Training Was Tough at Camp Hale
Training was tough at Camp Hale - But the ski troopers had some fun, too
By Lauren Moran, Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum
Special to the Vail Daily
December 11, 2010 - Vail, CO - Construction of Camp Hale, the training ground for members of the 10th Mountain Division located between Leadville and Vail in the Pando Valley, was completed in 1942. Men were recruited, drafted, and volunteered to be a part of the mountain troops during World War II.
Officially established on July 15, 1943, the 10th Mountain Division was comprised of the 85th, 86th, and 87th Regiments — roughly 300 experienced skiers and mountaineers, many of whom came from the 87th Regiment at Fort Lewis; 6,000 younger skiers who were mostly volunteers; 3,000 draftees who were taught to ski; and 3,000 administrative, medic, and other non-skiing staff.
Some of the draftees came from the 31st Division in Louisiana, and, unaccustomed to winter or mountain skills, disliked being at Camp Hale. Many soldiers developed a chronic cough that was soon dubbed the “Pando hack,” due to the combination of the freight train smoke from the nearby railroad and 500 smokestacks. The released smoke settled into Camp Hale, located in a valley protected by wind. Additionally, many soldiers and officers were unaware of the effects of training at high altitude and were pushed quite hard.
Every soldier in the 10th Mountain Division was trained to ski at Camp Hale's own ski hill, Ski Cooper. At the time, Ski Cooper boasted the world's longest T-bar ski tow to increase the learning curve for skiing. As many 10th veterans note today, one of the more exceptional aspects of the 10th Mountain Division was the equality between officers and soldiers, since everyone was still learning techniques. Some lower-ranking soldiers who were experienced skiers were allowed to teach skiing lessons to their superiors.
The first training maneuver that the 10th Mountain Division performed was regarded as an utter failure. In February of 1943, 1,000 soldiers marched up to Homestake Lake to establish a defense position. Unprepared and inexperienced troops were expected to keep 90 pounds of gear on their backs while staying in formation. Once at the lake for 12 days, experienced outdoorsmen dug snow caves rather than use the inadequate tents issued by the government. Almost one-third of the men had to be sent down for frostbite, altitude sickness, or exhaustion. The lack of proper equipment and winter weather skills showed that the training would have been better implemented by experienced skiers, mountaineers and outdoorsmen, despite their lower ranks.
However, some skiers still conducted the “Upper Camp Hale Winter Olympics” while at Homestake Lake, racing late into the night just for the fun of it. Many would spend their weekends off skiing at Aspen or other ski resorts. As Steve Knowlton, a member of the 10th, remembers, “We'd drive all night long, ski all day Saturday, party all night Saturday night, and ski all day Sunday and drive all night and get back in time for revelry (morning bugle).”
Most of the experienced skiers and mountaineers and those younger outdoorsmen who gave their letters of recommendation to enlist in the 10th were happy to be at Camp Hale, advancing and nurturing their passion for skiing and the outdoors. From 1941 to 1944, the members of the 10th mostly trained. Carrying up to 90-pound rucksacks of gear, they completed 20-24 miles per day on skis, used snow huts, learned to snowshoe, skin with skis and navigate every type of terrain on skis. Soldiers learned wilderness skills from rock climbing schools and how to handle rough terrain.
Photo Credit: Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum. Soliders at Camp Hale trained at Ski Cooper, which boasted the world's longest T-bar ski tow.
Sources for this story included:
• David Leach's 2005 senior thesis for Middlebury College, “The Impact of the Tenth Mountain Division on the Development of a Modern Ski Industry in Colorado and Vermont: 1930-1965.”
• “Fire on the Mountain,” First Run Features/Gage & Gage Productions, 1995.
• Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum archives.