A walk in the footsteps of legendary soldiers at Camp Hale | PostIndependent.com

A walk in the footsteps of legendary soldiers at Camp Hale

Kimberly Nicoletti
The Aspen Times
David Little points out areas of Camp Hale on the map during the Sept. 9 tour.

If you like skiing, riding and your overall freedom, the 10th Mountain Division deserves a big thanks. And, the opportunity to learn more about the historical unit is an easy drive away, at Camp Hale.

On Sept. 9, Wilderness Workshop, in conjunction with 10th Mountain Division Living History, gave a free, six-hour driving and walking tour of Camp Hale. Public tours were given on Saturday during a rally for efforts to designate Camp Hale a National Monument.

Stepping into history as told by educators deeply connected to the 10th Mountain Division provides a whole new appreciation for what our nation’s first mountaineering soldiers accomplished, both in WWII and beyond.

While the Germans, Italians and Finnish all had ski troops, the U.S. lagged, so they activated the 87th Mountain Infantry Battalion in 1941 to train men in mountain warfare. The battalion required three letters of recommendation, as well as mountaineering skills.

Construction of Camp Hale began in April 1942, and on July 15, 1943, the 10th Mountain Light Division (renamed “Mountain” in 1944) was activated.

The effort to recruit the new division was unprecedented: It captured the imaginations of men with its glamourous models and elite status. Short films featured soldiers on skis, and, at first, it was the most difficult military unit to join. Students and coaches from the likes of Dartmouth’s ski team enrolled, along with two of the von Trapp brothers.

A plaque at Camp Hale is dedicated to the memory of Tibetan Freedom Fighters, who were trained by the CIA at Camp Hale from 1958 to 1964.
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But soon, the army ran out of volunteers and needed to draft men, so rich and poor, educated and uneducated, Northerners and Southerners found themselves dropped in the middle of Camp Hale at 9,200 feet. The first thing they had to learn was how to survive, as opposed to fight, in the harsh winter climate.

Eventually, they worked up to carrying at least 94-pounds — not including their rifle and ammunition — on 7-foot-6-inch wooden skis that didn’t have metal edges. The average soldier weighed 128 pounds and measured 5 feet, 8 inches.

“They had a ‘give us a mission; we don’t care if it’s impossible’ attitude,” said historian David Little.

And that’s how they succeeded in the Battle of Riva Ridge in the northern Apennine Mountains of Italy on Feb. 18, 1945: They just didn’t know it was impossible to free climb the 1,700- to 2,220-foot sheer rock cliff at night in the fog. After all, it was what they’d trained for at Camp Hale. The Germans never suspected Americans would climb it, which allowed the 10th Mountain Division to mount a surprise attack and overtake enemy posts. From Feb. 19-25, the soldiers fought and took control of the Mount Belvedere ridgeline, causing at least 23 German troops to surrender.

Within the division’s 90-day mission in WWII, they lost 1,000 soldiers out of 20,000 who served in Italy, which the monument atop Tennessee Pass honors.

Throughout the tour, you’ll hear about how the army straightened 5 miles of the Eagle River, in addition to hauling in over 6 million cubic yards of fill from as far as Nebraska to raise the swampy area. You might hear about how German POWs escaped, how a postal service worker — and plenty of other soldiers — broke rules, and how the army trucked in women for dances at the field house (of which significant ruins remain) from as far as Grand Junction.

You’ll also learn about how soldiers who returned made enormous contributions to the outdoor recreation industry, from starting over 60 different ski areas (without whom Vail, Aspen of Arapahoe Basin would not exist) to creating NOLS wilderness education, gear companies and biathlon events.

Overall, the tours heighten knowledge and appreciation for both the soldiers and the land upon which they trained.

Remnants of Camp Hale’s field house.

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