Silverton Mountain Experience – A Different Approach Resort Skiing
Silverton Mountain, Backcountry Ski Resort
What’s so special about Silverton Mountain?
- One old-fashioned double chairlift, diesel-electric powered
- No base town or resort, no real estate development
- Base lodge = tent with a wooden stove
- Rental shop = in retired school bus
- 2000′ – 3000′ vertical terrain
- High average snowfall per season
- No grooming only guided backcountry style skiing
- Maximum of 80 skiers per day
- Hours of operation only from Thursday till Sunday
The first time I heard about that Lift accessed Backcountry skiing place was in 2002 when I was reading in one of the seasonal Backcountry skiing magazines. They introduced a guy with an incredible idea to install an old used chairlift in the heart of the San Juan Mountains in southwestern Colorado. The first moment I thought myself that this might be interesting. From that time on I noticed occasional articles in various other skiing magazines and on the internet. When I read the first trip reports on Telemarktips.com this ski resort draw more of my attention. In a 2004 issue of Couloir, I considered myself for planning a trip there in the next year’s skiing season. The winter season came closer and my opinion about that place has changed a little bit. Not that I am against commercialized access to backcountry skiing, it just didn’t fit into my established habit about ski touring the backcountry. I was just enjoying too much the man-powered skin travel into the quiet mountain scenery.
Driving north from Durango towards Red Mountain Pass the Highway passes through the little mining town of Silverton. Rolling down from Molasses Pass I said to myself that I will at least drive by the Lift and check out their outfit. The ski area is about 6 miles outside of town and it might take just under an hour for the little detour. The San Juan Mountains are well known for their legendary powder snow and the amount of snowfall per season. It was gray and ice cold when I drove down slowly the Main Street in Silverton. Snowflakes light as goose downs were falling from the sky creating a picture of never-ending winter in my mind.
See my story about climbing the Blue Ridge Parkway
The town seemed more like a Ghost Town at the moment, just a couple folks rushing down the walkway disappearing in one of the town’s coffee shops. I remember a thriving and busy tourist town from a visit in the summertime long ago. In the summer month, a historic narrow gauged railroad is steaming over Molass Pass from Durango bringing hundreds of tourists every day. The pavement ends just outside of town and a gravel road, as wide as an interstate highway continues into the heart of the San Juan Mountains towards the ski lift. Several avalanche chutes are crossing the road. Some are piled up several yards and where the road maintenance crew cut a path through it, plenty of torn down trees and rocks are exposed.
The power of nature, exposed and a warning sign at the same time. Respectful passing a couple more a lift tower and a bull’s wheel are indicating my destination. My first impression – that’s a cool place – no sign of big commercial development, just a little grass-root outfit serving the essentials of skiing.
The lift was not operating and no human being around. I didn’t want to waste more time than necessary, shot a couple of pictures as evidence visiting that unique place, and hit back towards town. Downtown on the main street is another curiosity in the telemark scene. The Scotty Bob ski manufacturing facility. A year ago I ran into Scotty Bob himself at A-Basin and had some small talk with him. Now it was time to stop and swing by his shop and check out how he crafts his neat wooden telemark skis. The master himself was kind of busy that day but he took some time for a few words. I asked him why the Silverton Mountain lift was not running today and he explained to me that the resort is only a weekend outfit. It runs only from Thursday through Sunday.
I spend about 2 hours in and around Silverton and it was time to continue traveling North for my Backcountry skiing trip at the Ridgeway hut in the San Juan Hut System. A friend of mine and I spend a few days on a remote hut for some incredible powder skiing. 3 days of hard skinning and climbing with some rustique nights in a very primitive shelter in the foothills of Mount Sneffels. After returning to civilization I spend a night in Ouray soaking in the natural hot springs and refueling after some strenuous days of skiing.
Zipping a beer in the hot tub, watching the February full moon, I had Silverton Mountain on my mind again. Tonight is Wednesday, crystal clear skies and about 10 inches of freshies from today’s afternoon storm. It might be a perfect day tomorrow to close out this year’s Colorado trip. A HUNDRED AND TWENTY bucks, that’s a lot of money – what the heck – I don’t do that every month, I’ll give it a try tomorrow.
Woke up the next morning, deep blue skies, the temperature at -1 Fahrenheit (-19 Celsius) and highly motivated. I got some breakfast in Ouray’s bagel shop and soon I was on the road south towards Silverton. I had to get into gear, the lift starts operating at 9:45 AM and usually advanced reservations are required. At least I have a 50:50 chance and maybe they squeeze in a single person anyway. The drive over Red mountain pass was incredible. The cold air was vibrant and the early morning sun was glittering in the small snow crystals floating in the bitter cold air. The clock was running faster than I could imagine. I made it barely in time and the parking lot this morning was full of cars and trucks.
