Back before the last gold mine closed in 1991, the town of Silverton, Colo., hated skiing, didn't like anything to do with it. I remember reading an editorial in the weekly Standard & Miner about a day trip the editor and his family took over to Telluride, and how the ski resort had ruined a perfectly good former mining town, brought in hippies with hackey sacks and expensive food and bad attitudes. "God help us," the writer cried, "if Silverton ever embraced the sport."
But then the last big mine, the Sunnyside, did close, and Silverton's population plummeted to 450, down from a high of 2,000 at the turn of the last century. Enrollment at the school fell to 70 kids, kindergarten through 12th grade. The summer economy became dependent on the narrow-gauge train up from Durango, which brings as many as 2,000 tourists a day to town. They wander the Old West storefronts at 9,318 feet, eat lunch and then head back down to the real world. From November to May, when the tracks are buried in snow, Silverton is so quiet you can hear the crunch of tires on a snowpacked street three blocks away.
Into this scene of peaceful desperation came last year one Aaron Brill, a lanky, red-haired, 30-year-old snowboarder with a degree in environmental studies and an idea sparked on a ski trip to New Zealand. Brill and long-time girlfriend Jennifer Ader spent five months on a break from college skiing New Zealand's "club fields," small areas with a surface lift or two and lots of lift-accessed backcountry. "These are places," Brill told me, "that one guy can run, with the help of a few friends. We got home and thought, 'Why not in this country?'"
A search of defunct and for-sale ski hills around the West led eventually to Silverton and the formation of the Silverton Outdoor Learning and Recreation Center (SOLRC). A mouthful, Brill and Ader admit. The plan is for an outdoor-education component to operate alongside a low-budget, experts-only ski mountain that will be called simply Silverton Mountain.
"I want to build a haven for people priced out and grossed out by the big, glitzy resorts," Brill says in the living room of their hundred-year-old miner's cabin on Silverton's main street. "A core area for core people. Where is the hidden real estate development? There isn't any." Brill and a couple of partners have bought or leased 200 acres of mining claims six miles from town on the flank of Storm Peak. They've purchased a surplus, circa-1973 double chair from Mammoth Mountain, Calif. The town is leasing them a "Weatherport" tent for a base lodge. And they've received permission from the county to haul in yurts and portable toilets for overnight facilities. "One-step up from sleeping in your car," says Brill without apparent irony.
Luxe is not the plan. The plan is to offer lift-served, extreme backcountry-an oxymoron to some, a romantic and irresistible notion to Brill and Ader. They have said they will "limit ticket sales so that we never grow beyond our powder capabilities." That would be a maximum of 475 tickets a day at $25 a pop. (Brill's business plan supposes that he will break even at a mere 90 skiers a day.) To ride the lift you'll have to pass a test that shows you are backcountry aware. You will need to carry the requisite gear: beacon, shovel and probe. And should you be ill-prepared on either count, SOLRC will rent you the equipment or give you a course in high-country ethics and safety.
The lift will rise on private property from Cement Creek to a timberline nob at 12,200 feet. From there Brill hopes to offer skiing and hiking on up to 2,000 acres of public lands. All of the runs are avalanche paths. The steepest, Brill says, push 60 degrees. The mellowest tilt "only" about 35 degrees-steeper than the Plunge at Telluride, steeper than just about any inbounds skiing in the U.S.
Therein lies the attraction and the trouble, according to Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster and Silverton local Jerry Roberts. "I wiish him luck, but I think he has his hands full." Almost the entire operating budget, once he gets up and running, Brill figures, will go into avalanche control work. He expects to throw three times the explosive firepower each season as does Big Sky, Mont., a place with big-time control challenges. And even that may not be enough, say doubters, to stabilize a notoriously fragile snowpack.
Once Brill finishes the floor for the base lodge (I last saw him pounding nails with a volunteer helper in two feet of November snow), he hopes to resume avalanche data collection on the public lands. But acquiring even that preliminary permit is not a sure thing. The Bureau of Land Management, the agency charged with reviewing Brill's project, has to consider, among other things, that the terrain has been identified as potential habitat for the federally protected lynx. "The lynx has changed the game," says BLM recreation planner Richard Speegle.
Assuming Brill gets his snow study done, he then has to run the gauntlet of the permitting process itself: proposal; application; public comment; Environmental Analysis or Environmental Impact Study; more public input. And so on into what can seem like an indefinite future. Brill, perhaps hoping against hope, would like to be running the lift next winter, if only to access the 200 acres of private property.
More experienced and financially flush ski area developers than Aaron Brill have been beaten down by the process. Brill himself is unfazed. He retains the enthusiasm of his huge fuzzy Akita who would climb the couch to lick my face again if Jennifer didn't have both hands locked on his collar. They are buoyed by strong support from the town and county governments. Mayor Ernie Kuhlman even went so far as to say, in an official town endorsement, that opposition to the ski area was tantamount to "impose unwarranted harm...to a people that are struggling to survive."
A few new- and old-timers have countered, in effect: We don't want to live in a ski town. But most of the sentiment seems to mirror that of backcountry lodge owner Chris George, who says, "We need a sustainable economy."
The BLM's Speegle, not unsympathetic to the old mining town's woes (or naïve to the baggage ski development can bring), will say for the record only that, "It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out."
Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Montrose, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net.