Ski season is upon us!
Dan Becker knows all about the connection between Mount Hood, the legendary 10th Mountain Division of World War II and the American ski industry.
To a certain extent, it was the background story behind his childhood on the mountain, as the son of two proud veterans of the 10th.
It can get a little confusing when he talks about his dads, because he calls each of them Dad.
Both his dads were mountain guys, each exceptional in his own way. But they were very different people, with very different life experiences.
His biological father was Barney Becker, an accomplished skier and racer who coached the Lewis and Clark Ski Team, served as the seventh president of the Schnee Vogeli Ski Club, and was honored by the Skiyente Ski Club as Mount Hood’s second-ever King Winter in 1957.
His stepfather was Russ McJury, a legendary mountaineer who made four first ascents on Mount Hood, built the first chairlift on the Upper Bowl at Skibowl, and climbed major mountains all over the American West.
Barney Becker, who got divorced from Dan’s mom Barbara Lou McJury when Dan was three, was a popular character on Mount Hood and one of the original ski bums. From Portland he moved to Sun Valley, and whenever he returned to Oregon he brought lively stories of his exploits for the regulars.
Here is an old photo of Barney Becker at Camp Hale in Colorado, with a dog that he befriended in the Rockies:
“Everybody loved Barney,” says Dan. “Russ was a bit quieter.”
Russ McJury (pictured above, with Joe Leuthold on the left and Russ McJury on the right) was a driven individual and a climbing legend. He is credited with four first ascents on Mount Hood: the North Face with Bill Hackett in 1936, Sandy Glacier Headwall with Joe Leuthold in 1937 (the above photo was shot during their descent), Eliot Glacier Headwall with Joe Leuthold in 1938, and Castle Crags with Dave Young and Dave Wagstaff in 1951. He also completed the first ascent of Klickitat Glacier on Mt. Adams.
In 1973, when he was just 11 years old, Dan Becker got to climb to the peak of Mount Hood with his stepdad Russ. Sort of.
“Actually, it was more like tie a rope around my waist and drag me up,” he remembers. “It wasn't particularly technical.”
But he made it to the summit. He also made it to the summit in 2009, to scatter Russ McJury’s ashes from the top of Mount Hood with the help of three good friends.
Here is a classic old Wy’East Climber’s Club photo of Ralph Calkin, Joe Leuthold, and Russ McJury, three of the all-time great mountain pioneers of the Pacific Northwest:
Both of his dads died in 2007, and Dan Becker still has boxes and file folders at his home in Troutdale, Oregon full of their mementos. An ice axe built in the Alps after the war by Henry Grivel. An early proof of a book about the great early climbers of Mount Hood, sent to Russ for fact-checking. Photos of Russ with legendary climbers Joe Leuthold and Bill Hackett. Envelopes full of negatives documenting Barney’s adventures at Camp Hale. Newspaper and magazine accounts of the 10th’s famed Troop Traverse from Leadville to Aspen in the peak of Colorado winter. A framed photo of Russ skiing for a White Stag ad. A handwritten war journal from 1945 in Italy. Barney’s Bronze Star. Russ’s purple heart. Photographs of the rows and rows of American soldiers buried in Florence, Italy. Lire notes with signatures of soldiers of the 10th. A Nazi belt buckle from combat in the Appenine Mountains, where the 10th Mountain Division stunned the German Army by taking the high ground and holding it. Once that happened, it was over for the Germans in the Southern Theater. Within a few months Mussolini and Hitler were dead, and Northern Italy was liberated.
“You ask any vet of the 10th Mountain Division, and they’ll tell you they won the war,” says Becker.
The 10th Mountain Division grew out of an initiative to develop an elite unit of mountaineers trained for high-elevation combat in World War II. The Army recruited mountaineers, skiers and members of the newly formed National Ski Patrol and sent them to train at Camp Hale in Colorado, studying advanced rock climbing, cold weather camping and ski mountaineering.
In Colorado Russ McJury served as temporary commander of the 10th Recon, training recruits for military maneuvers in the Alpine. He and Barney Becker (pictured at right, in uniform) both trained at Camp Hale, climbing, skiing and exploring the Rocky Mountains. 10th Mountain vets would later return to transform the sleepy nearby mining town of Aspen into one of the greatest mountain destinations in the world.
