The Gold Miner Who Hiked Into Colorado’s Worst Blizzard on a Mission for Love

By 7 p.m. exactly 120 years ago, Loren Waldo was dead. No one can say that for sure because he was alone. But if you lie down in the snow for just five minutes as if you’d fallen there, unable to ski through a sub-zero night, you’ll know.

I’m writing this from the inside of a 150-year-old cabin at the very top of Boreas Pass, a gale-prone gap on the Continental Divide in Colorado. It’s below zero, and if not for the wood stove at my feet and the down bag that I will zip into soon, I’d be as dead as Waldo on the anniversary of his death: February 11.

I skied up here to see the winter day that Waldo, a 27-year-old bookkeeper from Breckenridge chose to try and cross Boreas and get to Como, on the Eastern Slope of the Rockies, and then on to Denver, where his lovely young wife waited for him.

Normally, he’d have taken the narrow-gauge train that snaked east out of town. But the tracks were buried by the Big Snow of 1899, the worst winter to hit Colorado since miners had shambled into the high country looking for gold 40 years before.

There hasn’t been a winter like it since. More than 31 feet of snow fell from December through April alone, a record never beaten. Not even close. Few people ventured into it the way Waldo did, in a light overcoat, a fedora, and 10-foot skis he could hardly use. A potent combination of love and—you gotta believe—lust drove him on as the sun went down over the Tenmile Range and the temperature dropped to 35 below zero.

Why ski into a blizzard dressed like a businessman in Chicago? We will never know. Waldo went over the pass with two other men, both of whom had dressed for near-Arctic conditions. I think Waldo, an Illinois native, had come to rely on the luxuries of the day: trains that scaled the steepest mountain passes; wood stoves that kicked out furnace-like heat; and beds covered in quilts. Flatlanders like Waldo could arrive in mining towns without hiking a single pass, then live like city dwellers.

“Big, kind-hearted Waldo,” as the people of Breckenridge called him (he stood over six feet tall), was the victim of a climate anomaly that year. He might have made it in any other winter. But the whole country froze in 1899. There were 45 states at the time, and the mercury in every one of them fell below 0.

Temperatures in Montana plummeted to a Siberian minus 61. Storms dumped 30 inches of snow in New Jersey in a matter of days. Food shipments in Chicago stopped for three weeks. Ice floes drifted past New Orleans on the Mississippi. Sleet clung to telegraph lines in Florida, snapping them to the ground. Kids had a snowball fight on the steps of the capitol in Tallahassee.

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