70th annual event combines, horses, riders and snow skiing
It’s back – the sporting event for which Leadville has served as mecca since long before fat bikes and spandex were invented. Skijoring brings thousands of visitors in cowboy hats and leather jackets to Leadville’s snow-covered Harrison Avenue every year.
In 2018, it’s the 70th annual event and the first under its new name, the Joe Manly Memorial Leadville Skijoring. The sport where horses pull skiers at speeds upward of 50 mph, jumping off ramps as high as five feet while lancing hanging hoops from the edges of the snow course, has turned into an annual affair in this old mining town at the northern terminus of the Ark Valley.
During Leadville’s biggest weekend of the winter, crowds will be entertained by sport, live music, wild west celebrations and coinciding events from Friday, March 2, through Sunday March 4.
Skijoring began in Leadville after two men sat in the Golden Burro and planned a trip up to Steamboat Springs to scout out events for a winter carnival. Skier Tom Schroeder and horse breeder Mugs Ossman came back with the distinct sport to Leadville, and after a few trial years at slower speeds and on a course built at the ballpark, the event turned into what it is now: a fast and wild exhibition on Harrison Avenue, complete with three competing divisions, sidewalks packed with crowds, and the Calcutta, a wagering auction held for spectators.
Skijoring has grown on the national stage but not without the influence of Leadville’s own Joseph Manly. Manly, now the namesake for the event, began building the course in Leadville in 1954. That year, after a skier went down on the first run in Breckenridge, Manly stepped up and offered to run the second. “That day changed his life,” says Paul Copper, 30-year coordinator of Leadville Skijoring. Manly came back to Leadville and got to work designing the courses in Leadville and continued every year. His designs have now spread as far as the East Coast and Canada.
“Joe Manly lived and breathed skijoring 365 days a year,” said Copper in 2017, during a long speech to celebrate the man’s life during the event’s opening ceremony. Manly passed away Jan. 10 last year, but his mark and memory continue to influence skijoring across the nation, and especially in Leadville. Many still remember him, even in his final years, with shovel in hand, smoothing the ramps and inspecting the course.
Trucks will start Thursday to haul load after load of snow to downtown and dump it onto the main drag. Then, the snow is shaped into a course with a long, flat lane down the middle, with ramps of different sizes on either side. The first blocks of Third through Eighth streets, both east and west, are closed to traffic. Press passes are doled out, the grandstand is erected, and local business and organization banners are raised. Then, cowboys and their faithful steeds will saunter in from all over the state and from as far as South Dakota, Montana and New Mexico to compete in this singular sport.
With both Silverton’s and Red River’s skijoring weekends cancelled this year, and Minturn’s off the table since 2016, it leaves Leadville alone in the sport’s spotlight. But Leadville has been in the spotlight for awhile now. Leadville skijoring dwarfs other events for its location and the premium nature of its course.
Saturday morning from 7 to 11 a.m. the traditional pancake breakfast will be served at the B.P.O.E. Lodge No. 236. The Elks Lodge, located at 123 W. Fifth St., serves as the hub for skijoring weekend, and on Saturday morning, the sweet smell of pancakes issuing out of it means that Leadville’s premier winter exhibition is back.
At 9 a.m. begins the Calcutta, where from the grandstand an auctioneer will sell wagers to the highest bettor for ski/horse teams. It’s a chance to make it a winning weekend even as an onlooker, as some of the most famous teams go for over $1,000. Two of these legends are Jason and Greg Dahl, whose surname is well-known in Leadville skijoring, and both pulled by rider Jeff Dahl, their father.
By 11:45 a.m. the bidding will wrap up, and Joseph Manly Jr. will play the national anthem on his high-gain electric guitar, ringing through town and marking the start of events. At high noon, the first horse hits the avenue. Three divisions compete Saturday and Sunday: Legends, The Best of the Best; Sport, Our Journeymen; and The Open, for Beginning Skijorers. This year, a fourth division has been slated for those who’ve never tried but always dreamed. For this division, skiers will be pulled by snowmobiles at slower speeds and feel out the course beneath their feet.
Finally, the kids’ event closes out the competition at 3 p.m., also from the back of snowmobiles, where returning bettors in the Calcutta can scout out future prospects. An awards ceremony is held at 5 p.m. at the Elks Lodge, where the day’s winners are given official jackets and prize money is shelled out to winning bidders.
