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Joe’s Blog: 10th Mountain Division’s Role in the Ski Basins of the Rocky Mountains

Ski Santa FeThe history of the ski industry in America has a special interest for Santa Fe, surprisingly combining our city’s beautiful ski basin with the defense industry that’s been such a major factor in New Mexican history.  If the US had not dedicated an army division to mountain and ski warfare during the Second World War, the emergence of the ski industry of the United States might have lagged behind by a generation.  The proactive training of soldiers in mountaineering skills and skiing, however, ensured its early post-war establishment. War veterans trained in skiing made their mark in New Mexico, using their skills and knowledge to establish ski basins and kindle the region’s love of winter recreation.  The establishment of the ski basins of the Rocky Mountains is tied inexorably to the 10th Mountain Division.

At the start of the Second World War, the United States lacked specialized mountain troops like the German’s infamous “Jaeger” battalions.  The value of these specialized units was proven during the Russo-Finnish Winter War, when Finns on skis with extensive knowledge of the terrain and of technique proved immeasurably superior to Russian forces.  This culminated in the Finnish victory at the Battle of Suomussalmi in 1939, where two Soviet mechanized divisions (45,000 men) were defeated by 11,000 Finnish soldiers utilizing skis and sleds to maneuver material and men.  Recognizing the value of these soldiers, the civilian founder of the National Ski Patrol, Charles Minot Dole, lobbied the War Department to develop specialized mountain training and regiments.  This lobbying would lead, eventually, to the creation of the 10th Mountain Division.

At this time American skiing was unfocused and disparate, an activity practiced mostly by ‘upper-crust’ Eastern college students.  The war effort recruited these young skiers, along with others, to form the 10th Mountain Division.  When formed in early 1943, the division included men trained in a wide variety of outdoor work: lumberjacks, climbers, muleteers and horsemen, hunters, trappers, park rangers and ranchers. Brought together in service to their country and exposed to a wide range of training and education, these varied yet complimentary individualists would later help forge America’s awakening love for outdoor recreation.

10th Mountain Division PhotoAs a direct result of the enthusiasm of 10th Mountain veterans who had explored the Rockies during their training outside Leadville, Colorado, and a strong economy, the ski industry finally had the key ingredients for growth by the early 1950’s. One such veteran was Bob Nordhaus, who founded Sandia Peak outside of Albuquerque. Meanwhile, in Santa Fe, a group of civic boosters calling themselves the Sierras de Santa Fe followed suit and established Santa Fe Ski Basin, raising the money for the first lift in 1949.

Joe Juhan bought the basin in 1950 and brought legendary Ernie Blake to run the basin.  Born Ernst Hermann Bloch, his family fled Nazi Germany on the eve of war due to their Jewishness.  Changing his name to Ernie Blake, the champion skier (a shoo-in for the 1936 Olympics save for his religion) established himself in the American skiing community.  Following the outbreak of war, Blake enlisted as an interrogator due to his valuable language skills. He would later interrogate many high ranking Nazis including Herman Goerring.  After the war, Blake began developing ski basins, helping establish Santa Fe before going next to Taos to do the same.

In this time, legendary skiers like Buzz Baingdrige, Kingsbury Pitcher, Harvey Chalker, Johnny Kinsolving, as well as Olympic hopeful John Dendahl,  operated, instructed, trained at or owned the Santa Fe Ski Basin in the following decades, creating the unique and distinctive character of today’s Santa Fe ski mountain.  The legacy of these individuals is still apparent to anyone visiting the basin.

This was an exciting time for Santa Fe’s growth.  The new ski industry, the Santa Fe Opera, and the increase in tourism were instrumental in establishing our “City Different” as a truly unique and exciting destination.  The Santa Fe ski basin remains an integral part of the city’s identity, retaining its unique charm while still continuing to innovate and adapt to changes in winter recreation.

So, enough history for now….how about making some of our own history on the mountain? The Inn on the Alameda is a very special and romantic home away from home to spend the times off the slopes enjoying and exploring 400 years of the history, art, architecture and culture of the original capital city of the Southwest. Located next to Canyon Road and near the Plaza, there is no finer location to kick back around the fire and enjoy dining and imbibing at Santa Fe’s finest hotel.

-Joe Schepps (co-authored by Mike Schepps who lives and works in Portland, OR.)

Joe Schepps

Sources: “In a Remote New Mexico Valley, a Jewish Skiing Legacy at Taos”

Wikimedia Commons Photo

 

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