Father Dyer, a minister born in Ohio, made his way west in hopes that he could see Pikes Peak before he went blind. He took a position in The central Rockies, preaching in the mining camps that sprawled across the region. His minister duties took him from South Park all the way to Leadville, a distance not easily travelled, especially in winter.
He was so poorly compensated from the Methodist South Park Circuit that he was forced to take another job delivering mail to make ends meet. The postal route took him from adopted hometown of ‘Buckskin Joe’ to Leadville over the 13500 Mosquito Pass. He would cross the treacherous pass several times per week on wooden skis, often in horrid conditions. The trek was so dangerous that he nearly died on several occasions. After thirty years of traveling and preaching throughout the region Dyer became a icon. His memory is honored by a prominent peak in the Mosquito Range, just a few miles outside of Leadville, Dyer Mountain.
Several years ago, a few Leadville locals, including Alex Lee, began hatching a plan to put on a Ski Mountaineering Race of their own in the Mosquitos. It only seemed appropriate that the race would be named in honor of Father Dyer himself.
I was able to compete in the race during it's inaugural year with my friend, Peter, (see his blog on it here) and was stoked to come back again. This year I would be partnering up with young gun, Cam Smith. Cam, at the ripe old age of 21, has been tearing it up on the Skimo scene. He has a big engine and has really taken to the sport (read; he is technically proficient, where as I am most decidedly not), even better, he knows how to skate.
This is a 'skatemo' race. I hear the groans from the diehard rando crowd, "skimo is about technical skin tracks and steep descents, not Nordic skiing!" Well this is Colorado, where you often have to ski some flats in order to get to the peaks, and guess what, that typically means some skating. So embrace your inner nordork boys and girls, learn how to skate.
The race starts out in town and winds it's way on highways and the mineral belt trail to reach the main objectives of the day, East Ball and Dyer. The course was moved to a new location at the bottom of a sledding hill this year to allow for an increased number of racers. After scouting the hill in warm up, I convinced Cam to skate the first steep climb in order to save a transition and get out of traffic. Our plan would have worked, except Cam had the misfortune of dropping a bottle at the start, forcing us to pick our way through teams in order to reach the front. We caught up to the leaders, Jon Brown and Rory Kelly (on paper the strongest team in the race by far) after a few minutes though, and settled in behind them as we skated our way up towards the Mosquitos.
Cam and I had opted to use longer nordic poles to help with the skating sections of the course. These poles give a definite advantage while skating but have their, um, drawbacks, elsewhere. More on that later. During the first hour of the race I was sure that we were racing for second place, Rory and Jon are better downhill skiers than me and they were setting a pace skating that was gapping Cam. But Cam was just being smart, staying within himself and making sure that he didn't blow up at altitude. This strategy paid off, and by the end of the skate (over an hour into the race) Cam was able to put a small gap into Jon and Rory, and we set off on the skin track in first place.
At this point in the race the oxygen turns thin and the vistas become breathtaking. Most skimo and running races in the U.S. tend to be held at ski resorts due to permitting issues, so racing in this sort of terrain, with distinct backcountry peaks defining the route, is a real treat and a pretty unique experience.
Now it was my turn to suffer. The nordic poles I was using had laughably small race baskets that plunged into the punchy snow with each plant. This, combined with my waxed skins, and questionable skin technique, was making me slip around like a Jerry on his first day out. I was struggling to keep up with Cam, but somehow we still managed to start the first descent in the lead.
The descent was relatively firm and we made quick work of it (Cam didn't have to wait too long for me). At the bottom, we began skating up a snowmobile track to the start of the next climb. Here we ran into one of the awesome volunteers on the course (there were many) who hooked Cam and I up with some warm Skratch and a few Gels. This would be one of two times during the race that Cam and I would actually consume calories; crazy kids.
We were expecting to see Rory and John right on our heels, but they had decided to skin the road that we had skated, which certainly helped us build our lead. So we started our skin up the steepest and most aesthetic summit of the day in first, but we were definitely running scared. Thankfully, the snow was firmer on this climb, and I was able to skin with relative ease up the first section. Halfway up, the slope became wind scoured, from here it was a mixture of skinning and booting to reach the jagged, rocky summit. I reached the summit first, but in my hypoxic state couldn't figure out how to open the ammo can. The race uses a rather unique method to ensure that each team reaches the summit; they stash an ammo box at each high summit and have each duo tear a page from a book stashed in it. After a bit of frantic squawking on my part, Cam was able to wrench the can open and off we went, sprinting back down the ridge line.
The ski off East Ball was very firm and fast. We basically retraced our steps down the skin track and were able to check our lead on the other teams. We still had a few minutes, but it didn't seem like anything that Rory and John couldn't close with a good hard push. The race was on.
The next climb up Dyer was a big one, at 13862 it's pretty damn high, racing at that sort of altitude is just never easy, it hurts, a lot. Luckily, there were a few awesome smiling volunteers at the base of the hill to dump some much needed liquids into our mouth and provide us with some snacks. The volunteers in this race were pretty darn amazing folks!
This final climb wasn't my finest moment. As we began climbing up the lower slopes, I began punching through the snow again and started sliding around to the point that I was getting whiney. My desperation was certainly audible, and I apologize to Cam for having to put up with my pathetic moaning.
Eventually we reached more amicable snow and I got my shit together. We continued to march up towards the summit at a pace that seemed comically slow. There was no way in hell that we were maintaining our lead, especially with my shenanigans, yet every time I looked back our gap seemed to be growing.
At the Summit we took a brief moment to soak in the view and tear out a page before we began our plunge into the breakable crust. The descent down Dyer was ... spicy. Cam and I both took a couple of tumbles as we tried to carve through the crust. The poor guy was forced to wait for me at the bottom after I found my way into a pile of rocks. Skiing skinny sticks ain't easy.
Now it was all 'mostly' downhill to the finish. We tightened our Nordic pole straps and skated our way towards the finish. Still not comfortable with our lead, we pushed it hard on every uphill and double poled as best we could on the descents. It wasn't until the last few 100 meters, coming down the final sled hill, that we allowed ourselves to celebrate. We finished in 3:55, a new course record despite the slightly longer course.
This race is a great addition to the Calendar. The event is well organized, has amazing volunteers, and has a very welcoming atmosphere. The pre and post race parties/dinners were a blast and well equipped with great pizza from High Mountain Pies and beer from Upslope and Periodic Brewing. They even had a cool speaker to keep us entertained after the race meeting. Oh, and the views ain’t too shabby either. It is obvious that the whole community gets behind this non-profit event and it's pretty damn cool to see. A special thanks to Cam for being an awesome partner, at 21, he is fast, tough and smart; the sky is the limit for him in this sport.
Sean left center and Cam right center taking first place of the second Father Dyer.
Author of the post Sean VanHorn has been an avid endurance athlete for years. Although he is not an official employee of Cripple Creek Backcountry he works right next door at Independence Run and Hike and has been a member of the CCBC racing team since the beginning.
A special thank you goes out to Justin Talbot for braving the cold to get some awesome pics. You can find these prints and more at his website 40minutesfromleadville.com