Who is Al Johnson?
This weekend is a telemark race to honor Al Johnson. But who is Al Johnson - we did some research and wanted to share his story,
Also don't forget to sign up for the 45th Annual Al Johnson Race this Sunday, March 24.
The Greatest Snowshoer in the Rockies – by Duane Vandenbuche
“He was a legend in the 1880’s and 1890s in the Gunnison country and he has stayed a legend. Today, his story is told in the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame in Vail. His name was Al Johnson and he learned to ski in his native Canada. When he and his brother Fred came to the Gunnison country in the 1880’s to prospect for silver, they used their skis to get around in the deep winter snows of the mountains.
Al Johnson and his brother soon became pillars of the community in the little silver town of Crystal, located between Gothic and Marble. Beginning in 1880 Al Johnson carried the mail between Crested Butte and Crystal summer and winter. During the winter months, the dangerous fourteen mile trek through the narrow Crystal Canyon and over 10,700 foot high Schofield Pass was known as the “Snow Shoe Express” because only by skiing could Al Johnson bring needed supplies and mail into isolated Crystal.
On eleven foot long snowshoes (that’s what skis were called in those early days) Al Johnson made the dangerous winter trip from Crystal to Crested Butte and back again once a week. On his return trip from Crested Butte, Johnson usually left very early in the morning because of the chance of running into bad weather or soft snow conditions. With forty to fifty pounds of mail on his back, the legendary skier of the Gunnison country slowly made his way out of Crested Butte and worked up a winding trail which took him past Gothic eight miles out and finally to the summit of Schofield Pass. From there, Johnson passed through beautiful Schofield Park where he had a chance to collect his thoughts before peering into the feared Crystal Canyon, guarded by the ominous Devil’s Punchbowls a half mile below. Here, the roaring Crystal River feel rapidly and had carved out a deep canyon with a tremendous grade of 27%. Near the bottom of the deep chasm were two punchbowls, which had waterfalls pouring into them. The sight was spectacular and awesome but very dangerous.
Johnson knew that many a miner had been killed by rock and snowslides in the narrow chasm. But the mail had to go through. Sucking his breath while he said a silent prayer that he would not fall, Johnson pushed himself forward into the canyon and “turned them loose.” Crouching low with guide pole in hand, the Canadian picked up tremendous speed in the track he had made the previous day. A ski race was one thing, but Al Johnson literally was skiing for his life – he had to stand. And he never fell. His nerves of steel and ability to attain great speeds while passing Devil’s Punchbowls enabled him to stay alive and bring the mail into Crystal.
At that time in the United States, Al Johnson probably was the greatest racer on skis in the U.S. country. We may never see his kind again in the Gunnison Country.”