The author’s son Lachlan holding an American flag as he and others participate in an event called “skiing the serpentine”; everyone follows the person in front of them in a giant snake formation until they reach the bottom of the hill.
The author’s son Lachlan holding an American flag as he and others participate in an event called “skiing the serpentine”; everyone follows the person in front of them in a giant snake formation until they reach the bottom of the hill. (Photo: Devon O'Neil)

Passing on a Mountain Legacy

My grandpa served in the Army's tough-as-nails Tenth Mountain Division during World War II. After the war, soldiers from the Tenth pioneered the rambling mountain lifestyle I live today. Every year, I ski to remember him.

The author’s son Lachlan holding an American flag as he and others participate in an event called “skiing the serpentine”; everyone follows the person in front of them in a giant snake formation until they reach the bottom of the hill.

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I’m about to read the names of ten dead soldiers when I catch my son’s eye. He is standing in a crowd of 60 people, many of them veterans and relatives of vets, on Colorado’s Tennessee Pass. My mom is holding him. We’re here on the last Friday of February to honor my grandfather, Robert “Snuffy” O’Neil, who served in the Army’s vaunted Tenth Mountain Division during World War II. The division was comprised of expert skiers and mountaineers and modeled after the Finnish troops who repelled the Soviet army in 1939. Lachlan, my four-year-old, hadn’t wanted to stand with me while I read the names, a privilege bestowed upon Tenth descendants. But now, from the longing in his eyes, I can tell that he does. 

We had come to the division’s 45th annual “ski-in” at Cooper Hill—the tiny nonprofit ski area north of Leadville, Colorado, where the Tenth trained for winter warfare—in part to stay connected to other descendants but mainly to show Lachlan that this is part of who he is. Much like religious parents want to instill faith in their children, I want mine to know about their mountain heritage, to feel it. So this morning, we drove an hour from our home in Breckenridge for a day of remembering and paying tribute and, of course, skiing where our ancestors had skied. 

I always knew my grandpa served in the Tenth, which famously helped drive Hitler’s army out of Italy in 1945 (after surrendering, German commanders said the division was the toughest they’d faced on any front during the war). But I didn’t really understand who he was until I happened to meet four of his old war buddies skiing at Vail in 2006. Snuffy was a highly skilled mountaineer and cartoonist who trained other soldiers and lightened the mood for 14,000 troops stationed at Camp Hale, near Leadville, where the division was based. They invited me to join their weeklong reunion tour through the central Rockies, and I couldn’t resist. I soaked up their colorful history and memories of Snuffy—like when he survived an 80-foot fall while rock-climbing at Hale. We skied each day at different resorts, then congregated for group dinners. One evening I sat on the fringe as a half dozen vets in their eighties and nineties wearing navy-blue Tenth Mountain Division V-necks sipped bourbon while arguing over who could ski-jump farther when they were kids. Every now and then, they’d drag one of their cohorts over and introduce me. “Did he ask you about Snuffy O’Neil? That’s his uncle!” And I’d smile to myself, figuring they must still feel young enough to view a 26-year-old as being only one generation below them.

Snuffy died of a heart attack when my mom was pregnant with me and my twin brother, Sean. He was 56. It breaks my heart to think he came so close to meeting us but didn’t. Learning about him through his former comrades was both cathartic and agonizing. He and his friends basically invented the life I lead now, traversing mountain ranges on skis during their training missions, then starting ski areas (including Vail) and ski patrols after the war. I have framed photos of Snuffy, who went on to work as a ski instructor in Aspen, on my walls at home. Sometimes I talk to him when I’m alone on a peak. As much as his buddies brought him to life, I still wish I could ask him for advice or just follow him through the woods on skis. 

Now I dream of instilling the same sense of pride and connection I feel to the Tenth in my two sons. I especially want them to meet Snuffy’s contemporaries, and I feel an urgency to make that happen due to the division’s dwindling ranks. 

Fourteen years ago, an estimated 1,800 World War II vets from the Tenth were still alive. Now that number is down to between 200 and 400, according to division historian David Little. All are in their mid-nineties or older (Snuffy would be 96). The division loses about 30 to 60 of its former members each year. The ski-in at Cooper was the first one in 45 years that none of the original ski troopers attended, though a handful still live in Colorado. 

Even without them, the event’s significance resonated, not least because we were celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Germans’ surrender. Active and retired Special Forces came to honor their predecessors. The military attaché from the Norwegian embassy, Colonel Magne Rodahl, flew out from Washington, D.C., to pay homage to the 99th Infantry Battalion, which was comprised of Norwegian and American troops who trained with the Tenth at Camp Hale, seven miles north of Cooper. “It’s an honor to be invited,” Rodahl said. “These guys were our brothers.”

Shortly after one o’clock, Lachlan, my mom, and I ride the slow Tenth Mountain chairlift up to 11,700 feet and find our place in line for the parade down to the base. Event organizers call it “skiing the serpentine”; everyone follows the person in front of them in a giant snake formation until we reach the bottom. My mom stares out at the Sawatch Range from the Continental Divide. “This makes me so happy,” she whispers. “I’m so glad we’re here.” 

I tuck an American flag into my helmet, and Lachlan starts waving his in anticipation of the descent. A group of Lake County elementary students sing “This Land Is Your Land” as we get in position. My mom points toward the man in front of us, dressed in a white cotton suit that has been passed down from one of the original ski troopers. “That gentleman is wearing the uniform that my daddy used to wear,” she tells Lachlan. “That’s what Snuffy wore?” he gasps. 

At the bottom, everyone sings “God Bless America,” then we gather our things and proceed to the Tenth Mountain Division memorial on Tennessee Pass, just below the Cooper parking lot. A veteran reads “Soldiers Don’t Cry,” a seminal essay that was published in the Tenth Mountain Division’s newspaper, the Blizzard, in April 1945. The essay describes the scene at a cemetery near Florence, Italy, where the division buried its first casualties. “We shall never forget the comrades we leave here in this sacred soil,” Major General George P. Hays, who commanded the Tenth, said that day. “We pledge ourselves to always render them lasting devotion. For us they will always be a source of inspiration. May we always be as loyal.”

Finally, it is time to read the dead soldiers’ names. The division lost 992 men during its battles in Europe, and each year, five descendants read ten names apiece to memorialize them. I am slated to be the second reader. Lachlan catches my eye just before the rite begins, and I wave him over. He pauses, not wanting to interrupt the ceremony. Then he sprints from the crowd up to where I am standing and clings to my leg. He stares out at his fellow descendants as I speak each fallen hero’s name, including that of John D. Magrath, the division’s only Medal of Honor recipient. 

Lachlan may not comprehend the moment’s gravity, but as he stands at my side, I can tell that he is proud to be here, proud to belong here. Just like his daddy.