Rock climbing and skiing may be hip and trendy now but 50 years ago they were basic survival skills for the 10th Mountain Division’s 14,000 elite soldiers. The 10th learned to ski and climb mountains with 100-pound packs on their backs in the most frigid conditions.

Only a few hundred members still ski regularly but once a winter those who live in the Midwest reunite at Indianhead Mountain on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Still wildly enthusiastic about skiing, they waste no time heading for the slopes.

“I take my Motrin and I hit the hills,” said Vern Cartner, 72, of Ironwood, Michigan. Cartner spent six months in hospital during the war with leg wounds, but it didn’t show when he snapped his boots into their bindings and schussed down the hill.

Assignments to the 10th were prized. Some of the world’s best skiers joined, including Olympic champions. They trained far longer than the average GI. According to Russell Berg, 73, Wausau, Wisconsin, some service branches viewed the 10th as lightweights who were having fun skiing in Colorado while the rest of the soldiers were fighting a war.

But their lengthy training prepared them for ferocious mountain attacks that turned the tide in Italy. By the end of the war, nearly 1,000 members of the 10th were dead and another 4,000 wounded.

After the war, members of the 10th helped established nearly 60 ski resorts throughout the US transforming downhill skiing from an obscure sport for the privileged to a winter thrill for the masses.

summarized from The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel