When I was in the Army about a million years ago, I spent a few years as an infantryman in the 10th Mountain Division. The division’s home at Fort Drum, in northern New York State, experiences some of the most extreme winter weather this side of Montana.
When I took command of a rifle company in the 10th, I personally signed for every piece of equipment that belonged to the government. In an established protocol, the first thing the incoming commander does is take something called the “property book” and inventory everything in the company. Sheet after sheet in the property book listed every item that belonged to the company, from machine guns and night vision goggles to every bunk in the barracks. The new CO counts it all, makes sure it’s all there, and signs for it. After that, the CO “sub-hand receipts” the equipment to the platoon leaders and so on down the line.
As I came to the last page of the property book, I came to an entry – lacking the usual, unintelligible Army acronyms – that read simply, “skis,” and listed the amount, “150 pr.” I asked the supply sergeant what that was and he said, “Oh, those are the skis, we never use them, they’re in a warehouse on old post. We’ll go over there to count them.”
I was aware that the 10th Mountain Division trained in Colorado as expert skiers in World War II, and fought in ferocious battles in the mountains of Italy. But I also was aware that skiing had not been part of the division’s training program since the unit had been re-activated in the 1980s. But we still had skis – cross-country skis – a warehouse full of them. After visiting the warehouse and counting my allotment, I signed for 150 pair.
At the time, in its infinite wisdom, the Army issued every soldier in the 10th a pair of heavy Chippewa boots, ready to clip into the bindings of the old skis. But we never did any ski training in the 10th. We were far too busy with jungle and desert training exercises and real-world missions to practice something we might have to do someday – like fight a war in Siberia.
But, as fall turned to winter, I thought about those lonely old skis down in the warehouse – big, long, white wooden planks about eight feet long. After a big snowstorm hit Fort Drum in October, I asked the supply sergeant to bring up five pairs from the warehouse, which he did.
I told the three platoon leaders and the executive officer (XO) to bring in their Chippewas the next day. The next morning, I told them we weren’t doing physical training (PT) with the company that day – we were going skiing!
I had already figured out how to clip the boots into the ski bindings. The nose of the boots went into a metal clip and an adjustable cable wrapped around the back of the boots, which had slots in the heels just for that purpose. Cross-country skis differ from downhill skis in that the rear of the boot is able to raise up, so you can step forward, with only the nose of the boot bound to the ski.
A blanket of snow about a foot deep covered the entire post. Only one of us had any skiing experience – the XO – who had downhill skied before. But we clipped into our skis and just started going places. The roads had been plowed so we went alongside the roads. I led the way and cut snow tracks for the other officers.
None of us had any training in cross-country skiing, but it was amazing how fast we got the hang of it. After about 15 minutes, we were just gliding along like ducks in a row. One ski forward, shift your weight, slide the other ski up, and use the poles to push with your arms. Easy as pie.
Five grunts gliding across the snow like the fabled 10th Mountain Division ski troops of World War II! We were having fun – until we started going down a steep hill. All of a sudden, four of us were on our backsides and the XO was swooshing down the hill, laughing at the rest of us. We moved over to a field, where the XO gave us some basic downhill instruction, then we got back on the road.
After skiing about four miles, we got back to the company and the First Sergeant gave us a hard time for “skipping out of PT.” But I told him I felt like I’d done a week’s worth of PT, and it was true. The skiing had worked my entire body, especially after I had gotten into a rhythm. The sport is not only an incredible aerobic challenge, but it also builds your leg, arm, back and core muscles.
Later that year, the company deployed to the Middle East and we went from snowdrifts to sand dunes. I never skied with the soldiers again. But I bought a pair of cross-country skis, which I used when I was somewhere with snow. When I was living in the city about 10 years ago, I gave them to a friend because I wasn’t using them that much.
This winter, I’m getting back into cross country skiing. It’s fun, it’s great exercise and it’s always an incredible experience in the beautiful, great outdoors of Pocahontas County.
Normally, Pocahontas County gets good snowfall, especially at higher elevations, and there are many good places to ski. A snow-covered Greenbrier River Trail is perfect for cross-country skiing, as are the miles and miles of ungroomed trails and unplowed forest roads in the Monongahela National Forest. The Highland Scenic Highway, unplowed in the winter, is a popular spot for local cross-country skiers. At the intersection of the Scenic Highway and Route 219, there is a parking area and multiple trailheads, from which you can start exploring.
Elk River Touring Center (ERTC) in Slatyfork is the best place for beginners to get started, or people like me to get back into the sport. I’ll be visiting there soon to get advice on a new or used pair of skis. At ERTC, you can rent skis and boots for $20 a day, and it only costs five dollars more to use a three-kilometer groomed course.
ERTC offers individual lessons for $75, but bring a partner because it’s only $80 for two. If there’s not enough snow in Slaty Fork, you can rent skis and head to higher elevations, like the Scenic Highway, for a day’s outing.
“There’s a small network of trails right at the base of the Scenic Highway,” said ERTC proprietor Mary Gillis. “It’s well-marked and it’s kind of protected in the woods. They certainly are nice for cross-country because you can access them easily, at a higher elevation.”
There are few groomed trails in the area, but many suitable places to blaze your own.
“It’s a fun thing to get out and do, but you have to do it more back-country style, in just natural conditions,” said Willis.
ERTC offers ski services beginning in December and depending on snowfall. Their phone number is 304-572-3771.
Peter Shelton’s book, “Climb to Conquer: The Untold Story of WWII’s 10th Mountain Division Ski Troops,” is available on amazon.com.