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Will Thompson - Personal Communication
Phone conversation, 2 April 2001I had a short talk with Will, hoping to arrange a meeting. These notes were jotted down as we spoke. Regarding the 10th Mountain Division, Will classifies himself as a contrarian. He feels that the 10th failed in its mission, which was to create effective mountain troops. The 10th was inspired by the success of Finnish troops against the Russians early in World War II. There was a fundamental difference, however, between what the 10th tried to do and what the Finns were successful in doing.
by Lowell Skoog
Mountain troops in continental Europe always had a defensive function, due to the terrain and the installations that were in place to support them. The U.S. Army, due to the strategic situation in the war, decided they must deploy mountain troops offensively, just as they had to do with lowland forces. The 10th was staffed with very good soldiers who were not mountaineers, and didn't really understand mountains, and good skiers and mountaineers (at the 2nd lieutenant level) that were not experienced enough in military operations, nor at a high enough rank, to really influence troop operations.
The success of the 10th division in the war was due to initiative on the part of lowland forces, not the effectiveness of the mountain troops. Will and others have tried to sway the military to better understand the requirements of mountain warfare. He noted that the Boeing Osprey (vertical take-off and landing aircraft), is a modern example of a technical development that could make mountain troops more effective.
To Will, the main success of the 10th Mountain division with respect to skiing has been the influence of its veterans in building the U.S. downhill ski industry. In this sense, the 10th could be cast as a villain with respect to ski mountaineering. The overwhelming emphasis on lift-served downhill skiing in the decades following the war led to highly specialized ski equipment that was unsuitable for mountaineering, unlike the more general purpose gear in use before the war. In avalanche safety, the emphasis was on artillery and other control techniques, rather than on empirical knowledge which would have been of benefit to backcountry skiers and mountaineers. The emphasis on downhill skiing following the war, led by 10th Mountain veterans, meant that not as much progress was made in ski mountaineering as otherwise might have been.
Taped interview, 5 September 2001I met Will Thompson and his wife Helen at their home in Juanita, which is next door to Matie Daiber's house. Helen was present during most of our meeting and contributed frequently.
by Lowell Skoog
Ptarmigan Climbing Club
When Will started climbing in the 1930s, two major factors were changing Northwest mountaineering. The first was the Boy Scout program at Camp Parsons on the Olympic Peninsula. The Seattle Scouting Council was promoting hiking and climbing by Scouts throughout the Olympic Mountains. Nearly all the active climbers and skiers that Will knew came through the scouting program. The Mountaineers had been active for a long time under their president Edmund Meany, but Camp Parsons developed an outdoor community that was independent of the Mountaineers. The second factor was the Depression. Public work projects were extending and improving roads along major Cascade valleys like the Suiattle, the Cascade River, the Skykomish, and along the Snoqualmie Pass highway. These improvements were opening up the Cascades to easier access.
Will's mother bought some land west of Darrington near French Creek from a logging operation that had gone under. They built a cabin there and Will started hiking and climbing on nearby mountains such as Higgins and Whitehorse. Nels Bruseth and others were building the French Creek trail to Three Fingers around that time. Will became acquainted with the forest rangers after meeting Bruseth on that trail. He followed a group of forty or so Mountaineers, all climbing single-file, up Whitehorse. These experiences got him interested in climbing.
Will started school at the University of Washington in 1934. He and a friend named Bud [Brady?] used to take the train to the Meany Ski Hut. Bud had friends from Roosevelt High School, all Boy Scouts, who wanted to climb. This group fell under the influence of Ome Daiber. Ome was acting as an emissary of the Seattle Scouting Council to set up a senior scouting program, promoted by the national organization and modelled after a program that had been active in England for years. Ome was an avid mountaineer and he helped the group get organized.
The group did a number of interesting climbs over the next few years, including a memorable early climb on the north side of Glacier Peak by Will Thompson and Bill Cox. Cox's mother was a widow, and young Bill felt obligated to pay his way. He bought a Model A Ford, which got him to work on weekdays and also to the mountains on weekends. One weekend Cox and Thompson drove the new road to the head of the Suiattle River with a pair of young Mountaineers. They hiked up Milk Creek and began climbing Glacier Peak as directly as possible. They squeezed three days of climbing into a two-day weekend by going all night Saturday. High on the mountain the other two climbers became exhausted and broke down weeping. Cox and Thompson left them to recover and continued to the summit and back. Sunday night fell as they hiked back down the Milk Creek trail. They climbed into the Model A and started down the Suiattle road. About half-way down the road, Cox fell asleep and rolled the car. Nobody was hurt, but Cox was in a panic because he didn't think he'd get back to his job on time. Early Monday morning a crew of WPA workers found them and helped them right the car. Cox and friends continued on their way, but because of the stress of the roll-over, all the tires blew out. "That was the sort of thing we were doing," remembered Will.
