You've heard of it. If you haven't been for a visit and you finally smarten up and go there, these are a few things that may happen. A four hour drive may turn into a seven hour drive. The roads out there during a dump are no joke with AWD or even 4WD. If you don't have either, find a friend who does. You don't want to die on the way in… On the way back home you may be OK with it… $139 gets you a guided tour of the mountain. With one chairlift Silverton Mountain is all hiker access off top. After you park, you are directed to a yurt where you sign in. First thing in the morning you will smell spilled carpet beer as you sign your life away and employees bellow simple instructions. If you don't own a beacon, a shovel and an avalanche probe, this is where you rent them. Behind this cozy little yurt they hide a helicopter in the woods. It's just sitting there in the snow.
This is not Vail. They offer guided trips as well as unguided depending on the day. Check their website for all the updated information, They also offer heli-trips at $999/ day or $159 for a single lap. A guide is highly recommended, and necessary during most of the season, to access all of the 1,819 acres of Silvertons terrain.. Outside the check-in yurt you will be herded into groups of eight plus a guide. Most members of this group will have duct tape on some part of there gear. Most likely they will all rip. Your guide will also rip. This is not likely, this is a fact. Your guide may say in a loud voice to your group, even before he or she introduces him or herself, “This mountain may kill you today.” You will agree and immediately understand that this mountain is much more likely to kill you if you do not listen to your guide. Your guide will make sure everyone can at the very least turn on their beacons and put a probe together, then assess the groups ability as far ask hiking speed and which terrain everyone is comfortable riding in. Once at the top of the lift your hike may take ten to forty-five minutes. You want people who can keep up with your group, the group being only as strong as its weakest hiker.
Expect random explosions throughout the valley as the helicopter bombs for avalanches. Expect the hike to have some scary in it. Sometimes you will use a guide rope so that you don't fall to your death. Your guide goes first. Every single time, employee benefits. On most runs you drop one at a time for safety. The guide will say, for example, “count to ten after I disappear over that ridge and then the first person can drop.” First? Did he say whoevers first? Who's first on the first run of the day?? Nervous shuffling... No worries if you are courteous, there will be plenty of snow. Runs at Silverton include wide open powder fields, cliff and cornice drops, tighter tree runs, chutes, gullies and pretty much anything your group can handle.
Your group, your guide and the snow conditions dictate what is skiable. Avalanches are common, but to date no one has ever been fully buried. We spoke to a skier in the lot who was partially buried that day. He apparently didn't listen to his guide. Listen to your guide. It's possible some skier in your group may break out a bottle of breakfast champagne to pass around on the traverse back to the base, where Silverton's bus will shuttle you back to the lift.
At another point you may find yourself in Two Smokes and use a rope to slowly side slip down rocks and logs jammed into a choke in an avy path. With the right group expect four to six of the best runs of your life. Regardless of how much you hike at your home mountain, this mountain eats up your legs. Back at the yurt at the end of the day you will find all sorts of characters who feel the same way. Tired, thirsty and satisfied. You realize the employee who laughed about 'herding cats' as he tried to get your group set up in the morning is having a beer and laughing with friends next to you. Your guide may slap you on the back as he rolls up to take a seat with your group (did i mention you're all fast friends at this point?) and have a beer or five. Our guide on this trip, Pedro, was getting in his beers and veggies together with PBRV8's. After the day you've just had, you'd probably be willing to give your guide a lift to middle-of-nowhere Montana if they asked you, pay for the gas yourself, and thank them when you got there.
Silverton Mountain is a truly a different, exhilarating, intimidating and most importantly, unforgettable experience. According to Skyler Holgate, one of Silverton Mountain's guides, who's a guy who can be found guiding/ shredding the gnar from Silverton to Bariloche to Alaska, the best thing about Silverton Mountain is that with tons of terrain available, and only about 80 people a day there is never a threat, or crazy powder rush like you get at any other ski area. You can just chill and enjoy the day and shred fresh lines alllll day. On a side note, check out the Bonnie Belle cabin (www.bonniebellecabin.com). It is the only backcountry cabin in CO or in the lower 48 that offers private heli skiing/ shuttles into the cabin, located at 12,000 feet above sea level in Picayune Gulch, overlooking the Animas River headwaters and the historic ghost town of Animas Forks. It's 15 miles outside of the town of Silverton, and is owned by Skyler, mentioned above. You can ride some of the San Juan's sweetest mountains with the best guides in the business!
Just book it, then you have to go.
Written by Shane Santana and Ben Koelker
Photo by Ben Koelker