There seems to be a natural progression that leads powder addicts from the cozy confines of corporate ski slopes to the treacherous mountains of the backcountry.
On weekends at ski resorts, powder is a rare commodity, and you have to get up barbarously early and get lucky with road conditions and traffic to even have a shot at one, maybe two runs of unspoiled powder. If you’re lucky enough to plan a weekday vacation at a resort on a powder day (or conniving enough to call in sick), then you might have some great days. Eventually, you get tired of driving three hours for snow that’s merely decent, and you start hiking.
For powder purists, the perfect turn is something that must be earned the old-fashioned way: through sweat and long hikes straight up an ungroomed, unpatrolled mountain — front-country powder days be damned.
Even for the uninitiated, it’s easy to imagine what makes the backcountry so alluring. To paraphrase James Carville, it’s the powder, stupid. But the problem with earning your turns in the backcountry is that the blissful ride you spent three hours of your life sweating for is over in a mere 10 minutes. That gap between effort and reward is enough to turn off the vast majority of skiers and snowboarders, and to make things more difficult, the skills you need to survive in the backcountry are a little more advanced than getting on and off a chairlift. It’s incredibly dangerous. During the 2009-10 season, eight people died in Colorado backcountry avalanches, and three have already died this season. Even with proper avalanche training (classes start at around $130), the proper equipment ($30 for a probe, $30 for a shovel, $200-$300 for a beacon), and the proper know-how, accidents can certainly still happen. That’s why backcountry snowboarding, though growing in popularity, remains firmly entrenched on the fringes of popular winter recreation.
Silverton Mountain aims to provide the best of both worlds: the convenience and safety of ski resorts with the snow of the backcountry. There’s only one lift, and you have to hike from the top to get to anything skiable. Owners Jen and Aaron Brill cap the number of skiers that can ride the mountain each day to 475, though Jen Brill says there are rarely more than 80 paying customers on the mountain at once. Best of all, the Brills carefully ration the mountain’s abundant powder so that even during a drought, paying customers will have nothing but jaw-dropping, grin-inducing runs all day long.
Let’s get one thing straight: Silverton Mountain is not for beginners. It’s a paradise for those who have put in their time at the ski resorts, but the terrain is much, much steeper than what you’d find at a resort. If the thought of doing double-blacks at Breckenridge intimidates you, you probably shouldn’t come to Silverton. The easiest run is 30 degrees, which is comparable to the steepest slopes you’ll find at most resorts. The hardest slope is a downright terrifying 55 degrees. (For comparison, Arapahoe Basin’s infamous Pallavicini run is around 40 degrees.) Silverton’s location in the San Juan Mountains, a seven-hour drive from Boulder, offers ideal conditions. As of now, the mountain boasts a 135-inch base. Compare that to the Summit County mountains, which are all hovering around 90 inches. One time earlier in the season, when the mainstream resorts were freaking out about getting eight inches, Silverton was getting — and this is not a misprint — eight feet.
The terrain is so dangerous that you have to bring (or rent) an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe, and they make you sign not one, but two liability waivers. For the majority of the season, avalanche danger is so high you can only ski the mountain with a guide. If you are not up to the task of hiking at 12,000 feet and higher, get in shape before you come to Silverton. The other members of your group will thank you for it.
The Brills, both snowboarders, opened Silverton in 2002. They bought a used two-person chairlift from California’s Mammoth Mountain and began giving guided tours up the mountain. Permits from the Bureau of Land Management kept the couple from giving tours to more than 40 people a day. Since then, the Brills have expanded to offer helicopter trips and have secured the government’s blessing to guide 475 people a day. During the less-dangerous times of the season, you can explore the mountain unguided. They also are starting to offer heli trips in the Northwestern Chugach range in Alaska, provided you impress one of the guides enough to get a recommendation.
The mountain is about as low-frills as you can imagine. There are no warm and cozy lodges awaiting you at the end of the day, but rather a giant tent with no electricity or plumbing, heated by a wood stove. You can buy beer in the tent, but be prepared to use an outhouse should you drink too much.
At the beginning of the day, the guides siphon off the guests into groups of no more than eight. Guides give a short safety talk, making sure everyone knows how to use the avalanche beacons, and then everyone heads up the lift. My dad, brother and I got paired with a group of flatlanders from Minnesota. After a 40-minute walk that should have taken 20, one older gentleman in the group took one look at the 35-degree slope we were preparing to descend and turned around. A few of the flatlanders had some ski trouble that took some serious time to resolve, and so the rest of us skied down to the bottom, where a shuttle was waiting to drive us back to the chairlift.
We met a new guide, as the old one was still busy with the flatlanders, and ascended the mountain again, this time walking about 10 minutes to a run called “Splitski.” This run was the highlight of the day. Even though it hadn’t snowed for about 10 days, the snow was still deep and untracked. At the bottom of the run, we turned, panting, looked back up at what we had just ridden and gaped. It was an avalanche path, a steep white river carved into the blanket of pine trees of the mountain, something you’d look at and never in your life consider riding. And then we went back up and did it a few more times. It was snowboarding nirvana: perfect snow, no crowds, and, thanks to the mountain’s steep fall line, nary a catwalk in sight.
There are a few lodging options in Silverton (check www.silvertonmountain.com for more info), and the town itself is very small and very dead in the winter. One exception is Montanya Distillers, which, oddly enough, distills its own rum in the middle of the San Juans. Check it out for some creative rum drinks.
Silverton Mountain is the ultimate inbounds, backcountry experience. It’s a small, mom-and-pop operation (literally, now — the Brills are proud parents of a new baby boy), and what it lacks in luxury it makes up for in powder. They may be aspiring to indoor plumbing, they may make you hike, and they may mess up your sandwich order, but the overall experience of riding Silverton Mountain is absolutely unforgettable.