Double Diamonds in the Rough

Silverton Mountain (North America’s newest resort) points it straight downhill.

Riding powder with my friends.” Ask any pro rider what their ideal day of riding is, and nine times out of ten that’s the answer you’ll get. Not filming a kicker with Whitey, not jibbing rails at Bear, not even riding a perfect summer pipe at Hood—just fresh powder and friends. It’s hard to talk about freeriding without coming off as some kind of kook, but really, that’s half the fun of freeriding—kooking out with your friends.

The fun starts at the top of the run, looking down scoping the possibilities. Yanking your jacket sleeves over your gloves, tightening your bindings, adjusting your goggles, and then, when no one’s looking, dropping in first—later suckas. Pull a layback slasher on the windlip, huck off a ten-foot cliff, point it, spray it, and end the run with a delirious shit-eating grin. Freeriding is F-U-N.

A Snowboarder’s Mountain

Snowboarders Aaron Brill and Jenny Ader opened the “experts only” resort of Silverton in Southern Colorado two years ago. Aaron says he got the idea when he was riding at Craigieburn Valley Ski Field in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. The three rope-tow mountain filled with narrow chutes and wide-open bowls advertised, “Something for everyone … except beginners.” (This was Aaron’s first clue that the fleet of chairlifts, snowcat groomers, and Schwarzeneggeresque European ski-school instructors standard at other resorts weren’t necessarily mandatory ingredients.)

Brill and Ader spent the next couple years road-tripping around the U.S., checking different areas to start their own Craigieburn. They scouted locations in Utah, Montana, and Nevada for places with closely concentrated lines on the topographic map—this indicates steeps. “Colorado never occurred to me ’cause I thought it was all flat,” says Aaron. That was before he saw the 13,000-to-14,000-foot-high San Juan Peaks. “I knew the minute I saw it—it was perfect. All the roads were in place from the mining that had been done here, and the local economy was suffering after the mines closed.” Aaron pieced together the 42 mining claims that jigsaw across Silverton mountain. He then found silent investors and let Jenny deal with the government paperwork. Aaron recruited some friends to help him cut down a row of trees to make way for an old Mammoth Mountain chairlift that he’d brought out of retirement. They put up a heated bubble tent with a rollout fully stocked bar, a double-wide outhouse, and completed the scene with a dirt parking lot patrolled by a couple mangy dogs. And that’s all there is to the resort part of the newest resort in the U.S., and the first one ever started by snowboarders.

No Traverses, No Flats

The San Juans—the youngest and steepest range of the Rocky Mountains—rise up on either side of the dirt road that follows a polluted, Tang-colored creek from the old mining town of Silverton six miles to the mountain. From the base area, the 1,900-foot chairlift drops groups off at the top of the lift, but not necessarily the top of the run. Short hikes are mandatory for accessing a lot of the terrain. (The runs don’t end at the bottom of the mountain, either—a gutted UPS truck nicknamed the Ultimate Powder Shuttle takes groups from the bottom of the runs back around to the chairlift.)

The 2,000-vertical-foot fall-line trails on the front side of Silverton aren’t logged runs—they’re natural avalanche paths that start in the steep Alpine area called Billboard. The gullies have names like Split Ski, Rope, String, and Thread—which until recently were avalanche paths under observation by the Forest Service and local Silverton Avalanche School. (What Silverton doesn’t spend on grooming machines, it spendsn explosives to control the natural avalanche cycles.)

Continuing around the far side of the mountain, the terrain gets into more varied high-Alpine-style , chutes, cliffs, tight trees, continuing through areas called Waterfall, Mandatory Air, and Nightmare, which are riddled with red-rock structures making for terrain with the feel of the Canyonlands and Arches National Parks in Utah. This whole area lurks under the heavy shadow of the looming 13,487-foot Storm Peak, the last and farthest hikable frontier.

As you might expect from a mountain founded by a couple of snowboarders, the terrain is steep and varied—you don’t have to climb into the backseat just to keep your board moving downhill, and you won’t be doing the butt wiggle and diligently farming snow on some wide-open glacier.

A Silverton Test Drive

Colorado locals Gretchen Bleiler, Matt Peterson, and Chad Otterstrom hightailed it south from familiar Summit County resorts to Silverton last winter for what Chad called “the funnest snowboard trip I’ve ever been on.” Four days of untracked powder riding, bluebird conditions, and no crowds, a cozy bed-and-breakfast with homemade waffles and granola in a quaint little town that looks like it could be an old Hollywood movie set propped up on two-by-fours.

