While walking or driving down Leadville’s historic Harrison Avenue it is easy to be transported back in time to the Wild West.
Many of the old buildings in downtown Leadville date back to between 1880 and 1905, so the only thing missing to complete a Wild West scene would be horses running down Harrison Avenue.
For the last 75 years, the town of Leadville has transformed into the high-elevation Wild West town that it once was thanks to the annual running of Leadville Ski Joring, which started in 1949.
The event has continued to be an attraction on an annual basis, and this weekend Leadville will host visitors and competitors alike for the event, which runs from Saturday, March 4, to Sunday, March 5.
According to Leadville Ski Joring event organizers and longtime Leadville locals Duffy Counsell and Paul Copper, the event got its beginning when two friends — Tom Schroeder and “Mugs” Ossman — were working on brainstorming new event ideas to include in Leadville’s upcoming Crystal Carnival. As told from Copper’s recollection of his conversation with Schroeder, Ossman and Schroeder were reportedly sitting in a booth at the Golden Burro Cafe on Harrison Avenue in Leadville eating several pieces of pie and drinking a few cups of coffee when they were stumped while thinking of a new event for the upcoming Crystal Carnival. So he two friends decided to take a trip to Steamboat Springs’ own winter carnival in hopes to receive a spark of inspiration.
It was at Steamboat Springs’ winter carnival that Schroeder and Ossman were first introduced to the sport of skijoring, where a skier is pulled in tow behind a horse. The sport was exciting to Schroeder and Ossman, further spurring them to ramp up the event for Leadville’s Crystal Carnival.
With a need for speed and danger instilled in both Schroeder and Ossman, the two friends decided to make Leadville’s skijoring event much faster than the skijoring competition they witnessed in Steamboat. Using American Quarter horses that Ossman was raising for speed, Schroeder is said to have took the first high-speed skijoring run in a snow-filled pasture at Ossman Ranch.
From that moment forward, the modern spin on the sport of skijoring was truly born and the Leadville Ski Joring event began its long-standing tradition in Leadville.
“It has been featured in several newspapers, magazines — and TV channels have done spots on it,” Counsell said of the allure of the event. “It is even featured in a Warren Miller film (“Children of Snow”).”
Counsell went on to say that Wrangler has even signed over the last few years in order to provide a livestream of the event and will be working to produce a mini-documentary on the 75th running of the event this year.
One thing that always seems to impress participants and spectators on a yearly basis is the high-speed intensity of the event.
A skijoring team is made up of a horse, a horseback rider and a skier who barrel their way down Harrison Avenue while the skier trails the horse by holding onto a rope.
While the team blazes down the downtown core of Leadville, the skier must remain focused on making jumps, going through gates and collecting rings with their baton. The skier is timed through the course, but they will get assessed penalties if gates, rings or jumps were missed throughout the course.
“For the three athletes — the horse, the rider and the skier — it is an adrenaline rush that is unmatched for most people that have done it,” longtime competitor and race committee member Jason Dahl said. “I think it is contagious. You get as close to that rush without actually being one of the competitors. You can nearly reach out and touch a horse as it is riding by.”
Outside of the pure intensity of the event, the Leadville Ski Joring weekend is also known for uniting the Leadville community. Every year since its inception, the whole community comes together for both Leadville Ski Joring and the greater Crystal Carnival, and many local shops and restaurants host events throughout weekend.
The process of shutting down U.S. Highway 24 — the main thoroughfare through Leadville that includes Harrison Avenue — is even considered a community event.
Counsell says the skijoring track is built by members of the community including Colorado Mountain College–Leadville students under the supervision of professor Jason Gusaas. Gusaas and his students begin work on the track around 4 a.m. on Friday and start dumping over 125 truckloads of snow over Harrison Avenue.
The same volunteer crew then works to clear the track after the festivities so that by 6 p.m. on Sunday Harrison Avenue is fully transformed from a Wild West scene to a thoroughfare, open again for vehicular traffic.
“If you were to visit Leadville after 6 p.m. on Sunday, there may not even be a trace that the Leadville 75th had ever occurred,” Counsell said.
Whether an individual is participating in the skijoring or watching from a lamp post alongside Harrison Avenue, the event truly feels like you have been transported back to the first running of the event.
“I think it very much feels like what I would imagine the Wild West to be — minus maybe the ski equipment and stop lights,” Dahl said. “There is just no better setting with the historic buildings and all the flags.”
This year’s 75th Leadville Ski Joring event will feature three divisions: open, sport and snowmobile. The action will kick off on Saturday, March 4, with the calcutta at 9:30 a.m., the national anthem at around 11:45 p.m. and the first horse charging down Harrison Avenue at high noon.
After the open and sport divisions on Saturday, kids of all ages can get a chance to try out skijoring for themselves by being pulled behind a snowmobile. Following the snowmobile division, awards will be given out at Leadville’s Elk Lodge at 123 W. 5th St, Leadville.
Following the skijoring on Saturday, the party will continue at the Elks Lodge with Denver-based band Union Gray playing live music.
The 75th running of Leadville Ski Joring will resume on Sunday, March 5, with the same approximate schedule as Saturday, minus the kids division.
Spectators are encouraged to come out to the event for free but are encouraged to arrive early in order to claim their spot on Harrison Avenue.
“We are trying to do everything a little bit cooler with it being our 75th,” Dahl said. “Leadville’s got a reputation for being the self-described ‘granddaddy of skijoring,’ so it’s one event that everyone puts on their bucket list. Everybody wants to make it to Leadville at least once, and they are rarely disappointed. We just want to continue with that tradition.”
No dogs or drones are allowed at the event. To find out more information about Leadville Ski Joring visit, LeadvilleSkiJoring.us.
In order to celebrate this year’s Crystal Carnival, the town of Leadville will also be putting on a myriad of other events outside of skijoring including the Cooper Cup giant slalom race at Ski Cooper, a Leadville winter mountain bike series race, and the 10-kilometer colorado cup snowshoe race.
To see all the festivities being held during the Crystal Carnival, visit LeadvilleTwinLakes.com.