Trooper Traverse – the original ‘hut trip’
January 8, 2007
It began as a postscript to a rigorous training regimen, a weekend cruise that would be potentially hazardous, fun and instructional, all at the same time.Called the Trooper Traverse, two different ski treks from Leadville to Aspen, one in 1943 and the other in 1944, were viewed as tests for the men of the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army and their equipment.Starting in 1942, some 11,000 men trained at Camp Hale near Leadville, just over the Williams Mountains range from Aspen, awaiting their date with destiny in the mountains of northern Italy near the end of World War II. There, and in a little-known mission to the island of Kiska in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, the men of the 10th fought the enemies of the United States – Japanese, German and Italian.Fit and eager from their training at Camp Hale, the troopers were always ready for some diversionary exercise to complement their training. Little did they know that their four-day treks to Aspen would one day become the template for a system of high-country ski huts sprinkled throughout the Central Rocky Mountains (see related story).According to a firsthand account of the 1944 Traverse by 10th Mountain vet Richard Rocker, the “objective was to put training and experience to the test in route finding, group cooperation, safety, self-sufficiency, etc.”Ralph Ball, now 87 and a veteran of the 1943 Traverse, when asked this week why the exercise took place, replied, “I guess they were testing our equipment” as well as the mettle of the men.Both groups of men – 32 troopers in 1943, 33 in 1944 – started up Half Moon Gulch near the crossroads of Malta, southwest of Leadville, following the draw between Colorado’s two tallest peaks, Mounts Elbert and Massive.Ball, interviewed at his home in Carbondale, reported 10 inches of new powder on the trail, forcing the troopers in a “fair-for-all” rhythm – one trooper breaking trail for 50 yards or so, then pulling to the side and falling in at the back of the line, so the man at the front was always fairly fresh.”We carried no weapons, but the packs were probably 50-60 pounds without them,” wrote Rocker, although Ball said that on the earlier Traverse many of the hardier men were hauling 90-pound rucksacks in keeping with the 10th Mountain Division anthem and tradition.The routes both groups followed kept them above timberline for much of the trek, meaning 12,000 feet or higher. Ball reported that the first trek ran into no bad weather at all, and during certain stretches the troopers wore nothing but T-shirts on top. Nights were spent in tents, though one of the groups is believed to have stayed in an old miner’s cabin encountered on the way.As for the terrain, Ball wrote in his own story about the Traverse, snow-savvy troopers, especially Austrian-born Sepp Frolich, “an experienced mountaineer,” were called upon to pick the best route to avoid avalanches.During the second Traverse, Rocker reported, the group approached the forbidding peaks of the Williams Mountains on the third day, when it was getting late. The wind was rising, and snow was beginning to fall. Worried about getting caught in the open by an approaching storm, the group risked topping a high ridge and dropping down the steep “Trooper Couloir” on the other side.”We were lucky,” he wrote. “Everybody, even our best skiers, cautiously side-stepped down the first narrow pitch, then made cautious traverses and kick turns. The snow was too crusty to allow any decent turns – no one really enjoyed it as ‘skiing,’ but everyone made it safely out of the gully,” and into the upper reaches of the Hunter Creek Valley.Camping in falling snow overnight, the troopers made the easy glide into Aspen on the fourth day, Rocker wrote.”There was just time for a traditional Aspen Crud at the Jerome Bar before a truck arrived to take us back to Cooper Hill in time for supper,” he concluded.Local freelance writer Lou Dawson, who has written about the Trooper Traverse and the 10th Mountain Division, said an Aspen Crud is “equal parts bourbon and vanilla ice cream,” mixed in a blender – and that it remains a specialty of the bartenders at the Jerome Bar.