Modern Skiing) and Bill Klein (a founder of Sugar Bowl Ski Resort) joined the mountain unit. The soldiers trained and trained, but weren’t committed to combat until January 1945, when the newly named 10th Mountain Division was ordered to Italy for a dangerous assault on heavily fortified, German-held positions high in the Apennine Mountains. The division faced intense fire from the German troops on the Riva Ridge section of Mount Belvedere, situated on top of a steep rock escarpment considered impossible to climb and surrounded by minefields. Other army divisions had attempted to scale the 1,500-foot vertical assent, but all had failed. The highly-trained men of the 10th Mountain Division proved their mettle by scaling the ridge at night, taking the Germans by surprise. The battle was horrific, with many mountain infantrymen killed, wounded, or missing in the first day. Combat continued as the mountain troops broke through the German line and spearheaded the drive across the Po River Valley. With skis, ropes and mules, the 10th was successful in cutting off the German Army’s main escape route by prevailing in the famous battles of Riva Ridge, Mount Belvedere and Mont Gorgolesco. Indicative of the fierce fighting, nearly 1,000 men of the 10th Mountain Division were killed and 4,100 wounded in the Italian campaign. Their fearless courage was honored, as the 10th became one of the most highly decorated divisions in U.S. history. After the war, ex-soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division fired up America’s modern ski industry. They published ski magazines, opened ski schools, and established ski areas, including Vail, Aspen, Sugarbush, Whiteface Mountain and others. At least 62 ski resorts have been founded, managed, or employed head ski instructors that were 10th Mountain Division veterans.Officer Joe Berry went on to fight in Korea and a military career commanding the Army Rifle Team, while Chelton Leonard, like other veterans from the 10th, found a career in the ski industry. He coached the University of Nevada ski team for ten years, was appointed assistant sports technical director for the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, became the executive director of the National Ski Association, and maybe his proudest accomplishment, became secretary general for the International Federation of Mountain Soldiers (IFMS), an organization dedicated to world peace. Chelton Leonard is still very active in the IFMS and each year travels to meet veteran mountain soldiers from other countries, to help promote peace and heal the wounds of war. Chelton Leonard likes to say that the mountains are a great equalizer, and that soldiers from various countries, enemies or allies, possess a love of mountains, skiing, and snow that transcends the bitterness of war, a common thread that brings them together as friends.In 1997, Highway 89 between Tahoe City and Truckee was renamed “The 10th Mountain Division Highway” in salute to these Winter Warriors. Two signs posted on each end of the highway commemorate this honor. Mark McLaughlin’s column, “Weather Window,” appears monthly in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly” and “Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2” are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.