"We were in Seventh Heaven about climbing," said Will, "climbing everything in sight. Fred Beckey hadn't come along yet, although he arrived on the scene before long." Will became an assistant scoutmaster in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle. One Scout, a young man named Dwight, was reckless in the mountains. "If you knew him well, you knew he was quite disturbed," recalled Will. Will later heard through the grapevine that Dwight had committed suicide. He had put a hose on the tailpipe of a car, fed the other end through a window, and turned the motor on. Will learned that the chief of the Seattle Scouting Council was gay and had gathered a group of gay Scouts around him at headquarters. Dwight was one of them. "The social pressure on a gay kid in those days was such that he just wasn't able to stand it, so he killed himself," said Will.
The tragedy made the papers. The National Scouting Council sent a committee to Seattle to investigate. The chief of the Seattle Council was sacked. The National Council was shocked to learn that the Seattle Council had been sponsoring mountain activities. "This business of wandering around in the Olympics had caused no hullabaloo in the papers or serious accidents or anything like that," said Will. "But because they were professional scouting executives they anticipated that practically anything might happen, from their point of view, so they shut that down pretty immediately, and it has pretty much stayed shut down as far as I know." Will's scouting friends, the ones coached by Ome Daiber, were told verbally by several people in the scouting organization that they could either quit mountaineering or get out of scouting. So they turned themselves into the Ptarmigan Climbing Club and forgot about the Scouts.
Will had been studying Forest Service planimetric maps and was spending time at his family's Stilliguamish cabin when Nels Bruseth and Harry Bedal pointed out the Picket Range to him. Summers during the 1930s were generally long, warm and dry. Carrying dried foods and leaving a tent behind, he could get his backpack weight down, so he did some long hikes in the Skagit region. One went from Hannegan Pass over Whatcom Pass and down the Skagit River to Diablo Dam where he resupplied at the Seattle City Light company store. He continued up Thunder Creek over Park Creek Pass to the Stehekin River then up Agnes Creek to Suiattle Pass and down the Suiattle River back to Darrington. Another time he hiked over Whatcom Pass and crossed the Skagit River (before Ross Lake existed) then climbed north of Jack Mountain and made a long loop around Jack. He descended back to Diablo where he caught a ride home.
These rambles led to a trip with Bill Cox into the heart of the Picket Range. Their packs weighed about 45 lbs. They carried a box of sea biscuit crackers, maybe 10 lbs, strapped on top of their packs. They hiked over Hannegan Pass, down the Chilliwack River, then up Bear Creek beneath the north face of Bear Mountain. They climbed Mt Redoubt and descended Redoubt Creek to Little Beaver Creek. They hiked over Beaver Pass and bushwacked up Luna Creek into the Luna Cirque. They climbed Mt Fury and Luna Peak, then crossed the Challenger Glacier to Perfect Pass. They reached Easy Ridge and followed the lookout trail back to the Chilliwack River, returning home over Hannegan Pass.
Will worked hatchery jobs in the summer. The following summer (1938) he returned home from work and learned that four of his friends had laid out a course from the Suiattle River to Dome Peak and along the crest to Cascade Pass and back, the classic Ptarmigan Traverse. The Ptarmigans were busy in the mountains almost every weekend, both summer and winter. They weren't primarily a skiing group, but they skied in season. Ralph Bromaghin was the best skier of the group and he was passionate about it.
Will recalled that Ome Daiber climbed Liberty Ridge on Mt Rainier (1935) the year after the group that became the Ptarmigans was formed. Ome had previously climbed with Bradford Washburn and other Harvard mountaineers in the St Elias range. Sometime after the Liberty Ridge climb, Ome injured his foot when an unstable boulder rolled onto it. "Ome was great on safety," recalled Will. "He really bore down on safety. He lectured on safety to Scout groups all over town, lectured people on the trail on safety. And I never went out with him that we didn't either run into an accident situation in which he was able to help (he was great on first aid, really great) or he had an accident himself." (He was accident prone, inserted Helen.) "And we rarely got back to town short of one or two in the morning," continued Will.
SkiingWill's father used to take him and others to Snoqualmie Pass for skiing when they were first getting started. They knew nothing about skiing and crashed over and over again. Will's father had friends who were fishing captains in the halibut fleet. Many were Scandinavians and quite a number of them were really good ski jumpers. "Pop was up there on skis and he was even more helpless than we were," remembered Will. "He was just dreadfully embarrassed every time he'd meet one of those skippers."
In winter, when the snow and weather conditions were good, the Ptarmigans enjoyed touring and skiing peaks near Stevens and Snoqualmie Passes and at Mt Rainier. They bought Gerald Seligman's book, Snow Structures and Ski Fields, to educate themselves about avalanches. Will feels that there has been no match for Seligman's book since it came out in the 1930s. The Ptarmigans weren't very involved in competitive skiing, although a couple of them ran in the Silver Skis race and they entered the Snoqualmie-to-Stampede Pass Patrol Race a few times. About the Patrol Race he remembered: "We had only our regular skis. The ski clubs got together cross-country skis and beat the living daylights out of us. We made the distance and came in completely out of the running, but it was interesting anyway. We just had to have a rucksack of stuff so we wouldn't be completely helpless if something happened. That was a long time ago," he remarked. "I'd almost forgotten about it."
