Mountain Passes: Mosquito Pass

In 1860, just a few years after gold was discovered in California, a miner named Abe Lee sank his pick deep into a pile of rock, looked at what he’d unearthed, and cried out: “I’ve got all of California right here in my pan!” Lee’s discovery started a gold rush to what became the town of Leadville, Colorado. After the gold mined out, even richer deposits of silver and lead were found, which is how the town got its name.

In order to haul supplies in and gold out, the miners of  Leadville hacked a pass through the mountains, so they could reach the town of Fairplay. Like Beale’s Cut, then, Mosquito is a “doctored” pass: humans made changes to it in order to ease their passage through it. The pass was named after the town of Mosquito, which no longer exists.

Mosquito Pass is very, very high —  higher than many mountains. At this height snowstorms are possible any month of the year. But snow and ice never stopped the miners from crossing back and forth. Some died doing so — Mosquito Pass was nicknamed “the highway of the frozen death.”

Mountain Range: Rocky Mountains
Elevation: 13,187 feet 
Location: In central Colorado, part of the White River National Forest.

One man, though, conquered the pass almost daily. That was Father John L. Dyer, a Methodist minister who carried mail as well as gold between the mining camps. To walk Mosquito Pass in winter, when twenty feet of snow covered the ground, Dyer built himself a pair of “snowshoes” ten-feet long (they were more like skis). Strapping on his skis, Dyer crossed the dangerous pass at night, when the ice was hardest. Father Dyer was so much a part of the mining camps that after his death a monument was erected at the summit in his honor.

In 1949, decades after Leadville’s richest days, the merchants of the town were looking for ways to attract tourists. They thought up an annual burro pack race between Leadville and Fairplay, with a $500 prize going to the winner. The route would start in one town and end in the other — getting there through Mosquito Pass, of course. Each burro was required to carry a 33-pound pack of mining supplies: picks, shovels, pans, and so on. Each man (later women entered the race) had to walk or run with his burro, holding a 15-foot long lead. No riding was allowed. The pack was weighed both before and after the race, just in case some contestants tried to lighten the load by tossing equipment.

Back in 1949, a few of the contestants didn’t know a burro from a mule — two of them showed up with mules and were disqualified.

After several successful years, the merchants of Leadville and Fairplay split the race into two different races, held about a week apart. One race leaves from FairPlay, the other from Leadville: both go to the top of Mosquito Pass and back. Today the Leadville International Pack-Burro Race is twenty-one miles long. (The Fairplay race is 29 miles long.) Winning teams usually finish in under four hours. 

Despite the fact that humans, burros, and even stagecoaches all made it over Mosquito Pass, an ordinary car cannot do so. The pass is very rocky unpaved road with tight switchbacks, narrow in some spots, and very difficult on a vehicle’s tires and undersides. 

Four-wheel drive off-terrain vehicles, however, can make it up Mosquito Pass and back, and drivers of these vehicles love to do Mosquito Pass because the views from the top are stunning in all four directions. Still, it takes considerable skill and determination to get a four-wheel drive vehicle over the 22-mile route. In many places top speed is only four or five miles per hour, because the vehicle must “climb” up and down large rocks or boulders. 

Today many four-wheel driving clubs post photos of their Mosquito Pass trip on the Internet. Climbing the highest pass in the US gives people bragging rights.

Mosquito Pass

Traffic tonight
two miles up —
lone skier
plummets down
ice-slick trail,
intent to deliver
miners’ mail.

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Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Donner Pass.