You might like my journal on hiking the Tanawah
The bunch of people kept me in doubt of scoring a ticket at the day’s ticket counter. Some gnarly looking ski patroller was giving strict instructions on parking and friendly advice to hurry up getting to the “lodge” if I really had no reservation in advance. The lodge was a tent, filled with scared-looking skiers getting really busy with their shiny equipment. The bar was serving as the registration and cashier counter. I introduced myself and asked if there is an opportunity to get a single ticket for today. Let’s see what we can do, maybe if someone does not show up in the next half an hour, then you are in.
Get yourself ready and wait, I’ll let you know ASAP. All of a sudden I was getting nervous, the muggy air in the tent made me sweat and I looked around watching all those guys fiddling around with their expensive equipment. Hopefully, they get me into a group, I have to experience this kind of resort skiing. Not many Telemark skiers and the average age of the skiers was older than I expected. I hear someone yelled my name across the bar/tent/reception and my pulse rose up to a higher frequency. I put down the cash, signed the waiver without reading it carefully just to get out of here and in line on the lift.
Skiing at Silverton Mountain is strictly regulated. 80 people maximum on the mountain per day in 10 guided groups. The first thing when you meet the guide and the group is going through some rules and procedures every skier and boarder has to accept and to follow. No free skiing allowed the guide is laying a track and a border and everyone has to stay within that range. It makes kind of sense to preserve the snow for the following groups. It turns out pretty well and the guides are staking plenty of room for everybody. It sounds a little bit lame when the guide mentions that the group will be aiming for 4 to 5 runs for the day, but he claims that this will be plenty of skiing and everybody might be tired after the fifth round for the day.
OK let’s see how it will turn out. I had the honor on the first lift to ride with our guide Mark. Usually, he patrols at Durango Mountain Ski resort (Purgatory) and works just part-time as a guide here. The air was still ice cold but the sunshine made it pleasant. Cold air is good for a perfect powder day, I thought, and that was important for me, I wanted to get the best for my money. And I really got it.
The group was pretty interesting. Some folks older than me, but I always have plenty of respect from the retired guys, they are always in good shape because they have time for their hobbies. Most of them were skiers only one snowboarder and besides me only one other telemarker. Mike, the other freeheeler, and I used the telemark style as a good excuse to ski first into certain slopes to test it for the bondage guys. We all had a great time and enjoyed the group skiing. The most fun part for Mike and me was the super steep tree skiing on the front side. The trees are pretty tight together, but the snow was so fluffy and easy to turn giving us telemarkers a blast. We both begged our guide really persistent to give us a second ride in the trees.
He granted our wish and he had the same fun going slalom through the trees as well. After the third run, it was time for a short lunch break. By the time I got out of my bindings, I already could feel my legs how tired they are. The guide was right, five runs are plenty and they sum up to about 12.000 vertical feet for the day. Just 20 minutes for a lunch snack and a drink and back in the lift for two more runs.
See my other climbing and hiking trips!
The last run should become the highlight of the day. The mountain patrol was working all day to open a big bowl leading into a tight chute. From the lift, we were able to watch the patrollers shooting off some avalanches to make the place safe. By the end of the day, only two groups went down that line. Our group was second. Everybody was excited. The slope was north facing and full of bottomless powder. I think I do not have to write more about that run down the bowl, just dream about the best powder you can think of. At the end of the chute, the exposure of the lower slope changed to a western faced plane.
The sun from the early afternoon started to worm up the snow surface in the lower elevation and now the late afternoon temperatures in the shade make that top layer of snow freeze again. Excellent breakable crust for the last few hundred yards. I even demonstrated a perfect telemark face plant for the entertainment of all the other skiers. They were employing a skiing technique called the kick turn. Our guide on AT equipment had some challenges too, following me in that wonderful snow. But it was fun and kept us all laughing until we finally reached the road. Everybody was happy about the great skiing experience and looking forward to the ride back to the lodge tent.
The old retired UPS truck picked us up on time. The fun ride back to the lift was only one mile. Back at the base I threw my skis in the rear of my van, changed boots and grabbed a bite to eat. By the time I got my skiing gear stuffed back in the car, I was ready for some re-hydrating in the Silverton Mountain Lodge Bar. The tent AKA lodge was packed with skiers and the air had a wonderful smell of a mix of sweat, beer and wood smoke coming from the stove in the center of the room.
The bar serves excellent local beer brewed in Durango. I couldn’t wait for my glass and the first sip out of it had already a good effect in the thin Rocky Mountain air. After intensive socializing with some fellow skiers and boarders, there was a casual gathering around the woodstove to warm up the cold bones. After a while, it was time for me to leave. I just made it down the six miles to downtown Silverton. I stayed at the local motel. I was so tired from my activities from the past week, that I even had no energy to go out for dinner. I just had a little bite of air-dried salami, cheese, and some bread and olives. After another beer, I fell asleep even before nine o’clock.