FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- When the U.S. Army stood up a division of mountain warfare ski troopers halfway through World War II, not many Soldiers were familiar enough with mountaineering, let alone skiing, to venture out onto the 10,000-foot-plus peaks of Camp Hale, Colo., with the kind of confidence that he could muster.
Born near San Francisco on March 21, 1924, Hugh Evans called the rugged cliffs of the northern California coastline that he loved to climb and the soaring Sierra Nevada summits he skied the playgrounds of his youth.
As a young teen, Evans left home to attend the Phillips Exeter Academy near the coast of New Hampshire, a prestigious boarding school where he served as president of the mountaineering club. In addition to climbing, he continued to ski, conquering most of the steepest slopes of the White Mountains and other New England ranges during holiday breaks.
At Exeter, he also learned of the U.S. government’s preparations for a winter- and ski-trained Army division from Robert Bates, his English professor.
Bates, president of the American Alpine Club, had accompanied famed climber Charles Houston on expeditions in 1938 (and again in 1953) to K2 -- the second-highest peak on Earth.
Evans said Bates left Exeter during World War II for a commission in the Quartermaster Corps, where he assembled a crack team of expert mountaineers to develop specialized cold-weather gear for a mountain division.
In 1943, after graduation and a long train ride home, Evans was drafted into the Army from Fort Ord, Calif. He was accepted into the newly formed 10th Light Division (Alpine) at Camp Hale with letters of recommendation from Bates and two others.
“Ski troopers” of the 10th Light, especially instructors, had been recruited by the National Ski Patrol under the authorization of the War Department, which acknowledged the potential benefits of mountain warfare in the years after two Soviet tank divisions were defeated by Finnish soldiers on skis in 1939.
Evans was assigned to A Company, 1st Battalion, 85th Mountain Infantry Regiment. He said he was later transferred to C Company and busted down to private for telling the company commander he didn’t know how to set a proper mountain pace.
Winter warfare training at Camp Hale was grueling, often navigated with skis and snowshoes through subzero temperatures and heavy snow.
“The training was rigorous to say the least,” Evans said. “In the summer months, we hiked and packed through the mountains. We did rock climbing, rifle and mortar training. We learned to manage the mules. During the winter, we were on skis.”
Evans said the unit’s biggest test came during D-Series, a six-week maneuver through bitterly cold Rocky Mountain wilderness in which two opposing teams engaged in mock battles, slept in the snow and were not permitted to make fires.
He said finding ways to stay dry was a challenge. The trick for him was to avoid perspiring by wearing layers of wool that he could shed going up hills.
Temperatures dropped as low as 30 F degrees below zero. Through miles of snow, ski troopers with 90-pound rucks moved from dawn to dusk, stood guard at night and awoke most mornings to more snow.
“Some at Hale just couldn’t physically take the altitude and frostbite,” Evans said. “Turnover was big.”
When D-Series ended on Easter Sunday 1944, Evans said the Soldiers were finally permitted to build a fire, warm themselves and dry their gear.
After nearly a year in the mountains, Evans left for heavy weapons training in the sweltering heat of Camp Swift, Texas. It was snowing when they left and 110 F degrees when they arrived at Camp Swift three days later.
In the first days there, troops were ordered to conduct a 10-mile speed march. Evans said about two-thirds of the division fell out and ambulances rushed in to treat heat-related injuries.
“We were in damn good condition, but our bodies were still adjusting to the lower altitude and extreme heat,” Evans recalled. “Our blood at Camp Hale was like molasses. After acclimating at Camp Swift, it was flowing like water.”
Although Camp Hale was good for forging unbreakable bonds of friendship in absolutely hellish conditions, Camp Swift provided the division with its best combat training, Evans noted.
World War II
In January 1945, Evans sailed to Italy aboard the USS West Point. Once in Naples, his regiment boarded landing crafts bound for Livorno more than 300 miles up the coast. They passed through Pisa before reaching the hill towns above Bagni di Lucca, where Soldiers took refuge in Italian homes and stayed out of sight during the day.
Over the next several weeks, the division’s push into the northern Apennine Mountains deepened. Evans, now an assistant platoon sergeant with C Company, 1st Battalion, 85th Mountain Infantry Regiment, led his men toward the towns of Lizzano-in-Belvedere and Castel d’Aiano.
For his regiment, along with the division’s 86th and 87th Mountain Infantry Regiments, a key objective was to secure Mount Belvedere.
But the strategic mountain range was nearly impossible to conquer so long as Germans controlled a nearby crest dubbed Riva Ridge.
On the evening of Feb. 18, 1945, Soldiers from several elements of the 86th Mountain Infantry Regiment scaled Riva Ridge. As his comrades made the treacherous 1,500-foot vertical climb, Evans’ battalion lay in wait at the foot of Mount Gorgolesco with 3rd Battalion at the bottom of Mount Belvedere to the west.
The assault stunned German troops on Riva Ridge, and they were quickly overrun.
Late the next day, the 85th’s 1st and 3rd Battalions ascended the mine- and booby-trapped slopes of Mounts Belvedere and Gorgolesco.
From ridges on the opposite side of the German positions, Soldiers shined searchlights on the mountains, hoping to blind the enemy to Allied movements.
