All of my ski days have led to this very moment, I think, as I set an edge under the cornice that drops vertically below me into the entrance of a narrow couloir the length of my ski. My 106mm-wide plank of wood, plastic, and metal holds my weight as I lift the uphill ski off the lip and take a leap of faith in my own ability to stay upright in a no-fall zone.
That would be a huge beer foul, probably a whole case, if I slide down ass backwards. After all, it’s the fifth annual Big Mountain Betty—a weekend for women that I organize with Silverton Mountain. The Love Boat reference dates me, but I tell the group I’m like Julie McCoy, cruise director, and I cheer on the women before me as they go over the edge of Rope Dee 4, some with sewing-machine legs, some swearing like a college rugby player, others strangely stoic.
The energy is empowering, with our guide, Krista Beyer, calling out clear instructions from halfway down the couloir. We know it isn’t always pretty, but when we group up in a safe spot, our eyes crinkle above our buffs, indicating smiles below. I look back up and see what we all overcame to get out to this open bowl. Challenge and reward. Repeat. Skiing one at a time, I anticipate the surfy feeling because when Krista makes a high-pitched “Yew!” it means the snow is soft and I can find the fall line, getting freshies left or right of the few tracks laid out ahead of me. If there’s no sound, it’s because Krista found some variable, wind-blown snow and I will stay centered over my skis. Call or no call, she’s stable and balanced, like a sturdy ship at sea, with her guide pack as cargo.
I remember a few years ago when Jen Brill, co-founder and owner of Silverton Mountain with her husband Aaron, told me that people used to be disappointed when they learned she—a woman—would be their guide. It only made her hike faster. I think back on all the times I skied harder or faster to prove a point that way. But here, at this moment, there’s no gender gap. Nothing to prove. It’s all about connecting with the snow, the mountains, and each other, which is overwhelmingly poignant because of the impermanence of it all.
It’s easy to be socially distanced at Silverton, and was even before the pandemic. The mountain caps skier visits and the sparsely populated town slims down on Sunday nights when the ski area closes for a few days. You see people during morning safety talks, or for afternoon beers in the yurt, but groups spread out here. Aside from a touchless check-in process, no gathering in the tent, and obligatory masks worn in the bus and helicopter, not much has changed. There’s still one double chair that takes you up to 12,300 feet. Unless you ride the heli, the rest is up to you. Towering 13ers spike in nearly every direction with pyramidal peaks, potential ski descents, and layers of ridgelines. A trip to Silverton is like taking a homeopathic remedy—skiing distilled to the essence of the sport.
Snow can be both medicine and malady, depending on the situation. When you drive on Red Mountain Pass between Ouray and Silverton, you travel under 68 avalanche paths. Once a deadly road for snowplows, the Colorado Department of Transportation hires forecasters from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center to close the road as necessary. What the forecasters know is that this area is favored by storms from multiple directions, and moist air from the Pacific doesn’t have a lot of competing mountains in the way. Northern Colorado resorts get the leftovers after moisture falls on ranges in California, Utah, or Wyoming. But Silverton’s favorable orographics can result in extremely high single-day snow totals as all that moisture charges straight up the Cement Creek drainage, like the nearby Denver & Rio Grande Western locomotive dumping its goods on the ski area.
The town of Silverton sits squarely in the remote Animas River Valley in southwestern Colorado. The Utes were the first people in the area before mining claims were made above town in 1860. The entire town is designated a National Historic Landmark District. Once a summer-only tourism haven from the scenic railroad visitors, Silverton slowly became a year-round destination with a windfall of winter activities thanks in part to the ski area. Silverton leans into its Victorian history and it doesn’t take much to imagine the past, particularly if you stay in the Grand Imperial Hotel, built in 1883 and frequented by paranormal investigators digging into ghost sighting stories. Town lore tells of myriad miner deaths from avalanches, including one on St. Patrick’s Day in 1906, which killed 20 miners.
Since my first visit in 2003, not long after the Brills bought some mining claims and a retired double chairlift from Mammoth, I’ve experienced both thin coverage and powder. No matter where I land in the storm cycles, I always have an adventure. I’ve had to drive down the county road, one car at a time, beacons transmitting, because the heavy snow could trigger slides. Other times, like this year, we look for good pockets of snow by descending a rope, like astronauts on skis, bouncing over rocks and logs. Our women’s weekend includes one heli drop, and I love soaring through a cloudless sky across from the ski area’s iconic Billboard Peak, topping out at 13,001 feet, and feeling the rotor wash as the chopper lifts straight up, then seemingly dives into the San Juans, leaving the peak to us.
Skiers typically log between three and six runs, up to 3,000 vertical feet each run, depending on the hike. At the end of a big day, my legs burn like I chugged a lactic acid milkshake. Then there’s still a creek to cross, maybe a narrow log running over the mineral-rich creek, and I tell myself not to fall because that would definitely be another party foul, and my boots wouldn’t have a chance to dry overnight. The bus that brings groups back to the base has stickers stuck haphazardly inside that represent the history of the collective dirtbag in the form of skiers’ love interests and desire to stick it to The Man.
I skied through the pandemic at other resorts, worrying about who I was riding the lift with or how long I stayed inside the bathroom. There were moments when I felt like I couldn’t breathe. A female friend of mine called that “needing an airgasm.” At Silverton, there’s space to breathe and plenty of opportunities for the pleasure of breathing. During a year of refiguring priorities, the San Juans prove how healing it is to be in the mountains, connecting with others—even from a distance.
This past January, I decided to bring my teenage daughter with me to the women’s weekend. She’s skied a lot of big mountains and I knew she could handle an hour-long hike with skis on her pack. She loved everything about it—particularly being in a group with Kim Grant, a long-time guide who helped establish runs at the nascent ski area. It lifts my spirits to see this magical mountain through the eyes of the young woman I raised to be a skier. As we drove up the county road on the first morning, the base area was speckled with a few Porta Potties, picnic tables, a guide cabin, and the lift. We see people gathering with fat skis, avy packs, muted jackets, and dirty ski pants.
She looked around in awe and said, “These are my people.” I have to agree. These people, this mountain, the town—it’s why I keep coming back year after year.
Silverton Mountain at a Glance
- Closest Airport: Durango Regional
- Nearby Ski Resorts: Telluride; Purgatory
- Located on Eastern Shoshone and Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) lands
The wood-fired pizza at the Golden Block Brewery is cheap and filling. Try the Mountain Climber, with buffalo chicken and blue cheese. Stop by Eureka Station to sample the food of the miners, the Cornish pastry. ABC, or Avalanche Brewing Company, is the place to hit for craft brews and an authentic mountain-town ambience. For coffee drinks, breakfast burritos, and excellent baked goods, visit Coffee Bear.
A stay at the Grand Imperial Hotel comes with the added possibility of experiencing paranormal activity at no extra charge. Not into ghosts? The Bent Elbow offers a quaint, Victorian feel downtown in an original 1907 building.
Cruise the wide-open powder fields and ski the snow-trimmed glades of the San Juans on Silverton Powdercats‘ 6,000 acres of terrain.