As we discussed the long history of skiing in Washington, Will recalled: "Ralph Bromaghin and I were fooling around up by Goat Lake (northeast of Monte Cristo, on the other side of Ida Pass) and we got into an old mine. I'm sure the buildings have gone completely to pieces since, because this was before World War II. But we were in this old mine building hung at the mouth of the tunnel, I'm sure, up under a cliff and we found in there an eight-foot cedar ski about six inches wide and it was obviously bored for toe straps. We brought it home with us. It was in our attic when I went off to the war. I came back and it was gone. It was just the one ski. The other was probably broken and burned up."
Sometimes during ski trips the Ptarmigans would back up their car to a snowbank and dig a snow cave. They'd learned how to construct one properly, with the floor above the entrance hole, and they'd lay down a tarp, a bunch of newspapers, and a dry sleeping bag and spend the night there. In this way they would "save ourselves any number of valuable dollars," recalled Will. He carried that idea with him to the 10th Mountain Division. The ski troops were equipped with waterproof tents that were so clammy inside that a wet solder risked hypothermia in the morning. Will showed his buddies how to dig snow caves and soon everybody was digging holes.
10th Mountain DivisionWill said he trained with the mountain troops at Paradise, although he and Helen disagreed on the date. Helen thought it was in 1941-42 (which is correct) while Will thought it was in 1942-43. Helen grew up and attended college in Wisconsin and knew Charles Bradley from The Hoofers, a song and dance group. She remembered that Bradley, Ralph Bromaghin and other members of the 87th Mountain Infantry glee club came to the University of Washington that year and sang in a concert.
Will recalled that Bromaghin, a new lieutenant, was having a hard time teaching rock climbing at Fort Lewis, since there were no rocks to climb. "I suggested to Ralph that they get some logs, put them together, stand them up, chip foot holds in them, and use those to teach rock climbing on. So the army turned the whole operation over to me. It worked like a charm." They ran the whole battalion through training on the wooden climbing walls.
Will made the Kiska landing with the 87th Regiment. When the 10th Mountain Division was sent to Italy they arrived without any special mountain equipment. Will thought the Fifth Army didn't want the 10th to have special gear because it would make them appear to be an elite outfit, which would be bad for the morale of the troops already there. Will brought a pair of civilian climbing boots to Italy and was wearing them when he was shot clean through the foot. This happened after the Riva Ridge operation and took him out of the later offensive into the Po Valley.
Will was in the hospital when word came that Ralph Bromaghin had been killed. Helen recalled: "I was here and Will was there. And the wives that were here hardly dared call each other because things were happening. Will's good friend Mitzi (Chuck) Metzger called me one day and told me about Bromaghin and wanted me to go with him out to his family. I did. But gee, you know, we just never knew."
The precedents for creating U.S. army mountain troops were the Austrian-Italian conflict in World War I and the Russo-Finnish conflict at the start of World War II. In both cases, mountain or ski troops were successful because they fought defensively. Mountain troops could never penetrate very far because mountains are full of defiles, narrow places where people can only pass a few at a time. An active and well organized defense can chew up an advancing army in that sort of country. During WWI, after years of fighting, the Italian organization finally broke down enabling the Austrians to sweep down into northern Italy. Against the Russians, the Finns put up fierce resistance, often on skis. The phrase "ski troops" became very glamorous after that. But the terrain was much less forbidding for offensive warfare, so by putting enough people in there the Russians could finally break through.
Will said: "The 10th Division did not realize that moving people in large units--as you necessarily have to do if you're taking the offensive in high mountain country--moving large groups of men through terrain that involves a lot of defiles leaves you wide open to active and organized defense by people who know their way around in those mountains." The 10th did attack in the Apennines, but the terrain was generally not very rugged. "If we had been involved seriously in fighting in the high Alps we would have been in all sorts of trouble." Will felt that the only solution was to airlift mountain troops into mountainous terrain.
After the war, Will completed a Masters degree in geography through the G.I. Bill. He took a position with the Army Quartermaster, which became the Materiel Command, and worked there almost 18 years, during which time he "gave them as hard a time as I could" about mountain warfare. The army allowed him time to complete his PhD and let him "run loose all around the western U.S. studying mountains." He took early retirement in 1970 when the Materiel Command was shut down. He later worked for many years on his special interest, the effect of climate on mountain landscapes. He showed me a paper that he completed several years after his retirement:Thompson, Will F., "Climate Related Landscapes in World Mountains: Criteria and Map," Annals of Geomorphology, Gebruder Borntraeger, Berlin, 1990.
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