Pack-Burro Racing turns 50 on Mosquito Pass

Article by Hal Walter

Pack-Burro Racing – July 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Mosquito Pass has its own special place in history.

At 13,187 feet, the route originally was a footpath between the two mining camps of Fairplay and Leadville. In the 1860s Father John Dyer carried mail and Protestant preachings over this pass, using skis in the winter. Later the pass served as a route for telegraph and telephone lines, was a toll road for wagons and stagecoaches, and was immortalized in Wallace Stegner’s epic novel, Angle of Repose.

This year, on the last Sunday of July, Mosquito Pass will once again stand witness to history, as runners and burros compete in the 50th World Championship Pack-Burro Race. The annual pack-burro races up and down this hallowed rockpile are — in a sense — a tribute to the trials and tribulations of the early frontier people to whom this route was a vital link to the outside world.

What began in 1949 as the brainstorm of local merchants hoping to attract tourists to Fairplay’s Gold Days celebration, actually grew to become Colorado’s only indigenous sport — pack-burro racing, with races of six to 29 miles held annually in several Colorado towns, including Fairplay, Leadville and Buena Vista.

The rules were fairly simple then, as they remain today — no riding is allowed and the burro must carry a 33-pound saddle packed with mining paraphernalia.

The original event was point-to point from Leadville to Fairplay.

At stake in the 22.9-mile race, starting in front of the Lake County Courthouse in Leadville and approaching Mosquito Pass via 7th Street, was $500 cash and a trophy presented by the Rocky Mountain News. Of the 21 entrants in the inaugural race, Melville Sutton of Como and his burro Whitey were the first to reach the Prunes Monument in Fairplay. After topping the summit of Mosquito Pass in about two hours, Sutton battled it out with Fairplay’s Ed Knizely and Prunes IV over the final 15 miles for bragging rights as the first pack-burro champion. Of the 21 starters in that first race, 13 entrants finished.

Today there are two races up and down Mosquito Pass — one each on the Fairplay and Leadville sides of the pass. Races are also regularly held in as many as half a dozen other Colorado towns. A memorial to Father Dyer at the summit serves as the turnaround point for both the Leadville and Fairplay pack-burro races. Date for Colorado Central region pack-burro races are: Fairplay, July 26; Buena Vista, Aug. 1, and Leadville, Aug. 8.

— Hal Walter