SILVERTON – It makes the perfect setting: A 130-year-old mining town nestled in the shadows of the surrounding Colorado Rockies, and a winter storm slowly making its way across the mountains as low drifting clouds whiteout the peaks.
Historic Blair Street, with saloons and storefronts right out of the Old West, sets the stage for a galloping horse and rider pulling a skier – of all things – behind them. The skier carves turns and leaps from ramps all over the snowpacked street. A crowd roars, lining the wintry sidewalks.
It’s skijoring, the annual event held one weekend every winter in an otherwise quiet mountain town.
Skijoring, from the Norwegian word skikjøring, which means ski driving, can be applied to any manner of skiing in which a skier is pulled by horse, dog or motorized vehicle. In Silverton, it’s a horse. As unhinged as that may seem for all involved, but let’s be thankful it’s not a car.
Durango’s Ryan Lee was ecstatic after his first run, clinging to a rope and being pulled at speeds of 45 mph.
“It’s crazy,” he said, “and it’s fast.”
It’s his third year participating, and he says more than anything else he is drawn by the experience, not the competition.
“It’s just the people,” he said. “It’s awesome up here.”
Racing a clock, skiers not only must hold on to a line while pulled by a horse, but they are challenged to grab rings that can take seconds off their time. Then there are the jumps – three ramps about 3-feet tall.
It’s no secret the whole thing looks insane. Horses snort and whine. Skiers slice wide, brazen turns – giving the illusion, or maybe just makes it obvious, they’re swinging wildly back and forth down the street. The jumps are just enough to push the whole thing over the edge.
The main idea for skijoring in Silverton is practical: To boost business in a slow season, said Cindy Bryant, part of the seven-person team organizing the event. “And that’s exactly what it does.”
She said every room was booked in every hotel. Rental houses were taken, and bars and restaurants were packed. This weekend, anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 people converged on the town, she said.
“This is our fifth year doing it, and it keeps getting bigger and better every year,” she said.
While Silverton bustles in summer with tourists viewing spectacular vistas on the train and jeepers searching almost endless miles of mining roads, during winter, activity declines along with the temperatures.
Silverton Mountain, a lift-served, extreme-skiing area, draws backcountry skiers and ice climbers to descend on surrounding mountains. The town draws some attention from the outdoorsy types, but they do little for hotel rentals and retail sales.
“We’re getting notoriety,” Bryant said. “We’ve had several magazines cover this, which is really helping us a lot.”
Skijoring seems to give Silverton the little “something else” it needs, at least for a weekend, to defrost the cash registers.
In retrospect, skijoring with its reliance on horses and its need for snow seems like a natural fit.
On Sunday, it seemed to click.
Skijorer Greg Dahl looked exhilarated as he flew over the finish line, letting out a spirited hoot.
“The thing I like most is the craziness, and the cowboyness,” he said. “It’s a good time.”