How a search for the roots of Teton mountaineering led to a podcast (and book) about the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division and the dawn of outdoor recreation in America.
“As is well known,” American mountaineering legend Bill House wrote in The 1946 American Alpine Journal War Edition, “the U.S. Army up to the beginning of World War II had no substantial experience in mountain or cold weather problems.” For more than a century and a half, the Army had been a flatland operation, training to fight in tropical climates like Georgia, Hawaii and the Philippines.
Germany, Italy and Austro-Hungarian forces, on the other hand, had had their appreciation for mountain warfare sharpened by their engagements in World War I. In late October, 1917, German Captain Erwin Rommel’s 500-person Württemberg Mountain Battalion had destroyed five Italian regiments and captured three peaks and 9,000 Italian soldiers in a fifty-two-hour, twelve-mile Alpine traverse that encompassed 11,000 feet of vertical travel. Italy had lost more than 200,000 men to mountaineering accidents in the war’s first two years.
Over the course of three winters in the Dolomites, during the war’s Austro-Italian campaign, 60,000 Austrian and Italian troops had died from avalanches alone, including 10,000 in December 1916 who were buried following heavy snowfalls.
The Italian appreciation of mountain warfare had extended to the weaponization of natural features: they’d killed 3,000 Austrians by blowing up a summit snow ridge to trigger an avalanche onto their positions.
By the time Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, it had three full divisions—the Gebirgsjäger, or “Mountain Hunters”—ready to fight in cold, mountainous conditions. America’s entire military, by contrast, consisted of fewer than 200,000 soldiers, none of whom were similarly prepared.
America’s winter fighting manuals, as well as its mountain clothing and equipment, had last been updated in 1914. How would we combat an enemy assailant trained to fight in the mountains—particularly if it flowed south over the Canadian border in winter, when snow blanketed the rolling wooded hills of New England amid temperatures that held the land in its icy grip?
Put another way, as it was by John de la Montagne, whose training as part of the 10th Mountain Division would come to play an instrumental role in Teton mountain rescue after the war, “If twenty percent of the Earth’s land area is mountainous and/or underlain by permanently frozen ground or ‘permafrost,’ should not a corresponding twenty percent of our armed forces be educated, trained and ready to operate in these terrains?”
These and other considerations came into startling focus on November 30, 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland. Stalin and Hitler had signed a nonaggression pact that gave each country the latitude to advance its respective objectives without the other’s interference. Stalin’s was to deploy the Red Army’s vastly superior numbers and equipment to reclaim the former Russian territory of the young nation-state of Finland. Absent Hitler’s military objection, he expected he’d be able to do so by the end of the year.
What Stalin hadn’t bargained for was a people intimately connected to their land, in winter as in all months. Cross-country skiing through the heavily wooded countryside was a Finnish national pastime. The soldiers of the Red Army were neither trained nor equipped to fight in winter. As the achingly cold temperatures of December settled in, Soviet armored divisions lumbered forward on snow-drifted roads while small bands of Finnish soldiers in white camo lobbed molotov cocktails into tank cockpits before melting back into the forest on skis. Their guerilla sorties, which played out before a global audience, disrupted Russian advances for three and a half months before being overwhelmed by a 4-to-1 advantage. In America, they also catalyzed the realization that the country needed to create a similar force of its own. As an Army colonel remarked once the wheels for a mountain unit had been set in motion, “Like the Texan’s six-shooter, you may not need [a mountain unit], but if you ever do, you will need it in a hurry, ‘awful bad.’”
The story of the resulting 10th Mountain Division is famous for good reason. Developed to fight the Axis powers in extreme cold and mountainous terrain, its soldiers trained for nearly three years in the Colorado Rockies—often wearing ninety-pound “rucksacks,” or backpacks, as they performed their manuevers. Ski mountaineering in winter, climbing in summer, spending protracted periods of time under the stars in all kinds of weather, the mountain troops trained using gear and clothing specifically tailored to their unique needs. As they did, their camaraderie deepened and their endurance, stamina and expertise soared—but their training played out against a backdrop of doubt, indecision and outright obstructionism from within the War Department, which questioned the wisdom of such an unprecedented unit when the country simply needed to ramp up the number of soldiers in its forces as quickly as possible.
