Aspen Times Weekly
Camp Hale, between Leadville and Vail, home to the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, is now a part of history, but the military still trains troops for mountain warfare at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center train at Mammoth Mountain ski area in California. The war in Afghanistan has made the center a vital facility.
Today’s Marines, on a 28-day training in mountain and cold weather environments, still use white skis, as did the 10th; however, their skis are short and suitably shaped for a variety of snow conditions. They wear ski helmets instead of combat helmets, in readiness for ski instruction from the Marine school of hard knocks.
In the modern all-volunteer military, soldiers dine at the mountain restaurant rather than gulp down K-rations. Soldiers, some who have never seen snow, are hauled up a lift that serves intermediate slopes on their first time up the mountain. Before the day is over, they will ski steep slopes as well as areas that are not groomed. It is clear that the object of the training is to become military tough – overcoming fears, conquering challenges. Afghanistan is no ski vacation.
Minot “Minnie” Dole, founder of the National Ski Patrol, was awarded the unique opportunity to recruit troops in WW II for his pet project, mountain troops. Dole traveled the country searching for experienced skiers and mountaineers. Seven thousand of the 9,000 mountain division infantry were recruited through Dole’s efforts.
At the time, the idea of mountain troops was new for the Army. In the beginning stages they had to design and test equipment, develop operating strategies and methods, and study the challenges of fighting and maneuvering through the mountains. Before Camp Hale opened, a contingent of the mountain troops came to Ashcroft for field testing. The Highland Bavarian Corporation, while developing a ski area for Aspen, leased Ashcroft to the 10th. In the summer and fall 1942, the soldiers frequently visited Aspen.
My father was fond of telling the story of the first winter test of the troops. Like most locals he had skied and toured the Ashcroft area, was familiar with avalanches and had survived Colorado storms. Working at the Midnight Mine above 10,000 feet year-round, he knew the challenges of mountain environments.
When the soldiers arrived to test maneuvering in deep snow, Father was surprised to see they had brought mules. Having spent much of his life with mules at the mine, he knew they were useless in deep snow. It was a veritable threat to their lives.
The first test of maneuvering in deep snow had not been planned for inclement weather, but soon a major storm blew in. The high-ranking officers checked into the Jerome and ordered the troops to camp in Ashcroft, then make their way back to Camp Hale.
After a cold night in tents at Ashcroft, the soldiers began their journey. The mules became mired in the deep snow, and after struggling in a blizzard for hours it became obvious that the best of planning had not been adequate for the challenges. The maneuver was aborted.
More maneuvers originated from Camp Hale; some were bone-chilling winter challenges, others were routine efforts to move men in the mountains. The final training before leaving for Italy climaxed in a three-week war-games simulation. In his book “Climb to Conquer,” Peter Shelton paints a bleak picture of the exercise. “A massive late-winter storm blew into the central Rockies … it was accompanied by high winds and followed by unseasonably cold temperatures. They’d [infantry soldiers] crawl, fully clothed, into their sleeping bags only to be rousted scant minutes or hours later to saddle up and move again. Since maneuvers were tactical, no fires were allowed, and at night no smoking lest the glow of a single cigarette give away an outfit’s location.”
When the 10th fought in Italy, it was prepared for what many say were some of the most challenging combat situations of the war. The 5,000 Missouri mules the 10th relied on for moving material were not sent to Italy, but ended up in Burma.
Father carried a grudge for the high-ranking officers who stayed warm in the Jerome while their charges trudged through the snow, and especially for endangering mules, but he always understood that the training wasn’t just about moving men and equipment through the mountains. It was about becoming “military tough.”
As Harris Dusenbery wrote in “Ski the High Trail,” the Army seemed to be “preparing the individual soldier for death.”
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