Both Saturday and Sunday run by this schedule, with the exception of the kids’ event, held only on Saturday, and the annual Elks Lodge Skijoring Dance, likewise Saturday night starting at 8 p.m., set to live music by The Atomic Drifters. Team registration takes place from 6 to 8 p.m. the night before the day of competition.
You have to see it to believe it and to understand why Leadville spends all year counting down the days to this first weekend in March. Come up for this gargantuan weekend and pop into the local shops and stores who count on it to push through the end of winter. T-shirts, outdoor equipment, Leadville souvenirs, quick lunch, booze and fine dining all live on Harrison Avenue. Consider lodging at the Silver King Inn or the Columbine Inn & Suites, both just north of town on North Poplar Street. Please keep in mind that dogs, which spook horses, are restricted from the venue.
“There’s nothing like it on main street Leadville” says Jason Dahl, returning champion of 20 years. “It’s the craziest ride on snow.”
Leadville Skijoring Weekend Events
Starting off the weekend at The Scarlet is live music from Groovespeak. The robust and funky six-piece band is hot on their heels after a packed house at the Silver Dollar a few weeks ago. Groovespeak performs original songs some 10 years in the oven, and favorite covers flavored by saxophone, Hammond organ and frontman Carey Nall’s seasoned musical sensibilities. Dance with them to the musical language of the groove Friday starting at 9 p.m. The Scarlet is located at 326 Harrison Ave.
The Historic Pastime Saloon holds Leadville’s favorite karaoke DJ, Girl Play, on both Friday and Saturday nights. What makes Girl Play’s karaoke night so fun is her interspersing of dance hits in between karaoke submissions, so that Gloria Gaynor comes with equal parts Kool & the Gang. Dance and sing like you’re crashing your second cousin’s second wedding, with plenty of room to move around in the 150-year-old timepiece of a bar. On Saturday night, the music is country themed, so keep that skijoring cowboy hat on, but take the skis off before entering. The Pastime is located at 120 W. Second St.
Also on Friday morning and afternoon at Leadville’s token ski resort, celebrate history with the 10th Mountain Division veterans and their scions, as the 10th Mountain Ski Down parades flags down the hill in their 75th anniversary season. Forecasted to be a bluebird day, this annual event commemorates the fighting skiers of World War II, who trained right here before shipping off to surprise the Germans on Riva Ridge, a strategic assault that marked a turning point for Allied victory. Ski Cooper is located at Tennessee Pass on US-24 West, just 10 miles out of Leadville, and offers low-key affordable lift tickets, prime Rocky Mountain skiing and regular live music at Katie O’Rourke’s Irish Pub at the base of the mountain.
The Winter Wildlands Alliance and Colorado Mountain Club are bringing the Backcountry Film Festival to Leadville’s original brewery, Periodic Brewing, Friday starting at 6:30 p.m. This film festival is designed to inspire stewardship of the backcountry at the local level. Profits will go toward conservation, recreation and avalanche safety programs in Lake County. Eight films will be projected in the loft of Periodic Brewing. Enjoy craft beer and original films produced to shine light on the outdoor life. Periodic is located at 115 E. Seventh St. and tickets are $15 for the public and $12 for Colorado Mountain Club members.
Saturday, for the skijoring events, the most accessible bird’s-eye view is from Treeline Kitchen, whose rooftop patio seating looks over Harrison Avenue from 50 feet in the air. The first annual Skijoring Rooftop Party starts Saturday morning and continues until the events close on Sunday. Enjoy fine dining from the regular menu, a special cookout, warm fire and their patio bar, while watching the skiers and horses fly down the course below. Treeline Kitchen is located at 615a Harrison Ave. and in their second year of business, offering culinary craft and warm atmosphere.
Come by the Elks Lodge Saturday night for the annual dance, set to live music care of swinging Americana band The Atomic Drifters. “Enjoy no cover, super cheap drinks and a raucous party with our mountain friends” at 123 W. Fifth St.
Also on Saturday night at The Scarlet, the Well Beings will perform beginning at 9 p.m. for a skijoring party, in the same funky vein as Groovespeak.
Poke around because everyone celebrates Leadville skijoring in one way or another, and all kinds of supplemental goings-on will happen this weekend. Call up your favorite hot spot to check for deals, specials or a party, and don’t forget to bring your cowboy boots.