March, 2004-- It's
been four years since we first heard about a dreamer by the name
of Aaron Brill and the wild idea he had to put in a single chairlift
on the side of a San Juan range mountain in the tiny, struggling
town of Silverton, Colorado. Brill announced that he intended
to offer a backcountry type experience with no groomed runs,
or even designated trails. We wrote about it the following summer
and called the story "A Dreamer and a Dying Town Come Together."
The article detailed his and partner
Jenny Ader's plans, as well as the opposition they faced from
a tiny few in the community.
Last month Hollie Headrick, everybody's
favorite Telegirl, and I had the opportunity to visit Silverton
Mountain on the kind of wintery-cold, bluebird, fresh-snow day
the San Juan's are so famous for. As I sit here typing on an
unusually warm 85 degree Tuesday at the Telemarktips World Headquarters
here in Laguna Beach, California, a longboard propped against
the wall still dripping saltwater onto the carpet from this morning's
surf session, that day seems like a dream....it's a theme that
comes up repeatedly when ever I think about Silverton Mountain.
It's just that kind of place I guess.
Here is the story of our day.
"Oh my god, look at that drop-off
Hollie, it's as rad as I always heard it was...look at how narrow
the road is... and there are no guard rails!"
"No way, I don't want to look,"
she answered head down, buried in her chest.
We were driving over the infamous Red Mountain
Pass, arguably the gnarliest open-in-winter pass in the lower
48. A couple of inches of new snow covered the pavement so we
kept our speed down, navigating each turn even more carefully
after we passed a grim looking Colorado State Patrol officer
peering down into a deep canyon. We never saw the car that went
over the side but we saw its tracks leading off the road and
over the berm. It scared the shit out of both of us but we pressed
on, still totally stoked to be heading to Silverton Mountain.
When we crested the pass and looked down
into the valley below our spirits soared even higher as the morning
clouds parted, the sun came out, and the steep, snow-covered
mountains all around us sparkled like they had been strewn with
millions of tiny diamonds. The road straightened out and we began
our descent into the valley.
Entering Silverton we stopped at a gas
station/mini-mart (which I later found out is Silverton's only
food store) to get directions. "Go all the way down
to the end of the main street and make a left where it ends,
follow that road 'til you see the lift," was the answer
to my query. We drove slowly down the empty, seemingly deserted
main drag. Sure this was a Sunday morning, but it was almost
nine o'clock, where was everybody? We continued down past boarded
up summer-only shops, the old San Juan County Courthouse and
the late 1800's era City Hall. We made our left turn, 6 miles
later arriving at the parking lot close to the lift. There were,
at most, a couple of dozen parked cars...and we were the last
We walked over towards the lift where there
were several groups of 8 to 10 skiers and boarders milling around.
I recognized Aaron Brill, busily coordinating the parties and
getting them set up with their guides. Brill directed us up the
hill to the "base yurt" where we met Jenny Ader for
the first time in person. After years of email and phone conversations
it was great to finally meet face to face.
We geared up, signed the waiver forms and
chatted with Jen while she worked on getting us plugged in with
a compatible group. The big oblong yurt was spacious and warm,
with a large wood stove off to the side and couches and chairs
A few minutes later Jen's radio came alive
with the news that our group was ready to go so we all walked
down to the lift, got our skis on and prepared to load up.
I was so stoked.
Seconds before the oddly familiar chair
swung up behind and whisked us off our feet I turned to Jenny
who was standing off to the side and said, "Jen, it's like
a dream come true." She laughed, smiled hugely and said
"A dreamer and a dying town have come together." And
with that we were off and heading up the mountain for the first
time that day.
I remembered why this lift seemed so familiar:
Aaron and Jen had bought it from my home mountain, Mammoth. It
was their old Chair 15 and I had previously ridden it hundreds
of times since learning to ski as a teenager.
Our ride climbed steeply, crested a ridge,
lifted us above the trees and flattened out a little as Hollie
and I got our first good look at the incredible terrain we'd
be skiing in a few minutes. Big open bowls were off to the right,
steep tree runs to the left and huge rocky mountains plastered
with snow encircled everything. The view was simply stunning.
