Where is this place? We must be getting close. Eyes anxiously scan the steep canyon walls for any sign of a ski lift. It’s barely dawn and six of us are driving up the snow covered back road snaking up and out of the old mining town of Silverton, CO. All of us greenhorns hoping to bag a skier's big game trophy on this day. Only minutes away now and it’s hard to believe that despite a litany of embarrassing planning snafus we're finally going to pull this one off. Our posse of pilots today includes Bill and Carl from Jet Blue airlines, Kim and myself from US Airways, Bob from Delta, and finally Buck, our token civilian. Ages range from 30 to 62 and hometowns from Cleveland to Durango.
For those unfamiliar, the book on Silverton Mt. is guided-only back country, in variable conditions, on nothing less than double black diamond, and hardcore hiking above 12,000' to get there. Needless to say, I hope I'm not the only one feeling a bit of trepidation going into this. Nobody wants to be the goat, the one holding the group back, being in so far over your head you risk serious injury to yourself and others, or worse yet, utter humiliation. Most importantly though, never ever leak these feelings to your bros.
There is no "resort" to be found here, but just a small parking lot jammed next to a creek, a beat up old '70s vintage house trailer used as a ski rack, and one lonely old second hand ski lift heading straight up out of sight. We park, boot up, and take a small log bridge over the creek to some snow stairs and up to a dilapidated old yurt tent. Here the mayhem begins in earnest with about eighty skiers all crammed in trying fill out the obligatory liability release paperwork with frozen pens, stiff fingers, and no place to write. The place exudes a calculated level of pride in projecting the laid back mountain-grunge image to its fullest. Way beyond "shabby chic", it certainly lends an exclamation point to this whole anti-resort experience.
Somehow direction arises from this mass confusion and we gradually squeeze out between the yurt and a foul smelling wooden latrine and up some more snow stairs (that you'll curse by the end of the day) to an old school bus buried to its roof in snow with only the back door exposed. This would be the "rental facility". As you slowly cram inside this small neck-crunching mad house, you're met with a barrage of rock music, inside employee jokes, and continuous yelling about who gets what. Shouts of "shovel, probe, beacon, & pack" are barked out like orders at a greasy spoon diner. Survive this gauntlet; catch your breath, sanity, etc. and head back down to the parking lot with your pack and your K2 super fatties in hand. Mine were affectionately labeled "Drunken College Girl" and I was sternly warned not to disrespect these beaters and in return they would surely put out - truer words have never been spoken.
Skis du jour for Silverton are the K2 Pontoons or the Hellbents, which if you can get by graphics depicting a child's twisted nightmare, seem to be a guide favorite.
Only three of our gang roll their own. They would be the two Minnesotans (explanation forthcoming) and our own Buck, whose boutiqueish split-tail Sick Birds garner attention from aficionados like some kind of classic race car.
Now it’s time to coagulate into groups of eight each. We're told to form up from left to right according to hiking skills. This is a key clue to what lay ahead since I would have naively expected to group according skiing ability. Our group of six picks a spot just right of center, likely reflecting our political views more than our ability, and we are quickly joined by two dudes from Minnesota (that should move us to the left a bit, at least politically). Uh oh, would these midwest flat-landers slow us down? I would soon be a first hand witness (from behind) to the benefits of marathon training.
Seemingly out of nowhere, our guide Troy walks up, gives us a quick once over, and claims us as his. We quickly go through the standard avalanche safety briefing with most questions involving the correct usage of the beacons. Once he's answered all the stupid questions, tolerated the nervous jokes, and satisfied that we are all complete morons, we pair up ala the "buddy system" and head for the lift. Damn, it’s too late to back out now and thus we begin our slow ascent into an icy blue dawn sky. Breezes kick up from threatening pockets of ragged dark clouds churning around the surrounding peaks. A spectacular day is unfolding before us...
The "MO" at Silverton is to ride the lift 2000' up a ridge to get just above the tree line at 12000'. From there you have some limited options to ski down, but most of the primo terrain involves continuing up said ridge by hiking anywhere from 20 minutes to God knows how long. Our longest was about 30 minutes and although I saw groups going higher, I don't think anybody in our group was pressing for more. IMO the hiking was easily the most difficult part of the Silverton experience. I considered myself in fairly good condition, but the lung burn at those elevations is relentless. It kind of reminded me of those Everest documentaries on the History Channel when you'd pass a faceless hiker hunched over on the side of the trail and not even have the energy to say hello. I highly recommend being at the back of the line so when you're blessedly forced to stop it always appears like you're impatiently waiting on some poor wretch ahead.
We’re finally at the top of the lift, and even here on this remote pixel of earth pandemonium still seems to rule. Groups are huddling about waiting for their marching orders amidst the constant drone of chopper blades. We all drool as the heli stages continuous drops, swooping eastward to eye-candy terrain.
