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A traverse to retrace history

Lou Dawson of Carbondale skis from the top of Darling Pass in May 2001. (Courtesy Brian Litz)
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Most people retrace history through books. Carbondale’s Lou Dawson does it on skis.On Monday, Dawson set out with four men and his 16-year-old son, Louie, to conquer the famed “Trooper Traverse” from Leadville to Aspen.It’s the second time Dawson has attempted the route that 10th Mountain Division soldiers skied between the two historic mining towns in February 1944.This time, the mission is deeply personal. David Christie, the son of former 10th Mountain Division trooper Neil Christie, enlisted Dawson to help him follow in his father’s ski tracks. After Dawson completed the route in May 2001, Christie, of Denver, used Dawson’s research and maps to launch his own traverse attempts, but was unsuccessful.Dawson, a legend in ski mountaineering who was inducted into Colorado Ski Hall of Fame this past fall, wanted to do the traverse again, and the opportunity to guide Christie was perfect.”He’d mentioned to me that it was a fairly powerful experience just listening to his dad talk about the training and the 10th Mountain Division,” Dawson said. “This means a lot to him. When he’d heard about what I’d done, he was very intrigued with the whole deal.”Dawson also sees the trip as an experience to bring him and his own son together. Louie has already taken up backcountry skiing but has yet to do an overnight trip, Dawson said. A week spent among state’s highest peaks will give his son advanced knowledge of how to survive in the backcountry. The outdoor classroom will also be an ideal setting to share stories of the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division and their heroism during the traverse and later in combat. What the 33 troopers completed in 1944 was a mountaineering achievement that went unmatched up to that point in American history.

According to Dawson, there is evidence of similar ski traverses in Europe from the same era. There is no record, however, of anything comparable to what the rugged band of troopers – most of them younger than 20 – accomplished after setting out from Camp Hale in the heart of winter.Led by Capt. John Jay, a pioneer in the ski film industry, and Sgt. Paul Petzoldt, the man who would later found the National Outdoor Leadership School, the group took a direct line over the Continental Divide to Aspen. They skied steep couloirs at the height of avalanche season and marched across wind-swept ridges above treeline.And they did so with packs that weighed some 80 pounds and long, heavy, wooden skis with nonrelease bindings.”The real mountaineering part of this route is above timberline, and it goes over the highest part of Colorado,” Dawson said. “It was pretty forward thinking for these guys to say, ‘Oh, let’s just ski over to Aspen over those mountains over there.'”Dawson found out how forward-thinking the route was in May 2001 when he completed it in four days with photographer Brian Litz and friend Chris Clark.In 2000, Dawson began researching the historic route the soldiers took, with the intent of skiing the same exact line. He spoke with a few of the remaining 10th Mountain vets who had been on the four-day trip and pored over state annals at the Denver Public Library.Some of the most valuable clues came from photos by trooper Richard Rocker, which provided familiar landmarks and tracks of where the soldiers skied. The trio then set out from Camp Hale, and after skillful crossings of Darling Pass, the Continental Divide, and the jagged Williams Mountains, followed the Hunter Creek drainage into Aspen four days later to celebrate at the Hotel Jerome – just as the group of soldiers did some 57 years earlier.The trip left Dawson marveling at what the soldiers had previously accomplished.

Even with lightweight 35-pound packs and short, modern skis, the traverse had been arduous. And the trip had been much easier in May that it would have been in February, when the soldiers encountered more snow, colder temperatures and higher avalanche danger.”I couldn’t help but think, ‘Could I even do this with the 80-pound pack and a big pair of planks that weighed 20 pounds?” It kept running through my mind,” Dawson said. “We’re talking about some really strong guys. These were young 19-year-old guys who lived at Camp Hale, and that’s all they did was train, so they were probably really, really strong – as strong as any good athlete nowadays.”Because of their skis, and the bindings, which weren’t super-efficient, they were basically getting in a couloir and making big, high swooping turns, or else sidestepping and getting down it any way they could, sort of survival-style. They didn’t have the advantages that we have with today’s equipment.”The itinerary for this week’s trip deviates slightly from the one Dawson followed in 2001. The team plans to take five days to complete the route, sleeping out on the trail for four nights. Dawson expects the group, which also includes local mountaineer Scott Messina, journalist Steve Lipsher and Christie’s friend Mike Inman, to arrive in Aspen around noon Friday, just in time for lunch at the Jerome.The intent is not to complete the 40 miles as quickly possible, Dawson said.”We’re trying to do the route justice and spend an extra day or two longer than what it would take if you just blasted through it,” Dawson said. “We’re going to stop and maybe climb a peak if the weather is right and spend some time skiing some bowls of corn snow and that sort of thing. That five days gives us quite a bit of time. The whole route is 40 miles. Some of these guys nowadays could ski it in a day, if you really wanted to torture yourself. What we’re doing is to savor the route and use the structure of where the soldiers decided to go when they skied it.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is npeterson@aspentimes.com


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