Silverton, CO is a small mining town nestled away in southwestern Colorado. Located in the San Juan Mountains, this town gets its fair share of snow, to say the least.
The silver-mining industry eventually slowed, and in 2002 two visionary skiers decided to open up a ski area, not a resort—Jen and Aaron Brill put in one two-person lift to access some of the best snow and terrain the contiguous 48 states have to offer—and we all hope it stays like that.
Our drive took us from Salt Lake through Grand Junction and 120 miles beyond, with the last scary, snowy hour going through Red Mountain Pass. The views off this pass are spectacular; the skiing was clearly going to be good, with 24in+ from the previous few days. Avy conditions were another story. Be sure to check conditions before you go; this road closes often and was only open for a few time slots during the day due to a massive rock slide that crews were working on.
We got into town and crammed into our hotel room at the Bent Elbow, a pretty cool, very small Victorian-style hotel. After hauling all our gear up to our room (it’s amazing how much five guys can bring on a ski trip), we hit the town for a bit and had dinner, after switching out our gloves and putting boots on the dryers to ensure everyone would start the next day out dry.
The morning was breath-freezing cold. One of the locals told me it was -22. We heated up the cars and drove over to the Brown Bear Café before heading up to meet our guide for the 8:20 split. Silverton Mountain is 20-30 minutes outside of town, and the road is fairly easy to drive, even in the snow. Definitely bring your 4WD or AWD vehicle, though; it’s still a mountain town. When we got out of the cars, I could feel the powder panic. There were about 36 inches of new snow in places and the temps dipped into the negatives. People were moving fast to stay warm.
When you get to the mountain you have to sign waivers at the “lodge,” which is actually a big tent. There are no frills here, no luxuries, just snow on a steep mountain ready to be schussed. One of the owners, Jen, was running around meeting, greeting, and directing skiers. At a great mountain like this, don’t be surprised if you see some pros kicking around. Pro skier Michelle Parker was gearing up with her photographer for a day in the heli; meeting her there only confirmed my initial thoughts about this mountain. We were clearly in the right place.
Silverton has two seasons: guided and unguided. The unguided days this season were in late December through early January and then again in April. We showed up right at the beginning of the guided season and were happy to meet Jeremy, our fearless leader for the day (you can also book a heli trip or a private guide). After a quick safety meeting and beacon check, we were ready to go. The snowpack and terrain at Silverton dictate that all skiers carry basic avalanche gear: beacon, shovel, and probe. There is no mid-mountain dining so I was psyched to have my pack with extra layers, 1000 calories’ worth of Pro Bars, GU Gels, and Bolt Chews, and water. Silverton is the closest thing you’ll get to backcountry skiing in a sanctioned ski area.
Off the first lift, we were all frozen, so we made quick time up the ridge for our first boot pack. We made our first run on the front side/left flank of the area known as Split Ski. There are no designated runs or blue squares, only “areas” that would all be considered black diamond. After getting some chest-deep turns, we were feeling calmer and ready to see some other terrain. Jeremy somehow kept our group together and made sure we were linking up powder shots the entire way. Doing this unguided would have been tough, especially since most of us were skiing and riding here for the first time.
The north face was skiing well, and we were ready to hop onto the western side of the mountain to see how that was skiing. The upper part of Lift Line or Tiger was fresh tracks the entire way until the gully of Tiger Main. We made our way down the main gully, going hard the whole way in an effort to show Jeremy we were good skiers (and in my case, rider). After a few mishaps we eventually gave that up and just focused on making turns and staying on our feet.
When you get to the bottom, a bus with lots of character (and characters) will usually take you back to the lift. The ol’ double chair is a relic, but reminds me of a time when skiing was all about being social, talking to your chairmate, and getting psyched for the next run. We caught the bus to the lift and onto the east face to ride Waterfall, which begins with a huge open bowl. Again we were making fresh tracks in waist-deep snow. They say five runs at Silverton is hard work, and we wanted to see what we were capable of with the lactic acid continuing to build. Jeremy led us to a slightly easier old growth forest near Dolores. I love old growth forests—the trees are so majestic and usually perfectly spaced for linking turns.
