On a crisp morning last November, roughly 90 soldiers hiked out of the Colorado National Guard Readiness Center in Grand Junction. Before the sun had emerged over the flat-topped blue profile of Grand Mesa, the troopers had stuffed rucksacks with winter gear and laced up their boots. After walking four miles from the base, the soldiers dropped their bags and ran back to the readiness center, where they prepped ropes, practiced setting up tents and rehearsed other skills for surviving in and traveling through an alpine winter. Their shoulders displayed badges with red bayonets crossed in the Roman numeral X over a blue powder keg overlayed with the the word “mountain.” The 10th Mountain Division was home.
For 70 years, the Division’s presence in Colorado has been largely limited to its legacy, laying the base for the ski industry—10th Mountain vet Pete Siebert founded Vail—and a beloved eponymous hut system. Yet, its tangible relics are few: white camouflage uniforms and skis in museums and the scraped and empty foundations at Camp Hale near Leadville, which once housed 11,000 soldiers. But in late 2016, the 10th Mountain put boots back in Colorado for the first time since the winter warfare division stood down in 1945. A “reflagging” ceremony at Camp Hale even saw World War II veterans returning to their training grounds and swapping stories with this next generation from the Colorado National Guard.
There’s an important reversal underway amid these new ranks. During World War II, the Army recruited skiers and mountaineers and trained them to be soldiers. Now, it’s teaching soldiers to be skiers and mountaineers. “The average infantryman often fails in high-altitude environment—they don’t understand the basic tenets of how to operate in it,” says Sergeant First Class Chuck Johnson, lead ski instructor for the Colorado National Guard’s unit of the Division. A look at recent conflicts in Afghanistan’s high peaks reiterates the need for those skillsets.
“We don’t have to go back much further than 2002 and chasing Osama Bin Laden around Tora Bora and the Pakistani border—there are some very serious high-alpine environments,” Johnson says. “And there will always have to be a guy with a rifle in his hand to finish what drone and air strikes cannot do.”
Training still focuses on basic infantry tasks—travel, communication and combat—but in the mountains, which means soldiers also must learn to rock climb, snowshoe and ski. But learning to survive in the mountains rather than become 5.14 climbers or extreme skiers is the end goal. So they also study wicking baselayers, knots and, most importantly, self reliance.
“There’s a certain mental toughness that comes with being a skilled athlete and outdoorsman—those people know they can always put one foot in front of the other,” says Johnson. “That can do nothing but enhance your ability as a soldier.”
After observing mountain-trained German forces succeding in the Balkans, and poorly prepared Italian troops freezing to death during World War II, a U.S. report concluded, “An army which may have to fight anywhere in the world must have units specially organized, trained, and equipped for fighting in the mountains and in winter.” National Ski Patrol President Charles Minot Dole was ready: Having anticipated the need for such soldiers, he’d already begun recruiting and training skiers and mountaineers. Among the 10th Mountain Division’s first tests in combat was an assault on the 1,500-foot cliffs at Riva Ridge in the North Apennine Mountains in Italy. They ascended a route Germans had deemed impassable, and their surprise attack gained ground for the Allied advance into Europe.
Upon returning home, veterans started gear companies and ski resorts, Vail, Ski Cooper, Steamboat Springs and Aspen among them. In the 1980s, the 10th Mountain Division Huts were constructed in the soldiers’ honor. Five of the initial 30 huts were built with donations from family and friends of soldiers who died during World War II. The “10th Division” continued as a light infantry unit based at Fort Drum, New York. For decades, it lost the “mountain” from its name and much of the mountaineering from its practices. That focus has changed.
In 2016, two infantry brigades merged, bringing an existing Colorado National Guard unit in under the 10th Mountain Division. Their weekend training sessions began to include navigating through the woods on snowshoes to remote classrooms, strapping on skis and camping at altitude in the snow. There’s a one-word consensus on what their first nights camping at elevation amid the snow banks on Grand Mesa were like: cold. Temperatures dropped below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, with snow and wind blowing all night.
“There’s also the shared misery factor when we’re up there at 10,200 feet, living in snow caves,” Johnson says, and with it, a certain “esprit de corps.”: “It means a whole lot to know that we’re doing things that the average infantry person is not doing.”
Soldiers have offered to re-enlist… if they can train to join this battalion.
About 30 guardsmen went to a training session on ice climbing, skiing, and skinning in Vermont in 2017. For his first experience on skis, Sergeant First Class Brandon Paup strapped into vintage canvas and rubber-soled boots that bore more resemblance to hikers than to a rig even the oldest of old school tele skiers would ride. While he’s proud of the 10th’s history, the setup was a little more of a link to their World War II experiences than he quite needed, he says now. But weeks later, he clicked into modern ski gear at Colorado’s Powderhorn Ski Resort, and that, he says, was “probably the funnest thing I’ve done in my life.”
Specialist Pantelis Geralis came at it from the other direction. Geralis initially aimed his military career for the Air Force, but contact lenses voided his chances of becoming a pilot. After switching to the National Guard, he worked for five years refueling vehicles. Then he heard about the mountain unit, where his experience as a ski instructor and a mountaineer would be a part of his job.
He attended mountain warfare school, a two-week program in Vermont that focuses on basic climbing and mountaineering skills. Improperly dressing a figure-8 knot or falling behind on a hike constitutes failing the course and being sent home. Students often spend their evenings rehearsing knots and anchor systems, tying bunkbeds together. Geralis graduated top of his class, and landed a full-time job developing standard operating procedures for the battalion.
“It’s cool to learn how to rock climb, ski, all this stuff, but what we’re addressing is the issue of how to do it in a tactical manner,” he says. “So we’re taking the principles of mountaineering and the principles of infantry and putting them together to see how it works out.”
That plan has required a lot of gear testing, reading historic manuals on military maneuvers and arctic survival and attending climbing workshops in Moab, Utah, and, Shelf Road, Colorado. Geralis is part of a team of five who strategize details such as balancing the demands of leading a technical rock climb while staying safe in a combat zone, supporting a machine gun platform on snow, re-supplying soldiers in the field and preventing weapons from freezing.
When Dole campaigned to create military mountaineers for World War II, he first had to determine how best to train them. The 10th Mountain reboot is doing the same. “We are using all the histories, lessons and experiences they went through,” Geralis says. “We’re not just starting from scratch. We’re using some of the backbone.”
The hope, he says, is that when soldiers learn how to ski or rock climb, they’ll get out and practice those skills on the weekends.
“That’s originally what the 10th Mountain did—they had a huge cultural impact and that’s how it contributed to the outdoor industry of Colorado,” Geralis says.
The new 10th Mountain Division also hopes that as they show up at crags and on slopes as soldiers in-training, they will remind Colorado that the division isn’t a thing of the past. It’s a piece of history still being written.