You know how sometimes something dredges up emotions you didn’t know you had deep inside you? I had such an experience a few days ago. Film makers Edgar and Elizabeth Boyles (Wildwood Films) showed up here to interview me about the early days of the 10th Mountain Huts (near here in Colorado). My involvement in this is more peripheral than that of the founders, but Edgar and Liz figured I’d have a take since I was a super active backcountry skier during those days and had the privilege of working with early hut folks in a variety of ways, including doing the first guidebook, helping them with their newsletter, producing a series of archival fine-art prints, and more. All that aside, this type of thing always becomes a discussion of the Trooper Traverse, that seminal event in February of 1944 when 33 10th Mountain Division soldiers skied over Colorado’s highest alpine terrain from Leadville to Aspen.
|Elizabeth is a gracious host for an on-camera interview.|
Elizabeth wanted me to share from a personal level, so I told the story of how 10th Huts founder Fritz Benedict had handed me a copy of the 1944 Blizzard newspaper from Camp Hale, where the troopers trained for the war. In that newspaper was a gem; a report of the Trooper Traverse. A few years went by, then I dug that copy out of my files and realized how significant the Traverse was, and how under-reported. The only solution: Go repeat it and then write about it.
Problem was, I didn’t know where the route went. Thus, a search worthy of Sherlock Holmes ensued, with me finally ending up at the Denver Public Library pawing through archives from famed film maker John Jay (who was an officer on the trip), and another archive from a trooper named Richard Rocker. As it turned out, Rocker had taken excellent color slides of the trip and I was able to figure out the route based on his photos. One image in particular was important, as it identified their first high pass by the distinct presence of a gigantic boulder perched above timberline on the side of a mountain.
During our second morning of the repeat, we headed up through timber still in some doubt if we were following the soldier’s footsteps. But soon after gaining the alpine, Rocker’s boulder was there above us, beckoning like a burly sentinel who’d been waiting 60 years for our visit.
|His friends called Bud "pole eater" because of his reaching pole plant. By all accounts, he was a tough and spirited mountaineer.|
It was then I had an epiphany. Our group had spread out so I was ski climbing in a private world of thought and experience. While I looked up towards the boulder, time compressed. The soldiers were ten minutes up ahead — not sixty years behind. We were following the trail they’d worked so hard to break in deep February snow. Along with that, I knew that one traverse solider in particular, Bud Winter, had been in his prime as a young man back then. Exceptionally strong and athletic, the young man had broken much of the trail during the traverse, and is said to have had an exuberant attitude and joy for life that was sweet and inspiring. After the traverse, Bud shipped over to Italy with his comrades and was killed in action. Bud sacrificed his life to liberate Europe from fascism — an ultimate act of humanity that’s hard to grasp even after years of discussion and philosophising about such things. (Uncle Bud’s hut, a 10th Mountain Huts cabin here in Colorado, was built in honor of Bud).
So, back to those dredged up emotions. I’m sitting in our studio/greatroom with Elizabeth and Edgar, speaking on camera about the traverse. Elizabeth’s kind eyes are encouraging me to dig deeper, so I start talking about that moment below the boulder, and the feeling that Bud and his friends are up ahead. Suddenly a wave of grief hits me like an earthquake and I break out in uncontrolled sobs. I put my hands over my face and for a moment I’m being whipsawed by emotions I’d forgotten even existed in my over-worked psyche. Besides simply grieving about the tragedy of war, what’s bringing it all up is I’m thinking about the days I was Bud’s 19-year-old age, reveling in the mountains just as he did — only because he went away and gave his life I was able to have my life as a mountain boy continue unabated up to the present. I’m thinking what can I do to honor that? Is there something far beyond my trivial efforts to climb, ski, write or whatever?
Elizabeth hands me a tissue. I gather my wits and continue the story. But the day has shifted. The sun streaming through the windows is brighter, Edgar and Elizabeth are closer, and Bud is as well. The young soldier is dressed in his camo white ski clothing, just in from a run on the Camp Hale training slopes on his way to mess hall. He’s paused for a moment, thinking about what he’s there to do and that he might not return from a brutal war. He’s thinking he’s part of something greater than himself, something powerful that will stop the brutality, and thus allow a fine life for those of us who will come after. And to us he’s saying “just do what you do, do it well, and enjoy it — that’s all we ask.” Thanks Bud, I’ll try.