words by Marc Peruzzi | photos by Scott DW Smith
The following is an e-mail exchange between my brother Greg and I from last March. Greg lives in New Hampshire.
Greg: We need to move. I can't take any more shit weather! It used to snow here in March. Winter is way too short in the East. How you doin'?
Me: I just had the best three days of powder skiing I've ever had. Hit a storm at Silverton that dropped upwards of 20" on a smooth base. Went bottomless in most of the guts and trees. Then it went bluebird. Got six heli drops and countless lift/hike runs in three days. Seriously, it was off the hook. Over the shoulder. Sorry. That plus the big day I got at the 'Bird made my entire season. I'm completely cashed right now.
Greg: It's my birthday. 50 degrees and raining hard. Send any pics. I'm wicked jealous.
I sent him some shots. It was his birthday after all.
I first skied Silverton Mountain 10 years ago on assignment for Powder magazine. The story involved a young cowboy operator named Aaron Brill who had dreams of creating a backcountry ski area in the San Juans in the mode of a La Grave, France. He'd provide the lift, guiding if you wanted it, and some après keg beer. Everything else would be up to you. There would be no grooming. No cut trails. Just steep lines and powder. The setting was a crude tent that served as a lodge a few miles outside of the defunct mining town of Silverton, which at the time was all but deserted. Packs of dogs ran the darkened streets. The entire scene stood in sharp contrast to the glitz and crowds of a Vail-type resort.
The larger setting was the wild San Juans, one of the most avalanche-prone mountain ranges on Earth. As I pointed out in the story, the vast majority of miners in the Silverton graveyard were put there by avalanches. To even get to the base area you had to drive past a dozen major slide paths. Naturally, Brill chose to string his second-hand double chairlift up into a bizarre microclimate that bled every flake out of passing storms. Over the course of an entire winter, 600 inches is not unusual. Some aspects are so wet that Spanish moss hangs from the trees. At the time, the overall vibe from avalanche experts, ski industry execs, and seasoned backcountry skiers was that the Silverton Mountain experiment was doomed to failure. There would be no way to control that amount of avalanche terrain with so few skiers. Avalanches would once again fill the local graveyard with bodies.
Except that never happened. Brill and his snow safety team and the throngs of skiers who show up each December to sidestep, beat the odds with manual labor: launching two-pound charges out of the Avalauncher from the bed of a pickup; chucking hand charges and ski cutting; and physically bootpacking—with the help of those regional skiers—entire slide paths in the early season. As a result, there has never been an avalanche related death or complete burial at Silverton Mountain during the guiding season. Silverton succeeded because of its avalanche control and its guided skiing (you can ski unguided during the shoulder seasons), but it ultimately delivered that little piece of La Grave in the San Juans.
Which brings me to those three days last winter. A buddy of mine from town, Eric, and I make the big push in The Wagon Queen Family Truckster with my dog Stella "the dingo ate my baby" Blue, drooling on our shoulders for seven hours. We arrive to a light flake falling and awake to seven inches of fluff on the hood and it's still snowing hard. By the time we get to the specially designated Silverton Mountain Dog Parking Lot, there's 10 inches on the ground and, as the French say, it's friggin' doomping. On the lift, we're in that weird halo of diffused light you get when it's going to be good.
Our guide is named Fabio Grasso, but I can't hold that against him since I'm only a vowel away from a "Marco," and neither of us are European. We follow Fabio on a short hike and then it's time for a typical Silverton Mountain Screening Lap in which the guide shakes the tree to see if any monkeys fall out. The screening comes via an off-camber choke with a small mandatory air followed by a hard right. Miss the right-hander and you sail off a cliff. To make it sporting, Fabio clears 98 percent of the fresh snow out first. Since nobody cries "momma," we're free to ski powder. We opt for tree laps, each one progressively deeper. It's the classic Silverton skiing I've pilgrimed to every winter: hike a bit; scout a line; rage to the bottom. And then the ceiling lifts, Eric and I get the heli nod, and everything changes.
To keep the AStar on hand—it's behind the outhouse—Brill had to commit to a big contract with the heli service. To make it work, he offered single drops and full days of heli-skiing to customers. But Silverton is not a gourmet food and fat cat kind of place. So Brill adapted heli-skiing to the Silverton Mountain experience. Most of the clients are workaday skiers spending their beer money for a drop or two. It's kept affordable (compared to most operations) because of that same old double chairlift. Flying a heli above 10,000 feet (everything here) burns a lot of fuel, so after the initial lift, the heli operates from the top of the chair. They fly groups cross-valley to opposite ridgelines—barely changing alitude in the process.
We shuttle to a tree line. The snow out here is deeper with no crust layer to be found. It's pure pillow-drop skiing to the bottom. I'd describe it in more detail but my hands are shaking. The next two days follow similar patterns. Chairlift, hike, untracked to the bottom, four or five runs, then two heli drops to save the legs and boost the vertical. The stuff across the valley is long and deep, and although it's not Alaska-scary, it's steeper than the terrain most heli outfits service. "By constantly monitoring the steep slopes and consistently testing," says Brill, "It allows us to ski terrain others don't. That's also expensive, which is why most operators don't do it, but people come to Silverton to ski lines. If we can, we will ski the best terrain on any given day. That's our niche, it's classic Silverton steeps but on a much bigger scale."
The customers I'm skiing with are a mix of strong skiers from the Front Range, and destination types who drove over from Telluride for the day. Most of them have never heli-skied before and they're giddy on jet fuel fumes. It's enough to make me appreciate helicopters again. I'd grown stale on the concept after getting burned by bad weather in Alaska. Sitting around waiting to ski because it's snowing too hard is a torture worthy of the Inquisition. But here, if it's puking, you can ride the lift all day. Last year there were only three down days for the heli. As I wrote to my rained-out brother, I floated enough full speed powder turns to make up for a disappointing season.
Wicked jealous yet? It's not even your birthday. Hold on, I'll send you some shots.
From the Winter 2010-11 Issue