Highway 550, eight miles north of Silverton, 12 miles south of Ouray Pass
Up to 2,400 feet
Minimum Time Needed:
3 hours (for out-and-back) or 6 hours (for shuttle or hitchhike)
Out-and-back, shuttle, or hitchhike
Sure, Silverton Mountain is all the rage these days, thanks to its big steeps and small crowds. And Ouray is the ice-climbing headquarters of southern Colorado. But what beckons hungry backcountry skiers to this chunk of the San Juans is the terrain that lies between the two hamlets—specifically, the chutes, bowls, gullies, and glades off Red Mountain Pass, on Highway 550. Consider local topography: 82 peaks at 13,000 feet or higher, all crammed into an area that covers a mere one-eighth of the state. If that doesn't get your knees wobbly, then consider that Durango (48 miles to the south), Telluride (60 miles to the west), Silverton, Ouray, and Ridgway have a combined population of only 20,000—and most of those people don't ski Red Mountain Pass. You may not have the place to yourself, but if Red's too crowded for you, then your next trip should be to Antarctica.
It's a crapshoot in more ways than one: Conditions—and avy danger—change daily. May is the odds-on favorite for stable corn, while the colder preceding months are more likely to cough up the light-and-dry. No matter when you go, hedge your bets by practicing thorough avalanche safety. The San Juans are home to the least stable snowpack in the Lower 48.
You have two basic options: 1) Drive eight miles north out of Silverton on 550 to the top of the pass, park on the east side, and plan on skinning back to the car. 2) Leave a vehicle at Silverton ski area (five miles north of town on County Road 110), and get a ride or take another car to the top of the pass. The difference? Do the out-and-back if you're watching the clock (it takes about three hours); shuttle if you've got all day—and a jones for 2,400 feet of vert.
Your best bet for a first-time outing—provided you're avy-smart and partnered up—is Georgia Gulch/McMillan Peak. From your parking spot, look for the san juan county 14 sign sticking up above the snow, which indicates U.S. Basin Road (also called Forest Road 825), a tracked trail that climbs south for three miles and 1,700 feet to McMillan Peak (12,804 feet). The route zigzags around an abandoned mineshaft three-quarters of a mile in from the road, turns east, and breaks out of the forest a half-mile farther. A thousand feet above, a billboard—size radio repeater marks the summit of McMillan Peak. Skin east up the drainage to the saddle and follow the ridge.Out-and-back: Turn around and ski the 25-degree, 1,000-foot northwest side of McMillan Peak, a treeless expanse that leads you back down to your skin track. shuttle: Facing east, Georgia Gulch is the center and most open of the three accessible upper bowls (the other two lead to Fairview and Prospect Gulches). Drop in skier's left to skirt the cornice, and rip a dozen gargantuan GS turns as the 45-degree pitch mellows to the high 30s. Stay right of the streambed and watch for the rock headwall 1,000 feet down; there are several tight chutes that snake through the headwall (snowpack permitting) at about 45 degrees. For the final stretch, you'll pop off several smallish pillows, throw some tight turns, slalom around some saplings, and let 'em run straight down to the car.
Explorer's Club Southwest, Silverton, Colorado
Even if Explorer's Club Southwest weren't the only dedicated bar in Silverton, Colorado (population 500), it would still be the après backcountry ski spot. Renovated two years ago, the 19th- century mining shack attracts skiers, guides, and a handful of Rocky Mountain archetypes—massage therapist, housepainter, women's studies professor, etc.—most of whom emppty pints of 90 Shilling while tracing new backcountry routes across the framed topo maps hanging on the walls. When someone gets hungry, he or she ambles into the sunken kitchen and picks up the tongs. An assortment of meats and veggies are available for do-it-yourself grilling, but the most popular choice is an eight-ounce beef sirloin with pepper-and-onion kebab. It's tasty, and cheap ($11.95)—much like the backcountry just outside of town. (970-387-5006; explorersclubsw.com).
Check snow stability at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (geosurvey.state.co.us/avalanche/) or call the avalanche hotline (970-247-8187). Drink at the Outlaw in Ouray (970-325-4366; outlawrestaurant.com). sleep at the Grand Imperial in Silverton (from $40; 800-341-3340). Camp at one of 26 Forest Service sites on South Mineral Creek, six miles west of Silverton ($12; 970-247-4874, fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan/recreation/). Bring Latitude 40º Telluride, Silverton, Ouray Recreation Topo Map ($12; amazon.com).