Not for Sissies
By: Lance Waring
“Steve, your nose is turning white. Do you have a face mask?” our guide Kim Grant yells over the wind. Steve puts his glove to his face and shakes his head. We huddle around as Kim tears open her pack and produces a thick balaclava for her client. Frostbite averted, she sets a brisk pace uphill. Swirling snow buffets my goggles as I shoulder my skis and follow up the flanks of aptly named Storm Peak for our final run at Silverton Mountain.
Ten minutes later, we cross a rocky ridge and hunker gratefully in the shelter of the lee side. Kim points out our descent down the center of a huge, funnel-shaped drainage and says firmly, “Stay to the left of my tracks; go one at a time; and make sure to stop above me.” With these instructions, she vanishes, her skis etching plumes down the steep bowl. I am impressed that she carves the same fast, controlled turns in conditions that have ranged from fairly funky to downright desperate.
Skiing at Silverton Mountain is not for the intermediate skier. So far, Kim Grant has safely shepherded her eight clients—five East Coast businessmen and three Telluriders—down four long runs, each requiring every trick in an expert skier’s repertoire. The first feat was simply to stay warm: The temperature never climbed above single digits.
The cold was enhanced by hurricane force winds that buffeted the high basins, where we skittered on awkwardly textured crust. Below, dense old-growth evergreens sheltered the snow from the wind, but there were hollow pockets where, even with the fattest skis, we sometimes sank to our hips. Adding to the challenge, the thick forest was littered with deadfall and laced with surprise cliff bands.
I’m astonished that nobody in the group has torqued a knee or been impaled by a low-hanging branch. Toboggan evacuation here would be a long hellish affair, and the nearest medical facility is over an hour away, down the road in Durango. Kim assured me that nobody has ever perished while skiing Silverton Mountain. Her claim only reinforced my faith in a god who looks after children, drunks and skiers.
My dire thoughts were interrupted by a whoop from below. It was my turn to ski. I picked my way carefully down the steep bowl, finessing through layers of variable wind crust to find the group watching Kim with mouths agape. She is sidestepping through an icy choke directly above a thirty-foot cliff. “This is a no-fall zone,” she hollers cheerfully. “So don’t fall.”
I would expect such adventurous skiing in the European Alps—say Chamonix or LaGrave—but here in the litigious United States, the experience is a rare treat. The concept came to Silverton Mountain’s owner Aaron Brill, when he returned from a ski trip to New Zealand with the notion that North America needed “more challenging lift-accessed skiing on a mountain based purely on skiing, not development.”
Brill’s vision is evident from the moment you pull on your boots in the unpaved parking lot and trudge past a pack of playful malamutes on your way to the canvas yurt that serves as Silverton Mountain’s base lodge. Inside, the yurt smells of wood smoke, unwashed Gore-Tex and adrenaline. Avalanche beacons, shovels and probe poles are mandatory equipment. The first order of the morning is to sign a waiver form, which includes contact information for next of kin. At the top of the page is the Silverton Mountain logo, a stick-figure skier tumbling headfirst off a cliff. This makes more sense when you learn that Silverton’s gentle terrain is angled somewhere around thirty degrees (roughly the same pitch as the headwall of Telluride’s Plunge) and that some of Silverton’s steeper slopes tilt over fifty degrees.
In an era when the essence of skiing is in danger of being swallowed by corporations, and the sport has become synonymous with rapacious real-estate development and the squandering of planetary resources, Brill’s business plan is refreshing. He sums it up with the slogan: “More Powder to the People.” Silverton has no homesites for sale, no mechanized grooming, no five-star dining at the lodge. Instead, Brill has created what amounts to a lift-served backcountry ski experience accessed by a vintage 1973 double-seat chairlift that was retired from Mammoth Mountain when the California resort decided to upgrade to a high-speed detachable quad.
Brill has pledged to minimize the environmental impacts of skiing on the mountain. For every tree cut for the lift line, two more were planted. Silverton Mountain proudly recycles “ski lifts, cardboard, glass and cans.” Natural avalanches have cut the ski trails. And Brill promises that any future structures erected at the base will be clustered and built with sustainable materials. He hopes to eventually help restore the health of Cement Creek, the stream running along the base of the mountain that was polluted with toxic tailings when Silverton was a mining town.
An average of 400 inches of snow fall on Silverton Mountain’s steep sides each winter. The snowpack varies from day to day, slope to slope, and storm to storm. When conditions are stable, the powder skiing is stellar. In 2004, Silverton Mountain received Ski magazine’s top ranking for powder and steeps in North America—an astonishing coup when you consider the myriad of mature mega-resorts in competition.
In the San Juans, ungroomed fields of powder are prone to avalanche. Brill mitigates avalanche concerns with skier compaction (frequent ski tracks tend to stir the dangerous layers and stabilize the snowpack), regular avalanche control work, and a healthy dose of judicious decision-making. To Brill’s credit, there have been no avalanche burials at Silverton Mountain as of this printing.
This clean record pleases the Bureau of Land Management, the organization responsible for managing the public lands comprising the backside of Silverton Mountain. Four years of safe operation netted Brill permission from the BLM to allow unguided skiing in the spring of 2006, and he plans for more unguided skiing during the 2007 season. “We intend to expand the unguided ski experience. Silverton Mountain supports freedom in the hills.”
With freedom comes responsibility. As a skier at Silverton Mountain, you must come with a well-honed set of skills and a respect for the dangers of wild alpine terrain. Brill says simply, “Silverton Mountain isn’t for everyone.” And that is exactly what makes it special.
At the end of the day, Kim brought us to the cozy yurt where we lounged around a card table, surrounded by other groups of tired but animated skiers. Brill has finished his early morning shift patrolling, worked all day as head lift operator and is now tending bar. Moving through the crowd, he brings us pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon from the keg in the corner. “How was your day? Did you guys have fun?” he asks.
Steve answers the question: “I’ve skied all over the world, and I’ve never had more fun, or more challenging conditions. To Kim—for a memorable day of skiing—and to Silverton Mountain: This place rocks!” We raised our biodegradable plastic cups in agreement and toasted Brill for reminding us that the soul of skiing is alive and well.