SILVERTON — On a freezing day in late February, a racer clicks into his skis along Notorious Blair Street, ready to race. He tightly grips a cotton rope that’s tethered to a cowboy’s saddle, anticipating a sharp jolt before the horse sets off down the snow-covered straightaway, reaching 40 miles per hour in a mere few gallops.
The Wild West spectacle called skijoring challenges even the most experienced skiers as they must manage the slack of the rope — pulling it taut and then letting go — as they swerve past gates, jam their arms through dangling orange rings and soar over gaps nearly 13-feet wide.
Once a year people come to watch Silverton’s version of the mash up of rodeo and ski racing, with adrenaline-seeking cowboys and skiers flying down the straight track set up along a street once lined with saloons and gambling halls. The sport is anchored in the northeast and in mountain towns in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and Utah and is attracting a growing number of fans.
Duffy Counsell, a longtime racer, calls it the most exhilarating skiing he’s ever done. Amid the need for speed, he must remain focused to collect plastic rings set along the course before tugging on the rope and gaining momentum to navigate down the 870-foot racetrack in fewer than 20 seconds.
“So it’s an awesome mix: cowboys and skiers, aggressive and graceful, all put together in the same thing. And there’s a lot of adrenaline that comes with it,” Counsell said.
The cowboy-skier team with the fastest and most accurate run wins.
“I’ll never forget the first time the rope went tight. My favorite thing about this is the relinquish of that control.” Counsell said. “You’re at the mercy of that horse, and how fast he or she is gonna go.”
Skijoring returns this weekend to Leadville, where the competitive event as it exists today made its debut in Colorado in 1949, for two days of racing down the town’s historic Harrison Avenue.
Skijoring — which literally means ski driving in Norwegian — started hundreds of years ago when indigenous people in the Arctic region harnessed reindeer and strapped on Nordic skis to travel across snowy expanses.
It became a sport in the American West in the 1930s, when skiers tied to horses raced side by side down streets in Aspen and Jackson, Wyoming, though no obstacles were involved, said Loren Zhimanskova, president of Skijor International and Skijor USA. During Steamboat Springs’ Winter Carnival, skijoring races were held — and still are today — as a noncompetitive event for children.
Skijoring was also used by soldiers transporting heavy equipment across Europe during World War II, said Zhimanskova who has been researching the event for the past 10 years, collecting postcards and photographs documenting the sport dating back to 1901.
After the war ended, the 10th Mountain Division, better known as the skiing soldiers, whose base was in Leadville, returned home.
“Maybe that grew into a more informal fun activity between people who had done this in a military environment,” she said.
When snow and temperatures allow, skijoring races are also held in Ridgway, Pagosa Springs and Meeker.
The event is madness, but there’s a method: Skijoring brings people to the mountain towns, giving a boost to the winter economy.
“I know this town in particular, this is one of the biggest things that happens all winter,” said Rob Conaty, a longtime skijoring racer and organizer of the Silverton event. “It behooves local people to get involved and do what they can to have the race be successful. It’s just shot in the arm for everybody.”
Though it has yet to break into the mainstream sports, Zhimanskova says social media is helping the extreme sport grow. “And Colorado I think is the perfect state to showcase it.”
She’s planning to join forces with the U.S. Olympic Committee to advocate for skijoring to be included in the opening ceremonies of either the 2030 and 2034 Winter Games.
As the sport has evolved, there have been innovations including new race obstacles and allowing snowboarders to compete, she said. In some venues, there are freestyle events, where skiers let go of their rope before doing a trick off a 10-foot jump.
In one event called the “switch-a-roo,” a cowboy will trade places with a skier for a run down the track.
“So talk about athleticism,” she said. “And some people are really good at both.”
Colliding of two worlds
Skijoring in Colorado attracts thousands of spectators who are drawn to rodeo-twist on the Nordic tradition.
“This brings these two different groups of people together and makes friendships and just incredible stuff together and it makes it a really cool event,” Conaty said.
In Silverton, races are categorized in three divisions for the most skilled skiers and fastest horses, intermediate teams and novice teams. This year for the first time, there was an event for skiers to be pulled by a snowmobile.
It’s common for cowboys and skiers to travel to skijoring races together, but sometimes, they are paired randomly on race day, Zhimanskova said. Teams can walk along the course to discuss strategy, but no one is allowed to practice before the actual event.
“These people are training in two completely different sports, and then having to figure out, ‘How do we master this technical course at the highest speed possible?’ as a team. That doesn’t happen very often,” she said.
Aside from the challenge and camaraderie, there is money at stake. Zhimanskova said winners can take home upward of $2,000.
Whether cheering from the sidelines or soaring down the track at breakneck speeds, a skijoring race is likely to offer an experience more breathtaking than other sporting events.
“It takes guts. That’s the only thing you need. You got to be a little crazy and it takes some guts,” said Counsell. “A horse screaming past you at 40 miles-per-hour with a skier in tow, feet away from where you are. You can feel it, you can hear those hooves pounding on the avenue. There’s nothing like it.”
Reporting by Olivia Prentzel. Photography by Hugh Carey.