Sinking into the powdery depths
As I stand at my front door, watching snow fall over the rooftops and chimneys of Leadville, I grow more and more excited.
Last year, I would have been anticipating my first run down the mountain ” maybe on Ski Cooper ” or one of the many other ski mountains in the area.
But this year, for me, it’s all about snowshoeing.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love to ski and snowmobile and go sledding and all of the other fun things there are to do in the winter here.
But last winter, my first winter in Leadville, I fell in love with snowshoeing.
It’s easy to do and doesn’t require a lot of expensive equipment. Besides, the appropriate winter outerwear, a pair of snowshoes and at least five inches of snow is all you need. It’s great exercise, and nothing can compare to the beauty of deep mountain woods on a snowy day. And as far as accessibility, you can’t get much better than the Leadville area. There are miles and miles of trails, for every age and ability level. From short one-mile loops to the annual Turquoise Lake 20-mile Snowshoe Run, there is really something for everyone.
My introduction to snowshoeing happened almost by chance.
One Friday afternoon, my boyfriend and I decided on a whim to buy ourselves each a set. We ended up spending about $300 for two pairs of Redfeathers; a brand, we were told was started right here in Leadville. Soon after, we went out for the first time.
For our first snowshoeing “expedition,” we went to the trails at Colorado Mountain College. Although they are mainly for cross-country skiing, they were fine for novices like us.
Snowshoeing out here wasn’t exactly what I’d expected it to be. Back east, where I’m from, the snow gets a hard crust on the surface, which makes snowshoeing easy, as you actually walk on top of the snow. In the powdery mountains of Colorado, on the other hand, you’re not exactly walking on the surface of the snow, but sinking in a bit as you walk, although not as much as you would if you didn’t have the snowshoes on.
It took a bit of getting used to, but after a while, I started having a lot of fun. In fact, I actually began to enjoy snowshoeing even more than my favorite summer pastime: hiking. And I’ll tell you why.
It is more challenging (even with today’s higher-tech snowshoes, sometimes you end up heaving a good amount of snow with each step) and lower impact on the joints. You can go anywhere. In deep enough snow you don’t have to stick to the trail to avoid causing erosion or other damage. And the best part is that you can almost never get lost, because you always have the option of following your tracks back to where you started. (Please note: in really heavy snowstorms this last item may not apply.)
Snowshoeing, while an invigorating and enjoyable pastime today, is also a big part of the history in the high country.
One local legend, known as Father John Dyer, was 49 years old when he walked”yes, walked ” from his home state of Minnesota to a camp located on the Continental Divide in the spring of 1861.
For the next 29 years, Father Dyer “trekked up and down the spine of the Colorado Rockies, in all extremes of temperature, preaching burning hell in every home, barn, saloon, mining site, and fancy house that would have him.”
His main route was between mining camps in what are now Summit, Lake and Park Counties. In addition to preaching, Father Dyer carried mail on his route; one of his common treks was from Leadville to Breckenridge and back by way of 13,188-foot Mosquito Pass.
For his long winter journeys he used “Norwegian snowshoes made from split pine logs. The tips were boiled and turned up for his trips over the Mosquito Range where snow often drifted 20 feet deep.” These snowshoes he wore on his treks earned him the moniker of “Snowshoe Itinerant.”
There is a memorial for him on top of Mosquito Pass, just east of Leadville, but you might want to wait until summer to visit that.
Father Dyer might have been the first famous “snowshoer” around here, but the use of snowshoes dates back much, much further than the 1800s. According to Jim Tucker of snowshoeracing.com, “Snowshoeing is known to have been practiced in present-day central Asia about 6,000 years ago. It is believed that as these ancestors to the Inuits and Native Americans, migrated from Asia to North America, they brought the snowshoes with them, which were modified slabs of wood. It was not too long before this evolved into the white ash framed snowshoes with the rawhide lacing that we associate with snowshoeing today.”
Although a pair of the wood-and-rawhide snowshoes remains a quintessential symbol of winter in the mountains, today’s snowshoes are even more advanced: they are lighter, smaller and even easier to use. This makes snowshoeing more accessible to everyone and more fun! More than five million Americans went snowshoeing in 2000 ” three percent of all Americans over the age of 15 ” according to the Outdoor Industry of America.
A few other notes: You may also want to consider poles for balancing. (And please see Page 6 for safety tips when you’re out there blazing trails.)
The Leadville/Lake County Chamber Visitors’ Center has great maps of several great snowshoeing trails in the area, some of which I have included below. Don’t forget to stop by before you go. The Visitors’ Center is located at 809 Harrison Avenue in Leadville, and the phone number is (719) 486-3900 or 1-888-532-3845. Don’t forget your mittens, a thermos of hot chocolate, and of course, don’t forget to have fun!
Historical and statistical information on snowshoeing was compiled from:
Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado CO