In early January, 1945, the Division was inserted, completely green, into Italy’s Apennine Mountains. Their mission: to break the Gothic Line, a series of fortified, German-held ridges and summits that had repelled Allied offensives for eight months. Over the course of 114 days of combat, the Division’s 13,129 mountain troopers achieved every objective they were assigned, in a fraction of the time forecast, at the almost unimaginable price of 969 killed and 4,154 wounded—the highest casualty rate of any American unit serving in Italy.
The division’s heroics helped end the German occupation of Italy and hastened the conclusion of the war in Europe. Its real grace, though, came later, as its soldiers returned to civilian life and fanned back out into the mountains they’d come to love.
Post-war, veterans of the 10th launched or helped develop more than 60 ski areas across the country, including Aspen, Vail and Squaw Valley; started the fields of avalanche science and wilderness rescue; founded companies like NOLS, Gerry Mountaineering Equipment and Nike; skied for the 1948 Olympic team; and created the 10th Mountain Division hut system in the Colorado Rockies where they’d trained.
Soldiers such as David Brower, a pioneering climber and a board member of the Sierra Club who would go on to lead the organization as its Executive Director, became ardent environmentalists, protecting the lands they’d fought to defend. Others, like US Senator and Presidential candidate Bob Dole, chose a life of political service. The clothing and equipment developed on behalf of the division became Army surplus gear, lowering the barrier to entry for Americans to climb, ski, and backpack during the economic boom that followed the war.
Numerous books have recounted the division’s convoluted evolution in exacting detail. It’s a sprawling saga, complex and broad and transformational, fascinating not only for the unit’s exploits in Italy, but also for the controversy surrounding its development on this side of the Atlantic.
Problematically, these stories have almost always been told from the perspective of skiers. I wanted to know about the 10th from a climber’s perspective—and that part of the history simply wasn’t there.
My name’s Christian Beckwith. I’m a veteran climber and skier from Jackson, Wyoming, and I’ve practiced alpinism in my home mountain range of the Tetons and around the world for more than thirty years. I’ve chronicled climbing’s living legacy in books and magazines such as The Mountain Yodel, The American Alpine Journal and Alpinist, coordinated the development of the Teton Boulder Park, a world-class bouldering park at the base of Snow King Mountain in downtown Jackson, as a way to honor the past, present and future of Teton mountaineering, and I’ve started two Teton climbing organizations, The Wayward Mountaineers and The Teton Climbers’ Coalition, twenty five years apart.
I was researching the climbing history of the Tetons as part of a book on the topic when I came to the September 1, 1941, entry in the Grand Teton’s summit register.
“Left base camp in Garnet Canyon at 6:30,” it read, “and reached summit at 2 p.m. Plenty of snow and ice.” Its authors: the German émigré brothers and future 10th Mountain Division soldiers Joe and Paul Stettner.
Joe Stettner penned the next entry, too: “Ascent via Owen route by Iowa Mountaineers and Chicago Mountaineering Club,” he wrote. The date of this entry: August 26, 1945.
Four years and nine days had passed between the two entries. There were no others. While the nation had been at war, climbing in the Tetons had ground to a halt.
I’d heard that many of the best climbers in the Tetons had entered the 10th, so, as part of my research, I set out to understand how Teton climbers had influenced the Division’s evolution, and how the 10th in turn influenced the evolution of Teton mountaineering after the war.
My research relied on two key sources: the entries in the range’s various summit registers, which extended back to the 1898 first ascent of the Grand Teton, the range’s highest peak; and The American Alpine Journal, a historical record of national and international climbing published annually since 1929 by The American Alpine Club. I had extensive familiarity with both. To better understand the Teton mountaineering ecosystem and its inhabitants, I’d transcribed the Teton summit register entries up through 1946, and I’d edited the Journal from 1996-2001, taking over the duties when H. Adams Carter, who’d made it into the world’s premier chronicle of mountaineering achievements, passed away.
