During the early days of World War II, the Finnish army destroyed two Russian armored divisions from cross country skis because of their ability to move and fight in winter conditions. Charles Dole, the president of the National Ski Patrol, took this lesson to heart and lobbied the United States Army to develop the same winter fighting capability.
The initial group was drawn from ski patrol members as well as local and college ski clubs so the troops wouldn’t have to be taught how to ski. Eventually, the Army drafted world-renowned rock climbers, skiers, adventurers, and even cowboys—anyone with an outdoor background—to teach the troops how to ski, climb, and fight in extreme conditions.
General George Marshall, the US Army Chief of Staff, gave orders for the formation of a mountain battalion in October 1941, with the National Ski Patrol providing instruction. After the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, the US Army developed a battalion that became the core of the 10th Mountain Division. The National Ski Patrol initially served as the recruiting arm of the Division, the only civilian recruiter during World War II.
Construction on Camp Hale began in 1942 in a glacial valley in the Colorado mountains. The valley as chosen because it was on the route of a major rail line. Troop barracks, a hospital, a veterinarian hospital (for mule trains), recreational facilities, and ammunition bunkers were built in short order. The 10th Light Division (Alpine) was activated in July of 1943 under the command of Brigadier General Lloyd Jones. The troops were equipped with skis designed for them, winter camouflage, and vehicles designed for winter use such as the M29 Weasel.
The troops eventually fought with distinction in the Italian mountain offensive in 1945, suffering 1000 killed in action and 4400 wounded. The Division was disbanded in 1945 at the end of the war. Camp Hale would be used up until the 1960s for winter training and equipment development.
Some of the troops who served in the 10th Mountain Division returned to the Colorado mountains to develop the multi-million dollar ski resort industry, many of them in the same mountains where the 10th served.
Know Before You Go
The Camp Hale National Historic Site is located on US24 17 miles north of Leadville, Colorado or 22 miles south of Vail, Colorado. Driving is allowed on parts of the site but all vehicles much remain on established roads. Some limited access on foot or mountain bike is allow off of established roads. This area was a military base and unexploded munitions may be encountered. Signs warn not to pick up unknown items.