LAKE COUNTY, Colo. — Every first weekend in March, everybody in downtown Leadville feels excitement in the air — the skiers, the spectators, the horses, the riders.
Lining a frigid Harrison Avenue, crowds hold their breath for a few seconds, all eyes on a skier and the horse and rider in front of them, attached to each other by a long rope. The trio readies themselves at one end of an obstacle course. The skier tugs the slack out against the horse’s saddle and wraps the rope around their gloved hand.
It's a tense few moments. There’s anxiety. Exhilaration creeps in.
And then the horse starts running.
As it picks up speed — up to 40 mph — the skier behind holds the rope while piercing sets of rings with a baton and navigating eight-foot jumps. It’s a flurry of activity in just a matter of seconds. Snow flies everywhere. The skier goes airborne. Hot breath shoots out of the horse’s nose.
Then it’s over.
In its 74th year, Leadville Ski Joring — an addictively dynamic and thrilling spectacle for people both on and off the course — is back this weekend.
‘Skijoring?’ Come again?
“Well, it's Scandinavian,” explained Duffy Counsell. He’s the organizer of Leadville Ski Joring. “It derives from the term ‘ski driving.’ It was used as a mode of transportation many, many moons ago.”
As the story goes, Counsell explained, two men were talking over coffee at the Golden Burro Cafe in Leadville after attending the Steamboat skijoring event in 1949. The men — Tom Schroeder and "Mugs" Ossman — were both anxious to bring the sport to their beloved city.
But the main difference? They would amp up the speed.
“Tommy Schroeder, being the feisty Irishman that he was, knew that no horse could shake him, and Mugs had one of the fastest horses in Leadville. And so, Leadville Ski Joring was born,” Counsell said.
Since its very first event in 1949, the racers have flown down Harrison Avenue, the historic main street in Leadville. It’s a 900-foot course that the fastest competitors can complete in about 15 seconds.
Outside the confines of the course, Leadville Ski Joring has grown in size and popularity, now attracting thousands of people when the weather is good.
Watching it is unlike anything else, said Talus Schreiber, Leadville Ski Joring’s media coordinator.
“It's like almost a... not a third-person cringe but a third-person exhilaration factor,” he said. “That is the best way I can describe it.”
Leadville isn’t alone in its pride for a skijoring event.
“Leadville typically rounds out the season at the end,” Counsell said. “I think based on the history, just because we're at 10,200 feet, we had the snow for the longest. And so back in the pioneer days when you had events in places like Kremmling and Frisco and Dillon, Leadville always volunteered to go last because again, we had the best snow for the longest.”
“It is an iconic Wild West stunt show that's like no other,” he said.
‘You’re never ready, it’s just your turn’
Children and youths are welcome to try their hand at skijoring from behind a snowmobile before going behind a horse. Even with years of experience with snowmobiles, Schreiber is still hesitant to pair up with a horse.
“I want to someday. Still not quite ready mentally,” he said. “But knowing what snowmobiles were like, I can only imagine how much more difficult a horse would be.”
The nerves are warranted.
“You want to talk (about) butterflies in your stomach?” Counsell said. “There's nothing worse than standing in the start and waiting for that moment when you get the rope. Everything's led up to this moment. You can't wait. You've had so much anxiety, apprehension, excitement building. And then that rope goes tight, and within a couple of strides that horse is at full speed. And that's when the fun kicks in.”
Sometimes the horse plateaus in speed and sometimes it increases for the entirety of the course. On rare occasions, the horse may not even want to run (which event organizers respect for the safety of everybody involved, and the animal is removed from that round).
“No two runs are the same. It's exhilarating,” Counsell said. “You finish and you can't wait to get back to the start to do it again.”
He said writer and skijoring expert Jeff Dahl summed it up best when he said, “When it comes to skijoring, you're never ready. It's just your turn.”
Shawn Gerber — whom Counsell described as a legendary athlete in the skijoring world — has competed in Leadville almost every year since he discovered the sport in 2004 or 2005. He has missed a couple of years due to injuries, but still watched from the crowds.