The American Alpine Journal’s 1946 War Edition brought me a step closer to understanding the division’s contributions from a climbers’ perspective. In it, Carter—Ad to his friends—detailed his efforts to identify, procure and translate war manuals from the French, Swiss, Italian and German mountain troops—herculean endeavors that developed the foundation for an American mountain warfare handbook. Bob Bates, Ad’s longtime climbing partner and a brilliant, compassionate teacher at New Hampshire’s Phillips Exeter academy, described the monumental task of developing the gear and clothing for the mountain troops from scratch. Both Ad and Bob had been active in the Tetons in the late 1930s, and my appreciation for their contributions to American climbing was deepened by their entries in the summit registers and their essays in the War Edition.
I’d met Teton climbing pioneer Paul Petzoldt at 10,600 feet in the talus slopes below the Grand Teton in 1994. He was trying to climb the mountain on the 70th anniversary of his first time up it; my friends and I were neophytes, daunted by the prospect of climbing it at all. Petzoldt’s pale blue eyes danced below sea-anemone eyebrows as he confided to us that he hoped a weather system would blow in and allow him to call it a day with his dignity intact. The next year, as part of the Wayward Mountaineers, I brought Petzoldt to Jackson to speak about his lifetime of adventures. As I learned about his contributions to the development of a mountain rescue system for the division, the story of the 10th gained a more human outline.
In the early aughts, a friend and I had made the first winter ascent of a route on the Grand that had been established by Joe and Paul Stettner. I interviewed Paul Stettner Jr. about the brothers’ flight from Germany to Chicago to escape the Third Reich, the way their Alpine apprenticeship had informed both Teton and American climbing, and their personal vendetta to fight Hitler and the Nazis by enlisting with the mountain troops. In doing so, I gained a greater understanding of the geopolitical factors that influenced the 10th’s expertise and fighting fury.
In the four months I spent researching the division for my Teton book, I managed to figure out a way to tell its entire story through the narrative vehicles of these and other Teton climbers except for its signature action: the February 1945 taking of Riva Ridge, the precipitous, heavily fortified escarpment that was key to breaking the Gothic Line.
Charles Wellborn wrote a history of the 86th Mountain Infantry, the 10th Mountain Division regiment responsible for the offensive. I’d been poring over his account, searching for Teton connections, when I came upon a passage that caught my attention. In the ferocious German counter attacks that followed the American ascent of the ridge, a small patrol had volunteered to retake a strategically critical post called Ridge X. At dawn, its commanding officer had led his soldiers along a knife-edged spur in a full run, yelling and screaming, directly at the machine gun nest occupied by German troops on the other side.
The unfathomably bold assault succeeded in recapturing the position, but one officer and six enlisted men were killed in the process. Wrote Wellborn, “The officer killed was 1st Lt. JOHN MCCOWN of C Company, a veteran mountain climber whose rambling bow-legged gait and contempt for army red tape had made him a well-known figure to almost every man in the regiment.”
While transcribing the Grand Teton summit register entries of August 3, 1939, I’d found this: “Exum route from jenny lake time 6 hours 20 minutes.” Its authors: Joseph Hawkes, an ex-marathoning greyhound who, two weeks later, would climb the Grand in a mind-boggling 5 hours and 32 minutes, trailhead to trailhead; and John McCown.
I began to look through the other summit registers. In 1939 and 1940, McCown was all over the place, climbing routes both classic and obscure and attempting new lines on some of the range’s biggest objectives.
The lightbulb flicked on. Not only had I found a way to complete the story of the 10th from the perspective of Teton climbing; I’d stumbled upon the untold tale of an American climber who had given his life to help win the war.
With the help of a genealogist, I tracked down McCown’s niece, Susan McCown, the family historian. Susan generously shared letters and records about her uncle’s life before and during the war. The Denver Public Library holds the 10th’s archives, and a visit put me in touch with their custodian, Keli Schmid, who provided additional detail. In The American Alpine Club library in Golden, Colorado, I discovered board minutes that detailed McCown’s nomination for membership, which had been made by Bob Bates on the basis of McCown’s Teton climbs and which facilitated his enlistment in the 10th.
And then my journey brought me further afield. It connected me to McKay Jenkins, the writer and author of The Last Ridge: The Epic Story of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division and the Assault on Hitler’s Europe, who shared insights he’d gleaned in telling the Division’s tale. Chris Juergens, PhD, the Anschutz Curator of Military History at History Colorado, filled in the backstory of the German mountain divisions that America’s mountain troopers were training to fight. Jeff Leich, then the Executive Director of the New England Ski Museum, shed light on the state of skiing before the war, and the roles people within the American Alpine Club and the War Department contributed to the 10th’s formation. Sepp Scanlin, the former Director at the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum, and Doug Schmidt, the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division Historian, illuminated the unit’s importance from the military perspective, while David Little, the 10th Mountain Division’s “Living Historian,” recounted his forty-year adventure in documenting the minutia of the mountain troops’ development.
