As fighting raged on during World War II, the United States Army created a highly specialized unit of mountaineering soldiers who could ski, climb, snowshoe and otherwise prevail in the rugged mountains of Europe. That group—called the 10th Light Division (Alpine) and later renamed the 10th Mountain Division—fought the Nazis during intense combat in Italy, ultimately helping the Allied forces secure victory.
Starting in July 1943, the men underwent rigorous mountain warfare training at a high-altitude Army base in Colorado known as Camp Hale. Situated at 9,200 feet above sea level among the snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains, Camp Hale helped the soldiers—some 14,000 men and around 240 women serving in the Women’s Army Corps—prepare for the snowy weather, steep cliff faces and uneven footing they’d encounter when they eventually deployed overseas.
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden designated Camp Hale as a national monument, a move that protects the historic site and 53,804 acres of untouched wilderness in the Tenmile Range of the Rockies. To make his first national monument designation, officially named the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument, Biden used his executive power under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law and used to eventually establish 18 national monuments.
Before the U.S. government forced them to move elsewhere in the mid-1800s, members of the Ute Tribes lived on the land that’s now included in the national monument. To this day, the site remains important to the Utes, who return to this part of their ancestral homelands to “pray, hold ceremonies, honor their ancestors, hunt, fish and harvest plants,” per a statement from the White House. The national monument designation also protects historic Ute burial sites and related funerary objects that are thousands of years old.
“When you think about the natural beauty of Colorado and the history of our nation, you find it here,” Biden said during a proclamation ceremony at the site, as the Vail Daily’s Ali Longwell reports.
Nearly 5,000 10th Mountain Division soldiers died during World War II, including 999 men who died in combat, per the U.S. Army. When those who survived returned home from war, many founded or led ski resorts across the country, launching what would eventually grow to become a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Skiing soldier Peter Seibert, along with Army engineer Earl Eaton, opened Vail Ski Resort on December 15, 1962. Veteran Friedl Pfeifer—who lost part of a lung fighting in the war—helped establish the ski resort on Aspen Mountain in 1946. Nelson Bennett helped grow White Pass Ski Area in Washington. Sigi Engl ran the largest—and, to some, the most prestigious—ski school in the country at Sun Valley Resort in Idaho.
The list goes on. By one estimate, 10th Mountain Division veterans created or held leadership positions at at least 62 ski resorts. Today, the outdoor industry—which includes skiing and snowboarding—generates $374 billion in economic activity, according to the Biden administration.
Camp Hale is the second site in the state to gain federal protection this year. In March, Biden signed a bill making a World War II-era Japanese-American internment camp in southeastern Colorado a national historic site.
Supporters of the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument say they would like to see the government build a visitor center and offer guided tours that honor the legacy of the famed skiing soldiers, reports the Denver Post’s Bruce Finley.
The Forest Service will now develop a plan for protecting and managing Camp Hale, which still has the concrete foundations of several military buildings. Though details are still being finalized, the site will likely include interpretive resources and educational materials and will remain open for camping, skiing, hiking, snowmobiling and other outdoor adventures.
That’s welcome news for Coloradans, including Bradley Noone, a veteran deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007 with the contemporary iteration of the 10th Mountain Division, which is now based in New York. In an opinion piece for the Colorado Sun, Noone writes that spending time in the Colorado wilderness near Camp Hale has helped him heal from trauma he endured in combat.
“Camp Hale hasn’t been operational since World War II, yet Hale and the surrounding areas act as my therapist, my gym, my church and my playground,” he writes. “... I know that I am not alone in this feeling. Veterans from all across the country are turning to protected places and the outdoors as a tool to help heal and to have productive and satisfying lives after all we have experienced.”