Colorado Ski Museum: Troops in training braved the wind, snow and cold |

Colorado Ski Museum: Troops in training braved the wind, snow and cold

Lauren MoranColorado Ski and Snowboard MuseumVail, CO Colorado
Colorado Ski and Snowboard MuseumSoldiers from the 10th Mountain Division undertook training exercises that included carrying 90-pound rucksacks and learning how to navigate every type of terrain on skis.

From 1941 to 1944, the members of the 10th spent most of their time training at Camp Hale, built in 1942 and located in Pando Valley. Carrying up to 90-pound rucksacks of gear, members of the 10th covered 20 to 24 miles per day on skis, used snow huts and 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.All of their hard work and equipment was put to the test during military maneuvers. One of these exercises, called the Trooper Traverse, took place in February 1944, the only military training operation to take place in the dead of winter. Thirty-three soldiers traveled from Camp Hale to Aspen, traversing up several ridgelines and across Tennessee Pass. The objective of this four-day trip was to use experience and training to find routes, work together as a group, practice safe maneuvers and carry their own rations, sleeping gear, and personal items while climbing and skiing.All of the men on this assignment were part of the 10th Reconnaissance Troops, 10th Medics, or Mountain Training Group, responsible for training the soldiers at Camp Hale. Paul Petzoldt, who at age 16 in 1924 became the youngest alpinist to summit the Grand Teton and climbed 26,000 feet to the top of K2 in 1938, was appointed co-leader of this journey along with John Jay, pioneer of ski cinematography. Petzoldt was also responsible for creating the Army’s mountain evacuation methods, educating members of the 10th on proper winter clothing, and later founded the National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound to train outdoor leaders and educators.The Trooper Traverse route went up Halfmoon Creek between Mount Elbert and Mount Massive to Mount Champion. As the men made their way above timberline, traversing and camping above 12,000 feet for most of the trip, they approached the Williams Mountains on the third day. This was the most treacherous portion of the trip, and since the soldiers were unable to move on before nightfall, they climbed down to the lowest part of the mountain and skied down a very narrow, very steep gully with crusty, icy snow (known at the Trooper Couloir). After spending the night in the forest, the morning of the fourth day was beautiful as the troopers skied down Hunter Creek to the Jerome Hotel in Aspen and rejoiced in a memorable and successful trip. Richard Rocker, a member of the 10th and part of the Trooper Traverse, said, “There was just time for a traditional Aspen Crud (vanilla milkshake with bourbon) at the Jerome Bar before a truck arrived to take us back to Cooper Hill in time for supper.”Although these soldiers could have avoided the dangerous Williams Mountains and gone around the avalanche slopes of the Continental Divide, they took a 40-mile, direct line to Aspen and conquered every ridge, slope, gully and avalanche on the way – all without modern technology and gear. Shortly after the Trooper Traverse was completed, almost every soldier in the 10th Mountain Division marched up to Homestake Lake again, after a disastrous tactical maneuver in February 1943. Known as the D-Series, these 3 weeks spent in the mountains around Camp Hale during March and April of 1944 were meant to be a division-level maneuver and a “grueling culmination of all their winter training.” During one of the longest and coldest blizzards in Colorado, 12,000 men climbed and hiked over 13,000 feet to the surrounding mountains. Throughout the D-Series, the men were responsible for living completely outdoors, and the weather was brutal. “It was 30 below zero and we started out below timberline. It was a wet, heavy snow, and the wind was howling and blowing. It was probably one of the most rugged … training exercises of any unit in the U.S. Army,” said Dick Wilson, a 10th Mountain Division veteran.The 10th continued its combat training and exercises throughout the storm, during what would later be described as some of the most severe tactical maneuvers ever completed.”Later, when we had very heavy shelling in Italy and had a real rough day with a lot of fire going on, you’d hear somebody say, ‘If this gets any worse, it’s gonna be as bad at the D-Series!'” said Ralph Lafferty, a 10th Mountain Division veteran.During one day, over 100 people with frostbite were evacuated.Soldiers in the 10th pioneered critical winter warfare techniques and equipment and also tested their limits during military maneuvers like the Trooper Traverse and the D-Series. The talent, knowledge and love of the outdoors in this group represented the spirit of these mountain troops and everything that they were able to accomplish during their training and World War II.Sources for this article include:• 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.

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