In 1943 the soldiers at Camp Hale must have been antsy. As young men in their late teens and twenties, one can only imagine the strength and skill these guys had acquired after almost two years of constant training. The sick and weak had been culled, only the elite remained. Out of that cadre seasoned ski mountaineers Paul Petzoldt and John Jay selected 31 men for the supreme test, a 40 + mile alpine ski traverse from Leadville to Aspen, Colorado — in the middle of winter.
Legends of the Trooper Traverse circulated for years. Indeed, the 10th Mountain Huts were built on the concept of 10th Mountain soldiers using the terrain between in the greater Aspen/Leadville area. But the original Trooper Traverse was only a vague legend before I researched the exact trail then re-created the traverse in 2001 with Brian Litz and Chris Clark.
But that wasn’t enough. Soon after our 2001 trip the son of an original traverse soldier contacted me. A backcountry skier himself, David Christie was intrigued by the trip his father had ‘spoken of many times as one of his best experiences during the war.’
After seeing my articles and slideshow, David wanted to do the Traverse. He tried it on his own a few times, and backpacked the route during summer, but success as a backcountry ski trip eluded him.
While speaking with David in 2005, I realized how cool it would be to do the Trooper Traverse with a son of an original participant. More, how sweet it would be to pull it off with my own son as an extension of the concept. The trip was on, we invited a few friends, and had an incredibly successful adventure in May of 2006. Here is the story of our five days on the Trooper Traverse.
|Day one begins. From left to right that’s my son Louie, Steve, Mike, David (son of trooper Neil), Lou and Scott. When David came up with the idea of getting together for the trip I told him to invite a few guys who were equal or more skilled than him. I wasn’t disappointed. Every person on this trip was strong and experienced. Everyone worked hard at winnowing their pack weights down, and we’d exchanged numerous emails figuring out the exact amount of fuel to carry, how we’d tent, etc. Our kit worked well and I’ll comment on gear later.|
The first day involves getting up the Halfmoon Road from Leadville. While snow covered this is somewhat of a slog, fortunately we drove farther up the road than normal for our start.
|Our first obstacle was a stream crossing. Not deep, but nowhere to rock-hop or jump so we wore our boot shells to prevent foot injuries. That water was COLD!|
|At the head of Halfmoon Drain is one of Colorado famous 1800s mining structures. The enormous edifice of Champion Mill rises from the mountain like an apparition. This was the tram terminal and crushing mill for Champion Mine, one of the most successful mineral operations in the Leadville district. The Mill is registered historic place. Sadly it’s falling down and will probably be a pile of splinters before too long. Funny how we glorify early mining while we vilify it so much in the present. Soldiers I interviewed mentioned seeing this structure and associated items during their 1943 trip.|
|David, son of trooper Neal Christie. When the trip was over he mentioned how much skiing the Trooper Traverse helped him connect with his now deceased dad, whom he’d not spent much time with when he was young.|
|10th Mountain Division soldier Neal Christie (on left) in Europe, circa 1943. After checking out the hand grenades note the Primus style mountaineering stove, precursor to all modern liquid fuel alpine cookstoves.|
|We spent the night in the vicinity of Champion Mill, then headed up to Darling Pass the next morning. This is the first test of the journey. It’s not a huge pass, but may be heavily corniced and could present a bit of avalanche danger. For us the snow was rock solid, with no cornice. We downclimbed a bit of scree on the other side, then had a beautiful ski run into the North Fork of Lake Creek. This was where our super-light packs made the difference. Even with 4 days of provisions we could make solid turns and enjoy the descent.|
|On the easterly side of Darling Pass is one of the best landmarks of the trip. We call it “Trooper Boulder” after Richard Rocker, one of the 33 men on the original traverse. Trooper Boulder can be seen in the original traverse photos, and provided me with my first clue on where the soldiers crossed this part of the mountains. We thought it would be cool to name 33 different features on the route after the 33 men, so we’ve begun with this, John Jay Pass, Petzoldt Pass, and more.|
|Photo of Darling Pass taken during the 1943 traverse shows Trooper Boulder.|
|Scott skiing from Darling Pass. Our lightweight modern gear made the trip a joy, “packs half the weight of the original soldier’s, but after all, we’re at least twice their age…”|
|Tea time in the Lake Creek drainage. From now on we’d melt snow for all our water over the next 40 hours or so of the trip. Amount of fuel we carried was critical. For six guys we figured a liter a day and it worked out perfect. Nope, that’s not food we spilled on Steve’s sleeping pad, it’s a crazy swirled pattern that’s molded into the foam. I dubbed it the “Jimi Hendrix.”|
|That’s myself and Louie during evening number two. Camping while backcountry skiing can be a chore. We had everything figured out, but knew that staying in a tent without a floor could be like sleeping on top of a snow cone. We were not mistaken, but it worked out (too bad the snow wasn’t flavored). This is a Black Diamond Megalite, and yes Virginia, those are two BCA aluminum shovels out front. I love the freedom that camping provides, as opposed to huts — but a warm soft bed has its attraction, as we would soon remember. Check back soon for Part II, Continental Divide and Trooper Couloir.|
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.