Press "Enter" to skip to content

Confessions of a pack-burro racer

Article by Hal Walter

Pack-Burro Racing – August 2005 – Colorado Central Magazine

“The thin air smelled of stone and snow, the sun came through it and lay warm on her hands and face without warming the air itself. Up, up, up. There was no top to this pass.”

— Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

A COUPLE OF WEEKS before the World Championship Pack-Burro Race in Fairplay, I’ll sometimes park at a place known as “The Resurrection,” named for a mine near timberline at the base of Mosquito Pass above Leadville. From here I can cover the top sections of both the Fairplay and Leadville courses in one last, long workout before the races.

I head with my burro up the Leadville side of the pass, reach the summit at 13,187 feet, descend the Fairplay side of the pass, and turn back up at the fork to the South London Mine. I cross the tundra of American Flats, climb the talus headwall, and again reach the summit of Mosquito Pass. Each time on the summit, I circle my burro around the sign just as we must do in the race. Then I jog back down to The Resurrection.

I don’t know how far this is, but I do know it’s a decent half-day’s work.

In the long run, it’s not the racing that will get you. It’s the training. After 25-odd years, I find each year that it’s mentally more difficult to put in the training. The 45-year-old body is still very game; it’s the mind that’s calling it all into question — the same way some friends and family members are with questions like: “How long are you going to keep doing this?”

THE TRUTH IS I don’t know. But I do know that after all these years I still love pack-burro racing just as I did when I discovered it as a young man. Over this quarter century of friendships, adventure, travel and just plain ol’ fun, I don’t think any other sport or hobby could have taught me more about life in general.

I’ve come in last and have a special “Last Ass Over the Pass” trophy to show for it. I’ve placed second more times than I care to remember — I find this more painful mentally than finishing last. I finished in the ambulance once and can recommend against it.

In racing and training I’ve run up Mosquito Pass at least 60 times and I’ve finished the Leadville Race 25 consecutive years. I won the World Championship in Fairplay four times, and can vouch that there’s no other feeling like winning that race.

The truth is I’ll probably be a pack-burro racer until I can’t do it anymore.

The best of our modern sports are glorified versions of skills that were at one time essential or useful for survival — distance-running, sailing, skiing, and, among the equine disciplines, rodeo, cutting-horse competitions, competitive trail and endurance rides. In each case, the skill evolved long before there were finish lines, clocks, judges or prize lists.

As for pack-burro racing, the skill is traversing rugged mountain terrain with a sturdy beast of burden carrying the gear. The World Championship is a 29-mile odyssey of dirt road, icy stream crossings, snowfields and loose talus at altitudes between 10,000 and 13,187 feet. Frankly, that’s enough to deal with right there.

But at the heart of the matter is the burro — a living, breathing animal that will make or break you in these races. To me, the challenge in this sport, the real game, is finding a burro with the proper aptitude, and forming the type of bond that allows me to know just what’s going on deep inside of him — inside his heart, his lungs, his very sense of spirit and courage. Anything else is just putting one foot in front of the other.

This type of bond can only be developed through time on the trail, which may partly explain my training sojourns on Mosquito Pass. It was on one such journey a few years ago, alone except for the spirits of all those who have ever passed this way, that I experienced a moment of greater understanding.

At the very base of the talus, where the tundra meets the granite, there’s a little rocky knoll that must be climbed before dipping through a hidden snowfield, and then making the last climb to the Mosquito Pass summit.

The trail through this boulder field is indistinct, and even though I’ve been this way dozens of times, I sometimes have to look closely to avoid a wrong turn to the right that dead-ends a few feet away in a pile of rubble. I put Spike ahead of me here.

Though he had only passed this way twice, and never without the company of another burro, Spike picked his way precisely through this stony maze as if guided by the collected psyches of all the other burros that had been this way before, not excluding his dead grandfather Moose, with whom I first passed this way 25 years ago, and his father Oscar, who has also passed this way many times.

Or maybe Spike simply remembered the way through the rocks.

Though animal telepathy is one of the skills involved in pack-burro racing, the true mystery of it all is that you never really know for certain. And thus I keep showing up, trying to figure it out. I do the training and run the races. For me, there’s something real, raw and honest in this.

Based in the Sierra Mojada of Custer County, Hal Walter won two-thirds of the Triple Crown last year, and writes a regular column for Colorado Central.