The base area "sundeck at Silverton Mountain consists of a creaking picnic table and two pews fashioned from discarded snowboards. Just before noon on a sunny Saturday, as I'm weighing whether to break for lunch or hop the ski area's lone double chair for another run, two fellow travelers have already called it quits. "We were here yesterday and the day before, one says, fatigued but not too beat to offer me a beer. Isn't it early for that? "Nah. I'm done. His friend nods, far too done for verbs: "Silverton. Serious.
The skiing here is serious — serious enough that a guide is required from mid-January through March, and "grooming means tossing a few avalanche bombs. Since opening in 2002, Silverton has positioned itself as a place where powderhound huckers will find the cliffs and cornices they seek. Want a warm-up on the blues? Telluride's just down the road.
There have been doubters. After all, how could such a take-no-pretenders place — in a remote corner of Colorado — make it amidst the mongo superhills?
By not trying. The story of Silverton's founders, Jen and Aaron Brill, is that they wanted to re-create classic skiing, "skiing for skiing's sake: no Starbucks, no sushi, no spa, no village. Skiing like they'd found on a trip to New Zealand's club hills. "You just ski, says Jen Brill. "It's not America. They don't have waivers and things.
Back at Silverton, they do have waivers, and they do have things: avalanche beacons, shovels and probes (available for rent) are required equipment. In the parking lot's early light on that Saturday, I line up with 80 other enthusiasts — everyone from flatlander dilettantes to local freeheelers — into groups to be assigned guides. On the left, fast folks, raring to pound out only the most Homeric of epic runs; on the right, medium-fast, just happy to be here, thank you.
I opt for the mediums, finding a group of eight, including a thirtysomething Vermonter in a one-piece and one of the only female skiers. Aaron Brill shuffles the groups in search of the perfect mix, and I'm pulled into a burly pack of college buds on a reunion trip. As our guide, Jeremy Yanko, gives a primer on big-mountain safety, my new comrades zone out, woozy from a late night.
"There's definitely a bozo factor, Jen Brill tells me later. "There are always people who don't take safety seriously. But self-preservation is a pretty useful thing up here. Yanko is highly attuned to that fact, quickly sussing my group for what we are: tubby wannabes peppered with an intense ripper or two. We board Silverton's lone lift, rising 1,900 feet, and Yanko steers us toward Mandatory, a two-minute hike farther up. He mandates our route in advance ("Stay to my left and out of my line) and drops in, bouncing slowly to see if, after last night's 10 inches of fresh, any of it will slide.
We head down, funneling down a 35-degree pitch in a rocky, 20-foot-wide channel. The snow is deep; the run, even on this lower slope, is steep. But here's the thing about Silverton: It's a seven-hour drive from Denver, and you might get five runs in if you're lucky. So getting stuck in a group of huffing lugs — no offense, guys — is the wrong approach. After we make it down the mountain's sole easy run to an old laundry van that ferries us to the lift, I ask for a transfer.
My next group — two teenaged aces, their dad, and a fifty-something gentleman who makes my skiing look like an old lady's — is more ambitious, cranking through trees so tight I never come out of a crouch. Our guide, Mike Barton, suggests we try a last run down Porn Star, a vertiginous hump named for its appearances in ski flicks. We kick boot-tracks for 30 minutes under a Pantone-perfect sky; handrail ropes line steeper parts of the pitch. On a plateau halfway up, one of the younger guys is too tired to go on. Mike asks the kid if he's going to make it. "The mark of a good mountaineer is knowing when to call it a daay, he says. We back down and head for one last gully run, a natural halfpipe with just enough trees to keep it from being easy.
Sitting on repurposed bus seats back at the "lodge — think burnt-out base camp with local beers on tap — I'm told there are easier ways around Silverton. The Brills occasionally hire helicopters for avalanche work, offsetting their costs by charging skiers $125 for a ride to the far ridges. Is this a sign of what's to come? More frills, catskiing, a lodge with more than a screen door? "Nah, says Jen Brill. "That's not how we work here.
Signpost: Silverton Mountain Resort
1,819 skiable acres; 10,400 feet base elevation; 13,487 feet summit elevation; 400 annual inches; one lift. Tickets: $119—$129 guided (Thurs.—Sun., Jan. 17—March 30) ; $49 unguided (Thurs.—Sun., Dec. 1—Jan. 13 and April 4—27).
Lodging: The Triangle Motel offers clean, basic rooms and suites; $40—$100; trianglemotel.com, 970-387-5780. A few notches up, the Grand Imperial's rooms have a more Western feel; $80—$150; grandimperialhotel.com, 800-341-3340.
Dining: The Silverton Brewery is limited to beers, burgers and brats, but its Presidential Porter (plus an au jus burger with green chile) will help loosen your post-mountain muscles; silvertonbrewing.com, 970-387-5033. In the morning, try Mobius Bike Shop's fog-clearing coffee and breakfast burritos; mobiuscycles.com, 970-387-0777.
Getting There: From Denver, go south on Highway 285 to Poncha Springs, then west on Highway 50 to Montrose, then south on Highway 550 to Silverton.