He said those years were the toughest — he’d much rather be out on the course.
“Everything kind of goes quiet,” he said, describing the start of a run. “You get blinders. And I mean, you get in the zone. Some horses start a little better than others, but you are literally, 0 to 30 (mph) in about three strides, upwards of I think 44 mph, sometimes they clock you. And then when you're going back and forth, you can get upwards of 50 mph.”
Even with the thrill of flying down historic Harrison Avenue and the rewards that come with a winning run, he said his favorite part of skijoring is the camaraderie. Everybody is friendly and high-fives go around if all participants are still standing at the end of the day, but there is certainly no lack of competition, Gerber said.
He is one of the skiers who will run the course this upcoming weekend in Leadville.
“A lot of the (other) courses will be short of snow and half-rock, half-snow that you're skiing on,” he said. “(Leadville) is like skiing on a freshly groomed racecourse. And it's pretty spectacular to have. Both sides of the street are just lined with people, and you hear the roar of the crowd. It’s just a cool time.”
A thrill for both competitors, spectators
Leadville Ski Joring’s community roots spread all the way from the design of the course to race day.
Counsell said an events management class at Colorado Mountain College campus in Leadville helps with the building and construction of the track each year. Assistant Professor Jason Gusaas, a veteran Leadville Ski Joring Track course builder, selects one of his students to assist in the project, Counsell said.
“We think it is just the neatest — to have Colorado Mountain College aligning with Leadville Ski Joring to get them some real-world experience,” he said.
Leadville’s pool of competitors varies from weekend warriors to former collegiate ski racers to bull riders. Some go straight from the couch to the podium, Counsell said.
“So, you got a really eclectic mix of athlete competitors that all have one thing in common and that's when the rope went tight for their first time, they got pulled by a horse and it set a hook,” Counsell said.
And registration, which opens Friday evening, will fill up fast, Gerber said.
“There are more people that want to do this than you can imagine,” he said. “But even if you just want to see it from the sidelines, it'll hook you.”
That’s because the energy is just as contagious for those who never step foot on the course.
“The horses feel it, the riders feel it, skiers feel it,” Counsell said. “There's a certain sense of hold-your-breath type of anticipation and exhilaration. And then when you hear that rider let his lungs loose and beckon that horse to start down the avenue, it's a feat. You feel the breeze go past you when a 1,500-, 1,700-pound animal with a 200-pound rider on it, pulling another 200-pound skier, flies past you at 40 mph, eight feet away.”
Even when the weekend brings cold and windy conditions — it is Leadville in early March, after all — crowds line the street. It’s a celebrated event at the intersection of extreme skiing and cowboy culture and has grown to become a point of pride in Leadville.
“Everybody huddles together and has their hot chocolate and then whatever else they have in their cups,” Counsell said. “And have a good old-fashioned Wild West, true-blooded, American-freedom-type weekend.”
Everything to know about attending Leadville Ski Joring
The 2022 festivities, which are free, begin March 4 and run through the weekend.
Aside from the skijoring event, visitors can also enjoy mountain bike and Nordic ski races, a paintball biathlon, and other winter fun. The skijoring competition runs from noon to 3 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. Kids are invited to try their hand at skijoring behind a snowmobile after the competitions. Dogs are not allowed.
Click here for registration and rules, and here for more information on the event. While it costs “real money” to enter these events, winners take home “real money,” Counsell said. To enter the open or sport classes, the fee is $80 per day. The snowmobile race is $40 per entry.
Leadville Ski Joring also has its 74-year history on display at the Denver International Airport in the new Concourse A bridge exhibit. You can see the exhibition through March, Counsell said.
“There's nothing like it,” Counsell said. “Come to Leadville, Colorado, and experience something you've never experienced before: Leadville Ski Joring right down historic Harrison Avenue. If you come once, you'll definitely want to come again. I promise that.”