Colorado’s Rocky Mountains are steeped in beauty as well as history of the American West. But did you know that the Rockies also served as a training ground for U.S. soldiers on skis during World War II?
Just 20 miles southeast of Vail, the 10th Mountain Division trained in harsh winter conditions to prepare for WWII, and then went on to win a key battle in snowy, mountainous Italy in 1945. One of the soldiers who trained in mountain warfare at Camp Hale before going into battle was Vail’s own Pete Seibert, one of Vail Mountain’s co-founders.
Today, Camp Hale is America’s newest national monument. Officially known as the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument, the designated area spans some 84,500 acres.
Visit Camp Hale National Monument
Head to Camp Hale today and you won’t find any remnants of the training camp. Most of the buildings were dismantled in 1945. The military used Camp Hale for a few training missions after the war, but it was officially deactivated and given to the White River National Forest in 1965.
Any remaining building parts and materials were used by the military at other facilities or auctioned off. The U.S. Forest Service started a plan to restore Pando Valley to its natural state, transforming it into a popular recreation area.
Nordic skiing and snowmobiling are perfect winter sports for Camp Hale, with ATV rides and hiking ideal for warmer weather. Camp Hale Lodge serves up a smattering of options for outdoor adventure enthusiasts as well as for groups and weddings.
History buffs can go on a self-guided tour around Camp Hale, which takes you on a loop with 10 interpretive signs outlining the significance of each stop. Be sure to also stop in the Colorado Snowsports Museum in Vail to learn more about the 10th Mountain Division and see exhibits including artifacts from soldiers.
In addition to being renowned as a military training camp, the Camp Hale and Tenmile Range area is likewise rich in ancient human history. Indigenous tribes lived there for centuries, with the Ute visiting the Pando Valley every spring for hunting and medicinal plant collection. The rugged landscape is home to waterfalls, alpine tundra, tarns and other stunning features.
Designating Camp Hale as a national monument gives the area the notable status it deserves while helping to preserve its natural beauty for years to come. When in Vail, perhaps take a quick trek south to check it out, winter or summer. With such a rich history, Camp Hale is sure to have something that catches your eye — and most certainly your imagination.
History of Camp Hale
Being thrust into a cold, harsh high-altitude area can be a shock to your system for daily living, never mind for fighting a war. Training soldiers to climb, ski and battle in such an environment was a must before sending them to the alpine areas of Europe. The War Department got the green light to use the White River National Forest lands as training grounds.
The army landed on the ideal location in the Pando Valley and began building Camp Hale in April 1942. With an elevation of 9,200 feet, the valley floor was wide enough to support a large camp. The Eagle River snaked through the valley, serving as a year-round water supply.
Nearby, the Tenmile Range provided rugged rock faces, freezing temperatures and deep snow, perfect for the training they were looking for. The highway and rail system were also close, another plus for getting supplies or traveling to and from the site.
Built in a seven-month flurry, Camp Hale was basically a city within itself. Its buildings and amenities included:
- 226 barracks
- 33 administration buildings
- Hospital containing 676 beds
- Medical and dental clinics
- Three fire stations
- One school
- Five churches and chapels
- One bakery
- 100 mess halls
- Three theaters
- One officers club
- Two service clubs
- One post office, seven post exchanges
- One veterinarian hospital for the camp’s dogs, mules and horses
- Horse and mule barns
- Field house
- Indoor pistol ranges, outdoor weapons ranges
- Storage facilities and warehouses
- Two ski areas
- Parade grounds
- Recreation areas
The path of the Eagle River and nearby highway had to be altered to make it all work. The final result was a camp that spanned 1,547 acres and housed 15,000 troops. The camp’s namesake came from Brigadier General Irving Hale, who lived in Denver before and after serving in the military in the late 1800s.
Camp Hale’s 10th Mountain Division
Troops from the 10th Mountain Division were training at Camp Hale by early 1943, quickly nicknaming the place “Camp Hell.” Training was brutal. Not only did they have to practice wearing heavy packs at high altitude, but they encountered additional factors that made it miserable.
