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Serving History, Skiing and Scaling

The 10th Mountain Division and their Steep Colorado Legacy

Article by Kristian DePue

Photography by Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame

Originally published in Colorado Springs Lifestyle

In November 1939, two months after World War II broke, a small group of Finnish fighters frustrated a massive Soviet invasion into a standstill. This battle, known as the “Winter War,” was the inspiration for the United States Army’s innovative 10th Mountain Division, with a designated site constructed in Colorado to train for monumental warfare tactics.

“Charles Minot ‘Minnie’ Dole, the founder of the National Ski Patrol, was tracking the war in Europe closely and was impressed by the Finland fighters,” says Flint Whitlock – veteran, author and historian. The Finns had a very small army but handed the Soviets their lunch.”

“Dole felt that if we ever got involved in the European war, there'd be fighting in cold and mountainous regions and that the U.S. was not prepared for such fighting,” continues Whitlock. “He began writing petitioning letters to the War Department, pointing out this deficiency.”

Ski Soldiers

“Based on ‘Minnie’ Dole’s letters, the U.S. Army began dabbling with ski soldiers — but more as cross-country skiers rather than true mountain soldiers,” adds historian David Little of the 10th Mountain Division Foundation. “However, in 1941, the Army stood up what would become the 10th Mountain Division.”

Construction began in a remote Rocky Mountain valley 9,000 feet above sea level. At this site — completed in late ‘42 and named after Brigadier General Irving Hale, entombed in Denver — soldiers were trained in climbing, Alpine and Nordic skiing, cold-weather survival and various weaponry. For over two years, these soldiers used the Rocky Mountain environment surrounding Camp Hale to become elite military mountaineers.

“One of my favorite stories is about a young soldier from central Georgia,” continues Little. “Wet behind the ears and wearing his best, he spent four days by rail going cross-country to his first assignment. He arrived in February of ‘43 at 20-below, and marched three miles in eight feet of snow to his barracks. Many called Camp Hale Camp Hell. Despite that, this soldier became a life-long skier.”

From Colorado to Italy to Colorado

After these specialized soldiers were fully competent and equipped, they were called to the Apennine Mountains in Italy to fight Axis forces. In February of ‘45, heroic Americans achieved a strategic victory at the Battle of Riva Ridge in the European theatre, aiding the end of World War II.

When these American troops returned stateside, many became highly involved in developing skiing as a sport in Colorado — and the outdoor recreational industry, nationwide. Vail Ski Resort was co-founded by Pete Seibert, who trained at Camp Hale and was wounded in the Battle of Riva Ridge. An iconic ski run at Vail is named Riva Ridge, after that victory.

A steep and deep history of the 10th Mountain Division and the Camp Hale site can be explored at the Colorado Snowsports Museum & Hall of Fame in Vail.

Historic Artifacts 

“Currently, we have the most comprehensive 10th Mountain Division collection of historic artifacts accessible to the public,” says Jennifer Mason, executive director of the Colorado Snowsports Museum & Hall of Fame. “Yes, there are a couple of larger assemblies — but not like ours, which is so easily appreciated by the public.”

The impressive exhibit ends with a documentary, Climb to Glory, which tells the story of the 10th Mountain Division and how they were pioneers in the ski industry.

In very recent history, in October 2022, the training terrain of Camp Hale was presidentially honored as a national monument, designated the Camp Hale–Continental Divide National Monument. It comprises 54,000 acres, managed by the U.S. Forest Service and will continue to support a wide range of ongoing, outdoor opportunities. In this historic Colorado valley, where thousands trained, there remains only remnants — most notably, the concrete ruins of Camp Hale’s field house. The structure is quietly cemented as an unsuspecting, unmarked tombstone to the brave 10th Mountain Division veterans.

Colorado achieved statehood one hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It's home to Pikes Peak, known as “America’s Mountain” — whose “purple mountain majesties” inspired the patriotic poem-turned-song “America the Beautiful.” Fittingly, Colorado is the ground upon which pioneering soldiers faced the “undiscovered country” of innovation, trained and, in-turn, fought for that historic victory in the mountains of Italy and transformed the world.

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