I felt like a visitor on the moon, small and insignificant; grabbing
a camera out of my pack and trying to record the moment as we
skied up to the group.
Our guide, Alex, told up to follow him
along the ridge to the north and we soon came to the far left
side of a bowl full of powder and a few tracks from earlier that
morning. Right away we got the idea that Alex was being exceedingly
careful in choosing our route, doing everything by the book.
Despite the fact that there were already
tracks in this bowl Alex went ahead and aggressively ski cut
a section off to skier's right before heading down to our prearranged
meeting spot in a safety zone across the little valley. The folks
in our group generously suggested that I go first so I could
shoot photos, I thanked them and went ahead and dropped in.
The bowl was steep and the snow was light.
I found an untracked line off to the right, then cut back to
the left across the tracks to another smooth area. The snow was
so light that even the cut up stuff was fluffy and hard to distinguish
under my skis from the untracked. This was a place to let the
boards run, to get down and ride the rails in the soft powder
with a deep and forgiving base that pushed back ever so gently.
It was a big bowl and I wanted to stop half way down to savor
the moment, but then I thought about the group and how they were
probably all anxious to hit this pitch, so I went ahead and flashed
it over to Alex.
I was feeling the 12,000+ foot elevation
as I pulled up, and about all I could croak out was a weak "holy
cow," but that was enough. Alex got the idea and smiled
broadly as he watched the next skier head down. The alpine guy
ripped a killer direct line with the smoky powder flying over
his head lighting up against the blue, blue sky. Hollie came
down next and arrived as out of breath as I had been. We enjoyed
watching the rest of the group tear it up and then it was time
to move over to the next pitch, an exit line through trees leading
down to a catwalk out to the road.
Since several of the routes in this area
led to this exit path--obviously chosen because it was a safe
route, and out of the way of various avalanche paths all around--the
short line was bumped out, a little scraped, steep, technical,
and challenging. It was the first of many pitches we skied that
day that reminded me of some advice I had been given a few weeks
back by a friend who had been there earlier in the year: "Bring
your A game," he'd said.
Although the line was not long it took
the full group awhile to negotiate, so we had a few minutes to
chill and enjoy the beautiful sunny day before heading down to
the road and the shuttle bus.
The first run was in the bag and it had
been epic. We loaded our skis, climbed into the small bus, and
with a Bob Marley tune blasting, headed back to the lift.
We were worked.
We had just finished two more runs, both
in the steep trees to the north of the lift. The powder had been
deep, the treed terrain steep, and mostly tight and...oh, did
I mention that it was steep? Like 45 degrees steep. It was not
a place for drawn out tele turns by any means but there was an
abundance of untracked lines all over the place. And although
we had been given instructions as far as the definite boundaries
we should stay within, skiing these trees gave us a little more
of an opportunity to freelance a bit and choose our own route.
Still, this was big-time expert terrain
and it took a lot of effort. The traverses out to the goods had
been barely Alta-esque in their length, yet took more time due
to the fact that we stopped every once in awhile to cross avalanche
paths one at a time. Yet each time we had been rewarded with
a unique opportunity to play with gravity while floating through
By the time we got down to the road and
began to ski the short distance back to the lift the sun was
hot and we were tired, hungry and thirsty. Hollie was like "I
think I'm done," and I was thinking the same thing. But
we grabbed something to drink from the van and decided to rally
for one last run, our fourth for the day (according to Jen most
groups do four to five runs in a day and go home really tired,
maybe 2% charge harder, often bringing their own group of 8 to
make that happen).
Hollie waiting her
turn to cross an avy path
This time we peeled off on a high traverse
above the open bowls to lookers right (from the lift). Working
our way down an open ridge top the snow was variable but mostly
soft and carvy until we pulled up above a powder filled gully-like
tree shot. Alex had us ski this pitch one at a time down to a
safe island, even though it was fairly heavily treed and looked
really safe to this Californian's maritime snowpack oriented
Silverton's snow is anything but a maritime
snowpack and all the guides there are trained to be super careful.
