Brothers in war, reunited on Vail snow | SummitDaily.com

Brothers in war, reunited on Vail snow

Edward Stoner
eagle county correspondent

VAIL ” Their numbers have dwindled, and age has slowed them. Still, on Tuesday, the veteran ski troopers showed no fear on Riva Ridge.

One by one, they plunged down the steepest face of this Vail trail, named for the supposedly insurmountable cliff they climbed in Italy’s Apennine Mountains to launch a surprise attack on the Nazis. That was 63 years ago.

At the bottom of the ski trail, the men ” now in their 80s and 90s ” collected on this sunny powder day on Vail Mountain, smiling at each other.

A love of skiing is still a common thread for these veterans of the 10th Mountain Division. But their bonds go much deeper.

“Friends you make in combat, you never forget,” said John Woodward, 93, who was an officer in the 10th, the regiment of skier-soldiers who, during World War II in 1945, pushed back the Germans in the harsh Italian mountains.

The veterans gathered Tuesday at Vail, a resort founded by 10th Mountain soldiers. The reunion ” which takes them to Keystone, Breckenridge, Arapahoe Basin, Ski Cooper and Vail ” happens each year, but the number of veterans who attend has diminished.

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“Either they’ve quit skiing or they’re dying off,” said Harvey Wieprecht, 84, of Troutdale, Ore., who was on the front lines with the 10th Mountain Division as it took Riva Ridge and Monte Belvedere.

Wieprecht was a teenage ski racer from Oregon when he joined the ski troopers. He trained at Camp Hale in Eagle County in the early ’40s, skiing on the standard-issue, 7-foot-long hickory skis.

“We were in excellent shape,” Wieprecht said. “We had so much training in the States.”

It was that training that helped the troops scale Riva Ridge. Wieprecht ” who saw hand-to-hand combat against Germans ” didn’t think he’d make it back alive, but he did. He later was a ski racer at the University of Oregon, and then worked in pharmaceuticals.

Andre Benoit, 87, of Falmouth, Maine, who carved smooth turns down Vail’s slopes Tuesday, remembered hunkering down on Monte della Spe in 1945 as mortar shells screamed toward him.

“We were pinned down there for almost a week,” Benoit said. “I was living in a foxhole.”

So many other 10th Mountain soldiers died in combat.

“In three months we lost as many men as most outfits did in three years,” Woodward said. “But we saved enough men in other divisions that it was worthwhile.”

After he retired from the military, Woodward became a partner in Anderson and Thompson Ski Co., which sold the first laminated skis.

Lots of other 10th Mountain vets became leaders in the fledgling ski industry. Vail pioneers Peter Seibert, Bob Parker and Bill “Sarge” Brown were ski troopers. Fellow soldier Friedl Pfeifer helped develop skiing in Aspen.

The men of the 10th had a hand in creating some 20 ski mountains across the country, from Arapahoe Basin in Colorado to Mount Bachelor in Oregon to Sugarbush in Vermont.

“A lot of them had a lot of go and were eager to do their best, whatever field they were in,” Woodward said.

Gianfranco Dal Santo, 82, who skied with the 10th Mountain vets Tuesday, has a unique respect for the skier-soldiers. The native of Italy ” now a physician who splits time between South Carolina and Italy ” was drafted at age 17 by the occupying German forces and ordered to the Russian front. Instead, he became a fighter in the underground resistance in the northern Italian Alps.

“I heard on the radio in March 1945 that an alpine division did break through the line,” Dal Santo said. “The allies had been fighting for two years but could not break through. The 10th Mountain Division did it.”

The 10th Mountain vets ended up liberating Dal Santo’s hometown of Torbole.

On Tuesday, the men took a few runs, down Riva Ridge, then Lodgepole. They met again at Eagle’s Nest for lunch before heading out for more skiing that afternoon, eager for more time with their comrades.

“Just the association with the fellas,” Wieprecht said. “Just being amongst friends.”

Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or estoner@vaildaily.com.