By Jason Blevins | Photographs by Jason Blevins/SMG
“You scared, JB?” Aaron Brill’s voice asks me over the crackling radio.
I choke on my answer, fumbling with the radio as I stare down a near vertical curtain of powder spilling off an unnamed, never-before-skied peak in the Northern Chugach of Alaska. Brill is in the helicopter overhead.
“You really should be,” he says, not bothering to wait for a response or mask his chuckling as he hovers above.
As owner of southern Colorado’s rogue Silverton Mountain, fear is Brill’s business model. In the Lower 48, he’s redefined expert, lift-served skiing, injecting the staid industry with some of the wild adventure typically found in La Grave, France, or the coastal ranges of Alaska. You’ve probably read about Silverton in the pages of Outside, Powder, even Forbes. It’s a rare success story in the world of modern ski area launches—mostly because it’s a bona fide ski area, not a condo development with overpriced burgers and a heated gondola. And now Brill, the nascent helicopter pilot, seasoned guide, and visionary of glissé, is forging a back-to-basics mission in Alaska, where, with a cowboy crew of top-tier guides and studiously selected clients, he is reigniting that base, elemental fear that was once integral to big mountain style Alaska skiing and snowboarding.
Apparently, I am here to act as a fear test monkey. Oh, your heart skips a bit when the heli pilot toes into a knife ridge, JB? Just wait until he jams part of the tail into a fin of snow and you have to hump the ski basket while dangling over gripping exposure to get out. So, you’re uneasy lighting explosives and dropping them out of a helicopter? Hold on a second while I pile 20 bags of ANFO on your lap and take the doors off the bird.
Armed with a 2012 Astar B3—canary yellow and adorned with Silverton’s foreboding “falling man” graphics—Brill and his Silverton Mountain Guides are charging deep in Alaska’s Chugach each spring, offering clients the chance to notch first descents every day, all day. It’s a throwback to the pioneering, decades-gone days of AK heli-skiing, when a hundred bucks bought a quick drop on any peak you liked. Today, heli-skiing is big business, with all the posh trappings of low-angle cat-skiing or a luxury spa where risk has been reduced to a palatable-to-all teaspoon of daring. And, truth be told, most clients just aren’t anywhere ready to ski the big lines they see in ski films.
Brill, who prefers the label of pioneer over cowboy (I asked), is offering what takes the majority of paying clients years to earn at most AK heli-ops: A chance to go big from day one. He posts two guides with each group and prescreens every client during the heart of winter at the sister heli-skiing operation he heads out of Silverton Mountain. There, he runs them through a pucker filter and watches for the telling flinches that would spell trouble in the big peaks of AK. “Our goal is higher adventure. We tailored our AK ops to deliver just that, by doing something no one else does,” Brill says.
This past May, Brill set off on what may be the most outlandish heli-skiing endeavor ever, notching first descents and AK classics with a couple pals while flying his ship south from Girdwood to San Diego. For some reason he invited me along for the ride (see test monkey note above). As if eager to taste that dirty-penny fear he instills in his clients all season, as we flew, Brill and lead guide Skylar Holgate notched the most audacious lines of their lives. They carved monumental tracks down the classic Sphinx, the rarely ripped Mendenhall Towers, and a dozen unnamed and unknown peaks in the Chugach, Canada’s Coast Range, Washington’s Cascades, and California’s Sierra.
OK, the trip was really just a 10-day bender for two big mountain snowboarders who spend up to 200 days a year ferrying clients down steep terrain. We didn’t actually ski a single “client line.” The terrain we landed on quickly scared me off, although prior to the trip, I considered myself a decent skier. I spent the majority of the 40-plus hours of heli-time craning out the window with a camera.
After we close down Juneau’s Imperial Saloon while a storm rages over the Juneau Icefield, a window of sun shatters the thick gray, indicating potential blue sky conditions up high. Minutes after dawn on day three, lead pilot Trent Massie is flipping switches as the Astar whines to life and we wedge into the machine—a quilt of fuel stained Gore-Tex and weathered helmets. We break through a blanket of soupy, undulating fog over Young Bay, revealing a briefly clear sky that sparks some mutant synapse in Holgate. He starts rocking back and forth in his seat like a fore-and-aft Stevie Wonder. His eyes are unblinking—staring east. Brill—who does most of the flying under the eye of veteran Massie—studies the Alaska Gazetteer road map as he pilots the ship out over the Icefield. “I’m just going to head east. It should show up,” he says, discarding the map we’ve employed to navigate much of the trip through Alaska.
