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SkiMo Race Report: The Father Dyer Postal Route
A century and a half ago, a minister by the name of John Lewis Dyer journeyed over 1000 miles by horse and by foot from Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. His mission was to teach the gospel to morally bereft inhabitants of the mining camps popping up across the state. Settling down in a mining town called Bucksin Joe, “Father Dyer,” as he became known, made frequent crossings of 13,100′ Mosquito Pass in order to spread the word of God and deliver mail to various locales. The route was rugged, dangerous, and often snow covered. Dyer became a frontier legend after nearly three decades of tirelessly traveling between camps and preaching. Today, he is remembered foremost by an eponymous mountain in the Mosquito Range outside of Leadville (Dyer Mountain, 13,800′).
Two Saturdays ago I had the privilege to retrace some of Father Dyer’s footsteps through the Mosquito Range at the inaugural Father Dyer Postal Route backcountry ski race. Topping out on the summit of Dyer Mountain, the new 25-mile course lays claim to the highest ski race in North America. No wonder, then, that over 40 people showed up at 5am Saturday morning to relish in mountains’ silent gospel, driven by their own fast and light creed.
It was, however, a surprise to find myself at the start line. After racing the Elk Mountain Grand Traverse (reverse) a week prior with Ethan, I had been relishing my recliner and the fact I could drink beer during the day and not feel bad about it. Then, on Wednesday, my friend Sean Van Horn asked me to do the FDPR with him (a partner is required since it’s lengthy course through backcountry avalanche terrain). Sean is an all around endurance beast with a background in competitive cycling, running, and nordic skiing. Racing with him would undoubtedly be full throttle.
On Saturday morning we found ourselves standing in the cold dark wearing thin spandex in a crowd of floating headlamps. If this scene doesn’t rev your engine then you may want to choose another sport, maybe beach volleyball. At the gun, we took off up a small hill lined with blazing tiki torches. Thus began a grueling, four mile uphill skate on the Leadville nordic trails behind Colorado Mountain College. A strong skate skier, Sean took the lead from the start. I followed 10 yards behind but quickly realized I was at an unsustainable pace.
Before long I was passed by Crested Butte skimo wizards Jon Brown and Billy Laird aka Team Green, plus Stevie Kremer and Marshall Thompson. Sean had no choice but to wait. After transitioning to skins we managed to stay closely behind Team Green and Team Kremer through the first climb up Ball Mountain. Dawn broke a few hundred feet from the summit, but we remained shaded from direct sun by surrounding mountains. The new day was pale and cold. I slowly chewed some semi-frozen cherry-cola energy gummies before we ripped skins at the top of Ball Mt. Mmmm. Breakfast at 11500′.
We arrived at the valley floor after an engaging descent that involved dodging wind lips in flat light. Looking behind me to the west, Mount Massive and the Sawatch Range were alight with alpenglow. I couldn’t help but pause to appreciate ineffable majesty of sunrise in the mountains. Suddenly, racing didn’t seem so absurd. This didn’t change the fact that Team Kremer and Team Green pulling further ahead of us. Sean and I opted for the tow rope to avoid falling further behind. Although this strategy ended up taxing Sean more than it helped me, the rope kept us close together, which was good for morale.
The descent was mostly soft and ended up being the best downhill skiing of the race. I let out a couple whoops and hollers, wishing I could keep making powder turns all morning. Of course, that’s not the point of skimo races. We still had the biggest climb of the day ahead of us. Somehow, though, it didn’t seem so daunting. Just a few miles plus a couple thousand feet and the race would practically be over. I took immense solace in the fact that from the summit of Dyer the course ran 14 miles downhill to the finish.
We began the final climb comfortably in 3rd place. Fourth place and the rest of the field had begun climbing East Ball as we reached to the road. However, Jon and Billy were out of sight at this point, around a bend in the road and well into the climb. The sun also remained hidden from view. Once again I sucked cold air between slow mastications and struggled to consume calories for the final push. It probably took 10 minutes to eat six shot blocks.
The sun finally hit us halfway up Dyer. Stevie and Marshall were nearing the summit, with Team Green not far behind. At 13,500′, I was moving slow. My world was dominated by lactic acid and the pounding of my heart. I knew I was at my limit. At this point it was a matter of grit and determination. Thanks to encouraging words from Sean I managed to power through. After three hours and 40 minutes we blissfully topped out on the summit of Dyer. I regretted not being able to take a picture of the valleys and mountains before us, but mostly I felt profoundly relieved and wanted to go down where air was more plentiful.
We hacked turns down Dyer as fast as our tired quads would allow. In my exhausted state I went slightly out of control, catching a tip under the windpack and subsequently tomahawking. Luckily, snow is soft and forgiving–my skis and body were unscathed. I got up, still ahead of Sean, and proceeded to careen back to the road. I got some much needed recovery as I flew back down the valley with zero effort. The snow was still cold and fast, the speed invigorating. It actually felt good to skate the downhill groomers. Miles ticked by. Every now and then the path flattened, but it remained wide, groomed, and skate-able. Sean pulled ahead as we continued to cruise. At a slight climb I felt my true exhaustion. Once again it took everything I had to keep Sean in sight.
Then, with only a couple miles to the finish, we made a wrong turn. Lured by flagging for the nordic trail groomer, we ended up skating over a mile uphill (!!!!!) before realizing our error. In hindsight it’s obvious we were going the wrong direction (we turned practically 180, back uphill), but tunnel vision clouded our judgement. I hated pretty much everything in the world at this point and had serious thoughts about giving up. “F**k this contrived b******t…F**k…Ow…UHHHhh” was basically my thinking. Luckily for us, a kind woman who was running with her dogs informed us that she had encountered no other racers and that she was positive the finish line was in the other direction. Had it not been for her, we probably would’ve kept going. So, if you’re reading this, thanks again, kind lady.
Our detour lasted 25′, but after getting back on track we crossed the finish line in a matter of minutes, managing to hold onto 3rd place with a time of 4:49. Team Kremer had gone sub 4, and Team Green, despite also taking a 20′ detour at the end (check out Jon’s Strava track), finished in 4:17. Sean and I both felt happy with and proud of our effort (My Strava track here). It was about as strong a finish to my racing season as I could’ve wished for. I’m grateful for Sean, who pushed me passed my comfort zone and helped me go faster than I would have by myself.
Race directors Heather, Alex, and Jeff did such an incredible job organizing the event that I had a hard time believing this was its inaugural running. The course was spectacular and the crew immensely friendly and helpful. I’d like to give a big thanks to the Lake County High Riders Snow Trails Association for grooming the trails prior to the race. Plus, thanks to the volunteers for course marshaling and manning the check stations. Of course, thank you Alex Lee and Nick Vincent for the great photos! As the sport of SkiMo continues to grow, The Father Dyer Postal Route is sure to become a North American classic.
Lastly I’d like to send out a big thanks to SkiMo.co and Free Range Equipment, who made my first season of SkiMo racing possible. If you haven’t already, check out their sites for some great deals on the best gear out there.