The skiers and climbers who made up the 10th broke new ground in Colorado with their multi-day treks through the Rockies. They were the last soldiers to enter the war in Europe, but they served with great distinction in Italy, climbing, taking and holding Riva Ridge and the surrounding mountains in fierce fighting — and driving the enemy back into the Po Valley to force a surrender.
In Italy Russ McJury served as a first Lieutenant with the 87th I Co. He and his men fought to take and hold Mt. Belvedere against heavy resistance from the German Army. McJury earned a bronze star for bravery and a purple heart for shrapnel in his gluteus maximus.
Barney Becker helped take and hold Riva Ridge with the 86th HQ. He also was honored with a bronze star.
Both men were lucky to return home from Europe. The 10th Mountain Division only served in Italy for 114 days, but one quarter of the soldiers of the 10th were killed or wounded in action. The 10th’s casualty rate of 1,209 per month was the highest of any division in the Southern European Theater of World War 2. But they had the satisfaction of contributing to the liberation of Italy and breaking the German Army’s southern position by outfighting them in the mountains.
The veterans of the 10th who survived the war went on to transform the American ski industry, developing Vail, Aspen, Mt. Hood Skibowl, White Pass, Mount Bachelor and many other great resorts - 62 in all. They brought back the spirit that propelled them through good times in Colorado and hard times in Italy, and they built something of lasting value that skiers and snowboarders continue to enjoy.
It was that spirit that built the Upper Bowl chairlift at Skibowl, providing access to the steepest terrain on Mount Hood. In the 1950s Russ McJury partnered with William Rosenfeld and Shepard Wilson to buy Mt. Hood Skibowl from Boyd French. He and his partners ran Skibowl from 1953 to 1963, and Russ built the first chairlift on the Upper Bowl as soon as he could get approval from the Forest Service. He owned a chalet near Multorpor with a great view of Mount Hood, and Dan got to spend a lot of time up on the mountain as a kid, exploring, skiing and enjoying the outdoors.
Barney Becker drifted away from Mount Hood after his divorce, moving to Jackson Hole and then Sun Valley to teach skiing. He eventually drifted away from skiing too. “His skis got stolen after he returned from Idaho to Portland,” says Dan. “He never did buy new ones.”
Barney Becker and Russ McJury passed away just 6 months apart from each other in 2007.
Dan Becker says neither of his dads talked about the war much — or about their friends from the 10th who did not make it home from Italy. But it was a big part of their lives and identities, and an interest that they passed onto him.
“I grew up 10th,” Becker explains. “We didn’t talk about about the war. It was just an outdoor lifestyle growing up. Skiing in the winter, backpacking in the summer, some scramble climbs in between.”
There were also years of regular get-togethers at Weinhard Brewery in Portland with Pacific Northwest veterans of the 10th and their families.
“They would get the public room at the brewery every year, and I would go with Dad, and hear stories and meet all these characters, all these old skiers,” Becker recalls. “I didn’t really understand the significance of the 10th until I got older.”
He later served as descendant president of the 10th Mountain Division Association’s Northwest Chapter, one of the last chapters in the country still run by the vets. He even made a trip to Italy in 2009 with other descendants, to retrace history and celebrate the division’s accomplishments. He enjoyed that trip so much that he and his wife Cindi are planning to return to Northern Italy this spring — for the 70th anniversary of the 10th Mountain’s liberation of Italy.
“The reason I’m going back is because Cindi didn’t get to go in 2009,” says Becker. “It’s a great story, and I want to share it with her. Plus it’s Italy. There’s this little village at the end of Lake Garda right by the Dolomites, and they’ve got this great little restaurant there that is just made entirely out of rock. No mortar in it. It is amazing that it’s still standing. And up in the hill towns, they have signs up welcoming the descendants of the 10th Mountain Division. And these little old ladies come out of their buildings clapping and cheering when we come through. They were probably little girls during those times, the occupation. But they remember. And then you head up toward Lake Garda and you start to get a feel for it. You realize that the 10th really did help liberate this country. And that is a pretty special feeling. You feel as though you are a part of it.”
Big thanks to Dan Becker for sharing his story and photos with Shred Hood.