Skiing and snowboarding in Silverton's San Juans are for experts only

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 26, 2010; 10:11 AM

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.

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