The more I listened to these experts, the more the division came into focus not as a way to tell a chapter in the history of Teton mountaineering or a footnote in military history, but as a means to explore some of the deeper issues surrounding the 10th, its soldiers and their impact on American society before, during and after the war.
Again and again, I’d seen the 10th described as America’s “ski troops.” In 1941, there were some half a million active skiers in the country, and fewer than 5,000 climbers, so it makes sense that there were more skiers in the ranks than mountaineers; but I also knew from my research that such a characterization was a disservice to the Division’s true nature, for climbers played an outsized role in its formation, developed the techniques, manuals, clothing and equipment that were central to its success and engineered its signature offensive.
I’d also seen the unit credited with the “birth of outdoor recreation in America.” To fully understand such a statement, though, it was necessary to understand who was climbing and skiing at the end of the Depression and how that changed during the war—and about this the various books on the 10th were notably vague.
How, I wondered, did the pre-war climbers and skiers navigate the socioeconomic tensions at play in America in the late 1930s and early 1940s? How did the 10th’s years of training make its soldiers reexamine, and ultimately reject, societal expectations about who belonged in the mountains? What equipment did they use, and how did that equipment, subjected to the intense pressures of the war effort, shape outdoor recreation as we know it today? And how did the troops’ shared spirit of camaraderie born of shared experiences democratize the outdoors for those of us who followed?
The more I studied the division, the more I realized there was an opportunity to answer these and related questions while telling the story of the 10th in a way it hadn’t been told before. By condensing my research of McCown into a book, I could bring the reader into a cinematic understanding of the unit’s development, its historical context and its personal implications—and, by grounding it in the experiences of a young man coming of age during the war, provide the reader with an accurate and profoundly human portrait of the division’s role in both the war and post-war America.
And the more I spoke with the Division’s experts, the more another opportunity arose. Working together, we could tell the story of the mountain troops from multiple angles, using the dynamic, accessible medium of podcasting to shine a light on the 10th’s military and civilian contributions.
Ninety-Pound Rucksack, then, is the story of the 10th Mountain Division, told in two ways. It is a podcast, told over multiple episodes with the help of the people who know its story best and who now comprise our advisory board: McKay Jenkins, Chris Juergens, PhD, Jeff Leich, David Little, Sepp Scanlin, Keli Schmid, and Doug Schmidt.
Their contributions to the podcast will help ensure not only its accuracy, but the accuracy and relevance of Ninety-Pound Rucksack the book, a narrative nonfiction account of the division and the dawn of outdoor recreation in America, told for the first time from the perspective of First Lieutenant John Albert McCown II, one of the unit’s greatest unsung heroes.
The podcast will come first, using interviews, historical records and first-had accounts to tell the Division’s tale. I’m writing the book at the same time, and will release it upon the podcast’s completion.
And so we begin. I invite you to join us on this adventure as we re-examine one of America’s most compelling and singular military units and the impact it had on outdoor recreation, which today is a $374 billion dollar cornerstone of our economy. In our next episode, we’ll explore the 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland—aka The Winter War—the way it inspired Minnie Dole, the National Ski Patrol System’s first director, to begin his campaign for the creation of our very own mountain warriors, as well as two other important parts of the story that history has forgotten: the roles of the US Army and the American Alpine Club in the genesis of America’s first mountain unit: the 10th Mountain Division.
If you have stories about the mountain troops you want to share, reach out and let me know. I’ll share them on my website, christianbeckwith.com, and include the best of them in the newsletter and in interviews on the podcast. Sign up for the newsletter for info on upcoming episodes, and for exclusive, behind-the scenes stories available only to subscribers.
You can find Ninety-Pound Rucksack at christianbeckwith.com or wherever you get your podcasts. Until next time, thanks for joining, and I hope you get outside and do something wild today. Have fun, stay safe, and stay in touch.