By Ruth E. Lambert
San Juan Mountains Association
As we begin this winter, 76 years ago, winter preparations were underway for ski and snowshoe outings of national importance.
In the Pando Valley surrounded by the White River National Forest between Leadville and what is now Vail, the 10th Mountain Division began training for mountain warfare against Hitler’s Nazis in Norway or the Alps. Earlier in 1942, the War Department had established the 10th as the first and only U.S. Army infantry division specifically trained for extreme terrain and cold weather warfare. After a search, the area around Pando had been selected because of the rail access, use of national forest land, natural water sources, coal supplies and, foremost, consistent and heavy snow throughout the winter in a rugged terrain conducive for ski training.
Construction at Camp Hale began in April 1942 with a completion date of Nov. 15, 1942. The camp, named after Brig. Gen. Irving Hale of the Spanish American War, included more than 1,000 buildings with barracks, mess halls, a hospital, fire station, stockade and guardhouse, theater for USO shows and a chapel. The camp included stables and corrals for mules.
Military training also required construction of rifle ranges, grenade courts and gas chambers. In addition, the soldiers built Cooper Hill (now known as Ski Cooper) for ski training.
Military training took about two years and included mountain climbing, skiing, riflery, snowshoeing and a six-week winter bivouac training. A total of about 14,000 participants from three regiments were members of the 10th, made up of expert skiers, Olympic competitors and army volunteers. In addition to the U.S. troops, the Norwegian 99th Battalion trained at Camp Hale and participated in several battles, including the Battle of the Bulge.
During the training, specialized winter gear and vehicles were developed. Snowmobiles and motorized toboggans were tested, and the Studebaker-built M15 Weasel, a lightweight, tracked machine, was produced. Although it had some design and operation issues, it is the forerunner of the modern snowcat.
In January 1945, the 10th was deployed to the Italian Alps. Clad in winter camouflage uniforms, white wooden skis and white-painted bamboo poles, the 10th fought for two months in bloody battles to take Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere in the Apennine Mountains. The 10th then moved to reclaim the Po River Valley, cutting off Hitler’s supply lines. The 10th suffered the highest casualty rate of any division in the Mediterranean area with 4,000 wounded and 999 killed.
After the war, Camp Hale was used for occasional winter training purposes, and from 1959 through 1965, the CIA secretly trained Tibetan soldiers. In 1965, Camp Hale was deactivated, and in 1966, it was returned to the U.S. Forest Service.
Many members of the 10th have had a lasting impact on our recreational and natural environment. The resorts at Vail, Aspen, Sugarbush, Crystal Mountain, Ski Santa Fe and Mount Bachelor were founded by members of the 10th. Members founded Outward Bound (U.S.), the National Outdoor Leadership School, Nike and the Sierra Club.
Today, the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association maintains 29 huts along 350 miles of trails for year-round enjoyment. Snow-bound huts bearing members’ names seems a fitting tribute to brave young men in white uniforms.
Ruth Lambert is cultural program director with San Juan Mountains Association, a nonprofit dedicated to public land stewardship and education. Email her at Ruth@sjma.org.