| Camp Hale - Pando - Leadville - Mayflower Gulch
If it is too dangerous, wet, cold, ugly to climb… Camp Hale is worth a visit on a day of rest.
On every trip to Colorado I find myself curious about the incredible people that must have lived in these mountains, explored this vast expanse of rock and timber, done prospecting on sheer granite walls, mined in the thin air, along with ranching and farming at altitude.
On my first trip up a 14er I was amazed at the mines visible on the hike up to Grays Peak. I was struggling to make it up the trail. It was evident that some guy a hundred years ago was hanging from the steep walls looking for minerals and then making a tunnel in the solid rock wall to bring out whatever there was there of value, probably without the use of power tools and all at over 13,000 feet. On Mt. Sherman the Hilltop Mine gives life to how tough the miners must have been to drag steam equipment and boilers up these mountains… and live there doing the work.
It was Labor Day weekend 2010 and after spending two days in high winds on 14ers a break was in order… but the destination was by design not by accident. For years I have read about the 10th Mountain Division and their incredible history in the Italian Alps. I wanted to see Camp Hale for myself.
Nearly 1000 members of this Division gave their lives in WWII, another 4,000 were wounded, and countless sacrifices were made by these men who trained at Camp Hale.
Most accounts have it that the Division was made up of 14,000 troops. So the way I calculate it the about one in three of the men that trained at Camp Hale either died or were injured in the combat they faced in the Italian Alps.
The 10th was supposedly inspired by Finnish Troops that tormented the Russians in the late 1930's. What was different about the 10th was the sheer scale and time frame for what transpired. After some early training in Washington State, Pando was selected as the site for Camp Hale. What is incredible is that over 1000 buildings were constructed to house 10,000 men in February 1942 and were readied in six months. Just in time for winter. The troops arrived by rail on the tracks that came to the valley over the Tennessee Pass. They came from all over the world and ranged from the world's best climbers and skiers to kids just off the streets of New York.
At Tennessee Pass there are several historic markers that celebrate the 10th and the men that gave their lives. There are also markers for the Viking Battalion and and the Colorado Springs group that put them there. A Bronze from the Colorado Historic Society also predates the other markers and notes that the pass was first crossed by the railroad in 1881 among other things.
There are accounts of mule trains of 5,000 animals carrying supplies through downtown Leadville on their way to the camp. They must have crossed this pass. That's alot of mule dung.... I imagine it took alot of skill to handle a big animal with ammunition on its back.
About 4 miles beyond the pass is Pando, the site of Camp Hale. I understand that Native Americans lived here for thousands of years.. it is still a beautiful place. There was a Ranger Station located at Pando and manned year round by Rangers and their families. The valley floor is flat and the walls are fairly steep. It was a wild but great place to build a training facility of immense magnitude.
Today the site of Camp Hale is well marked with about 40 historic markers to try to give the visitor some perspective on what once existed here. You can move around the former camp site pretty quickly by car. The old foundations, roads, and a few other features are visible. The former camp is now a campground and there were a few campers that had not headed back to Denver. It is my understanding that it took several years to clear dangerous munitions from the area before it was safe for camping.
These buildings were not labeled but my guess is that they were munition storage.
I should have brought a map of the former site with me but these foundations were either warehouses or the administration building.
I was amazed at the track quality as I understood that trains had not moved over these rails in 20+ years. The railroad created a serious air quality problem in the valley. Apparently the smoke from the steam locomotives hung low over the valley floor and caused many of the camps inhabitants to have a chronic cough.
The black track ballast is everywhere... not like the limestone that we are used to here in Michigan. It is finer and probably makes a very firm track bed. It was these tracks that moved thousands of men quickly in and out of this base.
Camp Hale was another extension of the incredible accomplishments of this country in preparing for WWII. Ford built a bomber plant in Ypsilanti, MI that turned out a B-17 at a rate of one an hour & Kaiser built Victory Ships at a similar pace. I don't know if this generation could take up the challenge to accomplish what was done here… even with our improved technology and communications.
The "Climbing Wall" has special significance. It was here that troops were trained to work on ropes… in fact the first nylon ropes used in climbing… right here at Camp Hale. A group of vets had gathered to workout on the "wall" .... among them Sonny Rangel (Navy) Connecticut & Branden Kerr (Army) Madison, Wisconsin getting ready to do some climbing. It was good to see them and the rest of the group getting ready for a little excercise. It is hard to comprehend the history of the place... I don't know how much these two knew of the history but my guess is that by the end of the day they gained some respect.
Their instructors were already on top of the wall preparing for the day's activities.
The 10th had a huge impact on several sports….
• Many of the countries ski areas were founded or improved by former members of the 10th.
• The co-founder of Nike was a 10th vet.
The contributions are probably too numerous to list... but a google of the subject will bring up lots of material. There were at least a dozen books in the great bookstore in Leadville on who these soldiers were, and how they went on to change alot of things.
I have read that Vail was a "direct product" of the 10th's skiing in the area.... I am sure that many that see this report know much more about the history of the ski industry, Camp Hale, and Vail... but it is worthy to note that those that were in misery while at Camp Hale liked it enough to pursue making a living in the mountains and dressing for them in any season.
Back in Leadville we spent about an hour in the Heritage Museum where many artifacts and photos of the Camp from the WWII days are housed.
10th Pack.... Solid Steel Frame
Interview with dummy....??
Then there are the stories that like all good military units… there was a subculture.
Mining of silver and gold was not allowed during WWII as it had no impact on the war effort… but stories exist of soldiers that secretly re-opened mines and during their training dug riches out of the ground, stashed the silver for post-war living, only to die in Italy.... Sounds like a good legend. Good reason to go snooping around the pass.
I don't regret spending the better part of a day learning about this place, the people who trained here, and what they accomplished....
On the way out of Leadville we drove by the Climax Mine... worth stopping at their roadside exhibit. Looks like the mine will be opening again after many years...
Down the road from the Climax Mine was Mayflower Gulch... took a hike up to the end of the Gulch and enjoyed stretching my legs. It made the ride back to Boulder a little easier.
Abandoned mine in Mayflower Gulch
Mayflower Gulch and ?? 13er in Background
I had the good fortune to spend a few more days in Colorado. The weather was good for hiking but bad for the fires around Boulder. The mountains that I spend so much time thinking about back in Michigan are alot more than "elevation"... there is a rich history that makes them all the more interesting.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):