Roots of racing: When skiing came to Colorado
Special to The Aspen Times
This winter, Vail/Beaver Creek hosts the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships for a third time. The Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum has opened its ski-racing archives to tell stories that connect the dots between today’s spectacular made-for-TV competition extravaganzas and their humble beginnings. Roots of Racing, of which The Aspen Times will publish several installments in the coming weeks, features many of the significant milestones instigated in Colorado by individuals now enshrined in the Hall of Fame, which helped shape skiing and international racing. For more information, go to http://www.skimuseum.net.
Gold was discovered in the mountains of Colorado in 1859. The early pioneers soon learned that webbed snowshoes were useless in the deep, powdery snow of the high mountains. They preferred Norwegian snowshoes or skis.
Skis were handmade from pine or spruce trees and ranged in length from 8 to 14 feet. They were usually 1/2-inch thick and about 4 inches wide. They weighed about 25 pounds. One long pole 8 to 10 feet long was used to steer and to brake (sometimes by straddling it). Turning was practically impossible on the long boards, and one usually had to slow down and step around the pole to change direction.
It has been estimated by some historians that Colorado would have taken another decade to settle had it not been for skis. The long runners provided a dependable way for the mail to get through when trains were stalled, when telegraph lines were down and when drifts and avalanches prohibited travel on the primitive roads and trails.
The first documented use of skis in Colorado, as reported in Frank Hall’s “History of Colorado,” occurred during the winter of 1859-60 in a snow-locked mining camp along the Blue River near present-day Breckenridge. The 10 men remaining in camp made themselves skis and traveled downvalley where they built a cabin and claimed a town site called Eldorado West. The following winter, all provisions were carried over the range from South Park to Georgia Gulch by men on skis.
The Rocky Mountain News reported in the spring of 1860 that a party of prospectors had snowshoed (skied) over the “Snowy Range” to the Blue River diggings. Father Dyer braved the blizzards of Mosquito and Hoosier passes to take the word of God to his wayward and scattered flocks in the Leadville mining district. In 1863, he signed on to carry the mail and almost perished in an avalanche.
The Mail Must Get Through
Father Dyer was just one of the mail carriers in Colorado’s early history that provided a lifeline to the outside world. In 1880, there were more than 50 skiing mail carriers in the state. These hardy mountaineers carried a compass, rubbed soot or lampblacks on their faces to avoid sunburn, wore silk underwear for warmth under their great coat, and were adept at building snow caves for survival in bad storms. But the mail got through.
They traveled 50 miles at a stretch over the mountains on skis with only a simple toe strap and heel block to keep the foot in place. Harrowing tales abound of many being swept down slope by snow slides, becoming disoriented in whiteouts or breaking a ski en route — a life-threatening mishap. Some perished in the line of duty. Others lost toes and limbs to frostbite.
Mail carriers such as Al Johnson are legendary heroes. Johnson carried the mail from Crystal City, a ghost town above Marble, over Schofield Pass to Gothic, Crested Butte and Irwin. He was known far and wide as one of the best skiers in the Elk Mountains. When the men of Irwin formed a ski club, Johnson became a member.
For years, the miners, working high on the sides of the peaks that loom over Crested Butte and Irwin, had challenged each other to races into town. Last one down the mountain buys the cigars and oysters was the usual refrain. Bragging claims reached such a pitch that finally, in 1886, a call went out to the surrounding mining camps that a contest would be held to determine the best skier in the Rocky Mountains. A series of five circuit races were planned, which was the start of friendly ski racing competition in Colorado.
Next week: The Norwegians arrived and introduced ski jumping competition.
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The documentary “Bernstein’s Wall,” focused on conductor Leonard Bernstein’s work as an activist, will screen Saturday at Aspen Filmfest.