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History comes (a little too) alive at Camp Hale

Brief by Allen Best

Local history – November 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

In recent years, much has been made about living history exhibits. At Camp Hale, the 10th Mountain Division training site north of Leadville which was put on the National Historic Register in 1992, the history is still uncomfortably live.

Five rifle grenades, used to fight armored tanks, were found there in August, causing the U.S. Forest Service to close 1,400 acres of the former training area. Included are three miles of trail that are used variously by the Colorado Trail, the Continental Divide Scenic Trail, and the 10th Mountain Hut Association. The closure is to be lifted once winter snows insulate the ground against impact-caused detonations.

The Army established Camp hale in 1942. Among the 17,000 soldiers who trained there were later Sierra Club chief David Brower, Vail founder Pete Seibert, and Bill Bowerman, a track coach whose wife’s waffle iron created the prototype Nike shoe.

The Army used Camp Hale sporadically after the war. Independently, the CIA in 1959-1960 clandestinely trained Tibetans there for guerrilla warfare against China.

In 1965, the Army formally returned the last portion, the valley floor, to the Forest Service. Some foundations, a few structures, and some streets were the only overt evidence of the camp that had, during World War II, been the largest city in the Colorado high country.

Local boys who returned from World War II knew there were bullets and mortar shells lying around, but the U.S. military didn’t get formally involved until after the crash of the errant A-10 jet into the side of Gold Dust Peak in 1997. Searchers at the crash site found no evidence of the plane’s four 500-pound bombs. In 1998, a Boulder woman hiking on 13,200-foot Mount Whitney found a shell, later found to be a live mortar of World War II vintage.

That discovery put new attention on Camp Hale. Under a 1985 federal law, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for surveying former defense sites for unexploded munitions, work that is expected to take another 30 years. Only the most high-use, lower-elevation areas at Camp Hale may get surveyed, as it would take a monumental effort to search all the 500,000 acres where soldiers may have left munitions. Training, and hence munitions, extended from Homestake Peak on the south and the Climax Mine on the east to nearly I-70 and Mount of the Holy Cross on the north.

— Allen Best