My autumn daydreams, like those of any committed skier, settle on some variation of: abundant snow, radical terrain and enough onlookers to cheer my audacious feats but not so many that they poach my lines. Or, in geographic terms: Silverton Mountain, Colo.
Spread over thousands of acres of former mining claims high in the San Juan Mountains, Silverton is a hard-core ski bum’s mountain. Literally: Owner Aaron Brill, a longtime back-country skier, opened it in 2002 to fulfill his vision of an area for advanced and expert skiers and snowboarders only; i.e., one that Brill and his buddies would love.
The severe, saw-toothed peaks of the San Juans had the goods: sustained steepness and consistent snowfall. Silverton’s gentlest slope, at a 35-degree pitch, is steeper than many resorts’ most aggressive run; average annual snowfall is more than 400 inches.
A good start. But Brill wanted to ensure that guests could ski powder weeks after a storm – something unheard of at most resorts – so he put in just one chairlift. Yep, one. The double chair covers 1,900 vertical feet, unloading at 12,300 feet above sea level, from which point guests can either ski down or hike along stunningly dramatic ridges to reach 1,819 acres of terrain, none of it groomed. Nope, none.
The hikes vary in intensity, from a 10-minute punch to a two-hour-plus boot pack that crests at 13,487 feet, the summit of Storm Peak.
To summarize: One lift + ample, vertiginous terrain + effort required + zero grooming = extended shelf life for the snow. It consistently earns Silverton top ranking among U.S. resorts for steeps and powder. Two other oddities that also help preserve the snow: Silverton is open Thursday through Sunday only, and for much of its season offers only guided skiing and snowboarding.
The first thing I notice upon arriving at Silverton Mountain is, frankly, not much. The parking lot is the shoulder of State Highway 110, a dirt road that follows a scenic creek six miles up from the town of Silverton. I don’t see a lodge, just the shell of an old school bus, into which a handful of people appear to be rolling kegs. The only permanent infrastructure is the chairlift, which disappears up a long pitch bordered by pine forest. It is Easter weekend and it is snowing. Hard.
I change at the car and follow hand-scrawled signs to the check-in area. Turns out that there is a base lodge, of sorts: an industrial-strength nylon tent, 30 by 40 feet and warmed by a wood-burning stove, tucked into a pine grove. The scene inside is charged with anticipation and people stomping about in ski and snowboard gear, buying energy bars and bottled water.
After checking in, I’m directed to the equipment shack (another converted school bus) to pick up my avalanche safety gear: the shovel, probe and transceiver required for skiing at Silverton. Concerned spouse and parent alert: Those are standard items for skiing and riding in largely uncontrolled environs; Silverton has an excellent safety record.
Guests are divided into groups of eight based on self-assessed appetite for extreme terrain and hiking. The scene on this morning is mildly chaotic because, for the first time in two months, Silverton is open to unguided skiing and riding, and powder hounds have piled in from around the state.
Guided guests pay $99 to $139 a day, which, aside from the obvious benefit of the expert guide, affords rights to more terrain than is open to unguided skiers ($49 a day); high rollers can pay an added $159 per run, which buys them access, via helicopter, to an additional 23,000 acres: an area that’s technically open to guided groups but is, for most, too long a walk from the top of the lift.
My group comprises mostly Coloradans, a worrisome development. I’m a strong skier and fit, but – reality check! – I live at elevation 350 and have no genetic link to the mountain goat. So I fear that I’ll be trounced by my co-groupies.
Brad Garrett, a hale, affable marketing manager from Denver, says he’s an enthusiastic alpine skier but today will be working on his nascent telemark skills, which will slow him down. That is welcome news: I’ll have company at the back of the group, which also includes John and Leslie – who spend most of their winter weekends back-country skiing – and a diminutive, bearded, 40ish snowboarder whom I dub Eric the Shred.
The fruits of the continuing storm – a fresh foot of snow – mean that we needn’t hike just yet. Our first three runs are bombs straight off the lift, fresh tracks on every turn.
It is instantly clear what sets Silverton apart. Top to bottom, it is consistently steeper than any resort I’ve skied, including Jackson Hole, Snowbird, Taos and Whistler. Tackling ungroomed slopes on every run requires more muscle engagement, anticipation and hazard awareness than does in-bounds schussing. Lunch? Brown bag (BYO or buy cold sandwiches in the tent-lodge). Bathrooms? Unheated, no running water, composting toilets. Apres scene? We’ll get to that in a minute.
Brill says the absence of amenities was initially due to a lack of money but now is a point of pride. “We have all we need here,” he says. “Although I would like to add running water soon.”
When the hiking starts, we get an immediate sense of Silverton’s grandeur. Pausing on a cornice above an untracked bowl, we see no other skiers, just the pyramid peaks of the San Juans crowding the horizon. Trudging up a ridge, passing a run aptly named Mandatory Air, we arrive on a parcel of wind-hardened snow so narrow that I have trouble finding space to put on my skis. It’s a daunting, black-and-white world up here, all snow and rock, the earth falling away abruptly on both sides. A fall would not end pleasantly.
Before we drop a hairpin chute, ski a massive face of downy snow, hop a ridge and dance through sun-kissed glades, we look across the valley to see the chopper drop off a group atop one of Silverton’s marquee runs.
The valley itself is perhaps more famous: It was here in winter 2008-09 that snowboard world champion Shaun White had his sponsor, Red Bull, build a halfpipe so he could train in relative privacy for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
“It was the deepest pipe ever built,” Brill says. Red Bull added a huge foam pit so that White could hone new tricks without fear of injury. The Flying Tomato was often spotted riding Silverton when he wasn’t training, just another ripper out for thrills.
As the day winds down, a raucous apres party kicks up in the tent, fueled by the camaraderie of collective accomplishment and rapid rounds of the house cocktail, a tomato juice-Pabst Blue Ribbon beer combo that isn’t nearly as nauseating as it sounds. (The full bar also includes beer brands that are palatable on their own.)
An occasional roar goes up when a 20-something employee – often one of the Silverton women – muscles through the room lugging a replacement keg.
The scene down in town is more subdued, which is a shame, because Silverton’s Victorian hotels and Old West saloons hosted some wild times in the town’s mining heyday. (The Sunnyside Mine and Mayflower Mill – gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper – closed in 1991.) I manage to find live music – a duo of guitar pickers – at the Pickle Barrel, one of eight restaurants open in winter (vs. the 19 open during Silverton’s busy summer tourism season).
But colorful nuggets still shine among the town’s 527 residents. One night as I chat with the grizzled clerk at the elegantly Victorian Grand Imperial Hotel, talk turns to the summer crowds.
“Oh, yeah, it gets packed,” he says, “but I won’t be around for it this year.” He drums his fingers on the counter, waiting, until I ask why.
“Yep,” he says, “I ain’t gonna tell you where, but it’s up in the high country, and it’s a lot. Fifty years I been working. Now it’s time for me to kick back with some liquor and some ladies.”
I head into the brittle dusk air hoping, for his sake if not for the ladies’, that his tale is true.
On Easter Sunday, I forgo Silverton Mountain for a full backcountry tour in the mountains west of town, just me and a guide climbing a mountain so that we can ski down the other side. We are in the high country, awash in white gold, and I find myself thinking of luxury: a chairlift, a tent and a cold PBR.