Signs of avalanches are everywhere, with entire villages of debris filling nearly every inch of valley floor. Massive crevasses, many jammed with bus-sized chunks of freshly tumbled slab, yawn beneath fluted walls of white. Somehow, Holgate takes this as a positive sign. “Aaron said this might happen,” he says, continuing to sway as he canvasses the peaks on the horizon. “Where is it?”
Then the ship crests a saddle and the Mendenhall Towers burst into view, brilliant white, drenched in sunshine. “Your controls,” Brill mutters as Massie takes over. Hovering over the line, it appears all but unskiable, with terminal, technical lines spilling over multi-story cliffs and bergshrund scarring every feasible exit.
“You want in JB?” Another Brill joke.
Now Holgate’s uncontrollable rocking makes sense. He’s been visualizing a descent of Mendenhall for 20 years and it’s finally in front of him. Dave Hatchett’s first descent in 1993—when Holgate was 12—pretty much legitimized big mountain snowboarding, proving to the world that sideways riders were perfectly capable of the bold mountaineering exploits traditionally owned by skiers. Holgate, a graceful, undaunted rider who lives to share the thrills of snowboarding through year-round gigs as a lead guide in Silverton, Alaska, and South America, has been pining for this moment.
From across the valley, the pair hurriedly scope their planned descents. Holgate will push left, ending with a mandatory traverse across the fluted face, mere feet above a 300-foot cliff. Brill is going center, down the gut. Paper, rock, scissors. Holgate’s balled fist earns him first dibs. They paw through the snow, checking for weak layers. It’s a half-ass snow analysis but it reveals the unspoken: it doesn’t matter. If one thing goes wrong on Mendenhall, it’s game over. And the list of things that can go wrong is too lengthy for detailed risk assessment. So they make an instinctual call—honed from a decade plundering the sketchiest snowpack in North America in southern Colorado’s San Juans. And their guts say go.
“We’re at 95 percent power!” Massie hollers as the duo crawl from the screaming helicopter. He’s uneasy with the precarious unload. We leave them clinging to a ridge mere inches wide. Easing off the throttle, Massie is incredulous. “These guys are at a whole other level, man,” he says over the radio. “I can’t really wrap my head around what they’re doing. What we’re doing.” His window for safety maneuvers while hovering on the top of the knife ridge at near full power is as slim as it gets.
Holgate starts his line without a single turn. Seconds tick by as he gathers speed, giving himself a 100-yard head start on the barrelling sluff. Hitting tiny bumps in the snow leaves 40-foot gaps in his track as he plummets. He arcs mach-speed turns that are more aesthetic than utilitarian—there’s no speed checking going on. He’s down in less than a minute. Brill, tentative on the top, follows with a more calculated descent, dodging avalanche-like sluff that’s audible from the open doors of the helicopter hovering 50 yards away.
Back in the ship, the boys are giddy. Yesterday, 400 miles to the northwest, they hit the monolithic Sphinx and today Mendenhall Towers. “Knocking out the classics!” Holgate screams into the radio. “The stars really aligned today. A billion different things could have gone wrong.”
Brill, always reserved, unleashes a rare cheer as he pushes back to Juneau for a fuel top off before heading south. “That sluff, it sounded like a train behind me. Serious sluff management up there,” he says, peering out the window at the fractures scarring every ridgetop of the Juneau Icefield. “You kind of had to suppress that self-preservation instinct. You had to push past all these low-angle slides everywhere. I mean, look at this. I’ve seen more avalanche activity in the past two days than I’ve seen in five years in AK.”
Operating a backcountry ski area for 10 years in southern Colorado’s southern San Juans—home to one of the most avalanche-prone snowpacks in North America—lends Brill and Holgate a unique, if work-calloused perspective on snow safety. Using a normal backcountry traveler’s risk assessment protocol, they wouldn’t even drive up the Cement Creek drainage to the base of Silverton Mountain after a big storm; even the road is surrounded by massive slide paths.
