Joe’s Blog: 10th Mountain Division’s Role in the Ski Basins of the Rocky Mountains

Ski Santa FeThe history of the ski industry in America has a special interest for Santa Fe, surprisingly combining our city’s beautiful ski basin with the defense industry that’s been such a major factor in New Mexican history.  If the US had not dedicated an army division to mountain and ski warfare during the Second World War, the emergence of the ski industry of the United States might have lagged behind by a generation.  The proactive training of soldiers in mountaineering skills and skiing, however, ensured its early post-war establishment. War veterans trained in skiing made their mark in New Mexico, using their skills and knowledge to establish ski basins and kindle the region’s love of winter recreation.  The establishment of the ski basins of the Rocky Mountains is tied inexorably to the 10th Mountain Division.

At the start of the Second World War, the United States lacked specialized mountain troops like the German’s infamous “Jaeger” battalions.  The value of these specialized units was proven during the Russo-Finnish Winter War, when Finns on skis with extensive knowledge of the terrain and of technique proved immeasurably superior to Russian forces.  This culminated in the Finnish victory at the Battle of Suomussalmi in 1939, where two Soviet mechanized divisions (45,000 men) were defeated by 11,000 Finnish soldiers utilizing skis and sleds to maneuver material and men.  Recognizing the value of these soldiers, the civilian founder of the National Ski Patrol, Charles Minot Dole, lobbied the War Department to develop specialized mountain training and regiments.  This lobbying would lead, eventually, to the creation of the 10th Mountain Division.

At this time American skiing was unfocused and disparate, an activity practiced mostly by ‘upper-crust’ Eastern college students.  The war effort recruited these young skiers, along with others, to form the 10th Mountain Division.  When formed in early 1943, the division included men trained in a wide variety of outdoor work: lumberjacks, climbers, muleteers and horsemen, hunters, trappers, park rangers and ranchers. Brought together in service to their country and exposed to a wide range of training and education, these varied yet complimentary individualists would later help forge America’s awakening love for outdoor recreation.

10th Mountain Division PhotoAs a direct result of the enthusiasm of 10th Mountain veterans who had explored the Rockies during their training outside Leadville, Colorado, and a strong economy, the ski industry finally had the key ingredients for growth by the early 1950’s. One such veteran was Bob Nordhaus, who founded Sandia Peak outside of Albuquerque. Meanwhile, in Santa Fe, a group of civic boosters calling themselves the Sierras de Santa Fe followed suit and established Santa Fe Ski Basin, raising the money for the first lift in 1949.

Joe Juhan bought the basin in 1950 and brought legendary Ernie Blake to run the basin.  Born Ernst Hermann Bloch, his family fled Nazi Germany on the eve of war due to their Jewishness.  Changing his name to Ernie Blake, the champion skier (a shoo-in for the 1936 Olympics save for his religion) established himself in the American skiing community.  Following the outbreak of war, Blake enlisted as an interrogator due to his valuable language skills. He would later interrogate many high ranking Nazis including Herman Goerring.  After the war, Blake began developing ski basins, helping establish Santa Fe before going next to Taos to do the same.

In this time, legendary skiers like Buzz Baingdrige, Kingsbury Pitcher, Harvey Chalker, Johnny Kinsolving, as well as Olympic hopeful John Dendahl,  operated, instructed, trained at or owned the Santa Fe Ski Basin in the following decades, creating the unique and distinctive character of today’s Santa Fe ski mountain.  The legacy of these individuals is still apparent to anyone visiting the basin.

This was an exciting time for Santa Fe’s growth.  The new ski industry, the Santa Fe Opera, and the increase in tourism were instrumental in establishing our “City Different” as a truly unique and exciting destination.  The Santa Fe ski basin remains an integral part of the city’s identity, retaining its unique charm while still continuing to innovate and adapt to changes in winter recreation.

