A sacred place: A tribute to Sandy Treat and the 10th Mountain Division
Special to the Daily
CAMP HALE — “We were 18 and crazy. We were a band of brothers. We belonged together.” With his voice still echoing in my ears, I am gazing upon a dove-white narrow valley, surrounded by sky-spearing mountains. The sacristy silence and beauty of this place give me a sense of oblivion. I step forward and start walking down a snow-covered road, deep into Camp Hale, a place that is considered sacred by those who lived here during one of the worst times in the world’s history. The sky is a perfect azure blue, with the sun in its apex, blinding me. I lean into the cold wind and remember the man I sought out earlier that morning, whose voice I still can hear.
His name is Sandy Treat, one of the last 10th Mountain Division World War II veterans alive. A tall man, with a kind face whose stories about his part at Camp Hale transfer you to a time and place long gone. A person who had seen war, who lost an eye in a ski accident, 94 years of age who is very energetic, interested in other people and more than happy to share his story with you.
I come across a sign, “Entertainment at Camp Hale.” A few smiling soldiers, a movie theater, everything that gives you the impression that life here, at almost 10,000 feet, was good. I chuckle, as I recall asking Sandy Treat, “So, how was life at Camp Hale? Did you have a good time? Were there fun times?” He gave me a look that instantly made me regret the question. “Fun? There was no fun. We were angry! I mean really angry! Pearl Harbor had happened, we couldn’t wait to go out and fight the enemy.”
Embarrassed by my own idiocy for not being more thoughtful with my questions, I continued listening to him. How he went on to fight in Italy, how a platoon was almost killed as the enemy heard the clattering of their skis.
“Part of the exercise at camp was to starve us. We would hike with our skis up a mountain side, split in groups, and stay up there for days with little to no food.” He continued by telling me of the huge number of mules they kept at Camp Hale. “The Southern boys loved their mules. On cold days they would just lay down on them.” He demonstrated the sizes of their skis, long and longer, and how difficult it was to turn with them. I am intrigued by this man, and try hard to hold on to everything he said, and try not to miss any memory he was able to recall.
I look up on the glittering snow, the wind piercing my face with microscopic icicles, and I continue on my path. Crossing a bridge, I come upon a ruin. Looking at this concrete skeleton that once used to be the fieldhouse, sadness overcomes me. This site reminds me of Treat’s tone of voice when he told me how hurt he is that Camp Hale was disassembled. “Those politicians in Washington!” he exclaimed.
My thoughts are being interrupted by a dampened sound. I turn and see two skiers approaching.
Both elderly, one tall, athletic, ahead of his friend. The other one short, of a settled stature, red-faced, trying to keep up. They come to a halt, look at me and decide I must be a land surveyor. Standing knee-deep in snow with a notebook in my hand, in the midst of this lonely valley, I don’t argue with them and simply say that if they are so sure that I am a land surveyor, then I have to be one. Pleased with themselves, they leave me. I look after them, two lonely skiers.
Between September 1942 and 1945, 15,000 men lived and trained in this valley. I am trying to picture mess halls, infirmaries, ski shops, administrative offices, movie theaters, stables. A lively place, where recruits were trained in mountain climbing, alpine and Nordic skiing and winter survival. Camp Hale was constructed during 1942. With a budget of $30 million, workers who were mainly Leadville residents finished the construction within seven months. By the end of September 1942, Camp Hale was fully operating. The construction was kept secret; the U.S. didn’t want the enemy to know that it was preparing for war in Europe. The location was strategically desirable, very remote, yet accessible by train.
The natural environment presented perfect conditions for the 10th Mountain Division’s special training.
I look around and am in awe of nature’s beauty. Snow-encased mountains draping themselves around a sea of pristine white, it is now and here that I begin to understand the connection between preserving this place as a historic site, and also preserving it as a National Historic Landscape. The first of its kind. I can see the importance of Sen. Bennet’s bill proposing a National Historic Landscape for Camp Hale. Increased protection for this place would make sure Camp Hale is preserved for future generations to explore and learn from it. Camp Hale played such a big part in Colorado’s history and helped to shape its ski towns and ski industry. Using Sandy Treat’s words, “I don’t want any hot dog stands there!”
I am startled by a loud piercing sound. A snowmobile speeds by me. Offended by this abrupt interruption, I turn on my heel and decide to leave. I catch up with the two skiers from before. The tall one is busy putting his skis into his car. He looks at me and says, “So, what were you doing out there?” I smile and say, “Embracing the past, sir. And trying to preserve it.”
Karolina Blodgett, 42, is from Austria. Her father fought in World War II, training in the mountains of Austria, similar to the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale. Her father was a professor of environmental studies in Europe, and an author. Blodgett’s husband is American. They moved here two years ago from the Boston area, and do not plan to move again. This is her ninth week in college in the U.S. She wrote this for Prof. Evan Weatherbee’s Colorado Mountain College class.
The valley’s commercial and residential property markets are similar in some ways — availability is tight and nothing is what you’d call “cheap.”