Camp Hale rally highlights military history as supporters push President Biden to support local national monument

Kimberly Nicoletti
Aspen Times
Golden aspen leaves surround the remnants of Camp Hale. Federal lawmakers from Colorado are pushing President Joe Biden to designate Camp Hale and surrounding areas as a national monument to honor military history on the Western Slope.
Aspen Times archives

Summit County and its neighboring ski town residents could have a national monument right in their backyards if activists efforts this weekend prove successful.

On Saturday, Sept. 24, at 2:30 p.m., Vet Voice Foundation, community leaders, elected officials and members of the military who trained at Camp Hale — including a 100-year-old 10th Mountain veteran — plan gather with the public at the Colorado Snowsports Museum for a rally to support the proposed Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument.

“There will be a lot of fun and interactive ways people can get their voices heard and encourage President Joe Biden to designate this to be a national monument, through tweeting, postcards, social media posting, photos with the 10th Mountain Division and signs,” said Susie Kincaid, a rally organizer.

If the area becomes a national monument, it would be “an important step,” Kincaid says, toward protecting approximately 400,000 acres of land in the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act from logging, mining and drilling, Kincaid said. The act is a 10-year-long campaign that has passed in the U.S. House of Representatives five times but stalled repeatedly in the Senate. It would safeguard areas including the Thompson Divide, the San Juan Mountains, the Continental Divide and Camp Hale, Curecanti National Recreation Area.

It would also create the Tenmile Recreation Management Area to preserve access to a wide range of recreational sports, according to the act’s text.

Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, Rep. Joe Neguse and Gov. Jared Polis have all urged the Biden administration to designate the Camp Hale-Continental Divide region as a national monument through executive action.

Yet, opposition to the designation exists.

A letter to President Biden from Rep. Lauren Boebert’s office urged him to refuse to make Camp Hale a national monument.

The letter expressed “grave concern regarding new efforts to unilaterally impose severe land-use restrictions on the people of Colorado and across the American West.

Boebert said “big city Democrats” are using it as a land grab that would impose new restrictions on how the land is used, citing how 73,000 acres would become wilderness areas. According to U.S. Forest Service reports, motorized vehicles are often restricted from being used in wilderness areas.

However, supporters say Biden’s actions “would permanently protect Camp Hale and the Tenmile Range while honoring Colorado’s military legacy at the home of the 10th Mountain Division ski troops and the vast alpine terrain where they trained,” wrote Jim Ramey, regional director of the Wilderness Society, in a press release. “Protecting this place would be a unique and powerful tribute to those who served our country in World War II, then came home to build our skiing and outdoor recreation economy.”

The history of the region

Construction of Camp Hale began in April 1942, and on July 15, 1943, the 10th Mountain Light Division (renamed “Mountain” in 1944) was activated.

The effort to recruit the new division was unprecedented. It captured the imaginations of men with its glamorous models and elite status. Short films featured soldiers on skis, and, at first, it was the most difficult military unit to join. Students and coaches from the likes of Dartmouth’s ski team enrolled, along with two of the von Trapp brothers.

But soon, the army ran out of volunteers and needed to draft men, so many found themselves dropped in the middle of Camp Hale at 9,200 feet. The first thing they had to learn was to how to survive, as opposed to fight, in the harsh winter climate.

Eventually, they worked up to carrying at least 94-pounds — not including their rifle and ammunition — on 7-foot-6-inch wooden skis that didn’t have metal edges. The average soldier weighed 128 pounds and measured 5-foot-eight-inches tall.

“They had a ‘give-us-a-mission, we-don’t-care-if-it’s-impossible’ attitude,” said historian David Little.

And that’s how they succeeded in the Battle of Riva Ridge in the northern Apennine Mountains of Italy on Feb. 18, 1945.

Many didn’t know it was possible to free climb the 1,700- to 2,220-foot sheer rock cliff at night in the fog. But this is what they’d trained for at Camp Hale.

The Germans never suspected Americans would climb it, which allowed the 10th Mountain Division to mount a surprise attack and overtake enemy posts. From Feb. 19-25, the soldiers fought and took control of the Mount Belvedere ridge line, causing at least 23 German troops to surrender.

Within the division’s 90-day mission in WWII, they lost 1,000 soldiers out of 20,000 who served in Italy, which the monument atop Tennessee Pass honors.

At Camp Hale, the army straightened 5 miles of the Eagle River, in addition to hauling in over 6 million cubic yards of fill from as far as Nebraska to raise the swampy area. Visitors can find remnants of an old field house, which was used for training as well as dances that involved trucking women from as far as Grand Junction to raise the soldiers’ spirits.

If visitors dig into the history of the area, they will learn about how soldiers who returned home to Camp Hale made enormous contributions to the outdoor recreation industry, from starting over 60 different ski areas, without whom Vail, Aspen of Arapahoe Basin would not exist, according to supporters of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act.

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