By Kathy Bedell
If truth be told, it all started at the old Ossman Ranch. That’s where Leadville Ski Joring officially got its humble beginnings in Lake County. For it was on that family ranch, just north of Leadville on Hwy. 91, where “Mugs” Ossman’s love of quarter horses met up with Tom Schroeder’s love of skiing really fast, and thus the sport of ski joring took hold in the highest city in North America.
It was 67 years ago, back in 1949, when the two good Leadville friends ventured over to Steamboat Springs’ Winter Carnival and witnessed for the first time the sport of ski joring: a horse-and-rider pulling a skier. It was like nothing they’d ever seen; the two couldn’t wait to bring the idea back to Leadville to be part of its annual winter celebration.
But first, Ossman and Schroeder had to test their own mettle and see if they might be able to add some speed to the whole experience. They went to the Ossman Ranch and did some practice runs in the horse pasture in deep snow. The rest is history, as they say, because on that day, the sport of ski joring in Leadville was born.
“There is nothing like Leadville Ski Joring,” stated Leadville resident and competitor Duffy Counsell, describing the experience of flying down the avenue behind a galloping horse, with thousands of screaming spectators, and 100-year-old buildings towering overhead. “There’s nothing else like it!”
Duffy is one of dozens of competitors that make their way to the start line of Leadville’s ski joring competition in order to take their turn at the reins, or the tow rope as the case may be. Many local transplants try it once and keep coming back for more bumps, bruises and, at times, broken bones.
“After some runs,” describes Counsell, “I feel like I’m in the Superbowl … when I’m catching that ATV ride back up to the start line after an epic run. The crowd’s screaming out to you and clapping, patting you on the back. It’s as close as I’ll ever come to that experience! It’s a trip!”
Hailed as Leadville’s downtown winter celebration, this one-of-a-kind event echoes the city’s rough- and-tumble heritage with a “watch this” attitude that many western towns have shied away from over the years. Skiers! Horses! Building a snowy race course on streets that you’ve been plowing all winter! That’s crazy!
It leads you to wonder what the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) might say when it receives Leadville’s request that some of the snow that gets so diligently removed off Hwy. 24 (Harrison Avenue) be placed back on those same streets.
But CDOT workers love the event and appreciate its heritage and economic benefits to the small mountain community, especially during the slower winter months.
In fact, it’s thanks to efforts by the Leadville Ski Joring Committee, Lake County Public Works, the City of Leadville Street Department and CDOT that truckloads of snow are dumped BACK ONTO Harrison Avenue starting on Friday of the action-packed weekend.
It takes about 200 loads of snow and five and a half hours to cover Harrison Avenue from 8th Street to 3rd Street. The work begins at 4 a.m. on Friday, as local street crews carry strategically-stored snow reserves back downtown in dump trucks.
The type of snow is important: fresh snow is the best. If the snow has too many chunks, the horses can cut themselves on the ice. And the veteran ski jorers can show you some battle scars from taking a chunk of icy snow in the arm, face and ugh – groin!
Once Harrison Avenue is re-ladened with fresh snow, there’s a herd of volunteers out there pushing the snow around under the direction of the one and only Jody Manly. He’s the man with the plan; he’s the guy who maps it out, who says how high, how far a certain jump should be built.
As most snow racing fans can appreciate, it’s important from a safety perspective that the jumps be properly shaped: if not, skiers have a greater risk of injury. The jumps have to be smooth, sloped to the right side and have the right length-to-height ratio.
But before the jumps can be built, Jody has to stake out the course. It’s here that the horses’ – not the skiers’ – safety is taken into account. In fact, if you’ve ever seen Manly, a third-generation Leadville guy, walk out the course in strides of gait and handmade depth-measuring tools, you’ll know that he’s calculating course safety with the horses in mind. Manly has built the course for so many years that he has a list of design options he keeps in his well-worn notebook.
By 8 a.m. Saturday of Leadville Ski Joring weekend, the volunteers are back on the course to set the starting gates and rings and to fine-tune the last-minute details. By 1 p.m., the course is ready for racing.
Kathy Bedell has lived in Leadville for more than 25 years, and while you’ll never find her ski joring on Harrison Avenue, you can find her writing about it on LeadvilleToday.com.