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Another Season on the Trail

Column by Hal Walter

Pack-Burro Racing – July 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine

BACK IN 1949, Melville Sutton won $500 in the inaugural “Rocky Mountain Pack Burro Championship” race. The Rocky Mountain News provided the cash award for the first finisher to wrangle his burro the 23 miles from Leadville to Fairplay, a route that included the small matter of 13,187-foot Mosquito Pass. All other finishers received a case of beer from the bartender at the Hand Hotel.

Of the 21 men and burros to start the race, only a few found themselves in suds. “There were some pretty tough old boys who found out they weren’t as tough as they thought they were,” said Dr. Bernard Smith, one of the 13 to finish the race.

As for Sutton, in 5 hours, 10 minutes and 41.2 seconds he had won a small fortune. My friend Dave TenEyck, a fellow pack-burro racer who knows how to do numbers, recently told me that he had calculated for inflation and found that $500 in 1949 would be about $6,000 in today’s money. Dave, by the way, is this year’s race director for the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race that takes place during the Booms Days festival the first Sunday of August. Dave has been working to build parity in the sport and recently announced this year’s first-place prize will return to $1,200, as it was when I ran my first race back in 1980. The money’s nice, but I wish some creative race organizer would bring back the tradition of awarding finishers with beer.

In an age where ballplayers make millions (regardless of their team’s success), golf prizes are routinely six figures, and bullriders command huge prizes, it seems odd that a sport so unique and difficult barely pays for the gas. But that’s pack-burro racing, Colorado’s original “adventure sport.”

Much has changed since the first race in 1949, though the basic rules are the same: no riding and the burro must carry a 33-pound pack containing a pick, shovel and gold pan. Instead of sharing one race, though, Leadville and Fairplay decided to hold their own separate races. Other towns have also dabbled in events over the years. However, with the possible exception of Buena Vista, only the two original towns seem to get it — that something created out of pure Western lore has taken on a life of its own

There’s been a lot of interest in pack-burro racing this year. A short video on and also YouTube has introduced several hundred people to the sport: link..

Ed Quillen opined in his Denver Post column about making pack-burro racing the state sport. An article is slated to appear in the July issue of Men’s Health. And The Pueblo Chieftain is planning coverage of this year’s Fairplay race. Don’t expect to read about yours truly in that piece — I’ve been told that something called “journalistic ethics” forbids such things, the same way they wouldn’t mention Jay Cutler in Denver Bronco coverage if he edited a little newspaper copy for them on the side. Then again, I would guess Jay gets paid enough for playing football that he wouldn’t need to chase typos for a living.

Last June I talked a couple of buddies into running the amateur pack-burro race at Cripple Creek, and also recruited two other runners to participate in the real race which is held the following day during Donkey Derby Days. Cripple Creek has been holding a pack-burro race since 1999. Prior to that they had a donkey-riding race that I understand was somewhat less than grand.

For the first couple of years the pack-burro race at Cripple Creek was top flight, with good organization and promises of a bigger purse in the future. Then things seemed to slide and I noticed in recent years the race seemed less well-organized and the promised $1,000 for first place never happened.

Nevertheless, last year I hauled three burros to Donkey Derby Days.

On Saturday, my two amateur racers were charged $30 to participate. I was almost embarrassed that they were charged so much to provide the Saturday entertainment for Cripple Creek’s event. All they got for this was a T-shirt, and one of them could not even get a shirt in his size. I walked away thinking I would not recommend the event again unless the entry fee were significantly reduced.

THAT NIGHT I camped at the fairgrounds, along with other racers and friends. We had been told in the entry form that several of us would be able to share a campsite. This turned out to be not so, as each of us was charged the full regular campsite fee (I think it was $20) to throw out a tent on the rocks. In addition, we were charged a stall fee for the animals. Once again, it seemed a ridiculous amount to charge people who are providing the entertainment for the community’s event.

