I called Bob Carlson on Monday to talk about "Climb to Glory," a wonderful new documentary about the 10th Mountain Division ski troops of World War II, and when I asked how he's doing, he was ready with a quip I had a feeling was coming. "Well," said Carlson, 88, "I'm still alive."
Carlson is one of my favorite 10th vets for several reasons, including the fact that he went back to Italy in 1995 and climbed Riva Ridge — a technical route where he fought the Nazis — to mark the 50-year anniversary of the famous assault when he was 70 years old.
But sadly, the list of surviving Camp Hale vets is dwindling. Right after the war the 10th Mountain Division Association had about 7,000 members, and now there are about 400. There may be a few more who never joined the alumni group, but you get the idea.
I look back over 25 years of writing about skiing in Colorado, and so many of the 10th guys who touched me deeply are gone. There was Steve Knowlton, the gregarious "first ski bum in Aspen," who became a wonderful friend. There was Pete Seibert, the visionary co-founder of Vail. And Johnny Litchfield, who worked for fellow 10th vet Friedl Pfeifer at the Aspen ski school right after the war. I could listen to those guys tell stories for hours.
That's why this new movie, which will have a red-carpet premiere Jan. 17 at the Oriental Theater, is so important. It preserves great stories told by surviving Camp Hale vets, like this gem from Earl Clark about the days right after the war.
"I went back to my home in Chicago, was there five months and couldn't get back to Colorado fast enough, so I made the move like so many others," Clark said. "We were spared in war, we came back to the mountain environment that we loved, and our entire lives from that point on — here in Colorado, particularly — were around us. We could hike, we could camp, we could ski, we could enjoy what the mountains had to offer.
"And it changed lives for most of us. Just the mountains. The mountains."
Chris Anthony, a regular in Warren Miller films, deserves major props for making this film become a reality. Concerned because so many voices of the 10th were being lost, he approached Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum director Susie Tjossem about doing a documentary, then sold the idea to Warren Miller Entertainment. Thus "Climb to Glory, Legacy of the 10th Mountain Ski Troopers," is a joint venture of WME and the museum.
One of the most inspirational things about the men of the 10th is that they loved the mountains so much, they could feel their lure even after seeing them as battlefields where 992 of their brethren were killed. That says a lot about the kind of men they were, and about the power of the mountains.
"The grandeur of the mountains, it just gradually seeped into my body, and I knew this was something I was going to enjoy for the rest of my life," Dick Over says in the film.
There's a fun scene showing Anthony and two descendants of 10th vets dressing in Camp Hale gear and trying to get those crazy long skis (in excess of 7 feet) to turn. The guys fall a lot.
"Holy cow," says Scott Kennett. "I mean, if you get a little bit forward, you're gone. If you get just a tiny bit back, you're gone. And then the skis just don't want to turn. How did they do it? I can't believe it. Much respect for these guys to be able to ski on this stuff."
I am so grateful to the ski museum, Anthony and WME for making this happen. And to the men of the 10th for opening skiing to the middle class and popularizing mountaineering as a sport. I think of them often, especially when I'm skiing in the backcountry where they prepared for war.
"The greatest blessing that came out of the 10th for many of us was the great common love of the mountains," Clark says. "It became the life of thousands of men after the war, both mountaineering and skiing. And the great bond of the mountains holding the men together gave us something far more important than memories of war and battle. That's what holds us together, and it's held us together for a lifetime."
John Meyer: 303-954-1616, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/jmeyer26
Climb to glory, legacy of the 10th mountain ski troopers
Red Carpet Premiere
Oriental Theater, Jan. 17, 7 p.m.
Benefitting the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Jeremy Bloom's Wish of a Lifetime organization for seniors.