Does Silverton Stand a Chance?

SKI Magazine, December 2004

Aaron Brill lounges casually on his snowboard, backpack askew, red jacket agape. He loosely waves a ski pole toward the cliffs beneath us and speaks so softly you can barely hear him. “So, this is a no-fall zone.”

No kidding. We’re overlooking a 50-some-degree chute called Mandatory, short for Mandatory Air, so named because if you miss the main chute, you’re looking at a 30-foot drop. Mandatory is just about as wide as my skis are long. There’s a rope tied to a tree above it that drops down the middle of the choke and out of sight. To get to the bottom, we have to make three or four turns on the exposed ridge above the chute, slide down the wall of the gully, grab the rope and sidestep down a little ladder of two-by-fours. Brill drops in, grabs the rope and disappears over the roll.

I don’t want to admit this, but my right leg is shaking. This is not just because we’ve been standing in the shade for 30 minutes watching the rest of the group lower themselves one by one. No, my leg is shaking because I’m scared. If I fall, I’m going to slide a long, long way.

When it’s my turn, I make a couple of half-hearted, chattering jump turns and slide toward the rope. Each step down the choke involves a drop of about a foot. The chute is so narrow that there are places where my tips and tails are on the snow, but there’s nothing but air under my boots. As I take off my glove to get a better grip on the slippery, flimsy little rope that’s going to get me down the gnarliest chute I’ve ever laid skis on, I’m thinking only one thing: How can a place like this exist in America?

 

Welcome to Silverton Mountain, America’s newest ski area, where the steeps are hairy, the moguls nonexistent, dogs outnumber the employees, and the outhouses are labeled “dudes” and “chicks.” The resort is the brainchild of Aaron Brill, a freckled 32-year-old snowboarder who is not only our guide, but also the mountain’s founder, manager, mechanic and sometime bartender. Brill began dreaming of starting up a ski operation soon after he visited New Zealand’s club fields and saw how no-frills, low-cost ski areas operate there. Brill and his fiancée, Jen Ader, were also captivated by the hike-to steeps of Bridger Bowl, Mont., and decided that America needed an experts-only ski area. No grooming, no ropes, no fancy base lodge, minimal environmental impact. The formula was simple: steep, deep and cheap.

Brill began poring over topo maps of western North America, looking for a place that might satisfy his requirements. When he stumbled upon a map of a narrow valley six miles outside of Silverton, a struggling mining town in southwestern Colorado, about a 90-minute drive from Telluride, he realized it fit the bill on all three counts. It was steep, with a phenomenally beautiful high-alpine cirque that drops into a series of rocky avalanche gullies. The snow was deep—an average of 400 inches per year. And in the 1990s, while Colorado’s population grew by a third, Silverton’s declined by about half. With a winter unemployment rate hovering around 30 percent, Silverton was also cheap. When he visited the site, Brill says, “It was way better than on the page.” He had no funding and zero ski-area management experience. So, he says, “I decided to go for it.”

In 1999, Brill quietly bought up land on the front face of the mountain, moved to Silverton and began raising money. In a short time, he and Ader secured economic development money from the state of Colorado and found a few investors. Then, with a combination of hard work, perseverance and the bottomless optimism of the naive, they got started. The couple took chainsaws to a few hundred trees, found a maniacal dozer-driver to drag the logs off the mountain, and then put in the lift towers. Brill bought a retired double chairlift from Mammoth Mountain for $20,000 and got a temporary guiding permit to access the 1,300 acres of federal land on the backside of the mountain. He rented a Quonset hut fothe base lodge, built a bar, and procured some old buses and a retired UPS truck for shuttling skiers to the base from the backside of the mountain. In January 2002, after three years and a startup expense that was, Brill says, “less than the price of a nice condo in Telluride,” the chairlift ferried its first paying skier up the hill, and Silverton Mountain was in business.

But some industry observers wonder for how long. In a consolidating industry where megaresorts leverage massive real estate operations to fund the luxury extras skiers have come to expect, smaller ski areas have found it difficult to compete. But this doesn’t mean they can’t. “The trick,” says National Ski Areas Association President Michael Berry, “is to be sure you keep your expenses in balance with your revenues and are careful about expansion.”

In this respect, Silverton has some advantages. Brill’s business plan is to stay small and “retro,” forgoing high-speed lifts and valet parking and instead attracting skiers with the promise of expert terrain. With runs ranging from open bowls to thick trees and from natural halfpipes to chutes dropping 3,000 feet from peak to valley floor, Silverton Mountain is well positioned to attract the aggressive, younger skiers and riders who are the future of the ski industry. The question is whether the mountain can draw a sufficient stream of visitors to this remote corner of Colorado to meet the area’s operating costs.

