Keeping the Wild in the West

Leadville, CO, USA -- Cowboys and cowgirls. Snow. Skis. Mountains. History. The highest city in the US. Welcome to the modern Wild West.

Getting the party started. Flag bearer Jesslyn Swirka rides her horse down Harrison Avenue in Leadville, Colorado at the start of the 68th annual Leadville Ski Joring weekend competition on Saturday, March 4, 2017. (AFP / Jason Connolly)

The annual Leadville Ski Joring competition is probably one of the most quintessential Colorado experiences that you can have.

Ski joring wasn’t born here. It got its start in Scandinavia. But it has become a treasured part of the local fabric in Leadville, the highest incorporated city in the US that’s nestled at 10,052 feet (3,094 meters) in the Rocky Mountains.

I suppose that for many the annual Leadville Ski Joring competition can seem a bit odd. It involves a skier holding onto a rope, which is attached to a horse, which is galloping down a snow-covered track on one of the city’s main streets at full gallop. And if that wasn’t enough, the skier is holding onto a baton in one hand, to collect a series of rings for which they are awarded points.

Oh, and  there are also jumps, so at some point the skiers -- still holding on to that rope that’s attached to a galloping horse -- leap up to 12 feet (over 3.5 meters) into the air and glide for another 35 (nearly 11 meters) before landing back on earth at a speed of up to 35 miles (56 kilometers) per hour.

(AFP / Jason Connolly)

The altitude gives it an extra touch -- unless you live at altitude as well, you’re going to get out of breath much faster than you normally would.

To give you a sense of the speeds involved -- the course, which is laid out on the city’s Harrison Avenue, is 800 feet long (244 meters). It takes the riders from 16 to 18 seconds to complete it.

(AFP / Jason Connolly)

Like many of the towns dotting the mountains of Colorado, Leadville started out as a mining community in the late 1800s. The discovery of silver in the surrounding hills swelled the town’s population to more than 40,000 people, during the heyday of the Wild West. Oscar Wilde came through, entertaining audiences at the city’s Tabor Opera House. So did Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and others of the Wild West fame, like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday (who were involved at the shootout at the OK Corral). Legend has it that Doc Holliday killed his last man in Leadville. So the town’s Wild West credentials are impeccable.

Leadville’s population is a lot less today (slightly more than 2,800) and, because it doesn’t have a major ski area next door, it tends to be a quiet place during the winter. Except when the ski joring show rolls into town.

This may not be the Wild West anymore, but the flavor still remains. Each morning of the weekend race starts off with the Calcutta auction (noone seems to know the history and the origin of the name), during which people can partake in that other time-honored Wild West tradition, gambling. Except that it’s not called that here. It’s called bidding -- you can bid on a team, which consists of a rider, horse and skier. Just to make it more interesting. A lot of the competitors place bids on their own teams.

Keeping it in the family -- rider Jeff Dahl races down Harrison Avenue towing skier and son Jason Dahl during the 68th annual Leadville Ski Joring weekend competition on March 5, 2017 in Leadville, Colorado. (AFP / Jason Connolly)

The event, which takes place the first weekend in March, has become an intricate part of the city’s fabric -- this year’s race was the 68th annual. People come from all over to participate in it and to watch it and for the locals, it’s not just a traditional annual gathering, it’s also a welcome bump in tourists and visitors during what is normally the off-season.

Racers can compete in one of three categories -- the introductory sport division, the open division, which has the biggest jumps, and the legends division, which is invitation-only after one reaches the age of 40 and has competed in ski joring for at least 10 years.

Most of the competitors -- the skiers and the cowboys and cowgirls -- are a regular lineup. The race just kind of gets into their blood.

There is one family, you could say they’re the royalty of ski joring in Leadville. The father, Jeff Dahl has been racing horses for 25 years. And his sons, Jason and Greg, have competed against each other for about 20.

Father and son -- rider Jeff Dahl races down Harrison Avenue while skier and son Greg Dahl airs out off the final jump of the Leadville skijoring course during the 68th annual Leadville Ski Joring weekend competition on Saturday, March 4, 2017 in Leadville, Colorado. (AFP / Jason Connolly)

There’s one guy, Mike Fries, who got a taste of ski joring when he used to live in Colorado and who now comes down from Minnesota every year to compete. And a woman, rider Dana Stiles, who comes to ride from her home in Eagle County. They team up each year for one race each day.

Rider Dana Stiles races down Harrison Avenue towing skier Mike Fries during the 68th annual Leadville Ski Joring weekend competition on March 5, 2017 in Leadville, Colorado. (AFP / Jason Connolly)

The best rider this year in the open division was 17-year-old Savanah McCarthy, who came up from Aztec, New Mexico and won, appropriately, a Carhartt jacket for her efforts.

And the winner is -- Savanah McCarthy of Aztec, New Mexico, poses for a portrait with her horse Tank after finishing in 1st place during the 68th annual Leadville Ski Joring weekend competition on Saturday, March 5, 2017 in Leadville, Colorado. McCarthy, 17, races in the challenging Open Division where she is a dominant force. (AFP / Jason Connolly)

Of course you have new blood coming in as well. I had a friend, Erika, who tried it for the first time this year. She was the only woman skier. She wore a rainbow neon tutu over her ski pants.

Skier Erika Hall of Buena Vista, Colorado races down Harrison Avenue during the 68th annual Leadville Ski Joring weekend competition on March 5, 2017 in Leadville, Colorado. (AFP / Jason Connolly)

You’ve got to have respect for the skiers. They’re getting pulled down a snowcovered track, with eight-foot jumps, with a horse hellbent on racing down that avenue as fast as it can, and a rider who’s just as intense as the horse. Many of the skiers wrap the rope that they’re holding onto around their wrist -- so if they fall, they’re getting dragged by that horse… I guess it’s still the Wild West, just in a different manner.

A rider is just charging his or her horse down the street. That’s an amazing thing to see in and of itself. And then you add the skier into the equation… And a crowd that’s just going crazy.

(AFP / Jason Connolly)

From a photography point of view, it’s an incredible event to shoot. You have the race itself, with the moves, you have the participants, the preparations, the bonds between the riders and their horses. And of course the riders embody the West -- from their boots, to their saddles and of course the cowboy hats that many of them wear -- they are exactly what you would imagine modern day Westerns to be.

It’s really an exciting race to see. The horse starts off small, and gets bigger and bigger as it gets closer, within seconds. And then you see the skier fly into the air off the jumps. It’s so fast and it’s a little bit crazy at the same time. The Wild West lives on.

This blog was written with Yana Dlugy in Paris.

(AFP / Jason Connolly)


Jason Connolly