High in the mountains near Leadville lie the remnants of Camp Hale, training base of 10th Mountain Division skiing soldiers, who proved pivotal during World War II and then returned home to build the downhill ski industry in the U.S.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday designated the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument and visited the high-altitude Pando Valley at the heart of the 53,804-acre monument.
Camp Hale was built in 1942 to prepare American soldiers for the harsh winter conditions they would face in Europe. The site was deactivated in 1965 and the White River National Forest was given control of the land. While no original buildings remain, visitors can find traces of the Camp Hale that once was in the outlines of old structures and the climbing rocks on which soldiers used to train.
Here are five things to know about Camp Hale:
Camp Hale served as a World War II training site for mountain troops.
Camp Hale was where soldiers learned to survive in the mountains. At an altitude of 9,200 feet above sea level, the site became the training camp for the 10th Mountain Division, the only United States military troop trained in mountain and winter warfare. The area’s steep cliffs, high elevation, snowfall and cold temperatures made it a perfect candidate for what would become a $30 million training site to prepare soldiers to fight in the northern Italian Alps. The camp was built by more than 10,000 men, called the Pando Constructors after the Pando Valley where Camp Hale sprung up, who were generally too old to be drafted or exempt from the draft for another reason.
In a letter to his family on Feb. 17, 1943, 10th Mountain Division veteran Bill Mounsey described his fellow soldiers:
“It is a very intelligent body of men that we have in the Mt. Training Centre, and probably as physically tough a group as there is in the U.S. Army. I can carry a 50 pound pack all day long at 12000 feet elevation, cover at least 10 miles, and feel in good trim when I drop my pack at the end of it.”
The camp was a “virtual city.”
The area encompassed more than military buildings. The site accommodated 226 barracks, 33 administration buildings, a 676-bed hospital, a veterinary hospital, a bakery, a field house, five churches, several theaters, 100 mess halls and much more, according to historians Flint Whitlock and Eric Miller. Jim Suhr, a spokesperson for Black & Veatch, the Kansas-based construction and engineering firm that helped design and build the camp, said John R. “J.R.” Smith, the company’s chief electrical engineer at the time, described the camp as a “virtual city.”
In total, the site housed around 15,000 people, including 14,000 soldiers and 240 women who served in the Women’s Army Corps. The government also held German and Italian prisoners of war at the camp.
Colorado’s ski industry was built by Camp Hale veterans.
When many 10th Mountain Division veterans came home, they kept skiing. Members of the troop established over 60 renowned ski areas, including Vail, Steamboat, Aspen and Arapahoe Basin, and are credited with founding and spreading the sport’s popularity.
After the war, the Army sold surplus skis, bindings, boots and poles to the public at low prices, and thousands of the troop’s veterans served as ski instructors, introducing the public to skiing, according to Dana Mathios, curator and director of collections at the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame in Vail. Veterans of the 10th have staffed ski patrols and schools, developed avalanche and ski safety protocols, and “turned Aspen into a skiing mecca,” among other achievements, Mathios said in an email.
Veteran Pete Seibert, who trained at Camp Hale and was wounded so severely during the war he was told he wouldn’t walk again, founded the Vail ski resort. He also kept skiing, and qualified for the 1950 U.S. Alpine ski team, according to the New York Times.
Living at Camp Hale was not for the faint of heart, in part because smoke from the buildings and surrounding rail line sunk into the valley, causing many soldiers to come down with a lung condition known as “Pando Hack.” Some got so sick they had to be transferred out of the division.
“People were breathing in all this smoke constantly,” said Chris Juergens, Anschutz Curator of Military History at History Colorado. “You needed to be pretty hardy and be able to deal with those kinds of environmental factors to stay in the unit.”
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The Central Intelligence Agency used the camp to train Tibetan soldiers.
American soldiers were not the only group that prepared on the mountains near Leadville. In an attempt to undermine communist influence in Southeast Asia, the CIA trained Tibetan soldiers from 1958 to 1964 in guerrilla warfare at Camp Hale to prepare them to fight in eastern Tibet against Chinese soldiers. The government kept the operation a secret, circulating stories of nuclear testing at the camp to keep people away.