The Story Behind the Al Johnson

Posted on Feb. 22, 2024
Crested Butte Mountain Resort is thrilled to host the 50th annual Al Johnson Memorial Telemark Race on March 17, 2024. In this race benefiting the Crested Butte Avalanche Center, participants climb 660 vertical feet, followed by a 1,200-foot descent through CBMR's famed Extreme Terrain, all while sporting their best costumes and Telemark gear. This goofy local tradition is named after a legendary postmaster from the late 1800s named Al Johnson. Al Johnson was known for skiing between mining communities on some of the most dangerous terrain in the Crested Butte area as he delivered the mail.

Who was Al Johnson, and how did his namesake Telemark race come to be? We spoke with historians at The Crested Butte Museum to learn the story behind the iconic postmaster and ski racer of Crystal, Colorado.
Crested Butte Al Johnson Memorial Telemark Winter 2022-2023 Event Race
Al Johnson grew up on a farm in the St. Laurentian Mountains of French Quebec, Canada, where he became a champion skier. Instead of taking over the family farm, Al wanted to follow the gold and silver rushes of the American West. In 1880, Al and his brother Fred made their way to Colorado and eventually settled in Crystal, a mining town about 18 miles from Crested Butte.

Together, Fred and Al purchased a mining claim that would later become the very profitable Lead King Mine. Ever the entrepreneur, Al also involved himself in several other businesses: he started the first-ever Crystal newspaper, established a general store and founded the Crystal Snowshoe Club — all while serving as the town’s postmaster.

Three times per week, either Al or Fred would navigate over the 10,707-foot-high Schofield Pass carrying about 40 pounds of mail, then ski down through Crystal Canyon, which contained a 17% grade and the feared drop-off into Devil’s Punchbowl (now a popular hiking trail), all the way to Crested Butte, an 18-mile journey. This route between the two towns in winter was treacherous, but mail was the Crystal residents’ only way of communicating with the outside world for the majority of the year. According to the museum, when Al would get to the head of the canyon in the winter, he declared that in order to avoid avalanches, he would "turn his skis loose” and shoot through the canyon as quickly as possible.

During that time, ski tour races were becoming very popular among the mining camps of the Gunnison region. The Great Race of 1886 became the most famous of these races and included none other than Al Johnson. A special train brought 1,000 people to spectate, and many placed bets on their hometown skiers. In the end, a 16-year-old Crested Butte boy named Charley Baney beat out Al by a mere 18 inches. It was later determined that, based on the length of the course and his 16-second race time, Charley was traveling at more than 60 miles per hour.

The Great Race of 1886 became the basis for the first Al Johnson Memorial Telemark Race in 1974, but it was Al’s personal flair that led to the quirky costumes you see at his namesake race each year. In late 1889, citizens of Crystal discovered they needed one more woman for a social dance. According to an article in The Carbondale Avalanche Newspaper:

“A. A. Johnson, the dignified postmaster there, was as good an impersonator of femininity as was ever seen. He dressed as a lady because they were one short for the the end of the dance he was declared the ‘Belle of the Ball.’”


Al’s costume that night, combined with his skills on the ski race circuit and his legacy as the postmaster that kept Crystal connected, has led to a fun tradition that brings the Gunnison Valley community together each year, all in the spirit of racing, costume and honoring the rich history of this community.

Registration for the 50th annual Al Johnson Memorial Telemark Race is now open! Stay tuned to our website and social media channels for updates, and make sure to stop by The Crested Butte Museum in town to learn more about Al Johnson, including an audio history of The Great Race of 1886!