It has just one lift. So technically, it's a ski resort. But that's where the similarities end. Silverton Mountain is a backcountry "ski area" spread over 1,600 acres of ungroomed wilderness deep in southern Colorado's San Juans.
Elevation: 12,300 feet (hike to: 13,487) Vertical Drop: 1,900 feet (hike for: 3,087) Snowfall: 425 inches Getting There: Silverton is 58 miles north of Durango on Highway 550; the ski area is 10 minutes north of town. Info: 970-387-5706; silvertonmountain.com, silverton.org (lodging).
THE BETA: Silverton redefines the notion of what a ski area is: There aren't any cut trails, you ski with guides in groups of six, and avalanches are a real threat. The experience is more heli-skiing than resort skiing, but instead of dropping $800, you ride an old double chairlift all day for $99. You'll need a shovel, probe, transceiver, and the skills to use them on these 13,000-plus-foot peaks. But the snowpack has been heavily bombed by patrol, so you can breathe a little easier-when you aren't choking on all the powder, that is.
Drag your guide to the back side for a 200-foot-wide, 42-degree screamer called Riff. Don't feel the powder panic-there's more where that came from. Silverton averages about 20 skiers a day, which, given the skier-to-terrain ratio, means there are 80 bountiful acres with your name on them.
3 DAYS LATER
Silverton's north-facing spruce forests hold powder for weeks, but to avoid aimless bushwhacks, get Aaron Brill (owner, manager, janitor, guide) to show you String, a sheltered cache only he can find.
Find corn in Storm Peak's couloirs. The Riding Punch it down Ropedeedope, a 2,200-vertical-foot natural terrain park that traces a series of gullies and steep walls. Along the way are half a dozen wind lips worth launching.
Punch it down Ropedeedope, a 2,200-vertical-foot natural terrain park that traces a series of gullies and steep walls. Along the way are half a dozen wind lips worth launching.
Marquee Route: Hike 25 minutes to Rocky IV, a 3,000-vertical-foot couloir that plummets down a 45- to 50-degree pitch. Check your speed before the mandatory 10-footer: It's followed by a maze of rocks and a slot canyon so narrow you'll feel like a chubby Santa in a skinny chimney. Off-Broadway: Traverse into Nightmare, a spider's web of 28 hairball chutes below 13,487-foot Storm Peak.
Ride the lift.
DRINKING & DANCING
You can drink at the Miner's Tavern (970-387-5560) in downtown Silverton, but dance at your own risk-the secondhand smoke could bog down an iron lung. Better yet, stop in at the Explorer's Club (970-387-5006); they have Guinness on tap and a self-service grill to throw a steak on while you tune your skis on their waxing bench.
Bring sandwiches in case nothing's open (it happens), but you can usually grab a coffee and a berry scone at The Avalanche (970-387-5282). After skiing, carbo-load on Italian at Pasta la Vista (970-387-5352).
For a warm yet spartan room, head to The Triangle on Greene Street ($35; 970-387-5780). The Alma House offers Victorian-style rooms and homemade breakfasts ($79; 970-387-5336).
Sign up for Silverton's monthly one-day avalanche course. There's no better classroom than the unstable snowpack of the San Juans. Consider it hands-on training: It's your life, in your hands ($120, including your lift pass).
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