There’s no longer a race season in Leadville. Now, except for a few quiet weeks in fall, stampedes of bikers, snowshoers, burros or dog teams charge through Lake County to a finish line year-round. Though burros have been running these hills with prospectors since the 1880s, Leadville’s modern race era began in 1983 when a steely Congressman named Ken Chlouber endeavored to pull the city out of a bust and into a boom with the ultimate challenge for long-distance racers, the Leadville Trail 100 (LT100).
Since then, Leadville has earned a reputation as an athlete’s mecca and recreational hotspot, drawing professionals like Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong, spawning book deals, attracting film productions and drawing ESPN coverage. Chlouber achieved just what he intended with the LT100, which made Leadville the brand name of high-volume, internationally attended marathons. Now booming again, Leadville plays host to visiting racers, their friends and their families throughout the year.
One of the youngest winter events, The Father Dyer Postal Route Ski Race (and Backcountry Weekend) celebrates its second year April 8 and 9. It is the highest backcountry ski race in North America, with a course that summits three peaks above tree line. A fundraiser for the Leadville High Riders Snow Trails Association, in conjunction with Lake County Winter Trails Committee, the race aims to support the maintenance and expansion of the county’s recreational winter trail system. The existing network already includes more than 40 miles maintained by the High Riders, granting backwoods access to adventurers throughout Leadville’s long winter.
The Father Dyer Postal Route is named for circuit preacher John Lewis Dyer, the Ken Chlouber of his day 100 years ago. The transplant from Ohio came to the Rocky Mountains when most would be preparing for retirement. At age 49, Dyer arrived in Colorado after walking the last 750 miles from Omaha to the mining camp of Buckskin Joe in Park County. There, he began the golden age of his career, spreading the gospel to the entirety of Colorado and heavily contributing to the state’s history. He is remembered not only by the race this weekend, but by institutions and historians from Alma to Cañon City, enshrined in the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and in stained glass at the capital building in Denver.
After preaching for years with little pay as a circuit rider for mining camps, Dyer took up a second job delivering mail from Alma to Leadville, traversing 35 miles on home-made snowshoes over the Mosquito Range several times a week. Well-suited to the Methodist preacher, the job not only gave Sundays off, but it allowed him to double the use of his time, delivering the word of God along with 30 pounds of daily mail to miners and their families.
In this position Dyer would hold services at empty school houses, saloons and campfires; innovate his own brand of snowshoes and skis; and traverse the 13,186 foot Mosquito Pass weekly, sometimes to narrowly avoiding death. Dyer was once in recovery for three weeks and risked the loss his toes after becoming snowbound near Evan’s Gulch. With a native-like knowledge of the territory and ingenious use of his snowshoes, Dyer performed an escape to safety and went right back to work when he was well again.
The ski race follows Dyer’s route for a 25-mile course, and though controlled, it remains true to its founder’s grit by featuring little in the way of aid stations and free granola bar dead drops. For this reason, racers must bring with them the food, water and technical savvy that will ensure their return. Registration is closed for the race, but events are planned all weekend for skiers, and spectators are encouraged to come cheer.
The race begins at 5 a.m. Friday, April 8. At 8:30 a.m., a guided cross-country ski tour of Leadville’s historic mining district begins at Leadville Outdoors, located at 225 Harrison Ave. Locals will lead an approximately 6-mile-long course through ruins of the mining age on Leadville’s east side. This is free for everyone, but those interested in participating should RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or (719)486-7392.
A similar but shorter tour is planned for the younger ones at 10 a.m., guided by the owner of High Mountain Pies (home to the best and only pizza in Leadville), Vicki Koch. Koch also helps coordinate another big cross-country ski race, the Leadville Loppet, held in February each year. RSVP is required for this free event as well.
Those who want to make the weekend a learning experience can sign up for an intro to mountaineering clinic, taught by American Mountain Guides Association-certified John MacKinnon of Sawatch Guides. McKinnon will give an introduction to techniques using crampons and ice axes and teach steep skinning and belayed skiing. Th clinic costs $150 and requires reservation via email at email@example.com.
Recreation is turning out to be Leadville’s number one cash crop, and it’s often nonprofit organizations that are grooming the way to its continued improvement. This is a chance to support the organizations that make it possible to take easily to the woods in winter and a chance to remember a gritty man of God who didn’t have snow cats or helicopters to save him if he got stuck.
Leadville is at the top of the Arkansas Valley and North America, 10,151 feet above sea level off U.S. Highway 24. For more information about the Father Dyer Postal Route and Backcountry Weekend, visit fatherdyerpostalroute.com or call Leadville Outdoors at 719-486-7392.