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Of Sport and War

DRIVING THE WINDING, HIGH ALPINE road from Red Cliff to Leadville when the long succession of peaks are covered in snow or the aspens are gold in their season, it would be easy to miss the weathered remnants of Camp Hale and its importance to the creation of the 10th Mountain Division, America’s first—and only—mountain troops.

But as children, it seemed to my brother and me that it had been the site of some epic battle for the soul of ski heaven. Here, pioneering expatriate ski instructors, first ascent climbers, and Ivy League outdoorsmen who had trained to go and fight the Germans during the height of World War II had created an unbreakable bond of sport and ultimate sacrifice. The proof of it was in the pure blue sky above us, the barrack remnants, and the found shell casings rattling around in our pockets.

The fact that so many 10th Mountain veterans were still alive, hiking and skiing the same peaks and slopes, never occurred to us at the time. Because so many of their victories and accomplishments had already become the stuff of myth.

On Oct. 12, President Joe Biden formally acknowledged the national significance of the small city they occupied at 9,200 feet from 1942 until it was decommissioned in 1945 when he signed a proclamation establishing the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument. In his first use of the Antiquities Act to create a new national monument, Biden recognized this storied Colorado landscape’s deep importance to the history of the Ute Indian Tribe, and also to the training of the 10th.

As Biden’s press release announcing the designation says, “The rugged landscape of Camp Hale–Continental Divide serves as a testament to a pivotal moment in America’s military history, as these peaks and valleys forged the elite soldiers of the famed 10th Mountain Division—the Army’s first and only mountain infantry division—that helped liberate Europe in World War II. The area lies within the ancestral homelands of the Ute Tribes, along the Continental Divide in north-central Colorado, and is treasured for its historical and spiritual significance, stunning geological features, abundant recreation opportunities, and rare wildlife and plants. The area’s mountains and valleys also shaped our modern outdoor recreation economy, which today supports millions of American jobs.”

It’s appropriate—albeit somewhat saccharine—flowery praise for a division that suffered significant casualties, including 3,134 wounded in action, 38 missing, and 992 confirmed dead.

As I wrote of the 10th in my novel The God of Skiing, “In Italy they fought like hell to take Belvedere and Riva Ridge from the Nazis when no one thought they could be taken—after full battalions of allied troops had tried for months already to take them. They advanced in the dark, scaling the bare vertical stones of Riva with their ropes and rifles, or sliding through mud and fog toward Belvedere as grenades and bullets rained down in the morning. Champion ski jumper Torger Tokle was one of the hundreds killed. Friedl Pfeifer, the godfather of Aspen, spent the rest of his life with German metal inside him.

“Those that survived, like Pete Seibert, Bob Parker, David Brower, Paul Petzoldt and Bob Dole, came home and spread like messiah’s to America’s mountains. They built its ski resorts, its politics and environmental ethics, and the world’s new standards and methods for ski instruction.”

In Santa Fe once, I sat down with Parker himself. “If you are skiing, you are living,” he told me, tearing up as he remembered the names of his comrades who never came back home.

With Seibert, Parker built Vail. He skied the open-run wonder of the Back Bowls—tilted pastures and knolls of new snow under a sky so blue it felt as if you were under the ocean—before anyone. And he went back to Riva Ridge 50 years after its surrender to climb with the same Germans who woke to bayonets moving like hot knives through the mists in the morning. It was in the spirit of the hills—the friends who were gone and a shared love for the mountains.

Parker told me General Klenhart, who had commanded the German defense, cried when he looked down the impenetrable rock face where the 10th had bet the sharp tip of their assault. “It is not possible,” he said.

“But general,” a German veteran replied. “It happened.”

And any time after that whenever I saw a veteran of the 10th at some ski industry event, where they were rightly lauded for all their contributions and sacrifice, I made a point of walking up and shaking their hand and thanking them.

They always responded with a smiling, “It was nothing,” kind of demeanor, and often something to evoke a laugh. I remember in Vail at Ski Industry Week, I met two 10th vets at the back of the breakfast buffet queue and asked, “Is this the end of the line?”

“It was,” they laughed, looking over their shoulders at me riding caboose. A joke I realized at the time was 60 years in the making. Here’s to being grateful for the recognition of a place that brought life and outdoor community to so many generations. We offer our unending thanks.

— Elevation Outdoors editor-at-large Peter Kray is the author of the God of Skiing. The book has been called “the greatest ski novel of all time.” It’s the perfect read for a visit to Camp Hale. Buy it here and read it now:

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