I saw a switch flip for Steph on the edge of a chute called Rope Dee Dope. She, Katie, and I had gingerly bootpacked the wind-scoured rocks on Silverton’s ridge to where we now stood on the lip. We looked over the cornice and down into the narrow slot; it was just enough of a must-make move to give us the knee shakes. Steph had struggled a bit on the trip thanks to sea-level lungs and a shit ski season on the East Coast, where she lives. But I watched as, standing on the ridge, with her ski tips hanging over the edge, the muscle memory came back to her. She pointed it and arced confident turns down the gut of the couloir.
Ten years before, the three of us had packed our cars and headed west. We were fresh out of college in Maine and tied to some half-formed idea of ski-bum manifest destiny. A guy I’d raft-guided with promised us jobs scanning lift tickets at Beaver Creek—a mountain I’d never heard of and Katie had skied once—and we jumped.
We spent two years in that valley, living on quesadillas and shift beers from the pizza place where we worked nights, and skied every day our bodies would let us. I went from being a stiff-kneed tele skier who couldn’t turn in pow to being good enough to pass the ski-patrol test. Eventually life happened and we scattered. To Summit County then Seattle, to Boulder then Boston, but those winters became a pivot point for all of us, even if we didn’t see it at the time. On some deep level we became skids forever. The idea of the mountains as a framework for how to live—the independence and the importance of being outside—took root. Skiing shaped the places we lived and the jobs we took. It became a bar for boyfriends to clear. Katie spent her whole business-school interview talking about ski patrolling, and she still got in.
But for as much as we talked and thought about skiing, we realized, ticking back through the winters, that we hadn’t all skied together in four years. School, steady jobs, and significant others had crept in, and we couldn’t just head for the mountains on a whim anymore. So we figured we needed to go back to Colorado, because it’d been way too long.
A decade after our foray into dirtbaggery, we switched on our beacons and buckled our boots in the snow-slicked Silverton parking lot. We had decided that, if we were only going to get a weekend, we were going to do it right. We booked late flights into Durango, drove over the curves of Coal Bank and Molas Pass in the dark, and woke up to a fresh coat of snow on Silverton’s main drag. We slammed coffee and breakfast burritos at Avalanche Brewing Company and drove up Route 110, past old mine ruins and orange-tinged Cement Creek. I could barely keep the car on the road, Bieber’s most recent banger blasting, giddy about getting the band back together.
You can justifiably lump a lot of accolades on Silverton. It’s the steepest, highest ski resort in North America. When you slide off of the sole double chair and sidestep up the saddle, the terrain spans out in every direction, and also straight down. Couloirs slice through ridges, pillowy cliffs undulate down through glades, and pristine snowfields narrow into drainages. Its edges feel sharp. Before I skied there I’d heard a lot of lore about how gnarly Silverton is—the committing San Juan chutes and the shit-your-pants verticality—but I’d heard almost nothing about how peaceful it is. How the orographic magnet of Storm Peak pulls in snow, and how—because of the mountain’s unique guiding policy—that snow rarely gets skied. For most of the season you’re required to ski with a guide, in small groups. That means only 80-ish people ski there a day, and they’re carefully spaced around the mountains. It’s about as close to heli skiing as you can get without shelling out for a bird. Lift tickets, even on guided days, cost less than a day pass at Vail.
In 2002 it became the first new ski area in Colorado in 20 years. Owners Aaron and Jen Brill predicted the shift in skiing culture toward backcountry. They liked the feel of small single-lift resorts, like the club fields of New Zealand, and they wanted to make something similar, some- thing that would give people an experience that was more about the skiing and less about the resort. You’d actually be stretching to call Silverton a resort. It doesn’t have running water, much less flush toilets, and the base area is a yurt, slicked with stickers, where skiers pull ancient armchairs around a wood stove. Everything smells a little bit like wood smoke and sweated- through Gore-Tex. Silverton’s patrollers do a lot of avalanche control because of the touchy southern Colorado snowpack, but other than that they leave it alone. It’s terrain with consequences but without pretenses. There’s no sense of powder panic, and no one really cares how rad you got, because everyone is getting rad. And that, we realized almost immediately, as we took a warmup run through the untouched snow at the top of a drainage called Cabin, made it perfect for us.
