Nestled high in the Colorado Rockies, Camp Hale was home to the skiing soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, one of the U.S. Army’s most unique and decorated fighting units in World War II. The soldiers were a collection of skiers, mountain men and infantrymen who came from all over the U.S. and from other countries to prepare for combat in harsh mountain conditions. The winter drills were so intense that some would later joke that combat was easier than the training at Camp Hale.
The impetus for the mountain unit had come as World War II was unfolding in Europe. Americans watched Finnish ski troops valiantly fight against invading Soviet troops. The soldiers on skis moved swiftly and quietly through forests and maneuvered in deep mountain snow where Soviet tanks could not follow. Charles Minot Dole, who had founded the National Ski Patrol a few years earlier, decided the United States also needed troops trained for winter and mountain warfare. After a year of lobbying, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized a mountain division and Pando, Colorado, near Leadville, was chosen as the site for their training.
At 9200 feet above sea level, Camp Hale was the perfect setting for mountain training, offering deep snow, steep mountains and jagged cliffs. Initially an all volunteer unit, the 10th Mountain division first attracted skiers from alpine clubs, Ivy League ski teams and ski schools. Later, the Army would put out a call for “bona fide” mountain men: trappers, prospectors, cowboys and backcountry guides. Although some had never skied before they had the skills needed for mountain survival and warfare.
They began training at Camp Hale in 1942 and nearly missed the war, only entering war zones in January 1945. They fought courageously in the mountains of Italy, destroying five elite German divisions. But they paid a high price. In just 114 days of combat, nearly 1,000 men were killed and more than 4,000 were injured, some of the highest casualty rates of any division in the war.
After the war, many of the 10th Mountain veterans returned to Colorado where they became key players in the booming ski industry. Said one former soldier, “They were war heroes and heroes of the ski industry.”