In one of the most daring military assaults ever launched, young “ski troops” armed with ropes, guns and 90-pound packs climbed a sheer 1,800-foot cliff at night in northern Italy to surprise Nazi soldiers who were guarding the famed Riva Ridge.
The young men succeeded. They held the ridge, then helped break through German defenses on Mt. Belvedere and beyond before the Allies ultimately defeated Hitler later in 1945.
Now the legacy of these heroic 10th Mountain Division Army soldiers will live on in perpetuity thanks to the new Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument near Leadville, Colorado.
President Joe Biden flew to Colorado on Oct. 12, and with two surviving World War II 10th Mountain Division veterans flanking him, designated the area as the new Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument. (Read the proclamation.)
Biden marveled at the heroism of the young soldiers who trained in the unforgiving environment that they sometimes called “Camp Hell.”
“Facing high altitudes, harsh terrain, deep snow and bitter cold, soldiers at Camp Hale learned to scale rock, ski and survive, preparing for the war they were about to fight,” Biden said.
The big test of skills forged in Colorado’s high country came in Italy’s Apennine mountains in February of 1945.
The plan was almost unimaginable: find a route for 700 soldiers to silently climb the soaring ridge so they could ambush Nazi troops who had created a seemingly impenetrable blockade across northern Italy’s rugged mountains.
“Imagine, it’s pitch black, punishing cold. The mission, high in the mountains, that hinged on the skill, strength, stamina that could have only been gained in a place like this,” Biden said as he pointed to the windy, cold Colorado mountain valley surrounding him.
“They were more than ready. American soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division scaled that 1,800-foot cliff at night, caught the Germans by surprise, captured key positions, and broke through the German defense line at a pivotal point in the war,” Biden said.
The president noted that the ski troops’ heroism came at a terrible cost.
“Over 114 days of combat, more than 4,000 were wounded and 1,000 lost their lives,” Biden said.
As we remember veterans who died in service to our country, the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument is now the newest place where Americans can honor those who served during World War II.
What is Camp Hale? How can you visit? What were the ski troops? How did this elite force come to be? And what remnants of the 10th Mountain Division remain at this new national monument? We’ve collected answers to your most commonly asked questions about the new Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument and the extraordinary 10th Mountain Division soldiers.
What is Camp Hale?
Camp Hale is the site of a former Army base. It sits at 9,250 feet in what’s known as the Pando Valley, high in the Rockies between Leadville and Minturn. The U.S. Army started building a camp to train troops in winter warfare, skiing and mountaineering back in 1942. The troops arrived in 1943, trained extensively and developed much-needed climbing, skiing and mountaineering gear. After World War II, former soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division went on to start dozens of ski areas and to launch vital environmental advocacy groups and outdoor equipment companies.
How can I visit the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument?
Visitors can easily drive to the Camp Hale site from either Leadville or Minturn, a small town west of Vail. (View a map of the new monument.)
The new national monument is located along U.S. Highway 24.
There’s also a commemoration of the 10th Mountain Division soldiers at the top of Tennessee Pass.
Are there fees to enter Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument?
No. There are no fees to enter the area. U.S. Forest Service officials will study what Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument should be like in the future. It’s likely that they will add interpretive signs to commemorate the historic actions of the 10th Mountain Division, but for now, the area will remain much as it is today: open for touring and recreation opportunities.
How big is the new Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument and what does it encompass?
The new national monument includes the former Camp Hale Army Base and surrounding mountainous areas that are part of what’s known as the Tenmile Range within the Rocky Mountains. Altogether, the monument boasts 53,804 acres including the former base, stunning high-altitude terrain and 20 miles of the famous 3,100-mile Continental Divide Scenic Trail, which traverses the spine of the U.S. from New Mexico through Colorado to Montana. Quandary Peak, one of the Colorado’s popular and famous 14,000-foot peaks, is also part of the new national monument.
What was Camp Hale like back in the 1940s?
Back in the 1940s, Camp Hale was a busy high-altitude town. The wide-open valley is three miles long and one mile wide. According to History Colorado, Camp Hale once boasted 1,000 white military buildings including 226 barracks, 33 administration buildings, a 676-bed hospital, a veterinarian hospital for horses, mules and dogs, five churches and chapels, 100 mess halls, a bakery, three theaters, a field house, officers’ clubs, weapons ranges, fire stations, a school, post office and more.
Camp Hale proved to be the ideal training ground to prepare for winter warfare at high elevations. The area received deep snow — about 250 inches a year. And steep cliffs and mountains, ideal for climbing and skiing, towered over the camp.
Francis “Bud” Lovett, age 100, was one of two surviving Camp Hale veterans who joined President Biden for the ceremony during which he formally created the new national monument.
Lovett has been supporting preservation of Camp Hale and was thrilled to see the national monument created during his lifetime.
Lovett is legally blind, but during events leading up to the Camp Hale designation, Lovett shared his memories of the beauty of the region.
“Since I’ve lost my sight, it has been a joy to me to be able to remember so many wonderful things that I saw, especially out here,” Lovett told the Summit Daily during a September rally to promote the new national monument. “I remember I climbed on Homestake (Peak), and I was there for the first snowfall. I was marveling at the sounds, the birds. I could hear them crow and there were wildflowers still at the edge of where the snow had ceased….It’s something you cannot forget.”
What is Camp Hale like now? Do you see any buildings or remnants of the military training facilities?
The natural surroundings of the Pando Valley remain beautiful, but little is left of the former base, which the Army dismantled back in 1965.
“It’s a beautiful area, but in terms of buildings, very little is left,” said David Boyd, a public affairs officer for the White River National Forest.