 

So far, the demand seems to be there: The area was booked to its 40-skier capacity nearly every weekend last winter, and visitors delighted in both the challenging terrain and the refreshingly laid-back atmosphere. In fact, the normal economic obstacles facing a ski area may be the least of Brill’s problems. The most daunting challenge may be the mountain itself.

Each morning, as the day’s skiers huddle around the wood stove at the base hut, adjusting their layers and petting wandering dogs, Jen Ader gives a safety talk. “There are no marked obstacles,” she begins. The nearest hospital is 90 minutes away. Rescues are anything but easy. She gives a crash course in self-arrest and offers tips on how to safely ski out of avalanches. “You see it in the movies all the time,” she says. At the top of the hill, the guides spend another couple of minutes educating skiers about how to use their avalanche beacons. Then they ski.

This is what worries the Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for issuing the permit that allows Brill to operate on the federal land on the mountain’s backside. The snowpack in southwestern Colorado is famously unstable. The combination of warm days, cold nights and long spells between storms means that avalanches are common and deadly. Silverton’s topography only makes matters worse. The big alpine bowls that drop into steep, narrow gullies at the bottom of the mountain make for big slide zones and major terrain traps. While the same can be said of nearby Telluride, Silverton’s low skier numbers mean far less snow compaction, one of the most potent tools ski areas have to mitigate avalanche danger. Less snow compaction means more avalanche-control bombs, and bombs are expensive. It also means a lot of grueling work. “They really need to do what they call farming the snow,” says Denny Hogan, the BLM Snow Ranger overseeing avalanche safety at Silverton. “They have to get out there and work it using different tools, such as bootpacking, ski cutting, ski packing.”

Brill’s original plan called for 475 skiers per day, paying $35 per head. But when the BLM issued a temporary permit for 20 guided skiers per day for the first season, and 40 for the next, Brill had to raise the price to $119 ($99 early and late season). “The Forest Service likes to see three to five years of study of avalanche-prone terrain,” says Richard Speegle, manager of the BLM team evaluating Silverton’s permit. While Brill has been studying the area for four years, says Speegle, “We haven’t seen that big winter.”

There are other concerns besides snow stability. The descents, especially on the lower part of the mountain, are sometimes closer to mountaineering than skiing. Even with guides, the terrain can be more than many skiers can handle. Chris Anthony, a big-mountain skier who runs steeps camps at Silverton, says he has learned to screen attendees carefully. “You have to say straight out, ‘This is a backcountry experience—variable conditions, exposed terrain. This is not a ski area.'”

The staff—roughly 10 employees—does its own screening as well, dividing skiers into groups of eight according to ability. Each morning, skiers fill out a questionnaire/release form in which they assess their skills. To split the groups, the resort also relies on appearance. “We look at their clothing, their attitude, their skis,” says Brill. “You put the guy who shows up with skinny 205 Tuas in the slow group and the guys who show up with Big Stix and Sugar Daddies in the faster groups.”

But even with guides and ability profiling, each day usually sees a few “one-and-dones”—people who take one run, get in over their heads and quit. For those who get injured before they can quit, rugged terrain makes rescues long and complicated.

 

While it’s refreshing to see Brill’s faith in his customers, Silverton’s approach to risk management leaves some people worried. “We tell people that if they think their skills are marginal, they should bring seven other people with marginal skills and they can go at their own pace,” Brill says.

There’s no coddling. The guide goes first, tells you to stay left or right of his or her track, mentions perhaps that you need to be careful because there’s an icy traverse or a 45-degree frozen death-cookie pitch ahead—and off you go. There’s no one behind you to pick up the pieces, few pointers, little sympathy. If you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t be there. As Brill likes to say, “Silverton’s not for everyone.”

Sometime this winter, the BLM will decide on a long-term plan for Silverton Mountain, and early indications are that Brill will receive a permit that combines guided and unguided skiing. Although the $119 price tag for the more exposed, guided terrain may price out his original target market—kids who huck—the demand for the guided service has been so strong that he is considering keeping it guided-only during the peak months, with unguided access in early- and late-season. Brill believes that with 80 guided skiers per day, the area can stay afloat.

Chris Anthony, for one, supports this approach and worries that a big increase in skier numbers would diminish the area’s appeal. “It would become just a bunch of steep, bumped-out runs with ropes and access gates,” he says. “If it does become a ski area, my interest will disappear, because the rewards won’t be there.”

Whether skiers who can afford the place can handle it, whether skiers who can handle it can afford it and whether any of the above can stay safe—all of these questions will determine if Silverton survives. But for many, Silverton’s existence—for however long—is reason for celebration.

A visit to Silverton is a journey to skiing’s past—to the purity of a hill that’s never seen a groomer, where you can buy beef jerky on the honor system, where the terrain can still scare you and the promise of fresh tracks doesn’t end by 10 a.m.

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