There’s a narrative in the ski world, and maybe in the world in general, about boys’ trips versus girls’ trips. Somehow the chick trip has become correlated with some level of display. Like you have to wear a tutu to prove that you’re a lady. I respect that, I guess, but it doesn’t hold true for me or for most of the women I ski with. I don’t need costumes or you-go-guuuurl high-fives. I just want to go skiing and tell dirty jokes with my friends.
That doesn’t mean it’s not different. On the bootpack we stop to chat more. We get passed on the ridge by sweaty dudes with their heads down. We talk about impostor syndrome and IUDs, and there are chairlift singalongs. The girl crew is and isn’t a big deal—the three of us skiing together feels normal, but it’s also rare. And it’s even more rare for there to be an all-female group at Silverton. The people who watched me first find my footing in the mountains know how much to push me in serious terrain, and when to shut it down. So I could tell Steph to point into Rope Dee Dope because I knew she could do it, not because any of us had anything to prove.
We linked up with pro skiers Amie Engerbretson and McKenna Peterson and Skiing Magazine director of photography, Keri Bascetta, the other all-girls crew on the mountain, and even though they’re the kind of effortlessly powerful skiers who could dust us in a second, they didn’t. We dinked down through the frontside trees of the Bowling Alleys, ca-cawing at each other and switching leads.
One of the days our guide was Sheldon Kerr, who is one of only 15 female AMGA ski guides and one of four women, including owner Jen Brill, who guide at Silverton. To me, she was the personification of the place. She might be the most low-key crusher I’ve ever met. One afternoon at après, Chris Davenport, who was also skiing around Silverton, pointed over his shoulder at her and whispered, “You know she’s a badass, right?”
I asked a bunch of people, from the guides to the lifties to the new CEO, Tim Petrick, how they ended up here, working at a scruffy ski mountain up a dead-end road not close to anywhere. A lot of them came here once and it got under their skin—they couldn’t not come back, even if it wasn’t fiscally responsible. To be a guide at Silverton you have to do an unpaid internship winter or have extensive guide and patrol experience. Most of the lifties are doing the internship. There’s stiff competition to get picked to come work for free, because of the pull of the terrain and the community. “I moved to Crested Butte,” Sheldon said, “and then we did a trip to Silverton and I decided I needed to work here.”
It’s easy to feel that way, even if you come just for a couple of days. We were there in late March, the last weekend of guided skiing—there are two unguided weekends, one at each end of the season—and it’d been high and dry, but we lucked into two storm days before it went blue. We got the full smorgasbord: steep trees when the light went flat, pinner chutes when it opened up. “It’s like adult winter camp,” Katie said as we stuck our skis in the shuttle bus, which was painted with silverton mountain correctional facility, and headed back to the base for another lap.
Silverton, especially with my best friends, was the distillation of everything I love about skiing: powder, people, and pushing right along the edge of your comfort zone. It was all the goodness and none of the B.S. Who even needs indoor plumbing?
Maybe it was because we were nostalgic for the years we’d spent in the mountains, when all we had to care about was how much it snowed, but the whole trip we talked about how being there, in the spiny peaks of the San Juans, made us glad about our life choices. That at 21 we went west and didn’t ask whether we should have gotten entry-level desk jobs instead.
“It’s not a resort, it’s a mountain,” Steph said as we drank PBRs in the yurt. And we became mountain people when we moved to the mountains.
Heather Hansman, talented former editor for this rag’s digital multiverse, has managed to figure out a way to keep skiing on our dime. Brilliant.
This story was featured in Skiing Magazine's 2017 Mountain Guide print edition Volume 69/Number 1