The Germans, although caught off guard, had already plotted out their artillery fire over all potential routes. The battalions were almost halfway up when the shelling began.
Soldiers fought their way up the mountain. The artillery and mortar fire intensified.
Near the top of Mount Gorgolesco, Evans said machinegun fire took down his platoon sergeant. Evans placed an air-tight bandage over the wounds on his chest. But in Evans’ arms, with his good friend “Mac” MacKenzie by his side, the sergeant died.
Enraged, Evans charged to the top of Mount Gorgolesco, where he successfully, almost single-handedly, destroyed two German machinegun nests.
Despite heavy casualties, 3rd Battalion secured Mount Belvedere and 1st Battalion controlled Mount Gorgolesco.
By morning, 1st Battalion was moving along the ridgeline toward Mount della Torraccia.
“We were so dead tired that you really didn’t know what was going on,” said Evans, who took over as platoon sergeant. “I remember having to go to shake some of the guys. They were so tired; I didn’t know whether they were dead or alive.”
Evans’ battalion dug in and patrolled their defensive positions along the ridge for nearly 10 days while repelling enemy sniper attacks and heavy German artillery fire.
When they were relieved, the Soldiers marched to an area just behind the front lines. Evans said the clothes he had worn for six weeks had to be peeled off.
Soldiers showered, shaved and received new uniforms. After a few days of rest, they were back up on the line, pushing forward, acquiring key objectives throughout the month of March, including Mount della Spe.
The division finally broke out of the mountains in April and, dashing across the Po Valley, rapidly pushed up to Lake Garda, where the Germans were forced to surrender May 2.
Evans later received the Silver Star for his actions on Mount Gorgolesco.
Before his unit departed in late August, Evans spent time in and out of hospitals recovering from hepatitis, polio and wounds from war. By the time his ship reached New York, the war in Japan was over.
Ultimately, the 10th Mountain Division, which was deactivated after the war, lost nearly 1,000 Soldiers and suffered more than 3,800 casualties during its four months in combat.
Evans carried his hard-bitten experiences from World War II into life, where he entered the mining industry and raised a family of four children with the values of hard work, optimism, unpretentious living and tight-lipped expressions of sentiment, especially in the grumbling department.
“There were clearly military expectations around behavior, discipline, making beds, keeping rooms tidy, never complaining about anything, leastwise mosquitoes, heat, cold, thirst, rigorous hikes in the elements and few rest stops,” said his daughter, Deborah Evans Clem.
Although Evans made old 10th Mountain songs such as “Oola” and “Ninety Pounds of Rucksack” the background music of childrearing and rowdy division reunions, his connection to the division really deepened after he retired and settled in Boulder, Colo.
In the decades since, he has reconnected in meaningful and enduring ways through regular 10th Mountain reunion gatherings in northern Italy, “ski-in ski-outs” on the slopes near Camp Hale and years of service in the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division.
In 1987, while president of the association, Evans played a major role in the creation of the 10th Mountain Division Resource Center at the Denver Public Library.
In collaboration with the association, the library maintains historical papers and oral histories while the Colorado Historical Society accepts care of skis, parkas, boots, uniforms and other items.
“It established one comprehensive location for the historical record of the World War II-era 10th Mountain Division for use by members, researchers and scholars,” said Michael Plummer, president of the Fort Drum Chapter of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division.
Evans, who still skis today, explained that the brutal training of Camp Hale, along with the harrowing moments of war in the Apennine Mountains, have made reconnecting with old comrades a worthwhile endeavor.
“We shared so many (intense) experiences together,” he said. “They built a special relationship, both to the mountains and with the men you shared those experiences with, that is lasting.”
Along with the camaraderie of those old buddies, Evans said he really appreciates the work of today’s 10th Mountain Soldiers, who more than live up to the division’s prominent reputation in history and in the Army.
“It makes us very proud and pleased that they have performed so well,” he said.
Over the years, while Evans devoted time to the legacy of the division, his daughter began attending 10th Mountain ski-in ski-outs near Camp Hale, later becoming active in the 10th Mountain Division Descendants organization started at Fort Drum in the 1990s.
Plummer called 10th Mountain descendants the “bridge” between World War II leadership and the division’s modern-day leadership.
“There would not be a 10th Mountain Division Association today without their energy, dedication and love for their fathers,” he said.
There also would not have been a 10th Mountain Division Hut Association. For the past 17 years, Clem has been part of a group that volunteers with the unique association, helping to maintain the organization’s system of dozens of backcountry log-built huts located between Aspen and Vail.
She said those special times together with friends and descendants of the division, in huts up above the Rocky Mountain timberline, are a part of what is helping the historic division connect with future generations.
“There, in the high country, in the mountains where our fathers trained, where bonds were forged in the harsh winter of Camp Hale, there, as nowhere else except Italy, we have forged the next generation of camaraderie and enduring friendships that mysteriously echo those of our fathers,” Clem said. “On winter hut trips, trekking up the snowfields with Dad on ‘two boards,’ he is in his element, and transformed into our ‘sergeant.’ We toe the line, without question, an odd mix of vets, descendants and camp followers, and we truly love it, and him.”