So, enough history for now….how about making some of our own history on the mountain? The Inn on the Alameda is a very special and romantic home away from home to spend the times off the slopes enjoying and exploring 400 years of the history, art, architecture and culture of the original capital city of the Southwest. Located next to Canyon Road and near the Plaza, there is no finer location to kick back around the fire and enjoy dining and imbibing at Santa Fe’s finest hotel.

Joe Schepps (co-authored by Mike Schepps who lives and works in Portland, OR.)

Joe Schepps

Sources: “In a Remote New Mexico Valley, a Jewish Skiing Legacy at Taos”

Wikimedia Commons Photo


Joe’s Blog: New Mexico Statehood is 102

San Miguel Chapel Santa Fe New Mexico

San Miguel Chapel Santa Fe New Mexico

January 6th, 2014 is the 102nd anniversary of New Mexican Statehood, which makes this a good time to take a look at the exciting and unique history of our town dating back much further than our statehood.  The story of Santa Fe is a multicultural tapestry that dates to the 16th century and defines it as one of the most unique, amazing capital cities in the entire United States.

Eighty years after Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs and established New Spain, the Conquistador Don Juan de Onate headed north to colonize the northern regions above the Rio Grande river.  In 1598 he established Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico as a province of New Spain.  The original capitol of the province was located to the north of modern day Santa Fe near the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.   Within a decade Governor Don Pedra de Peralta moved the capitol to its present day location and founded La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi… a little too long to use for an address, so the colloquial name soon became Santa Fe signifying the Holy Faith of the early church fathers. The oldest building in Santa Fe, the San Miguel Mission, reflects this Holy Faith and elements of the structure date back to Peralta and 1610.

Santa Fe’s early period was dominated solely by Spanish culture and colonialism. The economic conditions of colonialism often involved a degree of exploitation, the pressures of which resulted in the Pueblo Revolt of the late 17th century.  In 1680, the Spanish fled Santa Fe until the period of the “reconquest” in 1692.  The ‘peaceful reconquest’ of the Spanish is still celebrated as the basis of the town’s annual “Fiesta.

From the 1700s until the Mexican War of Independence, Santa Fe remained oriented strongly to Spanish culture and the culture of New Spain.  Trade was not allowed with Britain, the Americans, or the French.  Isolated from these outside influences, Santa Fe remained linked to an economy of resource extraction and exploitation from European sources.  It was the Mexican War of Independence in 1810 that signaled a new and exciting chapter in our city’s history.

In 1824, Santa Fe became the official capital of Mexico’s northern province.  This was an important time of expansion for our city.   It was a period of growth and of orienting towards the greater North American continent. Santa Fe opened up as a more cosmopolitan town as trade with American trappers and travelers over the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri brought plenty of new goods and exposure to non-Spanish traditions. The Republic of Texas claimed most of New Mexico in 1836, but an armed expedition sent out from Austin was quickly captured before its arrival to Santa Fe by the Mexican Army.   Many elements of modern Santa Fe were built during this period, including artistic gems like St. Francis’ Cathedral and the Loretto Chapel, as well as the expansion and formalization of the space we know as the Plaza.

In 1846, at the beginning of the Mexican American War, the US flag flew for the first time over the Plaza. In 1848, when the war ended, Santa Fe became the capital of the newly formed New Mexico Territory. During the Civil War New Mexico became a battleground state with the Confederate Flag briefly flying over the Plaza. The Confederate occupation ended following the Battle of Glorietta Pass and the reclamation of New Mexico for the Union.

In 1912, the Territory was admitted to the United States as the 47th State of the Union and as you would expect, Santa Fe was its capitol.  The early period of statehood and of New Mexico in the 20th century is itself a fascinating period, and one I hope to cover further on in my blog.  It’s my hope that I’ve demonstrated to some degree the lengthy and fascinating multicultural (Pueblo to Spanish to Mexican to New Mexican to American) history of the city, and its role as one of the most unique and historically significant cities in the United States.

I encourage you to come and see the history of Santa Fe for yourself. The doors of the Inn on the Alameda are always open to new explorers of our wonderful state of New Mexico.

-Joe Schepps

Joe Schepps