Cross Country Skiing to Camp Hale by Karsten Rist

Cross Country Skiing to Camp Hale

Spring 1960
Karsten Rist

One of my good friends at the Climax Molybdenum Mine was Gene Grossman. He was a mining engineer and lived with his wife Ruth and their three small children in Leadville. Gene liked the outdoors and enjoyed exploring the mountains and valleys which surrounded Leadville. Gene and I had rigged the bindings on our skis so that we could use them for cross country excursions. We had also acquired “skins”, so that we were able to climb on skis. One excursion that we wanted to do together was to ski down the valley which extended from the Climax pass down to Camp Hale, a mothballed army camp, which had been used in World War II to train the men of the 10th mountain division. The distance was only about 6 miles and the difference in elevation was 2,000 feet. We expected it to be an easy trip. In the early spring of 1960 we took our gear to work and set out on our adventure after work.

After a quick start we reached the East Fork of the Eagle River. The creek Bowed through a narrow, winding ravine may be 40 or 50 feet deep, with very steep sides, Banked by dense stands of trees. The scenery was breathtaking. Untouched, glistening snow everywhere covering rocks, pine trees and aspens, the rugged shape of the Mount of the Holy Cross to the west. The snow was soft and deep and the going was a lot tougher than we had expected. After a couple of hours we had covered the first two miles. The sky turned red as it was getting dark. We were worried about Carol and Ruth back in Leadville who had no idea why we took so long for our little excursion Fortunately Gene had brought a large lantern and we continued to struggle toward Camp Hale in the darkness. A couple of hours later our luck changed. We reached a plowed road with a nice cover of packed snow and we started to move rapidly, eager to reach the road and to get home. Then we heard a truck coming up the road. Gene anticipated that we were being met by an Army patrol. He suggested that it might be best for him to do the talking and for me to keep my mouth shut. That sounded like good advice to me. Within minutes the truck pulled up and we were surrounded by a well armed patrol making it quite clear that we were not welcome at all. It was lucky that Gene had the lantern around his neck which made it obvious that we were not trying to enter the base covertly. Gene explained our innocent purpose. The lieutenant listened intently with a scowl on his face. He asked some probing questions, then disappeared in the truck to make a phone call. Finally we were told to get in the back of the truck, together with the rest of the patrol. The flaps were drawn tight and we rumbled out of Camp Hale in great haste. When we reached the road we were told to get out and not to return – ever. Gene and I were surprised at the very inhospitable reception we had received. We saw no reason why the Army should be so nervous about a couple of obviously innocent cross country skiers.

A quarter of a century later Gene sent me a clipping from the Denver post. The story was fascinating. After invading Tibet in 1959 the Chinese established a reign of terror and tens of thousands of Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama into exile braving the dangerous trip across some of the worlds highest mountain passes. The CIA, keen on using Tibet to discredit the Chinese communists, recruited some of the refugees to wage a guerrilla war against the Red invaders. Many of the fighters were from a tall, muscular, nomadic tribe of eastern Tibet, known as the Khampa. They received a rare special dispensation from their religious leaders to use force in defense of their Buddhist way of life and were taken to the United States for training in guerrilla warfare. Upon their arrival in Colorado Springs the CIA transferred the Khampa fighters into busses with blacked out windows. The men had no idea where they were going and the good people of Leadville had no inkling of their new neighbors or who they were. After completion of their training the guerrillas were transferred to a remote region of northern Nepal from where they harassed the communist Chinese, supplied and supported by the CIA. Following President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 the United States abandoned the Khampa fighters.

After reading the story Gene and I congratulated each other on our good luck of not having seen anything when we skied into Camp Hale It seems that we could easily have been the victims of a most unfortunate accident.

In 1962 after I had accepted a better job opportunity in Omaha, Nebraska, Gene and I were able to do one more hike together. We climbed up to Mosquito Pass, east of Leadville and followed the ridge north toward Mount Arkansas, finally descending into the valley of the East Fork of the Arkansas River and back to the Leadville-Climax road. Most of the ridge is just above 13,000 feet high. You can see east over the wide expense of South Park and west over the Arkansas valley to Colorado’s highest peak, Mount Elbert. Gene and I planned to have lunch at a long abandoned old mine just below the peak of Treasure Vault Mountain. At this elevation structures and artifacts remain well preserved for a long time. We explored the old mine buildings before settling down to eat. I noticed a piece of wood that looked like it could be part of an old burro saddle. Then, in a different part of the abandoned building there was another part of a burro saddle. Later yet mother piece. As we ate our lunch looking out over the valley pieces of an old burro saddle were on my mind. How many pieces had I seen? Did they fit together? Finally I retraced our steps and collected every piece of saddle I could find. To my delight all the parts made up one saddle, not more, not less. It was the kind of packsaddle used to transport two bags of high grade ore about a hundred years ago. Historic pictures of Leadville show packtrains often or more animals trotting through town on their way to the smelter. This is how I became the proud owner of an old packsaddle. It is a piece of history of old Leadville which hangs in my study to this day and which reminds me of my last days as an active member of the mining fraternity.

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