Snowshoe travelers faced many dangers

Getting around the San Juan Mountains was particularly challenging during pioneer times when few roads existed.

Fortunately, snowshoes have been around for a long time. I found this description of snowshoes in a Jan. 31, 1880, copy of the Del Norte Prospector. The Prospector editor had borrowed the article from the Leadville Chronicle.

“Snow shoes are oblong objects resembling a hoop carved like the outline of the human foot, save that they are round at the heesl and toes and very much larger than the foot. To this hoop is attached a network of fine, strong rawhide or buckskin, closely woven, and in the center of this net-work, at the proper places, are loops for the purpose of fastening the foot firmly in the shoe. In Canada, the universal name of the snowshoe is “racket.” Any frontiersman who has ever seen a pair of these queerly-shaped affairs can make something which serves the same purpose. The shoe is designed especially for traveling in the mountains when the snow is deep and soft. By no other device can communication be maintained in these Colorado mountains between isolated points and supply depots or postoffices.

“The traveler on snowshoes cannot make headway without his pole—usually a strong, light stick from eight to fifteen feet in length, as best suits the traveler, and steel-pointed or sharpened at one end. With this he works his way up the hills, and when he descends he usually straddles it, and grasps it firmly with both hands, and when he wishes to turn he leans over, throws the rear end of the stick around and throws his feet to the right or left. To check his speed or stop, he sits heavily upon the pole, and if the snow be tolerably soft, the pole will sink into it, checking or stopping him as he may desire. With a hard crust on the snow, it is almost impossible to make a curve, slowing up or stopping being entirely out of the question. One can easily imagine the danger when there is a hard crust, and the traveler is compelled to descend a steep mountain through timber or hard rocks. There is only one way to get down. He must mount his pole and start, no matter how steep the hill or what obstructions are in the way. It is not possible to pick his way down, step by step, for a trial of this mode would result in a misstep and an undoubtedly fatal plunge. At the best, the man who puts on snowshoes and starts across the range, takes his life in his hands. Aside from the danger mentioned above, he may, at any time, start an avalanche, and ride down to death in its angry bosom.

“This species of locomotion is quite commonly employed in Colorado. For years, the people of Silverton and other San Juan camps, have been cut off from communication with Del Norte, their principal supply depot, save when daring men braved the rigors of a trip over Stony Pass and carried, out and back, precious missives to and from the loved ones at home. Hundreds of lives have been lost on the range in the state.”

Motter’s note: In the very early days, winter mail to Pagosa Springs was delivered by venturesome men on snowshoes. The route crossed the Continental Divide by way of Elwood Pass and the East Fork of the San Juan River.