After this, Jeremy told us we were about to take our longest hike of the day, way out onto the upper west face under Tiger Claw. At 2:55, and I was secretly hoping Jeremy was going to say “Missed the last lift, sorry fellas, time to grab a beer,” but he called the shuttle ahead of time and got us one more. These are the kind of people I like to make turns with. I’d watched some bad-ass snowboarder ski our next line earlier in the day only to find out it was Jen, the owner. I was psyched Jeremy was taking us where the owner likes to shred. The upper part of Riff was just as I expected from previous runs: waist deep and champagne snow, a great way to end the day. When we got to the shuttle a couple of guys were raving about some skier they saw off the helicopter who’d totally laid down a crazy line. Turns out it was Michelle Parker. Pretty cool to get to see a pro in action.
The bus driver had some feel-good tunes on and all the passengers wore shit-eating grins. The tent or base lodge converts from waiver signing in the morning to a bar at 3:30 p.m., and we all grabbed a few beers and talked skiing with the guides and other visitors on the mountain. At a place like Silverton, the end-of-day vocabulary may only be comprehensible to a certain crowd, but the vibe is universal, and anyone could have walked into that tent and realized that everyone there had just skied their hearts out and were utterly content. The atmosphere at a small bar after a powder day is hard to explain, but you know it when you’re in it.
The aforementioned treacherous Red Mountain Pass connects Ouray and Silverton before heading on to Durango. The San Juan Mountains are known for their avalanches, and the Red Mountain Pass is no exception, so it’s wise to ski with a guide if you’re unfamiliar with the area. Our guides for the day were Pat Ormond and Gary Falk from San Juan Mountain Guides, and we were stoked to have two of the best guides in the area showing us around. To be honest, with the avalanche danger and almost zero visibility, I’m not sure if we would have been able to safely tour. The beta on skiing Red Mountain Pass can be tough to find, so either hire a guide or be ready to decipher some local bar knowledge and hope you get lucky on your run. Pat did a quick safety check and we were off.
The tour didn’t seem so bad, with only around 1500ft of vertical to start off, but we were all pretty tired from the day before, and don’t forget the elevation is around 12,000ft. The other guys may never admit it, but I was sure feeling the altitude and muscle soreness by the time we hit the ridge for our first transition. All thoughts of turning back or being tired got tossed behind me with the fresh, light snow and open-track turns in a trackless bowl. Silverton was great, but I love the backcountry and the seclusion it offers.
We put some food in our stomachs and continued walking back uphill to yo-yo this entire area. The avalanche danger was skull-and-crossbones across the map so we skied low-angle pow shots, just raving about how bottomless it was. The road wasn’t going to re-open until 4:30 p.m., so we were riding and hiking until we either fell over or the road opened. We ended our day with a small little jump that put us right back on top of our cars. Pat and Gary not only knew where to ski but how to keep it safe the entire time.
You can rent gear from the San Juan Mountain Guides. You can also rent powder boards and avy gear from Silverton Mountain. If you need something last minute, my number is 801-736-5313, and I can help you out.
We stayed at the Bent Elbow Hotel, which was nice and comfortable, though I don’t recommend a single room for five people with gear. Other popular choices are the Triangle Motel, the Canyon View Motel (great mountain views), the Grand Imperial Hotel, and the Teller House, which includes breakfast.
I know it’s not appetizing to have ski boots at the table, but they definitely weren’t staying in the car, and the Brown Bear Café was meant for skiers. We put our boots around the fireplace and watched more skiers file in and follow suit. The service and food were great but, most importantly, QUICK! During the guided season at Silverton you have to meet your guide for the split by 8:20am, and our server got us out of there in time to make the drive.
We heard this restaurant/bar (which is a common theme in Silverton) across the street from us had bomb breakfast burritos, so we all hobbled over to the Avalanche on Day 2, sore legs and all. The bartender is awesome and the burritos smothered in green chile hit the spot, almost too much for a day of touring, but it was much needed sustenance. The coffee was pretty dang good as well.
Our first night in town, we ended up at the Hard Rock Restaurant. Here you’ll find not Aerosmith on the walls but pictures of the local miners competing in their very own mining Olympics and posing with hunting trophies. You’ll also find a good selection of beer, bourbon, and burgers.
Another place to check out is Mattie and Maud’s. According to folklore, there’s an elderly woman there known as “The Grandma” who cooks her own recipes which induce food comas in all visitors.
After dinner, you have to check out Montanya, the local distillery. They make rum, allow dogs inside, and offer local micro brews and local bourbon if rum isn’t your thing. When we walked in, the bar tender started us off with a free shot concoction she was trying out, and we were reminded that we weren’t in Utah anymore. The distillery also offers a small menu.
Book one with Silverton Mountain, San Juan Mountain Guides for touring Red Mountain Pass