Fresh steeps for skiers spell hope for an old mining town

Forget the golf courses and condos: Colorado's newest ski area is all about extremes.

A "backcountry ski area" may be an oxymoron, but it's the best way to describe Silverton Mountain, Colorado's first new ski area in more than 20 years.

It belongs more to the raw origin of skiing than to the sport's current cush incarnation that owes as much to chic real estate and $15-a-bowl lodge chili as it does to the thrill of the descent.

Here just one two-seater lift takes skiers and snowboarders past dramatic inclines to the top of expert-only terrain. Most runs require a bit of hiking – and a lot of nerve. The steep pitches and narrow chutes are daunting enough to keep all but seasoned skiers and daredevils away. Only guided trips are available this year. But eventually a few hundred skiers – required to demonstrate avalanche-safety knowledge and to carry a beacon and snow shovel – will be allowed up on $25 lift tickets each day.

Aaron Brill and Jenny Ader, the mountain's spunky cofounders, believe it's an idea whose time has come both for an old mining town struggling economically, and a sport looking for new extremes.

Ever since he visited the bare-bones ski clubs of New Zealand a decade ago, Mr. Brill, a freckled mountain enthusiast who still wears Sorels when he snowboards, has dreamed of a ski area that simply offers great skiing, not pricey condos or golf courses.

"It's a scrappy idea, and that's the way the people in Silverton are," he says while riding the chairlift up 2,000 feet. "It's not going to change the character of their town."

If the vision succeeds, however, it could be a turning point for this 19th-century clapboard village, struggling economically since the last mine closed in 1991. Surrounded on all sides by the sheer peaks of the San Juans, arguably Colorado's most spectacular mountain range, Silverton is populated by a rag-tag crew of ex-miners, aging hippies, artists, outdoor enthusiasts, and reclusive mountainmen – all fiercely loyal to the town's unique culture.

Though the dramatic peaks draw more than 300,000 visitors here each summer, most via the tourist-drawing Silverton-Durango railroad, the rugged winter changes everything. The railroad stops running, shops get boarded up, and the town's 400 residents struggle to get by. Even just a hundred extra visitors a day would be an economic boon and, largely for this reason, residents are rooting for the ski area, expected to draw 100 to 400 a day.

Already, in just the first season the difference is notable. Lured by tales of waist-deep powder, virgin terrain, and no crowds, hardcore skiers and snowboarders have been making the pilgrimage for $99 guided ski tours, as well as for occasional avalanche courses.

Not everyone is thrilled. Some snow-safety experts are skeptical that the ski areacan keep clients safe in prime avalanche country. "It's the most dangerous snowpack in the world," says Jerry Roberts, a forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in Silverton. "You can bomb it into submission, but ... it will require a lot of money and a lot of experience."

For the time being, the low booms of avalanche explosives – used to trigger small slides that minimize larger slides – are regular background noise for ski area visitors, and Brill acknowledges that they eat up the largest chunk of his budget. But he feels confident with the snow-safety professionals he's hired from ski areas like Telluride and Crested Butte, and says he doesn't plan on letting skiers roam unchecked through the slide-prone basins.

Everyone in town was skeptical of his plan initially, Brill adds, but now that the lift is running and skiers are arriving, nearly all the residents have come on board. The town board even drafted a letter to the BLM, urging it to grant the permit required for the area to begin nonguided operations.

AND for a project that, quips Brill, "costs less than a decent condo in Telluride," it seems like a pretty good deal for Silverton. It is, say locals, if the draw of the place doesn't unwittingly change it.

"Silverton is a little more third-world than the rest of the United States – it's in a good way backward," laughs Kyle Richards, a potter and ex-Peace Corps volunteer with three kids (or more than 5 percent of the student population) in the local school.

Indeed, John Grant, a friendly woodworker with a bushy black beard who's lived here 30 years, is adamant about retaining that "backward" character. "We don't want Telluride or Vail," he says.

For the time being, there's little danger of that happening. Silverton Mountain is still just drawing a trickle of extreme skiing enthusiasts, and even the longterm plans include just one 2,200 square-foot lodge at the base and 10 rustic overnight cabins.

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