Colorado Escapist: In the ski tracks of a Breckenridge legend at the Father Dyer Postal Race |

Colorado Escapist: In the ski tracks of a Breckenridge legend at the Father Dyer Postal Race

A skier disappears into the blowing snowstorm during the 2017 Father Dyer Postal Race on April 8 in the Tenmile Range south of Summit County. The beloved annual event took competitors like Colorado Escapist Shawna Henderson on a high-alpine, backcountry course with 6,500 feet of vertical gain over 25 miles of unmarked terrain.
Justin Talbot / Special to the Daily |

Want an easier way to see and ski the high alpine? Read on for Colorado Escapist Shawna Henderson’s guide to cat-skiing operations in Summit County.

How often do you test your mettle with a ski marathon? The Father Dyer Postal Race pushes the limits of the human body but awakens the boundless capacity of the human spirit. Upon summiting the last peak of the race, Dyer Mountain (13,855 feet), I understood the importance of pushing past my “comfort zone” to experience situations beyond my own comprehension.

At that moment, the delirium set in.

Beyond the legend

The Father Dyer Postal Race is an annual springtime gathering of ski-mountaineering athletes in Leadville. The race honors one of the pioneers of backcountry skiing, John Lewis Dyer, also known as Father Dyer: a legend from the Breckenridge mining days who is now honored in the Colorado Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.

Considered eccentric by his peers, Father Dyer was born in the Midwest in the early 1800s and had little formal education. Like many man of that time, he worked as a farmer, was married young and fathered five children.

In order to make ends meet, Father Dyer took a job in the Wisconsin lead mines and nearly suffocated in a mineshaft collapse. On that fateful day, he claimed to hear the voice of God calling out to him, and from that moment on he dedicated himself to proselytizing for Christ through the Methodist church.

Father Dyer’s new life as a preacher began with the “circuit riding” ministry. As a circuit rider, he traveled to specific geographic territories across the United States, sharing the teachings of God to settlers. He was often alone and away from home for weeks, bringing only what he could carry in horseback saddlebags.

Man with a mission

After a decade of circuit riding in Wisconsin and Minnesota, Father Dyer headed west at the tender age of 49 years old to fulfill a dream of seeing Pikes Peak and the Rocky Mountains. After walking from Minnesota to Colorado, he found his place at Buckskin Joe, an early mining camp located in what is now Park County. In his autobiography, he referred to South Park and the surrounding peaks as “a view of grandeur never to be forgotten.”

Circuit riders didn’t make much money, so Father Dyer took a second job carrying mail from Alma to Leadville over high-alpine passes. A few times per week in his 50s and 60s, he crossed Mosquito Pass (13,185 feet) in all types of weather: snow, rain, sleet, sun. For Colorado’s long and brutal winter, he used “Norwegian snowshoes” (aka skis) to maneuver over the pass. Even though his route was for work, not athletics, he inadvertently contributed to the ski industry by traveling dangerous backcountry passes in high winds and variable conditions.

The route also gave Father Dyer access to nearby mining camps, where he spread the Bible and preached against common vices, such as gambling, alcohol abuse and prostitution. At the age of 68, he built a church in Breckenridge. It still operates today — 133 years later.

In his ski tracks

The alarm goes off at 3:30 a.m. — hardly enough time to feel like I’ve gotten a proper amount of rest. With a quick pour of the coffee, local endurance athlete Marlee Dixon and I roll out of the house and head to the race start at the Colorado Mountain College campus in Leadville. We briefly discuss our strategy, but with constantly changing conditions, it is difficult to predict what we are going to encounter.

Based on advice from other athletes, we decide to hike the first 100 feet with our skins off, and then skate ski until the route is too steep to climb. At 5 a.m., the well-groomed trails were icy and hard packed, giving us momentum to skate ski at a faster speed. Under a nearly full moon, we glided in a Zen-like state for the next six miles.

Upon summiting Ball Mountain (12,300 feet), the sun illuminated the stunning Mosquito Range. The first decent was fast, especially with our skinny racing skis — it felt like I had reached warp speed. On the next ascent, East Ball (12,947 feet), sparse snow forced us to boot-pack up and back down, along with another wild ride to the valley floor.

The final and most physically challenging peak was Dyer Mountain (13,855 feet). Each gust of wind made my body feel like a rag doll, pushing my skis down the slope and completely blowing me over. Exhaustion and slight deliriousness set in as the harsh mixture of wind and snow whipped across my face.

It was then when I thought of Father Dyer’s determination and mustered up all my remaining willpower to place one foot in front of the other to reach the summit.

“Now the fun begins!” I thought. The muscles in my legs began to cramp and I took a tumble, nearly avoiding a rock pile. It left only a few black and blue marks, but to my chagrin, one of my poles went missing.

It came with a silver lining: After summiting, Marlee and I realized victory in the female division was within our reach if we kept the same pace. Marlee took one for the team, even with her blistered feet, and lent me a pole. She finished the race with one pole, skate skiing eight miles across sunbaked snow with the consistency of molasses, to finish in 6 hours and 30 minutes — the winning time for a female team.

The human spirit and lost poles

Sometimes I wonder: Why do we push our bodies and minds to extraordinary feats?

I believe it stems from the idea of passion, and the idea of believing in a purpose greater than us. When you have a dream or desire, we must remember to put one foot in front of the other. It might feel like the wind is pushing you down and tumbling you around like a rag doll, but you get up and keep going because, eventually, you will make it to the finish line. To reach the summit, wherever it is, we need to surf the energy of the world and be willing to focus on the positive regardless. It’s how Father Dyer lived.

Want to tribute to Father Dyer? Participate in North American’s highest ski mountaineering race when it returns next spring, or hike in Leadville this summer to discover a marble marker commemorating his contribution to the outdoors on top of Mosquito Pass.

And if you happen upon my ski pole, let me know.

This story originally published on on April 13, 2017. It appeared in the Explore Summit Spring 2018 magazine.

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