Barely a month after Nazi Germany surrendered in 1945, war-weary American soldiers from the renowned 10th Mountain Division “ski troops” — who had trained for World War II at Colorado’s Camp Hale — held a ski race on a spectacular peak in the Julian Alps, near the border of Italy and what was then Yugoslavia.
In Italy’s Apennine Mountains, they survived fierce clashes with German forces that claimed the lives of 992 of their comrades. They had fought heroically on Riva Ridge, Mount Belvedere and through the Po Valley to Lake Garda, where Benito Mussolini had a villa. Terrible images of battle were all too fresh in their minds, but holding a ski race seemed like a good way to celebrate the lives that had been spared. Despite the horrors of mountain combat, they had not lost the love for skiing and mountaineering that drew them to Camp Hale three years earlier.
The story of the 10th — its cold-weather training in the mountains between Vail and Leadville, its fierce battles in Italy and the improbable giant slalom at Mount Mangart on June 3, 1945 — is told in a new historical documentary written, produced and directed by Chris Anthony, a professional skier and member of the Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame. The 70-minute film — titled “Mission Mt. Mangart, the Mighty Story of the 10th Mountain Division” — premiered on Veterans Day at Boettcher Concert Hall in an event that included a performance by the Colorado Symphony. It will play at several Colorado venues during ski season.
Anthony, who is well known to Colorado skiers for more than two dozen appearances in Warren Miller films as a daredevil big mountain skier, is often overcome with emotion when recalling how the movie came to be made and the reactions it is eliciting. He falters when describing what happened after a screening for 300 troops at Fort Drum, N.Y., the current home of the 10th Mountain Division, when a two-star general summoned Anthony to the stage. Anthony saw the general had difficulty composing himself.
“I walked up there and he told me that on their uniforms on the left arm is the 10th Mountain Division patch, but if you have a 10th Mountain Division patch on your right arm, that means you’ve seen combat,” Anthony said. “He tore the combat patch off his right arm and handed it to me.”
“Mission Mt. Mangart” captures the fun-loving character of the troops training at Camp Hale and the tragedy of war, using lots of archival footage and first-hand accounts from men who lived through it.
Bruce Campbell, who reported to Camp Hale when he was 18, is one of the few veterans of the World War II ski troops who is still alive. Now 98, his baritone is one of the voices in the film’s narration, including this observation on the mood of the 10th when the guns finally fell silent.
“You would have thought that, upon hearing that the war had ended for us that we would be cheering and firing weapons and hollering,” Campbell says. “But there was a far more somber reaction because we were tired and the war was over for us. It was a short period of combat but very intense, and we couldn’t help but think about wounded soldiers and, of course, those killed in action.”
And yet, only 32 days after German forces surrendered Italy, the 10th decided to have a ski race. They had been repositioned in the Julian Alps, in what is now Slovenia, to deter Yugoslavian dictator Josip Tito from moving into Italy. Few knew about the race when Anthony learned of it by chance seven years ago. He set out not only to tell that story but to re-create the race for the film.
Anthony learned the idea for the race on Mangart came from Karl Stingl, a 10th Mountain soldier who was struck by the grandeur of the peak while running military messages back and forth over nearby Predil Pass. Stingl was born in a German-speaking area of Czechoslovakia and learned to ski there as a boy. His parents sent him to the U.S. in 1937 to live with a relative because they sensed war was coming. He joined the 10th in 1942, becoming one of the many European-born skiers and mountaineers who joined the elite infantry unit at Camp Hale, including two famed Austrian mountaineers and ski racers, Toni Matt and Friedl Pfeifer.
As Anthony says in the movie, “When the opportunity came to utilize the skills they learned to fight for their new country against the tyranny destroying their homelands, they signed up.”
The Mangart race was won by Walter Prager, a Dartmouth ski coach and native of Switzerland who was a two-time world downhill champion before the war. Finishing second was Steve Knowlton, a longtime Coloradan who famously used to describe himself as “the first ski bum in Aspen.” He competed in the 1948 Olympics, opened a night club in Aspen and was instrumental in founding Colorado Ski Country USA, serving as the organization’s first director.
“He was a freshman at the University of New Hampshire and got the call, or heard about it, and rode his motorcycle west to Camp Hale to join up,” said one of his sons, Reid Knowlton, in a phone interview with The Denver Post.
After the war, former 10th Mountain ski troops helped found ski areas all over the country including Aspen, Vail and Arapahoe Basin. Despite the bloodshed they had seen while fighting in the Alps, the spirit of skiing and the mountains still burned within them.
“It might have saved them,” said Knowlton, who saw Anthony’s film at the Boettcher. “That was their playground, their comfort, everything they knew. I think they were able to hold onto that. They were young guys, having fun. They had to go fight, but they kept their passion alive, and that may have helped diminish or limit the PTSD that others in subsequent wars have had to deal with.”
There is something almost eerie about how Anthony came to make the film. Visiting the home of an Italian friend at the friend’s home in Colorado decades ago, Anthony saw a picture of Mangart and it cast a spell on him. He decided he had to see that mountain in person, and he made numerous trips there in the years that followed. It became like a second home.
“From the first time I laid eyes on Mount Mangart, it felt as if I had some sort of spiritual connection with the mountain,” Anthony said. “It’s as if my life had been designed to take this journey and share this story.”
Janez Kavar, a retired general in the Slovenian mountain troops, heard about Anthony’s frequent visits to the region, and in 2014 he left a manuscript for him at a hotel where Anthony stayed whenever he was there. Kavar previously had been to Colorado on research missions, visiting the Denver Public Library and the Colorado Snowsports Museum in Vail to learn more about the 10th. At the museum, Kavar saw Anthony’s “Climb to Glory.”
The manuscript Kavar left for Anthony became the seed for the film, and in 2017, Kavar helped Anthony re-create the race on Mount Mangart. Townspeople turned out to help clear the road of rockfall and avalanche debris.
“All these townspeople, current mountain troops and retired (troops) in their 80s showed up in period gear from the ‘40s and we re-created the race,” Anthony said. “It had been raining for weeks. The day we had the permit (to film), blue skies. The next day it started raining again. There’s no way I was getting away from this story. Now I was married to it, and I had to deliver on it.”
The scope of the film grew, and along the way Anthony discovered the stories of Deborah Bankart and Cruz Rios. Bankart toured the U.S. with an Army-funded ski film, helping recruit skiers and mountaineers to join the 10th, and later served on the Italian front lines in the Red Cross. Her segment is narrated by Olympic downhill champion Mikaela Shiffrin. Rios was one of 300 Mexicans and Native Americans who served in the 10th, and after learning to ski at Camp Hale, became a lifelong skier. Color film he shot during the war appears in “Mission: Mt. Mangart.”
Anthony intends for the movie to be used as programming and fundraising for the Chris Anthony Youth Initiative, a nonprofit that provides educational opportunities and field trips for financially challenged schools and youth programs. The film has won numerous cinema awards in Europe, including recognition from the Cannes World Film Festival.
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