As Aaron explained later back at the yurt, "The BLM is watching
closely as we move through this extended permit process. They
are allowing us to do these guided trips but one avalanche accident
is all it would take for them to shut us down and put us out
of business for good," he said.
The powder was sick all the way down the
Arriving at the meeting spot Alex explained
that the last shot would be down through some steep cliff bands
but as he led us over there he gave members of the group an option
to veer off through a less technical section or to continue another
50 yards or so out onto the cliffs. We all met down in the canyon
below the rock band and skied out a natural quarter pipe to the
road and the waiting shuttle.
Totally ski satisfied, Hollie and I were
both toast and ready to get out of our boots and talk about the
day over cold beer and cocktails.
It had turned out to be a warm afternoon
but as soon as the sun ducked down behind the mountain to the
west, like a door slamming shut, the temperature plummeted, leaving
us scrambling for sweatshirts and parkas. No kidding, it happened
almost faster than you could possibly imagine. One minute we
were sitting by the van basking in the warmth of the high-altitude
sun and the next we were totally freezing. It was a pattern I
would become familiar with over the next 10 days or so while
staying in Silverton.
Throwing on some layers we headed for the
yurt and the warmth of its wood stove.
We walked in to a party already in progress.
Guides and die-hard clients were all enjoying beverages and telling
stories while Jen worked the "bar." It was about as
down-home a scene as you could ever imagine at a "ski area,"
or anywhere for that matter.
I got a chance to talk to Aaron for a bit
about his plans for the future, and where he thought Silverton
Mountain was headed. "That's largely up to the Bureau of
Land Management," he explained. "We still want to offer
inexpensive unguided skiing. What will likely happen is that
eventually the BLM will grant us permission to offer a combination
of guided and free skiing."
As darkness began to fall upon Silverton
Mountain we said our goodbyes to Aaron and Jen, making our way
back to the van.
It had been an incredible and unique day,
one that we both agreed we would not soon forget. Silverton had
rocked hard. Along with moonlight powder runs, overhead blower
pow and lazy summer corn skiing days, etc., Silverton is an experience
every skier should put on their "must do" list. And
beyond the skiing, for me, it was pretty much a day of nothing
less than total reaffirmation...... Just sometimes, with persistence,
dedication, hard work and a belief in the path you are on, dreams
do become reality.
95% or more of the Silverton Mountain skiers
and boarders I've talked to agree that their visit was one of
the best resort ski experiences of their lives. Many calling
it the very best. There is something special about hitting a
ski area on a powder day and realizing that there is no hurry,
that the fluff isn't going anywhere. And that is what Silverton
offers, a unique opportunity in the world of lift served skiing.
Yet a very few may come to Silverton with unrealistic expectations.
This is guided backcountry-like skiing in
an area known for its radical terrain and often hair trigger
snowpack. Aaron and Jen are in this for the long haul and caution
is the word of the day, every day. They make a strong effort
effort to control the avalanche hazard (we heard bombs going
off almost all day) and to get as much of that terrain open as
possible. Your guide will take you to the goods, but you will
not be free to go wherever you want. For some that might be frustrating.
Go with the right attitude,
and it's not likely to be a problem.
As noted above, bring your "A game."
Tele skiers in particular will find Silverton Mountain to be
a real challenge on many days. It's not just the steeps, the
tight trees and the cliff bands, this is a very high alpine setting
with snow that is often variable and wind affected, staying centered
on freeheel gear is simply harder in such snow. It might help
to try to hook up with a group led by one of the tele-guides
on staff. Silverton puts the "big" in big mountain
skiing and there is no easy way down to fall back on.
10 Minute Silverton Mountain Video--
This short movie Aaron and Jen had made includes
lots of powder and air, as well as comments by both of the founders.
Make sure you take your avalanche beacon,
probe pole, and shovel, though rentals are available.
And while guests are not required to have
any avalanche training, as on any other guided trip at a minimum
being familiar with the basic protocols of safe travel in avalanche
country would seem like a really good idea.
for more information.