Still, we made the best of it, sitting around an imaginary campfire on ice chests and lawn chairs, chatting, drinking and watching a splendid sunset.

During the race the next day I was frustrated out on the trail by race officials getting in the way of the event. When I arrived on the main street, several minutes in the lead and with a thunderstorm bearing down, I found a police cruiser with flashing lights blocking my way and spooking my burro. I waved for the driver to move forward but the car did not budge until two other teams caught up with me and the burros began to move together. I guess I should have had my burro trained to pass flashing cop cars. I should also have myself trained to laugh at such situations.

As a final insult, the customary awards assembly never materialized, and with everyone standing around wet and cold, I snagged the prize checks from race officials and passed them out myself. During this time one of the race volunteers voluntarily called the event a “cluster.”

I’d have to agree.

SO IMAGINE MY SURPRISE when I spied an ad in the June 2006 Western Horseman soliciting horses and riders for Cripple Creek’s “Triple Crown Pony Express Classic” with a $50,000 purse and $25,000 first place prize. I understand this event was canceled, but if the town has that kind of ambition for an upstart horse race, it seems organizers could have done better for the 75th Annual Donkey Derby Days. The least Cripple Creek could have done is make the amateur race affordable for new runners and provide free camping and stalls at the fairgrounds for participants.

When I think back on it, the best part of the event was camping out with friends at the fairgrounds. But we could do that anywhere. And truly, despite my relative success at the sport in recent years, the real fun’s been the camaraderie, the animals and the backcountry.

In preparation for this season, my wife Mary and I headed for the Rainbow Trail with two burros, Redbo and Ace. With my advancing age I’ve found the endurance training to be more difficult than the racing. In short, it’s mentally and physically difficult to put in the longer runs. My theory was to invest in larger, rideable animals in order to spend more time on the trail with less time on my feet. Thus, these two “saddle-donk” style burros.

I had in mind a loop that would give us a decent amount of running, plus some creek and bridge training. We parked just out of Westcliffe on Hermit Road. From there we ran the burros over to the Gibson Creek Trailhead, then turned south on the Rainbow Trail.

We first crossed Gibson Creek, which had overflowed its bank and spilled onto the trail. Ace trotted on through the water. But Redbo is pretty green and it took some effort to get him to walk through the swollen stream.

The Rainbow Trail rolls up and over the many finger ridges that slope down from the Sangre de Cristo Range. Some stretches are so rocky as to make for even difficult hiking. But on one of the smoother stretches I realized Ace was trotting out well and really testing my ability to stride out. Next we encountered Verde Creek, which is smaller than Gibson. After some cajoling, Redbo decided to jump this stream. For his efforts, we made him cross the creek back and forth several times until he softly stepped into it.

We headed on down the trail, hitting the North Taylor Road, which we had to follow uphill for a while to catch the Rainbow Trail again. Here we descended to a raging North Taylor Creek, where the Forest Service has installed a nice bridge and also signs telling anglers that endangered Greenback Cutthroat Trout are not for keeping. Oddly, it was Ace who balked at the bridge while Redbo initially hesitated, then crossed. Soon we were off again, crossing the highest ridge of the trip. From here we had a great view of the southern Sangres, the Wet Mountain Valley, and south to Greenhorn Mountain and the Spanish Peaks.

AFTER TAKING IN THE SIGHTS, it was a short trot down the trail to Hermit Pass Road. Much of this road is as steep and rocky as the upper reaches of Mosquito Pass, and in fact I’ve often used it as training for the races. We carefully picked our way down until the surface smoothed out and before we knew it we were back at the truck.

We were only out for about 90 minutes, but it was a great escape and reminded me of what I really like about pack-burro racing. It gives you an excuse to get out and ramble about in the mountains, explore, get some natural exercise and work with animals. Inflation aside, what other sport has all that? We’ll see what this season will bring.

Hal Walter is a five-time world champion pack-burro racer who writes from his ranchito in the Wet Mountains.