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Skiers hike up Jackson mountain with 90-pound backpacks — to honor war heroes

People hike up a snowy mountain between tall evergreen trees at night.
Natalie Behring
A group hikes up Mount Glory with heavy packs on Feb. 18 to commemorate a World War II ascent from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. The event also took place at Ski Cooper in Colorado and Whiteface Mountain in New York.

Hiking up a mountain with a 90-pound backpack may not sound fun to most people, but for a group of skiers in Jackson, that’s exactly what they did on the night of Feb. 18.

They were commemorating a historic climb from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. This specialized Army unit helped bring about the end of World War II, and similar tributes took place around the country.

We met up with the skiers on the top of Teton Pass.

It was nearly 7 p.m. on a stormy, frigid winter night. A group of eight guys in a rainbow of puffy jackets were grouped together at the base of Mount Glory — the over 1,500-foot mountain they were about to climb up and ski.

They stepped up to a scale one by one and weighed their packs, trying to get close to that magic number of 90 pounds. That’s the weight that the 10th Mountain Division carried on their backs in their training.

Caleb Hunger stepped up to the scale, but he needed help lifting his pack.

“That should be about 80,” Hunger said, rejecting offers to add 10 more.

Two people weigh their packs.
Natalie Behring
Caleb Hunger and Christian Beckwith look at a scale hanging from Beckwith's car. It maxes out at about 75 pounds, and Hunger's pack is even more.

His big black pack looked like it was bursting at the seams. It was filled with gallon jugs of water, heavy climbing gear, and a pair of skis and two firearms strapped to the outside — just for show.

Hunger said he’s a bit of a history buff.

“I tried to contact some friends with the American Legion post to be like, ‘How realistic can we make this?’” Hunger said.

“We've got some Germans on top with guns,” joked Christian Beckwith.

Beckwith organized the evening sufferfest and said the event was commemorating a World War II milestone against the Germans — an ascent from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, which specialized in cold weather and mountainous terrain.

“And it was comprised of an awful lot of the country's best climbers and skiers,” Beckwith added, leaning up against his truck in the parking lot.

A person ready for hiking carrying skis, a big backpack, and hiking poles.
Natalie Behring
Christian Beckwith, the event organizer, tries out his backpack to see if he should add even more weight.

He said, on this night in 1945, thousands of soldiers climbed what’s called Riva Ridge under darkness.

It’s part of an Italian mountain range, where Germans were stationed as part of the Gothic Line, a series of fortified summits and ridges.

“They took the Germans completely by surprise,” he explained. “And in taking Riva Ridge, they really opened the way to, breaking the Gothic Line … and they precipitated the German surrender of Italy, and that hastened the end of the war.”

Beckwith knows all this because he hosts a podcast on the subject, Ninety-Pound Rucksack, where he tells the “story of the 10th Mountain Division and the dawn of outdoor recreation in America,” per the show’s tagline.

A hiking backpack leans against a car tire.
Natalie Behring
An example of the rucksack the 10th Mountain Division carried up the Riva Ridge ascent. Christian Beckwith brought it to the Mount Glory event and said the soldiers filled it up with rifles and ammunition to ambush the Germans.

A longtime mountaineer, Beckwith said he wanted to know more about the history of climbing in the Tetons. And he found that many of the members of the Mountain Division climbed in the region before the war and came back after.

“They fanned back out into the mountains that they'd fallen in love with when they were training, and so that resulted in an explosion in skiing and in climbing post-war,” he said.

They started about 65 ski areas across the country, including Vail and Aspen, along with Snow King in Jackson. And they helped start the Jenny Lake Rangers rescue team in Grand Teton National Park.

“They developed this, you know, the fitness of mountain athletes, but then also the camaraderie, that we call the fellowship of the rope. So they had an incredible esprit de corps,” Beckwith said.

As the 7 p.m. start time neared, Beckwith asked some of his friends to help him put his heavy pack on.

That includes Wyatt Sullivan, who just got back from college and is much closer to the age of the soldiers that night. Some of them were just out of high school.

One person helps another put on a large hiking backpack with skis strapped to it.
Natalie Behring
A fellow skier helps Christian Beckwith put his pack on, which is weighing in at about 80 pounds, as they gear up for the nighttime ascent.

What does the 10th mean to Sullivan?

“I'd say badassery, and making can do with what you got,” Sullivan said. “I think it means a lot to be able to work with the materials they had in that era … I think elected suffering night is the best we can do to commemorate, to really try and mimic their suffering.”

In honor, Sullivan said he had eight two-gallon jugs of water in his pack — all of which he planned to pour out at the top before the ski back down.

He stepped up to the scale next.

“Let's see. I think we're going to break it,” he said, just as the scale hit about 90 pounds.

“Let's go, 90-pound rucksack!” the group exclaimed.

A person slings on a large hiking backpack with skis attached.
Natalie Behring
Wyatt Sullivan slings on his 90-pound backpack, before making his way up Mount Glory.

And with that, they shed their warm puffy jackets for what was sure to be a sweaty hike up Mount Glory — a fitting name according to Beckwith.

“The callsign for the 10th Mountain Division is ‘Climb to Glory,’ so somewhat appropriate,” he said.

At the same time, similar hikes happened at Ski Cooper, Colorado — where the 10th Mountain Division learned to ski — and at another training location outside Lake Placid in New York.

To keep the memory of these men alive, Beckwith said he hopes more mountain communities take part next year.

A person skis up a mountain.
Natalie Behring
A skier takes off up Mount Glory, an about 1,655-foot climb.

Hanna is the Mountain West News Bureau reporter based in Teton County.
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