A sophisticated, unconventional sport from 16th century Scotland is taking over Leadville

1 month ago The Colorado Sun

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

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LEADVILLE — On a recent cold and clear weekday night, Mitch Dulleck crouches down on a sheet of ice at Huck Finn Park, stabilizes himself and then lunges forward slowly pushing a 42-pound curling stone in his right hand. 

At what appears to be the fastest moment of his slide, he lets go of the yellow handle of the stone with a slight twist and sends it hurtling down the ice on a trajectory he hopes, with help from his teammates sweeping the stone into position, will wind up scoring points in “the house” about 100 feet away.

As the skip, or captain, of the Whiskey Sliders curling team, Dulleck has learned plenty about this quirky centuries-old sport and noticeably improved his skills over the past two winters while playing in the low-key but increasingly popular rec league organized by the Cloud City Curling Club.

“It is much more complicated than I ever thought,” says Dulleck, who has lived in Leadville for five years while working remotely in customer service for an international electronics company. “But I love that it is very, very intricate. I mean, it’s like chess on ice, and why it’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.”

In the middle of another cold winter, curling has become a hot trend in Leadville. And with the club’s single-elimination playoff tournament culminating in the championship game slated for Feb. 15, things won’t be cooling down anytime soon. (Down the road in Denver, the USA Curling men’s and women’s national championship ends on Feb. 11. The winner of the women’s contest heads to the World Women’s Curling Championship in Sweden in March and the top men’s team will compete in the world championship in Ottawa in April.)

If you’ve ever seen curling being played, it’s likely you’ve watched it on TV during the Winter Olympics. It’s a sophisticated but unconventional sport that dates back to 16th century Scotland, but it’s easily accessible with a short learning curve for anyone who’s interested in playing — so long as there is a place to play.

Two people brush in front of a stone while curlingJamie Seiffer and Heather Moutoux sweep a stone down the sheet for The Family Stone in 10-degree weather at the Leadville curling arena in January. (Brian Metzler, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It just so happens that the Leadville curling arena is the only outdoor facility of its kind in Colorado, and it’s why the upstart Cloud City Curling Club has taken on the quintessential vibe of this historic blue-collar city situated near 10,200 feet. It was started by a few passionate participants a few years ago, has been bootstrapped by modest funding and endless hours of volunteer work and has blossomed into something truly original with a real sense of community. 

As the Whiskey Sliders were being taken apart 7-0 by Broom for Improvement, four other teams enthusiastically battled head-to-head on two additional curling sheets on the specially prepared rink. There was a similar mix of careful sliding, meticulous stone throwing, exuberant sweeping (using specialized brooms to guide a stone down the ice), strategic blocking (lining up stones as a barrier to entering the house), takeouts (bouncing an opposing team’s stone from the house) and hammers (the last, and potentially decisive, throw of a game). 

Everyone plays bundled up in layers of down jackets, locally made Melanzana fleece jackets, Carhartt pants and a collection of ski and snowmobile clothing, hats, gloves and other accessories. But on this particular night, it’s about 12 degrees — which, to be honest, really isn’t that cold by Leadville standards — so no one is complaining. (And not just because there might be a few flasks full of soul-warming drinks tucked in jacket pockets.)

“It’s a lot of fun, but you just have to dress for it,” says Kim Kortkamp, who plays for a team called Curl Jam. “That’s Leadville. My friends were doing it and I started playing. It’s something to do through the winter when it gets so dark and cold.” 

Planting the stones

Leadville’s community ice rink has, for years, been built by flooding the basketball courts at Huck Finn Park. Interestingly, that’s the site of the former Colorado & Midland Railway freight station where, from 1887 until the railroad’s demise in 1918, used to ship blocks of locally harvested ice to Colorado Springs, Aspen and other towns along the line. 

A man slides with a stone while curlingCloud City Curling Club co-founder Kevin Linebarger throws a stone for the Merry Hucksters at the Leadville curling arena in January. (Brian Metzler, Special to The Colorado Sun)

That rink is still great for community figure skating and pickup hockey, but the curling aficionados found they couldn’t keep it smooth enough for consistent play. A few years ago, the club built a new ice sheet adjacent to the rink, but it wound up flooding a park building so that location had to be nixed. 

This winter, the club received permission to build a dedicated 50-foot-by-150-foot curling venue in the outfield of the park’s softball field. It started by flooding a plastic liner, then painting a “house” — concentric blue, red and white scoring circles around the center “button” at each end. With three playing sheets on the ice, it meant the Cloud City Curling Club was able to grow to meet the rising demand — brought on, in part, by the club’s open curling sessions on Friday evenings — and expand to 24 teams from 16. 

There are four active players per team, but most rosters have five to seven players to make sure there’s always a squad who can take the ice. All told, there’s probably at least 140 local residents involved, or about 5% of Leadville’s 2,623-person population. 

