Seventy years ago, an elite group of skiers and soldiers were sent to Europe to liberate a nation and changed how we enjoy the outdoors forever. On an icy cliff several hundred feet above the Dardagna River in northern Italy, Orville Bjorge looked toward the dark sky and silently questioned whether he could make it.
It was the night of Feb. 18, 1945 and Bjorge, a 21-year-old from Hot Springs, was one of 700 soldiers ordered to climb nearly 2,000 feet – in the cover of darkness – to the top of Riva Ridge. As Bjorge pondered his next move, an M-1 rifle poked him from above. A fellow soldier told him to grab on to the barrel so he could lift him up the next few feet. Once hauled up to the ledge, Bjorge straightened himself and continued the steep climb. The soldiers continued the ascent under the weight of a pack loaded with 96 rounds of ammunition, twice the normal amount.
By dawn Bjorge and the rest of the troops had reached the top of Riva Ridge and dug into position. Hours later the German forces, which had held the high ground for months, realized they were not the only army perched above the Dardagna River. A bloody weeklong battle ensued. By the end, 21 American soldiers were killed and another 52 wounded.
As Bjorge tells the story of Riva Ridge, it’s hard to imagine that the 91-year-old man slouched in his recliner is the same one who climbed a 2,000-foot cliff in the middle of the night 70 years ago. But Bjorge was a member of the U.S. Army’s legendary 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry division trained to survive in the worst alpine conditions and the only one taught how to fight on skis.
Seventy years ago this week, the 10th Mountain Division was deployed to Europe to help liberate Italy in the final months of World War II. But its influence on history continued long after the war ended. Hundreds of soldiers from the Tenth went on to play major roles in the world of sports, conservation and recreation. One became the first executive director of the Sierra Club. Another had a hand in creating one of the world’s largest footwear companies, Nike. Still others helped build ski resorts from Vermont to Montana, including the Flathead Valley’s own Whitefish Mountain Resort
“They created the ski industry,” said Larry Wilson, son of a 10th Mountain Division member and president of the Big Sky Chapter of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division. “They were key in putting together a lot of the major ski areas and they made it an everyman sport.”... (see more at: http://flatheadbeacon.com/)