You wouldn't know from a distance that the men carving gracefully through the powder at Ski Cooper are in their late 70s and 80s. On trails winding through dark stands of timberline spruce and fir, they ride their skis as other men drive cars – with skill bordering on nonchalance.
Their body language speaks of joy, too, on top of the skill, as time and the mountain slip beneath their feet and dust-fine snow hangs in the air behind them like a memory.
These men are veterans of the 10th Mountain Division, the Army's only World War II division trained to fight on skis. As young men, college students and boys barely out of high school, they spent the winters of 1942-43 and 1943-44 five miles down the road from Ski Cooper at Camp Hale, Colo., an instant barracks city built to accommodate 14,000 soldiers (and 5,000 artillery-toting mules) in an alpine meadow at 9,250 feet.
Today that meadow has gone back to elk sedge and aspen forest. An occasional foundation pokes up through the grass, and a few interpretive signs along U.S. 24 recall the feverish days when American mountaineers trained to fight Hitler's vaunted mountain troops, his Jaegers.
Ski lessons at what was then called Cooper Hill were taught by a who's who of world champions: Austrian émigré Friedl Pfeifer (who later founded the ski area at Aspen), Walter Prager (a Swiss who also coached the Dartmouth College ski team), jumping world-record holder Torger Tokle and Werner Von Trapp of the singing Von Trapp family.
Californian Howard Koch, one of the handful of 10th Division veterans who still make the pilgrimage back to Cooper every winter, remembers Prager in particular: “He was at another level altogether; he danced down the mountain.”
Koch and Earl Clark of Denver and the others this day do their best Walter Prager imitations and then retire to the 10th Memorial at the base of the mountain to remember their fallen comrades, all 997 of them, most killed in the Italian Apennines.
Ironically, an early thaw in Europe that winter of 1945 meant that the ski troops didn't actually fight on skis. But, thanks in part to their superb conditioning and mountaineers' esprit, they helped drive the Nazi armies in Italy into disarray and eventual surrender in the Alps.
The men bow their heads and sing songs of brotherhood and loss, and then it's off to nearby Leadville for drinks and more singing – marching tunes now and ribald spin-offs like “Ninety Pounds of Rucksack” – at the 1879 Silver Dollar Saloon.
Leadville was off-limits to the GIs training at Hale. A once-grand silver camp down on its Depression-era luck, the busted mine town allowed one ancient profession to flourish, and the Army wanted no part of it.
Today the town, with its stately Victorian main street and blocks of brightly painted miners' bungalows, is coming back, mindful of its rich history and its splendid location at the “top of the Rockies.”
At 10,432 feet above sea level, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the United States. Its empty, almost Tibetan basin is ringed by 18 of Colorado's 54 “fourteeners” – peaks greater than 14,000 feet elevation. These include the highest, Mount Elbert at 14,443 feet, and one of the most astonishing, 14,005-foot-high Mount of the Holy Cross, which in winter sports a snowy cross down the center of its black-rock east face.
About 125 miles west of Denver, Leadville is the secret heart of a well-known high-elevation playground. Besides Ski Cooper – now a community-owned “small mountain” gem – Leadville is within easy striking distance of Vail and Copper mountains (30 miles north), Keystone (35 miles to the east) and (in summer, once the snowplows bust through the drifts on Independence Pass) 40 miles to Aspen off to the west.
Camp Hale troopers occasionally drove the long way, through Glenwood Springs, to Aspen, for weekends of partying and skiing Roch Run, the only ski trail then cut on Aspen Mountain. Friedl Pfeifer was enchanted by ghost town Aspen; it reminded him of his hometown, St. Anton. He vowed to return after the war, and, despite losing a lung to shrapnel, he did just that, founding the Aspen Skiing Corp. in 1946 and, with thousands of fellow 10th vets around the country, kick-starting the postwar ski boom.
When Howard Koch and those veterans who can still handle the altitude stay in Leadville, they take rooms at the grand old Delaware Hotel. A three-story brick Victorian built in 1886, she still hums with the kind of energy that accompanied the making of the Guggenheim and Tabor fortunes in the mines just outside of town. (Leadville got its name from a silver-bearing carbonate of lead.)
Horace Tabor, the town's first mayor, amassed a fortune in silver and built the Tabor Opera House on Harrison Street, a magnificent 880-seat theater said at the time to be the finest hall between St. Louis and San Francisco. Houdini played the stage there, as did Susan B. Anthony and Oscar Wilde, among others. Now the Tabor anchors Leadville's National Historic Landmark District.
Drive just a couple of blocks from the opera house and the Delaware, up Seventh Street and Stray Horse Gulch, and you come to the Tabors' Matchless Mine. There sits the tiny frame cabin in which Baby Doe Tabor, Horace's beautiful widow, once so fabulously rich, died a pauper, with gunnysacks swaddling her frozen feet, in 1935.
Interpretive signs recount other tales of mining-era splendor and woe along the newly completed 12.5-mile Mineral Belt Trail that circles Leadville. In summer it's a non-motorized hiking and mountain-biking trail. In winter the ski team from nearby Colorado Mountain College sets cross-country track along its undulating length.
In the warm months, dilapidated mine timbers and waste-rock tailings piles (disgorged from hundreds of miles of tunnels) dominate the landscape. Under winter snows, the hills around town heal instantly. You feel only the gentle hiss of skis gliding on the track and perhaps the whispers of energetic 19th-century ghosts who rushed past the stunning scenery for the promise of underground riches.
Some winter visitors come to use Leadville as a base for cross-country skiing on a grander scale. Standing beside the ski-waxing bench at the Columbine Inn & Suites, proprietor Walter Wilczkiewicz tells me that a sizable percentage of his winter guests are backcountry skiers and mountaineers. One group comes from Europe every year to climb and ski the twin giants across the valley, Mount Massive and Mount Elbert.
Others use Leadville as a “place to rest, to shower and take a break” while skiing the 10th Mountain Division Hut and Trail System.
There are 22 huts in the system now, describing a jagged 300-mile-long circle through much of the terrain in which the mountain division trained: from Aspen north around the Holy Cross Wilderness to Vail, then south along the Mosquito Range to Leadville, and west again over the Sawatch Range to Aspen.
Several huts were constructed using funds from veterans' families, and one, the 10th Mountain Division Hut, was underwritten chiefly by ski trooper Bill Bowerman, the Oregon native who started a little shoe company called Nike.
Veteran Fritz Benedict, an Aspen architect after the war, came up with the idea for the trail in the early 1980s. It's an American version of the Alps' Haute Route – simple, comfortable huts in the silence of the high country set roughly a day's ski apart.
You can slide into any one hut for a quick overnight, or load up your pack for a rigorous, multiday circumnavigation. Benedict saw the trail as a chance to honor the ski troops and a way to reconnect with the sport's free-heel, wild-snow roots – to, in his words, “help preserve a kind of simple enjoyment of the mountains.”
Twenty thousand skiers a year ply the trails between huts, with a growing percentage of them using Leadville as a start point.