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Mar

31

The Silverton Crucible Experience

Raising skiers means eventually letting them graduate.

Silverton

 

by Marc Peruzzi

Back in 2001, my car was well matched to Silverton Mountain. An ’89 Saab 900 with 160,000 miles on it, I’d picked it up for $500 thanks to a mangled rear quarter panel. I banged out the dents with a handheld sledge, and bolted a roof box on top. The studded snows I bought nearly doubled the value. My skis, as the cliché goes, were worth more than the car. Like the streets of Silverton that December, the Saab was all whited out. It was a skier’s car for a skier’s mountain. My wife Sarah was riding in the bucket seat—a once preppie brushed taupe. Our black lab Kramer slept in the back with our car-seated six-month-old son Jake, named after my wife’s childhood dog.

When I pulled the Saab into the Silverton lot that morning on the mountain’s inaugural season, it was still well below zero and a pack of vicious mongrels circled the car eager to shred old Kramer—this was before Silverton owners Aaron and Jenny Brill instituted their no vicious mongrels policy. Sarah slid over and took the wheel, and I leaned in to kiss everyone goodbye before they spent the day in what was then a snowed in ghost town haunted by a small cast of emphysemic miners.

I felt a little forlorn watching them drive off, and I recall thinking that someday Jake would be skiing with me. But I’d be lying if I said I thought he’d be skiing with me at Silverton. I was there on assignment and wasn’t planning on returning. I didn’t even take him out of the car that weekend—on account of the dogs.

Fourteen years later, and we’ve long since scattered Kramer’s ashes on a mountainside in Montana. Had to trade the Saab in for a car with working taillights to accommodate daughter Ada and a few mongrels of our own. And I’ve counted myself lucky to ski with my family scores of days each season.

For the past 12 years, Jake has been my most consistent ski partner. We drive through storms, boot up in muddy parking lots, eat stew from thermoses, ski through the lunch hour, and generally avoid the trappings of the resort industry with Captain Fantastic fervor. Jake’s never skied Vail or Beaver Creek, largely because I’m unwilling to pay for parking. Ninety percent of our ski days are spent at our unpretentious local hills—Eldora and Loveland. We ski in temps so cold my pinkie toes have frozen into the triangular shape of Toblerone. Accustomed to manmade snow, Jake can lay a ski on edge like a New Hampshire kid. Once a season, I spoil him with a trip to Snowbird to test skis.

Raising skiers isn’t as easy. When they’re little, you have to keep them alive. “Why are you standing in that icy creek with your boots on?” When they’re older, you have to deal with their mouthy pushback. “If you want to spend nine bucks on a side of fries, bring your own damn money.” But because Irish, Italian, and in Jake’s case, French Canadian blood runs hot in our veins, sometimes we knock heads in the mornings. Still, by about 10:30 a.m., there’s nobody I’d rather ski with. On the chairlift we crack jokes and talk about the natural world. He knows not to fall in no-fall terrain, hikes better than most, and on or off trail squares up to the fall line and goes. Like my old Saab, he’s well matched with Silverton Mountain. So after sizing him up with pride much of last winter, that’s where I took him.

Silverton hides its soul from the resort conglomerates, which do to ski area character what McDonald’s does to chicken parts. There’s one lift, a secondhand double that used to haul skiers at Mammoth. You hike for your turns from its terminus; ski with a guide and all the requisite avalanche gear; shuttle back to the lift in prison buses and a creepy clown bread truck, and finish each day feeling accomplished before curling up with a pint next to a coughing wood stove in a base lodge disguised as a tent. Spiritually rootsy, it’s reminiscent of the first ski areas in the U.S., back when a can-do operator would jury-rig a rope tow out of an old Ford and a tree trunk and let everyone have at it. It’s also the steepest and most diverse inbounds terrain in Colorado. And if you hit it right, the powder skiing competes with Alta, with only a fraction of the traffic. I go every couple years to build up my immunity to all that is inauthentic.

I also like exposing Jake to self-reliant role models. As much of a taskmaster as I am, for the sake of expediency I do too much of the work Jake should be doing himself. Little things like strapping skis together and attaching them to his pack for the staircase hike up to The Billboard, the summit above Silverton’s East Face we’re heading to. Our guide, Marc Kloster, immediately sniffs this out, gives Jake a quick demo, and makes him do it on his own. He coaches him through rock and ice on the climb, works with him throughout the weekend on line selection, and isn’t afraid to hammer home a point when Jake disregards a directive and encroaches too far out on a cornice. Silverton Guides are known for their “harden the fuck up” demeanor when it comes to client relations. At no time is that more appropriate than with a 14-year-old.

There’s a great passage in James Galvin’s novel The Meadow in which a pioneer and his two boys are caught in an upslope blizzard many miles from their cabin. As the youngest begins to drift off from exposure and exhaustion, the father kicks him in the ass—hard—to keep him awake and alive. Silverton is now playing that paternal ass-kicking role.

This is by design. Jake’s keen to ski big lines in the backcountry someday, but I promised myself I’d keep him out of uncontrolled avalanche terrain as long as possible. Silverton Mountain engages heavily in avalanche control, but they still run the place as an “inbounds backcountry” area. It’s an ideal introduction to ski mountaineering with a focus on moving safely through big mountains.

Hiking a glazed bootpack on a 13,000-foot ridge that at times forces you to all fours—in a crosswind, with your fat skis strapped to your pack—is not your typical resort experience. We pass wheezing hikers, and within 20 minutes we’re standing above Silverton’s East Face. Below us, a hanging snowfield pours into a series of short chutes. It’s not extreme terrain, but a fall would have consequences. The top skis smooth with sugary, old-and-cold untracked powder. Jake sends it into waves. Then we line up for an aesthetic rock lined couloir. The shot is easily three skiers wide, and the bomber snowpack isn’t avalanching today, but we’ll follow good protocol and ski it one at a time before hooking under the ledge to a safe zone. Before dropping in, I tell Jake to have fun, but to rein in the speed and ski it like a French ski mountaineer. Silverton’s helicopter is in Alaska this late in the year, and, as in the backcountry, injuries get complicated when you’re this far out.

I size him up before skiing the line and moving to a vantage point below. His ski pants are grimy at the thigh and frayed at the cuff; his boots well battered from heavy use. But it’s his eyes that tell me he’s locked in. There’s an alacrity about him that his study hall teacher has never seen. Squaring up to the fall line, he links strong, symmetrical no-fall turns in the shadows of the cliffs before arcing out into the sun on the apron. He’s grinning when he asks how he skied. I give him the nod.

My mind flashes images of the helpless infant in the Saab circled by dogs, but the memories don’t mesh with the capable young man now beside me. Children need protection. Adolescents need the crucible of a mountain. He’s well suited to this place.

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