“The Army cleared almost everything out. There are a few cement arches that were part of the field house. You see those and some bunker-like structures from the shooting range where they stored ammunition,” Boyd said.
Some roads remain and the Army changed the shape of the Eagle River.
“It goes straight through the valley. It doesn’t meander like a typical river,” Boyd said.
The area is popular with hikers in the summer and backcountry skiers in the winter.
Has anything changed now that the area is designated as a national monument?
U.S. Forest Service officials, who will continue to manage the area, have launched a study on the new national monument. It will take years for studies to be completed and for management plans to evolve.
“There are a lot of uses there now that will continue,” Boyd said.
For instance, seasonal sheep grazing will continue, as will hunting managed by the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife.
Hiking, mountain biking and skiing will all continue to be allowed as they have for decades.
“There will not be a whole new set of rules for visitors,” Boyd said.
But experts will work to protect the historic and cultural significance of the area.
“We’ll do surveys for additional remnants and artifacts,” Boyd said.
There were no existing permits or proposals for any mining or oil and gas development within the monument’s boundaries. With the new designation, the immediate change is that no future oil and gas or mineral development will be allowed within the monument boundaries.
And as the monument evolves, more people will certainly learn about the soldiers who trained at Camp Hale.
“It’s great to see this area acknowledged. The story of Camp Hale is really unique. Many people don’t know the full story of the training that happened here and the action that the troops saw in Italy,” Boyd said.
Who were some of the famous soldiers who served in the 10th Mountain Division?
Among those who trained at Camp Hale were Pete Seibert, the founder Vail Ski Resort. Several others helped establish Aspen Ski Area. They include Fiedl Pfeifer, Johnny Litchfield and Walter Paepcke. Former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, Bob Dole, also served in the 10th Mountain Division as did Nike cofounder, Bill Bowerman and the Sierra Club’s first executive director, David Brower. 10th Mountain Division veteran, Paul Petzoldt, founded the National Outdoor Leadership School and Fritz Benedict founded the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, which manages a network of 30 mountain huts — including three in the Camp Hale and Tenmile Range area.
As the formal proclamation establish the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument says:
“The area is also foundational to the history of the United States ski and outdoor recreation industry and thus has had a profound impact on American culture. Veterans of the 10th Mountain Division founded or managed more than 60 ski resorts upon their return from deployment, some in the same mountains where they had trained.
“Other veterans from Camp Hale would go on to become trailblazers in conservation and outdoor education and recreation.”
How was the 10th Mountain Division created?
The creation of the 10th Mountain Division was unusual. Leaders of the National Ski Patrol System, including Charles Minot Dole, lobbied the Army to create a special unit of mountain soldiers. They were concerned about the possibility that the U.S. could be attacked in rugged areas of the northeast. They argued that the Army was ill-prepared and needed to follow in the footsteps of Finland, which created mountain troops that successfully battled the Russians. Dole and other ski pioneers helped find and train young men who became the inaugural soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division.
How did Camp Hale become a national monument?
President Biden created the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument by using the Antiquities Act of 1906. President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Act into law. It grants presidents the power to establish or modify national monuments to preserve unique natural and cultural features.
What can I do there?
The Continental Divide Trail and the Quandary Peak hikes are among the most popular hiking routes in the area.
Camp Hale is also popular with backcountry skiers who ski up and ski down the aptly named Machine Gun Ridge.
To learn about opportunities to hike, ski and enjoy other activities in the area, Boyd encourages visitors to check out information about the White River National Forest. The most popular trails in the monument are in the Tenmile Range. They include Quandary Peak, McCullough Gulch, and the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. Camp Hale is part of the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District. The Tenmile are in part of the Dillon Ranger District.
Tell me more about the Italian Campaign? How can I learn more about the 10th Mountain Division and the soldiers’ actions during World War II?
There are excellent books and films about the 10th Mountain Division.
- The Last Ridge, a book and film.
- The Winter Army: The World War II Odyssey of the 10th Mountain Division, America’s Elite Alpine Warriors
- Climb to Conquer: The Untold Story of WWII’s 10th Mountain Division
- Climb to Glory: Legacy of the 10th Mountain Ski Troopers by Warren Miller Entertainment
- Climb to Glory: U.S. 10th Mountain Division in World War II, U.S. Army documentary.
The Denver Public Library has archives, photos and letters related to the 10th Mountain Division and the troops’ battles during World War II.
And the Colorado Snowsports Museum & Hall of Fame in Vail has an extensive collection of 10th Mountain Division memorabilia along with a permanent exhibit dedicated to the heroes of the 10th.
Along with the military and natural history, I hear the area also has been important to Indigenous people. Is that true?
Yes. The newly protected area was a place that the Ute Tribes frequented before the U.S. government forced Native Americans to relinquish the area and much of their ancestral homeland in the mid-1800s.
“The area remains culturally important to the Ute people, who return to this area of their homelands to pray, hold ceremonies, honor their ancestors, hunt, fish, and harvest plants,” according to a fact sheet from the White House.
“The ecological diversity and abundant wildlife remain an important part of the value of this area, which features ecosystems, habitats, and important migration corridors for threatened and endangered species. This area also includes Ute burial sites that are thousands of years old, including associated funerary objects, and other areas of cultural and spiritual significance.”
Aren’t most national monuments part of the National Park Service? Who will manage Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument?
Yes. Most national monuments are part of the National Park Service. But there are a handful of monuments that the National Forest Service manages. Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument will remain part of the U.S. Forest Service. The two entities that help preserve and manage large swaths of public lands are actually part of two different federal agencies. The National Park Service is part of the Department of Interior while the U.S. Forest Service falls under the Department of Agriculture.