7 Intriguing Facts About Camp HaleNovember 8, 2017
On Veterans Day, you can honor those who served our country by exploring Camp Hale.
Did you know this picturesque valley is where World War II soldiers learned to fight on skis—and where the CIA secretly trained Tibetan fighters? That Camp Hale may soon have a first-of-its-kind historic designation? And that it’s a great place to hike and bike (and soon, snowmobile)?
Read on to learn 7 things you may not know about Camp Hale’s history and how to experience it today.
1. It Taught Soldiers to Ski
Camp Hale was established in 1942 to train soldiers for winter, mountain warfare. It was the only U.S. Army camp dedicated solely to this purpose. The area’s extreme winter weather, altitude, and tough terrain, plus its closeness to a railroad, made it a natural choice. Approximately 15,000 troops were trained to ski and fight at Camp Hale and on Cooper Hill, the site of today’s uncrowded, family-friendly Ski Cooper resort.
2. Troopers Skied All the Way to Aspen
For an idea of what the ski troopers were made of, consider this. In the winter of 1943 and again in 1944, groups of around 30 hardy soldiers stationed at Camp Hale decided they needed adventure. They strapped on 90-pound rucksacks, hopped on their skis, and took off for Aspen on a demanding route. They crossed the Continental Divide just north of Independence Pass, where Highway 82 now rises from Twin Lakes to Aspen, through some of the state’s highest mountains. Their journey through the high wintry back country took three and one-half days. Today, a winter trip is over 100 miles by car.
3. Its Soldiers Were Instrumental in Winning World War II
The 10th Mountain Division played a critical role in World War II. In the early winter of 1945, the Mancinello-Campiano Ridge, also called Riva Ridge, and Mt. Belvedere in the Italian Apennine mountains were critical to the Allies’ success, because the main highway to northern Italy ran between them. Yet German forces were perched on these high points, controlling the area. Capturing them was an assignment tailor-made for the 10th Mountain Division.
On the cold night of Feb. 18, 1945, the 10th Division troops scaled the steep rock face of Riva Ridge. They surprised the Germans holding the high ground who didn’t think U.S. troops could climb such treacherous terrain. The next night, the 10th Mountain Division took Mt. Belvedere. These brave mountaineer troopers then secured the Po River Valley, which helped free northern Italy.
Casualties were high. Sadly, 992 soldiers died in Italy. But the unit helped turn the tide of World War II and carried out their motto, “Climb to Glory.”
4. Its Veterans Founded the Ski Industry
After their critical role in World War II, the 10th Mountain Division ski troopers returned home to make yet more lasting contributions, by starting today’s ski industry. Veterans of the 10th Mountain Division founded ski resorts throughout Colorado, including Arapahoe Basin and Vail, and in states on the east and west coasts. Approximately 2,000 returning veterans became ski instructors, joined ski patrols, and took other jobs at ski resorts. These former ski troopers are credited with developing or running ski schools at 62 U.S. ski areas.
5. It Hosted Covert Operations…shh
For a while, Camp Hale kept a secret—that the 10th Mountain Division wasn’t the only military operation to train there. From 1958 to 1964, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency secretly trained approximately 300 Tibetan freedom fighters at the camp to resist Chinese forces creeping into Tibet.
Once trained, these soldiers were airdropped into Eastern Tibet, wearing vials of poison in case they were captured. In turn, some later trained approximately 2,000 more resistance warriors in Tibet. Camp Hale was so similar to the Tibetans’ home that they called it “dumra,” meaning garden.
The U.S. government hid this operation, blocking off Camp Hale and telling locals they were testing bombs. A plaque in the valley, unveiled in 2010 on a day full of tributes, honors these brave fighters.
6. It Might Become Even More Historic
One day, Camp Hale may become the nation’s first National Historic Landscape. Colorado lawmakers are laying the groundwork for a unique designation to preserve the area. If this designation becomes reality, Camp Hale would continue to offer a full slate of recreation, including its popular winter snowmobiling, and would be protected from further development. The designation also could help restore the area’s wetlands.
One recent article calls this idea “a new mode of land protection.” Another story shows how the plans would balance ecologic restoration and commemoration—allowing visitors to enjoy the area’s history and natural beauty for generations to come.
7. It’s an Adventure Hub Today
Come to Camp Hale today, and you can see the footprints of some of the buildings where the soldiers trained. Take a self-guided tour, enjoy the crisp fall air, and explore the Colorado Trail by foot or mountain bike. Or gather a group for a Colorado classic hut trip! Camp Hale is the jumping-off point to trek to nearby 10th Mountain Division Huts, a hike-in, bike-in, ski-in hut system co-founded by a 10th Mountain veteran and named in honor of the ski troopers.
On your way from Leadville to Camp Hale, stop at the top of Tennessee Pass to see a memorial honoring the ski troopers’ service to the United States and Colorado, and find the Tibetan Freedom Fighters plaque near the building remnants in the valley.
This time of year is a great time to visit, bridging Veterans Day and the opening of ski season. Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, is set as opening day for Ski Cooper, which opens 19 new advanced runs this year. Soon, the Camp Hale area will be prime snowmobiling territory. In the warmer months, camping and fishing are popular.
Come enjoy this special weekend and special place with us!