Our Military and the Mountain Tradition

Last weekend I was going through a stack of books I acquired through a donation to my local section of the American Alpine Club and I came across a reprint of the American Alpine Journal from 1946. Don’t get too excited; it’s not really that old. My copy is the reprint from 1991 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which was established for specialized mountain warfare during World War II on November 15, 1941.

The 1946 volume — marked as “Special War Number” — contains articles on the service of members of the American Alpine Club where they were involved in the mountains or employed their mountain knowledge. It was also the first edition of the journal printed since the beginning of the war, the only hiatus in publishing the journal since it started in 1929. Paging through it, there is an article on the 10th itself by Albert Jackman, about the effect of high altitude on humans by Charles Houston — who would later write the definitive treatise on that topic, an article on the improvements on equipment by Bradford Washburn and several more pieces on other matters.

One thing was clear from reading these articles: the war’s unique problem was its global scope, which meant it would be fought on all imaginable terrain. That introduced challenges especially for the Allies of the US, Canada and Great Britain; they had not before fought on alpine mountains, though the Nazi and Italian forces, in particular, were trained and prepared to do so. The Ally militaries turned to experienced mountaineers to fill in the knowledge gap — many of whom included pieces in this journal.

The preface to the 1991 reprint puts the effect of the war on mountaineering and climbing in general into proper, historical perspective. While grand climbing accomplishments were halted, there were significant advancements in other areas. Without the challenge of winning the war on all fronts — including in the mountain ranges — the innovation in climbing gear would not have occurred at such a rapid pace. The biggest improvement was the development of the virtually unbreakable nylon ropes we use today. Before then, they were made of hemp and other fibers… and they broke, with relative frequency. (Thoughts of the legendary fall on the Matterhorn spring to mind!) By comparison, William House writes, “[T]he best grades of [hemp rope] could be stretched only to approximately 13% of their length before breakage, whereas the nylon rope would stretch over 39%.”

In addition, the role the veterans of the 10th Mountain Division played a significant role in creating America’s mountain culture after the war. They established many ski resorts throughout the United States. I first learned of the 10th through my trips to the Adirondacks and the Whiteface Ski Resort in particular. Later I started coming across memorials for the unit on backcountry trails, like the one on the western side of Mount Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We may not think of or realize it, but the mountain enjoyments we enjoy in the United States — especially skiing — was made accessible because of the World War II veterans of the 10th.

It’s easy to say on Veterans Day (or Remembrance Day in Canada) that we wouldn’t know the life we enjoy without the sacrifice of those that paid the ultimate price. While that’s unequivocally true, we also appreciate the contributions of the veterans that survived the war and how they have shaped the world we enjoy.

So, happy 70th birthday to the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which Tuesday, and have a happy Veterans Day tomorrow!

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