On the first night, the snow was coming down so heavy that the group got stranded on the wrong side of the San Juan Skyway in Ouray. The next day they were shredding 2,000 vertical of waist-deep on a mountain shared with only 40 other people, grilling up their own steaks at the Explorers Club, and resting their heads on fluffy pillows at the Inn Of The Rockies Bed And Breakfast.

Gretchen Bleiler, an admittedly park- and pipe-oriented snowboarder says, “I didn’t really know what to expect. It was an amazing experience. I scared myself every day. Wide-open runs filled with powder to be slashed, tighter lines, lines with pillows, cliff drops, a windlip jump, cornices—you name it, we did it. I left Silverton with a new appreciation for the backcountry.”

Gretchen also liked the guiding: “I haven’t had a whole lot of opportunities to go out and ride in the backcountry. Aaron took us around every day and showed us all the best features and a really good time. Without him it wouldn’t have been the same. Every day he wore this crazy hat and carried ski poles. He doesn’t have the latest snowboard equipment, and he doesn’t care.”

Matt Peterson agreed, “The guiding was awesome—they’d take you to all the stuff you wanted to do, and even some stuff you didn’t, which never happens anywhere else.”

With its one chairlift, black diamond runs, and almost total lack of on- or off-hill facilities, Silverton redefines expectations for what a resort should be (the use of the word “resort” isn’t even a good fit for it). Maybe it’s the beginning of a back-to-the-roots movement, maybe it’s a one-time anomaly lurking like undiscovered gold deep in the San Juans. Whatever the case, at Silverton, the terrain and the riding take the spotlight. Aaron guarantees, “It’s all powder and no pressure.” All you have to do is call ahead and reserve some tickets—and bring your friends. Because if you’re to believe what the pros keep saying about powder days and friends, you’ve got your best days of snowboarding coming at you.

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A Day The Silverton Way

Call and make reservations at Silverton in advance.

9:00 a.m.: Meet at the mountain ready to ride. Sign a waiver, pay 99 dollars per person, rent equipment and avalanche gear (if you don’t have your own beacon, probe, and shovel), order a lunch (or bring your own), and split up into groups with a guide.

10:00a.m.—3:30p.m.: Ride lift, shred pow. Expect to get about five runs in a day.

3:30 p.m.: Check out the bar in the base area.

 

Silverton Mountain Stats

Chairs: One

Base elevation: 10,400

Top of chair: 12,300

Average annual snowfall: 400 inches

Ticket prices: $99 Guided (plus $3 for a Colorado hiker’s pass which covers search and rescue)

Reservations: (970) 387-5706. (Currently only 40 people per day but they have approval for up to 475.)

Dates: Thursday—Sunday, November 27 through mid-April.

Terrain: 100-percent advanced

Steepest run: 55 degrees

Easiest run: 25—30 degrees

Closest town: Durango, 50 miles

Web site: silvertonmountain.com

Suggested lodging: Silverton Hostel (970) 387-0115, The Inn Of The Rockies Bed And Breakfast (Alma House) (970) 387-5336

Suggested dining: Avalanche Coffee Shop, Explorers Club, Miners Tavern, Pasta La Vista.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and split up into groups with a guide.

10:00a.m.—3:30p.m.: Ride lift, shred pow. Expect to get about five runs in a day.

3:30 p.m.: Check out the bar in the base area.

 

Silverton Mountain Stats

Chairs: One

Base elevation: 10,400

Top of chair: 12,300

Average annual snowfall: 400 inches

Ticket prices: $99 Guided (plus $3 for a Colorado hiker’s pass which covers search and rescue)

Reservations: (970) 387-5706. (Currently only 40 people per day but they have approval for up to 475.)

Dates: Thursday—Sunday, November 27 through mid-April.

Terrain: 100-percent advanced

Steepest run: 55 degrees

Easiest run: 25—30 degrees

Closest town: Durango, 50 miles

Web site: silvertonmountain.com

Suggested lodging: Silverton Hostel (970) 387-0115, The Inn Of The Rockies Bed And Breakfast (Alma House) (970) 387-5336

Suggested dining: Avalanche Coffee Shop, Explorers Club, Miners Tavern, Pasta La Vista.