Getting to know … Camp Hale
In 1941, the Army searched far and wide for a place for its new ski troopers to train.
Army officials considered Yellowstone National Park, Aspen and Wheeler Flats ” now known as Copper Mountain ” but settled on a high-mountain valley alongside the Denver and Rio Grande Railway between Leadville and Red Cliff.
The place was called Pando, and it seemed to fit the bill. The L-shaped valley got lots of snow and was surrounded by thousands of acres of mountainous public land that could be used for training.
Construction of the new Army camp at Pando lasted just seven months, consisting of rows and rows of barracks as well as a mess hall, a hospital, a chapel, and stables for 4,000 horses and mules. The entire area had been a swamp, and the Eagle River had to be rechanneled through the valley.
The 10th Mountain Division soldiers began arriving at the instant city of Camp Hale ” named after Colorado native Gen. Irving Hale, a veteran of the Spanish-American War ” just as the snow started to fall in late 1942.
Among those soldiers was Peter Seibert, who went on to found Vail. He arrived by train from New England in May 1943. Other soldiers who came there and later influenced the ski industry included Bob Parker, early Vail executive; Bill “Sarge” Brown, longtime Vail Mountain manager; and Friedl Pfeifer, founder of Buttermilk Mountain.
Coal burning resulted in a constant black haze that hovered over the valley. Soldiers suffered from the “Pando Hack.”
Many of the arriving soldiers had never even been on skis before. Ski training became mandatory at Cooper Hill, the nearby slope.
“The expert skiers among us tried to teach these lowlanders the rudiments of skiing ” mainly snowplows and stem turns,” Seibert wrote in his book, “Vail: Triumph of a Dream.”
In February 1943, troops engaged in a chaotic training exercise up to Homestake Lake. They got frostbite, fell out of formation, and struggled to operate stoves. After that misadventure, officers redoubled efforts to teach the basics of skiing and winter survival.
In summertime, soldiers focused on climbing, scaling the cliffs around the camp using
ropes and pitons.
In 1944, the 10th Mountain Division was sent into combat in Italy, where its soldiers pushed back the Germans in the Apennine Mountains.
Military activities continued at Camp Hale for several years after World War II. War games were held there in 1948 and 1954. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, the CIA trained Tibetan soldiers at the base.
By 1966, there was no longer any need for Camp Hale, and it was dismantled and handed over to the Forest Service. Today, snowmobiles buzz across Camp Hale in the winter, and campers use the site in the summer.
But several remnants of Camp Hale linger. Pillars that stand in the middle of the camp are the foundations of the old gymnasium, said Justin Henderson of the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum in Vail. Parts of a rifle range remain, too, he said.
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