The broader ski industry said the Silverton experiment couldn’t be done. And there were those who doubted they could safely open a Silverton branch in Alaska, too. Thing is, they keep doing it. Holgate calls it “the Aaron Brill factor.” When he interviewed for an intern gig at Silverton Mountain nine years ago, he loaded into Brill’s ancient, battered pickup for a trip up County Road 110 to the lift. Holgate said he concentrated hard on not grabbing the oh-shit handle as Brill casually drifted 60 miles per hour skids through icy, creek-flanked S-turns.
“I knew it was a test. He was seeing what kind of comfort level I have. Aaron is always like, ‘Oh, you aren’t scared yet? Well, let’s step it up.’ I love that too. Getting clients I know can handle it and pushing them a little bit out of their comfort zone. That’s Aaron’s M.O.,” says Holgate, who rode Silverton Mountain’s aptly named Gnar Couloir for the first time with Brill. “There’s a high I get from working with Aaron that I don’t get anywhere else.”
Silverton Guides slouch at the shoulders, wear ratty gear to extinction, and send off slacker vibes in unspoken tribute to Brill’s dress code and demeanor. But don’t assume by Brill’s hard-to-fathom persona or the lines that he rides that he is some kind of thrill seeking renegade, inching ever closer to the bonfire’s flames. He wears oversized headphones over his earplugs when unloading the helicopter. He chomps a custom mouthpiece while riding. His mime-like devotion to sunblock is borderline obsessive. He is just as acutely aware of danger as he is opportunity for adventure. None of what he’s done would be possible without it.
Five years ago he saw one of those danger/adventure opportunities in Alaska. He kept meeting Silverton Mountain skiers who were hungry for the next step. They’d been to Alaska—many of them several times—and still hadn’t been anywhere near the lines they saw in the movies. A rarely discussed strategy in Alaska heli-skiing is the baby-step progression for repeat clients. Sometimes it takes years—and, subsequently, tens of thousands of dollars—for clients to earn the biggest lines with the established helicopter outfits. Brill saw a way to sidestep the traditional approach by testing his clients first at Silverton Mountain and going directly to the goods in Alaska.
After several months of permit accumulation focusing on the Northern Chugach around the Knik Glacier, Brill brought Silverton Mountain to the Last Frontier. He’d spent most of his 30s wading through federal approval to access 1,700-plus Bureau of Land Management acres around his own 220 acres at Silverton Mountain. The process involved spending at least a million dollars more than originally planned during intensive environmental review. But eventually it resulted in the only ski area permit on Bureau of Land Management acreage in the Lower 48. Suffice it to say, he was undaunted moving north, dealing with land managers and logistics to offer a mobile helicopter skiing experience based out of RVs. Everything curtained with dank ski gear.
“Brill clearly doesn’t fear what should be very difficult to achieve,” said Todd Jones, who as a founder of Teton Gravity Research helped open and develop heli-skiing terrain around Haines, Alaska a decade ago. This year Jones filmed parts of TGR’s The Dream Factory with Brill’s crew in the Northern Chugach, pioneering lines in a zone never touched by heli-skiing. “There are very few people you will meet who have dealt and interacted with Brill who aren’t going off when they realize what they couldn’t do, he has, somehow, someway, done it. And he’s done it right.”
Like this very trip: Brill’s long-pondered dream flight from Alaska to San Diego began with powder-choked first descents and ended with 20 slushy turns packed onto a melting strip of snow atop smoggy Mount Baldy in the shadow of metro Los Angeles. Still, it’s yet another step in Brill’s exploration.
“It’s a very simple concept, but for whatever reason, people seem to overlook it,” he says. “Silverton Mountain started with a very simple idea involving the best possible skiing opportunity in the world. I said it with Silverton and I said it about our trip—I can’t believe no one has done this before. I don’t see why more people don’t pursue a similar vision for personal adventure. Why limit that? Why say ‘It can’t be done’? The West was pioneered by adventure-seekers looking for new treasures in new lands. I want to share that adventure.”
From the Winter 2013 issue.