Living history on Vail Mountain
VAIL – War connects people like no other human endeavor.
Young men came from sea to shining sea, connecting at Camp Hale, where the 10th Mountain Division trained for some of the heaviest fighting of World War II.
Dick Dirkes, for example, arrived from New York State. He lives here now. Bob Yank from Redding, Calif. Others arrived from every corner of the country, preparing for war.
Some are back in town this week, celebrating their 36th reunion and reconnecting.
“We’ve been doing this 36 years,” said Jim Nassar, a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division. “When we started we have four busloads. Now it’s half a bus.”
The vets in town this week got to live long enough to grow old. Many didn’t, but the connection continues.
There’s a memorial plaque on the wall of the Colorado Ski Museum commemorating the dead. It’s a long list. As they gathered Tuesday morning in the Ski Museum for a day on Vail’s slopes, some veterans wander over and take a look and read some names. Others glance over and kept moving. Let them rest, but always remember.
Eventually, they moved outside toward Riva Ridge, a ski run on Vail Mountain. It had been freshly groomed for the occasion. Sixty years ago they fought their way up Riva Ridge in Italy.
World champion extreme skier and filmmaker Chris Anthony was on hand, interviewing 10th Mountain Division veterans about their experiences. It’ll be called “Troopers Traverse,” part of an upcoming Warren Miller film.
“The goal is to connect younger skiers to these guys, this generation and the 10th Mountain Division,” Anthony said. “They came back from the war and built the ski industry.”
Pete Seibert, of course, a 10th Mountain Division vet, founded Vail.
Nassar taught Peter Warren to ski. Warren has taught hundreds of others.
Eventually, the 10th Mountain Division’s story will be a full length documentary. Anthony will include interview segments to go with other material. And there’s plenty of material.
Sandy Treat, an original with both the 10th Mountain Division and Vail, tells stories on Friday afternoons, 3-4 p.m., at the Colorado Ski Museum.
Dirkes, now a Singletree resident, had never been west of the Mississippi when he hopped on a train in Long Island and headed west.
He had scarlet fever the night he arrived, and was running a temperature of more than 100 degrees. He spent his first several days in the infirmary and didn’t get his first full look at Camp Hale and the Rocky Mountains surrounding it until he was recovered enough to walk outside.
“I was not unhappy being there,” Dirkes said.
The elevation was a problem, but the skis were state of the art, he said, complete with a leather strap binding that held their lives together.
“I wouldn’t be living in the mountains today if it wasn’t for the 10th Mountain Division,” Dirkes said. “I’m a geriatric ski bum.”
The war broke out and Yank, who grew up in Southern California, heard about the ski troopers in Camp Hale.
Yank’s family had a cabin in the mountains nearby and in the winter the only way reach it was to ski.
Some of his friends had returned from fighting in the Pacific with foot rot and all sorts of other tropical ailments.
“I figured I would rather freeze than go through that,” Yank said.
After Yank returned from the war, he tried to do a little skiing, but there was no snow in Aspen or Arapahoe Basin, two of the only ski areas open in those days. It was Thanksgiving and that happens some years.
Of course, after they gave up and were headed back to Denver they got hammered in a massive snow storm.
John Gordon served with a U.S. Air Force para-rescue unit and is an honorary member of the 10th. He wears a parka from a 1995 ski trip to the North Pole. On the back it reads, “When hell freezes over we’ll ski there, too.”
So, John, is that a philosophy or a fact?
“It’s both,” he said, grinning out from under a weathered cowboy hat that has made most of his trips with him.
Just before lunch Tuesday, a huge crowd gathered at the top of Vail’s Chair 2, the Avanti lift, trying to get a closer look at the Black Hawk helicopter landed there, and the heroes for whom it was there.
The vets lined up for a team picture with the latest in combat technology, leaving no doubt that the most effective weapon is a brave and well-trained soldier.
The Colorado Air National Guard crew was thrilled to get the mission.
“It was supposed to be a day off, but everyone was so excited about meeting these guys and being part of this that we got into a huge argument to determine who would get to fly,” said Chief Warrant Officer Darren Freye.
And the connection continues.
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