NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — Given the choice between turning soldiers into skiers or skiers into soldiers during World War II, the U.S. government decided the latter was easier. And anyone who watched 91-year-old veteran Richard Calvert easily outpace a bunch of young servicemen in New Hampshire last weekend likely would agree.
"I was intimidated a little bit. I knew I wasn't going to keep up with him," said Spc. Sebastian Gaitan, a 21-year-old snowboarder. "He was haulin' ... ."
Gaitan finished 80 spots behind Calvert in the Hannes Schneider Meister Cup Race at Cranmore Mountain on Saturday. But the day was more about connections than competition for the former and current members of 10th Mountain Division, which is credited with hastening both the end of World War II and the rise of the American ski industry.
Now based at Fort Drum, New York, the division was the brainchild of Charles Minot Dole, who as founder of the National Ski Patrol convinced the federal government to create an infantry trained in winter warfare. Under a special contract with the war department, the ski patrol hand-picked recruits from among the country's greatest skiers, mountaineers and outdoorsmen.
"For the most part, we were young people from outdoor experiences, from skiing, to mountain climbing, rock climbing, hunting, fishing, canoeing, you name it. ... We were kindred souls," said Calvert, who started skiing as a teenager, using rubber bands cut from tire inner-tubes to hold his boots in place.
The ski troopers spent several brutal winters training in skiing, snowshoeing, rock climbing and other elements of winter combat at Camp Hale in Colorado, nicknamed "Camp Hell." Calvert recalls a two-week stretch out in the hills when the temperature never rose above minus 10 degrees.
"It was tough. We buried down in the snow, cut branches, threw our sleeping bags down and climbed in, got some sleep — maybe. No fires," he said. "It was not fun and games. It was probably the worst experience we all had. I like camping out, but that was not fun."
While they didn't end up skiing in combat, their other winter warfare skills paid off. In February 1945, members scaled a 1,500-foot vertical cliff in the dark to clear the way for a subsequent drive through northern Italy that helped liberate the country.
"The Germans had their guns pointed one way, and we came in the back door. So that worked out pretty neat," Calvert said.
When they returned home, members of the division were among the founding fathers of the modern U.S. ski industry, establishing resorts throughout the West. Before the war, skiing was somewhat of a quirky Northeastern pastime, but the 10th Mountain Division veterans turned it into the resort industry that exists today, said Jeff Leich, director of the New England Ski Museum and author of a book about the 10th Mountain Division.
"When you collect some of the best skiers in the country and train 'em in Colorado for two winters, quite a few of them want to stay involved in skiing for the rest of their lives. So as they were deactivated, they came home and many made careers in skiing," he said. "Some of the largest areas like Aspen and Vail were founded by ski troopers, and just about every ski area in the country had some 10th Mountain Division veterans connected with it in some way — ski shops, ski patrols, ski schools, apparel manufacturers, publishers."
The current division no longer specializes in winter warfare, but members are invited to Cranmore for the annual race, which raises money for the ski museum and this year honored 100-year-old Nelson Bennett, a New Hampshire native who had a long career managing the White Pass Ski Area in Yakima, Washington, after his 10th Mountain Division service. Ten current soldiers participated in the race, most of them opting for snowboards over skis.
Staff Sgt. John Brady was among them, though he gamely tried skiing for the first time Friday. He enjoyed both, but said his favorite part of the trip was meeting Calvert and the other veterans.
"Some of them, they can relate to us soldiers, so they'll open up. It's just an amazing history that they have, and their stories need to be told," he said. "For us to be able to get those stories, and the legacy that they've left for us, it's just amazing."
Calvert, of Wolfeboro, who retired from a career in insurance and has been married for 71 years, skis about 45 days a year and is the only original 10th Mountain Division veteran who still races competitively. But he was full of praise for the current members of his old division.
"They are super soldiers," he said. "We are so well represented by our young men and women in the service, and these guys are in good shape physically, so they adapted exceedingly quick. I was impressed."