Editor’s note from Lou: A blast from the past or a push to the future? It was decades ago when Chris Clark, Brian Litz and myself re-created the original 10th Mountain Division soldier’s “Trooper Traverse” from Leadville, Colorado to Aspen. Since then the route has become popular; skied several times each spring. Please enjoy my brief description of the trip, and go ski it!
It’s the year 2000. We’re at 12,400 feet elevation on a 40-mile ski mountaineering and backcountry skiing trip from Leadville, Colorado to Aspen, retracing the steps of thirty-three 10th Mountain Division soldiers who skied this same traverse in 1944. They were training for World War II and most shipped to Europe soon afterward. Some never returned. Though they probably didn’t realize it, the soldier’s “trooper traverse” ended up being one of the most forward-thinking and aggressive ski traverses ever done in North American mountaineering.
Led by Captain John Jay, father of modern ski films, and Sergeant Paul Petzoldt, the man who pioneered modern outdoor education via the National Outdoor Leadership School, the troopers made a flawless four-day winter journey over Colorado’s highest peaks.
In 1994, while I was writing a guidebook for Colorado’s 10th Mountain Hut System, 10th veteran (and hut system founder) Fritz Benedict sent me a few tattered pages from a 1944 Camp Hale Ski-Zette, a newspaper printed for the 11,000-plus soldiers stationed at Camp Hale. There it was in the ‘Zette, staring me in the face, a detailed article about “one of the most ambitious ski marches ever attempted by mountain troopers…” Here it was in plain English: the Trooper Traverse, skied by 33 10th Mountain Division soldiers in 1944.
I did a day of detective work at the Denver library, where I found a page of traverse photos taken by trooper Richard Rocker, along with a fairly detailed account of the trip. By using a magnifier on some of Rocker’s shots, I was able to identify much of the route based on my own experiences in the region.
I meet my partners on a warm day in May of 2001, near Leadville, Colorado. Brian Litz, photographer and backcountry ski journalist, is the perfect companion—the guy doesn’t have a negative bone in his body. His friend Chris Clark, a man of few words and plentiful smiles, is super fit, psyched, and an expert skier.
The first six miles of uncertain travel goes quickly. We camp where the soldiers spent their first night, in the last trees beneath Mount Elbert.
Compared with the soldiers, we are wimps. The troopers carried 75-pound steel framed rucksacks; or 90 pounds if you were the guy who hauled one of the group tents. I groan under my 35-pound pack.
We start before dawn on day two. The only route information I have is from the Ski-Zette, which says the soldiers crossed the “Champion-Deer Mountains Pass.” According to the map, this could be one of several places. My plan is to rely on our mountaineering judgment, and pick what we feel is the best route, rather than blindly following where we guess the soldiers might have gone. Later, when I compared photos, it was easy to identify the pass we’d taken as the same one the soldiers took. Their choices and ours connected us across the gulf of time.
We make turns down from Darling Pass. While resting in the valley below, I think again of the troopers. One in particular, Burdell “Bud” Winter, joined the 10th when he was 18 years old, trained at Camp Hale in 1944, and must have stood near this exact spot, looking back up at his tracks, perhaps laughing in joy with his friends. By all accounts, young Private Winter was one of the strongest on the trip, breaking much of the trail in deep February snow. A few months later Bud Winter shipped to Italy. He did not come home.
After a long rest in the valley, we climb in hot sun and slushy snow, the Continental Divide looming above us, a distant castle. Chris takes the lead and disappears behind a spur. Brian and I wonder where he’ll stop, we need to camp soon.
Panting like wrung out dogs, we follow the track Chris has made through the slush. Soon we crest a rise. This has to be the place, otherwise we’ll be climbing over 13,000-foot ridges in the dark. And yes, there is Chris. Shucking my skis, I realize this hunk of granite forms what is perhaps the best campsite I’ve ever had in 30 years of mountaineering. We are at 12,000 feet elevation in the middle of the Rocky Mountains — we could have been on smooth asphalt in Miami.
As if fashioned with three exhausted skiers in mind, the place is replete with chair-back shaped knobs and perfectly flat beds. Above us, spring snow with elegant melt patterns leads above us to the Continental Divide. I walk to the edge of the rock. Sitting with my legs dangling over a small drop, I take in the astounding view. A few puffy clouds decorate a sky so blue you’d think it came off a computer screen. Sunset paints more than twenty of Colorado’s finest mountains.
The map shows we can take a lower angled path, then traverse a highline that drops us into our next drainage. The route works, but I wonder if were deviating from the trooper’s line. Later I discover photos showing troopers on the same terrain and thus know we’ve followed them yet again.
At the head of Lost Man Creek we’re perched above the best run of the trip, two miles of perfectly angled corn, ripe for harvest. We ski with abandon, skating traverses to set up for small fall-line drops.
Our next goal is the Williams Mountains. We pick a line of lesser resistance, but nonetheless find ourselves perched above a steep couloir. As we descend the most radical terrain of the trip, I mention to Brian my doubts about the soldiers having gone this way. I later find out they had. “We looked down a very steep, rock-studded gully, that disappeared from view in snow and growing darkness,” wrote trooper Richard Rocker. “Better to risk it than stay where we were.”
We find a patch of dry ground, build a campfire, and cook our last freeze-dried dinner. As the coals glow the forest embraces us in spring optimism. Our problems shrink, the future seems bright and filled with promise.
Our last morning arrives with clouds. Just as the soldiers did, we make a beeline for the Hotel Jerome, where we quaff Aspen cruds (burbon milkshakes) and bake in the burn of an outstanding backcountry ski trip.