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The 10th Mountain Division

Posted on 04 December 2012

 

Few stories from the "Greatest Generation" are as unforgettable -- or as little known -- as that of the 10th Mountain Division. Today a versatile light infantry unit deployed around the world, the 10th began in 1941 as a crew of civilian athletes with a passion for mountains and snow. From its conception on a Vermont ski hill, through its dramatic World War II coming-of-age, this unique unit ultimately inspired a revolution in American outdoor life.

In the late-1930s United States, rock climbing and downhill skiing were relatively new sports. But World War II brought a need for men who could handle extreme mountainous conditions -- and the elite 10th Mountain Division was born. Everything about it was unprecedented: It was the sole U.S. Army division trained on snow and rock, the only division ever to grow out of a sport. It had an un-matched number of professional athletes, college scholars, and potential officer candidates, and as the last U.S. division to enter the war in Europe, it suffered the highest number of casualties per combat day.

In the Italian Apennines, the 10th scaled a 1,500-foot "unclimbable" cliff face in the dead of night, stunning their enemy and beginning the eventual rout of the German armies from northern Italy.

The 10th was a self-selecting elite, a brotherhood in sport and spirit. And those who survived (including the Sierra Club's David Brower, Aspen Skiing Corporation founder Friedl Pfeifer, and Nike cofounder Bill Bowerman, who developed the waffle-sole running shoe) turned their love of mountains into the thriving outdoor industry that has transformed the way Americans see (and play in) the natural world.

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