By Marc Peruzzi | Photographs by Scott DW Smith
Aaron Brill wears layers. Diesel and jet fuel boost the water repellency of his work shell. A tattered puffy and what looks like three dog-haired fleeces in various stages of zippering insulate his lanky frame.
Watch him stroll across the Silverton Mountain parking lot toward the double chair in the low light of a January morning, and you’d swear he was a strung out lift mechanic. But then, all the employees of this backcountry ski hill in Colorado’s San Juans move through winter in the same world-weary slouch. These are not the well kempt, big-toothed guides of yesteryear. None of them can wedel for shit.
King of the proud non-wedelers is Brill, the co-owner and co-founder (along with his wife Jenny) of an idea that has saved the soul of skiing. Even more messed up than that bold assertion? This Powder Messiah, this Maud’Dib of fluff, rides a snowboard with two ski poles like some crazed French extremist from the ’80s.
I wrote the first feature story on Silverton Mountain for Poudre magazine in 2001 after skiing with Brill during year one of the Brillian Calendar. I went in a skeptic and came out a member of the sect. To skiing purists, Silverton is Jonestown—minus the cyanide smoothies.
And what is so captivating about the place, you ask? It’s not the base lodge, which is a tent. It’s not the terrain—although that one double chair offers up some of the most enticing 45–50 degree faces, glades, and chutes in North America. And it’s not the snowfall—the Silverton microclimate consistently delivers some of the deepest powder in the Rockies. Any seasoned skier would love those attributes, but it’s not like you can’t find similar skiing in Utah, Wyoming, or British Columbia.
Physically, Silverton matters because the place is siiiiick. But Silverton matters metaphysically, as platonic form, because the experiment succeeded. In an age of liability paralysis and ski resorts run like day care centers, it proved that resorts could let skiers challenge themselves, open sketchy terrain, mitigate even extreme avalanche risk, say things to customers like “no, you’re not good enough,” and, when the natural world said it was OK, unleash the elite skiing public on the wilderness. They still don’t have a groomer.
No resort GM would ever admit it, but many watched as successive winters thawed in Silverton without the prophesied failures. The ones with a love of the sport followed the Brills’ lead. As evidence, you need only look a few mountain passes away at Telluride, which has gone from a great collection of steep cut runs—both groomed and bumped—to what it is today, a world-class destination with hundreds of acres of newly opened alpine terrain that looks and skis much like the inbounds backcountry of Silverton.
As Silverton Mountain enters its 15th season and Silverton Mountain Guides enters its ninth year of operating in Alaska, the naysayers, of which there were legion, have long since choked down their greasy crow. Mountain caught up with Aaron Brill to reminisce.
I look back, and I don’t know what made me think I could do it. But I jumped in anyway.
The people who didn’t like us then still dislike us with passion. But we’re going about our business.
Back at inception some heavy hitters in the avalanche industry told everyone that would listen that Silverton would fail. If I’m going to fail, why is that your issue? I wondered. That still stumps me. Let me fail.
The frustrating thing with bureaucracy is every time some so-called expert tells the government you can’t do something, the government will want to shut you down.
There are no avalanche experts. You can be an expert scientist, but there are too many unknowns with avalanches. We all live on the novice scale.
We’re all pretty humble people. We were able to develop our own style of avalanche mitigation and our own style of guiding that works for us.
In 2005, we realized we needed a helicopter for avalanche control across the valley. We needed the heli, but we needed to pay for it with heli-skiing. So we hired a Bell 47 Mash helicopter from the ’50s. No door. Sat three people. Gave the operator a Yakima rack that he modified. Pilot, guide, and one guest.
Now we run a Eurocopter B3e, and 40 percent of the people who come here do so because we have the heli. It became the backup to the lift. If it hasn’t snowed in three weeks, they can get a heli-bump.
My bus driver does our market research.
People need experiences like we offer. The big ski areas are only getting more homogenous. Lift lines from outer space. A powder day at Vail isn’t what it once was.
The weather has changed over the years, but the microclimate we identified in 1999 has not. We often get twice as much snow as Telluride now. We used to get roughly the same.
There’s a gap that storms tracking out of Utah’s Cottonwood Canyons follow. The clouds get pinched over Ouray and then hit Silverton. There are portions of our heli terrain that get a third of the snow that we get in the Spanish moss zones by the lift.
I went to Alaska for a friend’s bachelor party. We chartered a heli and explored the Tordrillos. We had three down days. There wasn’t much to do besides shoot guns, so I researched how to start a heli-operation in Alaska, applied for a permit, got a million acres.
Way back in college I ran the numbers for a heli-ski business and I was like, I don’t see how this works. I now have more acreage than any operator in North America. Twenty million acres.
The clientele is there. The whole industry has made skiers better: equipment; new terrain at resorts; film companies like Teton Gravity Research always looking for new lines.
But because of that you now have a lot of people who are in the backcountry that are liabilities. At Silverton, we don’t sugarcoat it. This type of skiing is dangerous. I cringe when I see people taking their kids into the backcountry.
There’s plenty of false confidence out there. People think they’re better than they are. I read a poll recently that showed that the U.S. is 16th in skills and education, but we lead the world in confidence.
Did you know that before I eventually landed on Silverton, I looked for a place to put a lift in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah? I’d only skied Colorado once in my life. Half a day at Copper. I just assumed that Colorado wouldn’t have room for another ski area.
From the Winter 2015 issue.