Trying to compete at 10,000 feet
LEADVILLE – Just after school lets out at Lake County High, an announcement rings out over the loudspeaker: “Please move your cars from the parking lot, it’s time for baseball practice.”Within a few minutes, players straddle the white parking lines to take flies and field grounders between bases sprayed onto the asphalt with yellow highway paint. When you live in the continent’s highest incorporated town – a whopping 10,200 feet above sea level – making adjustments comes with the territory.”The people who live here apparently like a lot of snow and cold,” athletic director Rick Ince said. “It can make things interesting at times, but you just manage with what you’ve got.”Set on a plateau in the shadows of the state’s two tallest mountains – 14,433-foot Mount Elbert and Mount Massive, a mere 12 feet shorter – Lake County High School has some of the most picturesque views in the country.But with it comes snow. Lots of it.
Leadville averages 250-300 inches a year, meaning the spring bloom stays on ice until summer and winter can feel like the movie “Groundhog Day. “And the snow doesn’t care what time of year it is.Ince was greeted by snowflakes in August when he interviewed for the job 30 years ago. The ground is usually white for graduation and one Fourth of July celebration a few years back turned out to be a dud because the fireworks disappeared into the falling snow.As for running an athletic program, weather is a constant factor for this school of 312 students.The football field rarely is cleared until just before game time, forcing players to trudge through snow during practices. Snowplows are the most-used tools in the maintenance building, clearing practice fields throughout the school year.
The baseball teams never have had a bottom-of-the-seventh rally because there are no home games – too much snow – and the junior varsity has to practice on the makeshift parking lot field or in the gym.And talk about cold. Leadville’s average temperature doesn’t get above 20 in winter and the town often vies with International Falls, Minn., as the coldest place in the Lower 48. Subzero wind chills are the norm during football season, and chattering teeth seem to be one of the school cheers.”It just gets so cold that you don’t even want to move,” said three-sport star Kyle Ruzicka, a junior who has lived in Leadville all his life. “I wish I lived somewhere else. I don’t like the cold. I want to go somewhere hot.”But it’s not just the weather.About 1,000 feet below the timber line, Leadville is so high up that bread doesn’t rise, potatoes take an hour to boil and mosquitos are too groggy to flee swatters. And it’ll take your breath away – literally.Many of the teams in Lake County’s conference travel with oxygen tanks and masks, and Ince either lets football officials sit in his car or drives them to the locker room so they don’t have to wheeze their way up the 100 or so steps to the school at halftime.
Of course, there are some advantages. Hanging in Lake County’s gym are more than two dozen state championship banners in cross country and skiing.”When I walked into their gym for the first time, I was amazed at all the state championship trophies,” said La Junta athletic director Bud Ozzello, whose teams travel up to five hours for league games against Lake County. “It’s definitely an advantage for them to train up there.”It takes hearty people to deal with the weather and altitude, and there’s probably none better than the citizens of Leadville.The town once was among the richest in the country, its gold, silver and lead mines attracting prospectors from all over in the world in the 1800s and producing the May Co. and Guggenheim empires.Fortunes changed with the Panic of 1893 – the 19th century version of the Depression – and the town took another hit when the Climax Mine closed its doors in 1982. Once the world’s largest producer of molybdenum, which is used to strengthen steel, Climax left 3,200 people without jobs and sent the town into an economic tailspin.
Families that had lived in Leadville for decades were forced to leave, schools closed and unemployment soared. A handful decided to stick it out, trekking over the mountains to work at ski resorts because they enjoyed the town’s majestic beauty and the down-home friendliness of its people.Those still around make Leadville work because of their make-do-with-what-you-got attitude. It’s the reason there are never snow days at Lake County – kids ski and ride snowmobiles to school when the weather gets real bad – and it’s why the athletic teams have missed just a single road trip in Ince’s 30 years.It’s also why Lake County still can find a way to field 10 varsity sports despite plummeting attendance, and the reason why fans clear snow off the bleachers and blink through blizzards to watch their teams.Sure, an indoor track meet got wiped out because of a huge snowstorm a few years back, but that was only because the other teams couldn’t get there.”The town has really taken a hit, the school has really taken a hit, the tax base has taken a hit,” Ince said. “We have families that lived here for decades that left as a result of hard times. Those people who are still here are people who truly love Leadville and make it work.”
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