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The History of Skiing in Colorado

For over 130 years, Colorado has been making skiing history. From the early trappers and miners of the late 1800’s, to the competitive high tech racers of today, Colorado has constantly made its mark on the skiing world. The State has contributed competitors, world class racers and team coaches. It has been home to some of the best skiing in the world.

Gold was discovered in the mountains west of Colorado in 1859. The early pioneers soon learned that webbed snowshoes, so popular with the Native Americans of the west, and so useful in relatively flat parklands, were useless in the deep powdery snow of the high mountains. They preferred Norwegian snowshoes or skis.

Skis were handmade from pine or spruce trees and ranged in length from 8-14 feet in length. They were usually 1/2 inch thick and about 4 inches wide. They weighed about 25 lbs. One long pole 8-10 feet long was used to steer and to brake (sometimes by straddling it). Turning was practically impossible on the long boards and one usually had to slow down and step around the pole to change direction.

The first documented use of skis in Colorado, as reported in Frank Hall’s History of Colorado, occurred during the winter of 1859-60 in a snow-locked mining camp along the Blue River near present-day Breckenridge.

The men remaining in camp made themselves skis and traveled down-valley where they built a cabin and claimed a town site called Eldorado West.

It has been estimated by some historians that the State of Colorado would have taken another decade to settle had it not been for skis. The long runners provided a dependable way for the mail to get through when trains were stalled, when telegraph lines were down, and when drifts and avalanches prohibited travel on the primitive roads and trails.

One of the biggest influences on Colorado skiing history was the 10th Mountain Division, U.S. Army men training for high country combat in Europe against Hitler’s Nazi forces. Many of these men, based at the massive Camp Hale, just outside of Leadville, Colorado near Vail, returned from duty in Europe to the surroundings they had come to know and love so well during their training, the Rocky Mountains. These men guided the future of skiing in Colorado by establishing some of the U.S. major ski areas, including Vail, Aspen, and Telluride.

The history of skiing is absolutely fascinating. To learn more about the history of skiing in Colorado, stop by the Ski Museum Ski Hall of Fame, which is located in Vail, CO.

For years the miners, working high on the sides of the peaks that loom over Crested Butte and Irwin, had challenged each other to races down into town. Last one down the mountain buys the cigars and oysters was the usual refrain. Bragging claims reached such a pitch that finally, in 1886, a call went out to the surrounding mining camps that a contest would be held to determine the best skier in the Rocky Mountains. A series of five circuit races were held in 1986. Although Crested Butte and Gunnison staged ski races in 1887, the circuit died out as the surrounding mining camps were being abandoned as the gold and silver ores played out.

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