Vail gears up for war
When most people visit the Vail Valley in the winter, they pack skis or a snowboard and leave their assault weapon behind.But those people are recreational snowriders, not special operations forces looking to get in a little high-altitude winter training at Camp Hale.Ask a local about Camp Hale, between Minturn and Leadville on Highway 24, and most of them should be able to tell you it’s the old U.S. Army base where the famed 10th Mountain Division trained for combat during World War II.Pressed on the subject, they should then be able to add that many of the pioneers of the Colorado ski industry, including Vail founder Pete Seibert, trained at Camp Hale, and that there are runs on Vail Mountain, like Riva Ridge, named for battles the 10th fought against the Nazis in Italy.Far fewer are likely to know Camp Hale’s more obscure history since WWII, including the Central Intelligence Agency’s training of Tibetan freedom fighters there between 1958 and 1961.Nor would most locals, unless they commute to Eagle County from Leadville over Tennessee Pass on a regular basis, be able to tell you that Camp Hale is very much alive and well today as a winter warfare training site for U.S. Army special forces troops.”A lot of military units come up here to train,” confirms Vinnie Picard, U.S. Forest Service spokesman for the White River National Forest, which includes Camp Hale. “It is an ongoing and historical relationship, especially when you’re talking about the Camp Hale area.”Though the Forest Service now owns the base, the army, primarily two 10th Special Forces battalions based out of Fort Carson near Colorado Springs, use the area under a memorandum of understanding with the Forest Service.But 10th Special Forces should not be confused with the 10th Mountain Division, the modern version of which is based at Fort Drum in upstate New York and has been active in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and was part of the famous Blackhawk Down incident in Somalia.The contemporary 10th Mountain Division is a light infantry division that bears little resemblance to the ski troopers of the past, a statue of which strides purposefully out of Vail Village near the Covered Bridge.Those alpine ski troopers, whom Vail founder Seibert fought with when he was badly wounded by a German mortar round, still ski in their classic white, winter warfare garb during an annual reunion at Ski Cooper near Camp Hale.Their modern cousins in 10th Special Forces like to keep up on their downhill skiing skills as well, though they’re more apt to wear the green, jungle camouflage uniforms preferred by the 21st century combat soldier.Anne Dougherty, marketing director for Ski Cooper, says soldiers, minus their weapons, do ski at the tiny area atop Tennessee Pass.”Yes, the men come to Ski Cooper and do some training,” Dougherty says. “They do not contact us directly (beforehand), as they get their tickets at their base.”As far as Camp Hale, just down the road and over the Lake County line in Eagle County, army Humvees can be seen parked at the entrance to Camp Hale at various times during the winter, as reserve units and more often 10th Special Forces troops do overnight training in the area.”It’s good to know in my mind that the very low impact use of that facility is still available to the military,” says Eagle County Commissioner Michael Gallagher, a Vietnam veteran. “There is of course a need for winter environment training sites, and on the small scale that this is used I think it serves our nation well.”According to a Jan. 9 article in the Rifle Citizen-Telegram, troops from the 2nd Battalion of 10th Special Forces notified Rifle officials in November of their plans to come to that area for required annual alpine training, including cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, winter survival, winter vision and use of light weapons. Those plans included some training in the Vail area as well.But the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iraq has put those plans on hold. A spokesman for 10th Special Forces did not return The Vail Trail’s calls by press time.Gallagher says he’s proud that Eagle County continues to play a role in the nation’s national defense.”I think it’s a blessing to live in a country where we have citizen-based defense,” Gallagher says. “The use of facilities all over the nation, the financial support that gives small towns and large towns as well, it’s all part of the American picture. It gives us at once confidence and security that we are all a part of and support our national defense.”Gallagher is not worried that training at Camp Hale or at the Colorado National Guard’s High Altitude Training Site (HATS) at the Eagle County Regional Airport puts his constituents more at risk.”First of all I cant imagine the act of terrorism that would disable (the Camp Hale area), short of a nuke,” Gallagher says. “I don’t see (the training) increasing any kind of threat to the county; its use on the big scale is rather insignificant.”Barry Smith, Eagle County emergency management coordinator, seconds that sentiment and calls the special forces training at Camp Hale rather routine.”It’s nothing out of ordinary, because Fort Carson does winter training up here just about every winter,” Smith says. “They bring troops up for winter survival training.”Lt. Col. Joel Best, commander of HATS, confirms his facility does work with the army on occasion when they’re training at Camp Hale.”The 10th Special Forces does use that area quite a bit,” says Best, and he says HATS, which conducts high-altitude helicopter training for military pilots (see related story), sometimes helps them out when they need to be flown in for backcountry training or engage in heli-skiing operations.