Alas, our first order of business is to figure out how to get the skis strapped to our packs. Troy quickly shows us how, but it appears the rent-a-packs are a bit stingy on strap length and not really designed to carry skis the size of small snowboards. Our first hike is the second longest of the day. We head up the exposed ridge on a beaten snow path, carefully following each other’s footsteps for stability.
After about 20 minutes, Troy signals a stop and explains we'll now click in and traverse to the right. Getting into the bindings of these wide skis on the side of a steep wind packed slope was a bit of a bitch. Just as Troy mentions that extra caution be taken lest one loose a ski and face the rather dire consequences, a Minnesotan screams "Oh shit!" and one of his boards is heading for the barn. Attaining mach speed in about 2 seconds, it fortuitously ricochets airborne, quickly arcs earthward and prangs in tip first about fifty yards down. With the patience of a saint, Troy dutifully retrieves it as if he sees these shenanigans on a daily basis, which he probably does. But I'm thinking holy shit! How the hell would you get down on one ski? I'm sure it’s got to be jungle rules. Like a bad injury, we give him a power bar, water, maybe an extra jacket, promise to send help, and all go ski some blower pow.
We move on to gingerly traverse a wind scoured rock field ON OUR SKIS. Seriously, no wonder the Drunken College Girls are looking a tad calloused. Finally standing atop a wide gully of untracked pow, Troy explains at length, as he would each and every time, exactly where to go and not to go. Beyond the obvious avalanche dangers, straying just slightly off course on this mountain, more often than not, results in either "cliffing out" or "gullying in". Only when Troy is thoroughly convinced we'll proceed with the Fear of God tattooed on our brains, are we ready for our first turns.
Off goes Troy and one at a time we follow. From a small rock outcropping we drop into the wide parabolic gulley filled with knee deep pow that funnels into some well spaced trees below. Keeping with local style, it's called the Corn Hole and this would be our only run on the west face. The first turns on the unfamiliar boards are cautious, but it only takes a few before a silly grin lights up your face and like an epiphany, you suddenly get what all this reverse side cut and rocker stuff is all about. Money!!! Just think "turn" and you're already half way through it. The rather tightly spaced trees ahead get mentally wider as your confidence quickly escalates.
2000+ vertical is gone in what seems a flash and we're all waiting on the side of the entrance road for a short ride back to the lift. Troy radios in and a few minutes later an ancient old UPS delivery truck clatters up and does a quick Uey. We pile in amongst some old tires laying on the floor and hang on for our lives. Just a note here: knowing that most humans and all our skis are about 190cm high, all vehicles, whether moving or stationary, are sadistically designed with 180cm ceilings.
We make three more runs on the east face before lunch involving two shorter hikes and one right off the lift. Conditions generally range from hard wind packed at the top, to a sweeeeet spot in the middle, and slightly crusty and heavier stuff at the bottom. At least three of our runs culminate in the same steep narrow gully which is starting to form some crusty moguls that we learn to dread. As well as the venerable Pontoons perform in 3D, they absolutely suck here. All of our runs on the east face end up in a creek bed that requires egress by a various combination of unsavory methods including stream crossing, side stepping, and skinning without skins up to a cat trail on the other side.
Then a leisurely glide down this road takes us to a lot where a short wait brings an old school bus to pick up the continuous supply of groups, all a bit less eager to get back to the lift with each passing lap.
Lunch is an understandably mellow affair back at the yurt. Just finding a place to park your ass is a moral and physical victory. For me, sitting on the arm of an old sofa felt like a Lazy Boy. After noticing some clear plastic sheeting hanging just above my head, I comment that they must have leaks. Within seconds a drop from the algae filled low spot barely misses my turkey sandwich. A makeshift bar gets some limited attention just beyond the open plastic bins of SM swag and peanut butter covered mouse traps freshly set out on the floor. By now this whole bizarre scene barely raises an eyebrow. Ah, but all good things must come to an end and it’s time to get back down to the parking lot and form up again.
Troy polls the group: "hike or no hike?" Feeling a bit rejuvenated and no one wanting to sound like a wuss, we all heartily vote for hike, each silently wondering what degree of torture was about to rain down. Paying the price for our false bravado, Troy suggests we go even higher this time so it’s time to hunker down and start kicking some steps. In all seriousness, even though the hiking is the most difficult part of the Silverton experience, it is truly worth every step. The views, the terrain, the conditions, and the feeling of accomplishment all increase proportionally with the elevation.
Seven runs, somewhere slightly north of 14k of hard earned vert, and the Drunken College Girls are screaming at me to get them back to campus. I thought our group rocked. Nobody had any issues, we all hung together well, Troy was the consummate pro, the Minnesotans were dudes, and no blood or broken body parts. I'm sure we only saw the easy to moderate offerings, but nothing was really all that hairy and any upper level skier could hack it. The hiking was sick, the gnar wasn't bad, the skis were phat, and I got me a trophy T-shirt to prove it!
Call it Looney Toons meets Warren Miller, but whatever you call it, we all decided early on this awesome experience deserves to be repeated on an annual basis.
john Fritzski fritz