Billowing coal smoke from furnaces, stoves and the nearby train hung over the valley. Many suffered from frostbite, altitude sickness and hacking coughs (dubbed the “Pando Hack”). They weren’t the only troops at the camp. German prisoners of war were also kept there. A few even escaped, making it all the way to Mexico before they were recaptured.
Skiing, snowshoeing and mountain climbing were all part of the training, all done at altitudes beyond imagination. One soldier from New York City said “the tallest thing he had ever climbed was a Fifth Avenue bus.”
Their tough training paid off, big time, in February 1945. That’s the day troops from the 10th Mountain Division “literally climbed to one of history’s most miraculous military victories,” according to a Vail Daily report.
The victory went down in Italy’s northern Apennine Mountains at the Battle of Riva Ridge. Germany had the northernmost area of Italy under their control, including the high ground in the mountains.
As long as German troops retained their place in the mountains, they could stop Allied troops from moving into the rest of Europe. For the Allies to be victorious in Europe, they needed to break through that line. Other troops had tried and failed.
Up on the mountaintops, the Germans had a birds-eye view of everything going on around them. They could see Allied troops coming from miles away. They swiftly defeated any troops that came their way, keeping a keen eye on their surroundings.
Or rather, they kept a keen eye on most of their surroundings. They didn’t bother to stringently patrol one area of Riva Ridge. Why should they? There’s no way anyone could climb those steep slopes and sheer cliff faces on the side of Mount Belvedere.
Except the 10th Mount Division troops could. And they did. The climb had been planned for weeks, with troop members strategically moving through villages and up part of the mountain over an extended period. They finally got to the summit of Riva Ridge on the evening of Feb. 18, 1945.
The ridge was unmanned. The 50 or so German soldiers atop the mountain were asleep in their dugouts. The 700 soldiers who scaled up the vertical cliff leading to the ridge captured the German’s unattended machine guns, which had been strategically placed to stop anyone approaching.
They also threw hand grenades into the German sleeping quarters.
“That’s the way they woke up,” said Lt. General John Hay in the Vail Daily report. “The Germans were awfully surprised at the American soldiers ascending from a side that had been declared ‘unclimbable.’”
That was the beginning of the end of the German stronghold in Italy. An additional 13,000 soldiers arrived to fend off German counterattacks, with fighting lasting six days before soldiers from the 10th took control of the entire Riva Ridge ridgeline.
The 10th spent the next 10 weeks pushing north through the Apennine Mountains, liberating several Italian towns and forcing the German troops to retreat. They also captured Benito Mussolini’s government headquarters and villa along the way.
The Germans eventually surrendered in Italy on May 2, 1945, the final chapter in what all began on Riva Ridge.
Vail is Born
Some soldiers had been avid outdoorsmen and skiers before they came to Camp Hale. Approximately 260 of those soldiers came back to the U.S. and started building what would eventually become the U.S. ski industry.
They started ski patrols, ski schools and ski resorts all across the nation. Pete Siebert was one of those soldiers. Seibert wanted to start his own ski area. While at Camp Hale, he had already been eyeing the Eagle River Valley but had yet to take any action.
That is, until he met local native and longtime skier Earl Eaton in Aspen. Seibert had a network of financial contacts. In addition to intimate knowledge of the area and terrain, Eaton had an impressive background in construction.
So, he showed Seibert an area close to Vail Pass. The story has it that Seibert wasn’t all that gung-ho about the area — until he ascended to the top of the mountain and saw the vast, sweeping landscape now known as the legendary Back Bowls.
Vail was born.
The town and mountain were named after state highway engineer Charles Vail, who oversaw the completion of Colorado’s modern highway system through rugged canyons and over mountain passes. He was known for constructing the original highway (U.S. Highway 6) over Vail Pass.
With the financial help of investors, and the construction know-how for the trails and lifts from Eaton, the Vail Mountain opened to skiers in 1962.
You’ll notice that one of Vail’s first trails and its longest ski run is named Riva Ridge. Now you know why.