The 10th Mountain Division: Mountaineering Pioneers

The 10th Mountain Division: Mountaineering Pioneers

Author Kristian Whittaker

Happy Memorial Day! To celebrate those who served, we're taking a brief dive into the history of the 10th Mountain Division. These extraordinary individuals not only left an indelible mark on military history but also revolutionized the world of mountaineering. 

The Birth of the 10th Mountain Division

In the midst of World War II, the 10th Mountain Division came into existence in 1943 with a clear purpose: to train soldiers in mountain warfare for the demanding Italian Campaign. This exceptional division was comprised of handpicked mountaineers, skiers, and outdoor enthusiasts chosen for their physical prowess and affinity for rugged environments. Their intensive training covered rock climbing, cold-weather survival, skiing, and various mountain warfare tactics.

Alpine Warfare in World War II

Deployed to the treacherous Apennine Mountains in Italy, the 10th Mountain Division faced formidable challenges in their encounters with the Axis powers. Enduring freezing temperatures, deep snow, and difficult supply lines, they showcased their extraordinary skills in navigating mountainous terrains and excelling in high-altitude combat. Their expertise in mobility, camouflage, and surprise attacks proved crucial in pivotal battles, including the assault on Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere.

Legacy of Expertise

The knowledge and expertise gained by the members of the 10th Mountain Division during the war profoundly influenced the field of mountaineering. Upon their return to civilian life, these veterans played a pivotal role in gear development, safety practices, and expedition planning. Drawing from their experiences, they contributed to advancements in climbing equipment, such as improved ropes, harnesses, and crampons. Additionally, their emphasis on safety protocols and training standards helped establish a foundation for responsible mountaineering practices.

Personal Connections

After WWII, the 10th Mountain Division was disbanded, and mountaineering training was placed under the Mountain Cold Weather Training Command at Camp Hale, Colorado. My grandfather Lou Whittaker, and his twin brother Jim, ended up training army and special forces here during the Korean war. They taught cold weather survival skills, snowshoeing and skiing techniques, and ice climbing up in Wind River, Wyoming. After the 10th Mountain Division was reinstated in 1985, they were made honorary members. 


Jim and Lou Whittaker at Camp Hale, Colorado

Lou and Jim Whittaker at Camp Hale, Colorado, in the 1950s


Founding Mountain Recreation

Driven by their passion for the outdoors, 10th Mountain Division veterans established organizations dedicated to mountain recreation and outdoor education. Notably, former division members founded the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Outward Bound. These organizations have played a vital role in promoting safe and responsible mountaineering practices while instilling a love for the outdoors in future generations. 

Inspiring Future Generations

The impact of the 10th Mountain Division on mountaineering reverberates through the ages. Their training programs and mountain warfare techniques continue to be utilized in military operations, ensuring the readiness of soldiers in challenging environments. Furthermore, the division's veterans remain active in the mountaineering community, sharing their knowledge and experiences with newer generations of climbers and outdoor enthusiasts. Their remarkable stories inspire individuals to push their limits, embrace the spirit of adventure, and cultivate a profound respect for the mountains.

The indomitable spirit and mountaineering expertise of the 10th Mountain Division have left an enduring legacy in the world of mountaineering. From their remarkable achievements in World War II to their lasting contributions to mountaineering knowledge, safety, and recreation, we owe a debt of gratitude to these pioneers.

Their bravery, resilience, and unwavering commitment to the pursuit of adventure and exploration continue to shape the mountains we explore today. As mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts, let us honor their memory and embrace the challenges and rewards that await us in the great outdoors.


  • This a really good piece on the 10th Mountain Division, but one very interesting accomplishment of some of these great young men on their return to civilian life was the role some of them played in moving the fledgling Alpine Skiing sport into a mainstream major winter recreation endeavor and especially the work of Monte Atwater and some of his close associates in snow avalanche science and control development.

    - Lynn Sprague
  • I had the honor of being attached to the 10th Mountain Division during my 2005-2006 tour in Iraq. At the time I did not know or appreciate the history of the 10th Mountain Division. While hiking and climbing Mt Washington I came across a plague honoring the 10th Mountain. Thank you for sharing this history. Jim

    - James O'Neil

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