Players range from their late 20s to the early 60s and they come from all backgrounds: carpenters, grocery and liquor store workers, city maintenance workers, professional athletes from a variety of sports, shop owners, local retail salespeople, resort employees who work at Summit County ski areas, several employees of the Climax Molybdenum Company mine on Fremont Pass and even one Lake County commissioner.

“The community has evolved around it, which is pretty incredible for Leadville,” says Kevin Linebarger, 48, co-founder and head ice technician of the Cloud City Curling Club. “We’ve got a November-to-May winter here, and a lot of people do love to ski, but this is a unique and different activity for all abilities. There’s a short barrier to entry. It’s hard to get good at, but it’s easy to come out here and throw some stones and get a chance to hang out with people you wouldn’t normally see in the winter.” 

The club got started in earnest in 2015, but its roots date back to learn-to-curl clinics that part-time Leadville resident Tom Whitman organized with the Lake County Recreation Department in the 2011-12 winter. 

Whitman, a retired medical supplies executive from Denver, got involved in the sport with the Denver Curling Club 15 years ago and immediately knew he found his new favorite pastime. When he began spending a lot of his winters at his second home in Leadville, he figured why not bring his passion for the one-of-a-kind sport with him. 

“We just brought the rocks up here, held some clinics and just got people interested,” Whitman says. “That’s how we got started. It’s just a fun, social activity that anyone can play and I think that’s why people learn to like it.”

Aside from being a seasoned player, Whitman is also a noted ice technician who has taken classes on how to properly manicure a curling sheet. And that’s extremely important, because curling can’t just be played on any old sheet of ice or frozen pound — at least not very well. At 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday nights — two hours before the night’s first games — Whitman,  Linebarger and club co-founder and president Jason Nepp (and several volunteers from various teams) begin a two-hour process to prepare the ice. 

A man releases a stone while curlingCloud City Curling Club co-founder Jason Nepp of the Leadstones prepares to throw “the hammer” — the last stone of a game — to try and knock an opposing team’s stones from the house at the Leadville curling arena in January. (Brian Metzler, Special to The Colorado Sun)

That starts by clearing any recent or blown snow, filling in any divots or cracks with water, scraping the ice flat with the club’s $900 motorized ice-scraping machine and then “pebbling” it with fresh droplets of water to create a rippled surface for optimal sliding. That’s typically done by Linebarger and Nepp walking backward and spraying warm water from tanks mounted on their backs. 

Once that process is completed and the surface refreezes, Whitman will carefully go back over it with the ice scraper and then, just before game time, a finer, new layer of “competition pebble” will be sprayed to complete the process.

The local ice sheets are 100 feet long from “button to button” — slightly shorter than the typical regulation size of 114 feet — but like a baseball field built out of a cornfield, it can be like heaven on Earth on cold winter nights in Leadville.

“It takes a lot of work to set up, but in the end it’s worth it,” Linebarger says. “We don’t really cancel games because of the cold. I think we’ve played when it’s been 5 below zero. Snow is a big problem, but, fortunately, it hasn’t really snowed much on Tuesdays or Wednesdays this winter.” 

Getting not-so-serious

Dulleck’s interest in curling goes well beyond Leadville. Like Nepp, Whitman and Linebarger, he admits to watching it on TV whenever he can find it and has become a big fan of Chris Plys, a two-time U.S. champion and two-time Olympian from Duluth, Minnesota, which, like Leadville, is another place famous for notoriously cold winters. 

Among the players who have picked up curling in Leadville, Nepp and Linebarger are some of the most skilled and passionate and have occasionally played competitively in Denver. They’ve also helped the Leadville Curling Club host an annual tournament, or a bonspiel — an age-old term believed to come from Dutch or German roots. But the Cloud City gang called their tournament the Leadville Non-Spiel, both to be different and to maintain a not-so-competitive atmosphere.

This year’s fourth nonannual tournament was held Jan. 21-22 and included five local teams, four from the Denver Curling Club and one from Telluride Curling Club. The winning team — the 10,2 Ice Crew (a play on Leadville’s 10,200-foot altitude) — was made up of Linebarger, Nepp, Whit Willson and his wife, Kelly Bergkessel. 

With team names like the Rolling Stones, Stone Lickers, Stone Cold Stunners, Iced Baked Potatoes, Miner Threat, 12 Ounce Curls, Sweepey Heads, Sparkle Donkeys, Merry Hucksters and Cheese Curls — a team made up of employees of the Jumpin’ Good Goat Dairy cheese-making business 35 minutes down the road in Buena Vista — you get the idea that curling will never get too serious in Leadville.

“It’s a lot of fun and it’s really become a part of the community,” says Nepp, a carpenter who has lived in Leadville for 22 years and plays for the Leadstones. “But what the hell else is going to get you out of the house at 8 p.m when it’s 5 degrees outside?”


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