A line of soldiers snowshoe down a mountain in Camp Hale

Skis, Slopes and Spies: Colorado’s Camp Hale

From the archives: this article was originally published on April 13, 2023

America’s newest national monument has an intriguing history. On August 22, 2022, President Joe Biden designated 53,804 acres of National Forest Service lands in Eagle County as the  Camp Hale – Continental Divide National Monument. Much is written about the site’s history as a military training ground in World War II; the locale also was used by the CIA.

Even before the U.S. officially entered World War II on December 11, 1941, American military leaders were realizing the need for an effective field force with training in winter and mountain warfare. In 1939, Finland had successfully thwarted Russian supply columns with troops of white-suited (for snow camouflage) soldiers who attacked their enemies on skis. The 1940 British failure in Norway, however, was partly attributed to the lack of training in winter warfare. Intelligence reports indicated that the Germans were training special mountain troops for use in Alaska and in the Canadian and American Rockies, which sealed the deal.

All photos courtesy of the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame

Quickly constructed in the Pando Valley near Leadville, the training grounds for the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division housed up to 17,000 troops. The 9,200-feet elevation was ideal for rock climbing, skiing and snowshoeing. The harsh conditions (and the poor air quality caused by coal smoke from the steam locomotives on Tennessee Pass) earned it the nickname “Camp Hell” among the soldiers who lived there. But the grueling regimen paid off in northern Italy’s Apennine Mountains, at the Battle of Riva. Scaling a 2,200-foot cliff in the dead of night, soldiers trained at Camp Hale launched a daring assault, eventually defeating five elite German divisions in a decisive victory that helped end the Axis theatre of the war.

More quietly, the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of today’s CIA) found Camp Hale to be a fertile recruiting ground for Norwegian-speaking soldiers. Known as the OSS Norwegian Operational Groups, these men studied sabotage, demolitions and amphibious assaults before being parachuted behind Nazi-occupied lines. One of these operatives, William Colby, would go on to become Director of the CIA.

All photos courtesy of the Colorado Snowsports Museum and Hall of Fame

Many men who trained at Hale kept skiing when peace was declared, using their skills to found Colorado’s now-legendary ski resorts including Vail, Steamboat, Aspen and Arapahoe Basin. (Vail’s longest run is named Riva Ridge, dropping 3,000 feet over four thrilling miles.) But while World War II was over, other, colder conflicts remained…and Camp Hale was still to prove useful in promoting American interests abroad. While the government circulated stories of nuclear testing to keep people away from the site, in reality Camp Hale continued as a training ground, but not for Americans. From 1958 to 1964, the CIA trained Tibetan freedom fighters in guerrilla warfare, preparing them to fight against Chinese soldiers in the mountains of eastern Tibet. At “the military monastery,” which trainees called “Dumra” — the Tibetan word for “garden,” — they learned how to conduct covert operations, create propaganda, and parachute from planes. The site was decommissioned in 1965 and turned over to the U.S. Forest Service.

Want to see some amazing Camp Hale artifacts and photos? When in Vail, don’t miss a stop at the Colorado Snowsports Museum. A 1943 war film, The Mountain Fighters, is available on YouTube. And as to rumors that the new James Bond has been seen schussing down slopes near Leadville: we’d tell you, but then we’d have to … well, you know.