It’s December 1939 and Finland is under attack. Joseph Stalin has sent 400,000 troops of the world’s largest infantry force, the Red Army, into the Scandinavian nation. Unchallenged by a country lacking the proper ammunition, a thousand Soviet tanks roll through across the snowy land, seizing large tracts of the Karelian Isthmus.
Suddenly, white-clad figures swoop in like ghosts between the trees. They approach the tanks, close enough to pry bits and pieces off in some cases, and toss Molotov cocktails and bombs into unguarded exhaust ports – a design flaw of the tanks uncovered by Finnish engineers. The tanks explode from the inside slowing the advance of Stalin’s army and giving Finland a chance to win the Winter War by mid-March 1940, losing fewer than 50,000 soldiers compared to the Soviet Union’s 200,000 deaths. The Finnish military’s secret, primitive weapon? Skis.
Half a world away, Charles Dole, president of the then-new National Ski Patrol, used the success of the Finnish in fighting away their invaders to petition the United States Army to develop a similar ski-mounted fighting force. And it worked. In October 1941, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall ordered the formation of a mountain-based battalion. Just in time, too – on Dec. 7 of that year, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the U.S. into World War II.
A valley between Leadville and Vail was chosen as the site for Camp Hale, the new home of what became the 10th Light Division (Alpine) and then the 10th Mountain Division. Construction of a barracks, hospitals for both people and animals, ammunition bunkers and recreation facilities began in 1942. Soldiers trained there and at the nearby Cooper Hill with skis, winter camouflage and vehicles designed to for use on snow. The base was also used to hold German prisoners of war. In 1945, troops from the camp were finally deployed to Italy, and the division was disbanded at the war’s end. Some of the soldiers returned to Colorado and helped establish ski resorts in places like Vail and Aspen.
Meanwhile, during the early ’60s, the CIA took over the camp for clandestine purposes. To keep people away, the agency circulated stories that atomic tests were being conducted. But really, it had become a training cite for Tibetan guerrillas.
Nicknamed “Dhumra,” or “The Garden,” by the Tibetans, the site was selected for its resemblance to the Himalayan Mountains. By the time the camp was dismantled and given to the Forest Service in 1965, nearly 260 Tibetans were trained at the site to resist the Chinese and keep Tibet autonomous. That effort, evidently, didn’t go as well as it could have.
Today you can visit the ruins of Camp Hale about 17 miles north of Leadville on U.S. Highway 24. The skeletons of several barracks and bunkers remain. If you see something that looks like something that might blow up, though, don’t pick it up, poke at it, or throw rocks at it. The Army Corps of Engineers began an effort in 2003 to clear the area of unexploded ordnance, but you never know.