A mile and a half from the cabin, my leg broke through the snow. It was a surprising, knee-buckling jolt, straight down and sudden with the force of a post driver. It was not something I felt coming; with 30 pounds on my back, my legs were forced into a right angle, one straight out behind me and the other pole-planted into the snow. I surrendered there and then. After relying on traction pads for the first three miles, I switched into my snowshoes. This immediately corrected the problem, and, with my weight now properly distributed on the snow, I hiked comfortably the rest of the way and arrived at my destination, the 10th Mountain Division Hut.
The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association’s flagship shelter, one of the 34 inhabitable memorials built in honor of the 10th Mountain Division of the Army, the mountain warfare unit of the United States military, sits in the shadow of Homestake Peak at the end of a 4.5-mile hike that begins just a few miles from Leadville, Colorado. The hut, deck and all, was impressive in size, even when tempered by the looming 13,209 feet of Homestake Peak overhead. Inside, I was greeted by a German couple and two college roommates; we exchanged pleasantries and stared out the hut’s large windows at the winter wonderland of sunlit snow and tall green pines against the backdrop of the tall peaks and baby-blue sky.
It’s always nice to meet fellow mountain-goers and connect over a love of outdoor adventure, but the hut itself — and the story it tells — was about to steal the show. The idea for the United States military to create a horse-and-mule-aided mountain regiment came about in the first place because members of the National Ski Association, recognizing that Germany was far more advanced in mountain combat, proposed it to the government in 1940 during World War II. The Association wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and even offered the assistance of the National Ski Patrol in training such a group of “skiing soldiers.” The concept was resisted at first. A year and a half later, after watching how small, well-trained groups of Greek alpine soldiers were able to defeat larger numbers of unprepared Italian troops in the mountains of Southern Europe during the Greco-Italian War, the government reconsidered their position, and the 10th Mountain Division was born.
With the National Ski Patrol in charge of recruitment, the first group of over 8,000 volunteers to enlist was primarily made up of alpine guides, lumberjacks, forest rangers, blacksmiths, trappers, cowboys and skiers. They trained on 14,408-foot Mt. Rainer in Washington until a permanent base, Camp Hale, was constructed for them in an alpine valley near Leadville, Colorado. In addition to ski training, the 10th was showered with an encompassing amount of mountaineering skills, including rock climbing, mule packing, trail breaking, fighting forest fires and building snow caves. Their packs, at times weighing a back-breaking and mind-boggling 122 pounds, held basic survival gear stuffed in alongside pitons, skis, axes, machetes, lip balm, rifles, helmets, goggles, mittens and muzzles — to name a few.
Inside the hut, there’s a plaque hung on the wall with a rock from the summit of Mt. Belvedere in Italy, where the unit won a decisive four-day battle in 1945. This is probably the only thing the hut has in common with the troubles of the men of the 10th Division. In reality, the hut provides all the luxuries those men never had while at war: One wood-burning stove, one wood-burning oven and one of the most expansive wilderness kitchens I’ve ever seen, with four propane burners, three indoor picnic tables, two flashlights, dozens of plates, dishes, cups, pots and pans, and just about every piece of silverware you could imagine, including a half dozen pizza cutters, a cheese grater and a potato masher (just in case you want to whip up some shepherd’s pie).
From the start, it was important to me to not let the coddled nature of the cabin overshadow the toughness of the men it represented. I already had to deal with that on a personal level — my “struggle” to get there, carrying a pathetic-by-comparison 30 pounds and having the luxury of modern snowshoes to bail me out of trouble. And if none of my physical efforts were going to pay homage, then I figured my mind ought to carry the load. Settled in front of the wood-burning stove, I perused the old photo collections from the bookshelf. One book in particular, Soldiers on Skis: A Pictorial Memoir of the 10th Mountain Division, shared stories of the men sleeping in the snow in the woods on the Italian frontline during World War II. It was a strong contrast to the German couple, who slept comfortably on the padded bed across the way, and to me and the college buddies, who sat reading by the fire. The hut, built for 16, felt spacious and uncharacteristically quiet. Each time I turned a page, I felt like I was eating a potato chip in a movie theater. But it was better that way. Sure, we could break out the whiskey and start telling stories, but it seemed appropriate to sit there and learn something.
Because, yes, this luxurious cabin was here for us to enjoy, yet I would imagine its first purpose was and still is to educate. While we sat here warm under this roof, tossing pre-supplied wood into the two stoves, thumbing through the kitchen thinking that we should have carried up some pizza dough, the men of the 10th Mountain Division — which still exists today at Fort Drum, New York, and is currently deployed in the Middle East — spent their nights outside huddled together on the battlefield, maybe wondering if their foxholes would fill with snow, or if they’d survive scouting the next boulder field in the morning.
I wouldn’t brag about my jump shot at Michael Jordan’s house, and so here, under the roof of the 10th Mountain Division Hut, I found no reason to share stories about the climb I did last week. None of my current-day adventures, with my fancy gear and itty-bitty pack, could hold a candle to what these men went through down the road at Camp Hale or across the Atlantic in Europe. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll return home and tell my friends about the “epic” hut trip I did, about how beautiful the sunset was and how easy it was to cook. But for now, I’ll keep my mouth shut by the fire, quiet with my nose in the photo albums. I’ll take an extra-long look at the men sleeping in snow and scouring the rocky minefields, and I’ll think about how tomorrow morning I too would have a “minefield” in front of me as I descended down the mountain. It’s only theoretical for me, of course — just a little soft snow and the risk of a face-plant.