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Silverton – a skiing heaven?

Allen Best
Special to the Daily/Scott DW SmithAron Brill is applying with the federal government to use 1,300 acres of land on this mountain near Silverton, in Colorado's San Juan Mountains, promising $25 lift tickets and a maximum of 400 skiers per day. He admits avalanches and the cost of controlling them is one of his main obstacles.
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Seibert was the one seeking the future of skiing in 1954 when he spent a summer in Silverton, clerking by night at the Grand Imperial Hotel and by day roaming the San Juan Mountains, looking for the site to see through his childhood ambition of building a ski resort. He saw much that he liked in the San Juans, but only the prospect of a small ski area. To see his vision, he needed gentler slopes and closer proximity to a major population center. Three years he found it – at Vail.

Brill, however, says he thinks Seibert got it wrong. Now trying to get a permit from the federal government to use 1,300 acres of land, Brill promises $25 lift tickets and a maximum of 400 skiers a day, with none of the real estate, retail and other wallet-invading techniques ski area operators now routinely use to grow their revenue streams.

Instead, he pledges only the simplest of amenities, such as burgers and beers and, perhaps, cabins.

“The bare minimum, what I would want to see if I went someplace else,” he says.

Yet the question remains whether he can afford to operate the low-cost, low-volume ski area he has promised at Silverton Mountain Ski Area. Nothing quite like it exists anywhere in the United States.

Sure, there are low-cost ski areas. Silverton already has one, called Kendall Mountain, a rope tow on the outer perimeter of the town. Near Leadville, Ski Cooper remains inexpensive and uncrowded. Both, however, lack a shred of steepness.

Silverton Mountain, however, is more like skiing the East Vail chutes, says Dave Ozawa, a snow ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, who has skied both.

Indeed, the world speed-skiing championships were held near Brill’s chosen site in 1981, 1983, and again in 1991. Terrain at Silverton Mountain goes up to 13,300 feet above sea level. With this steepness comes some of the most worrisome avalanche conditions on the continent.

And that is Brill’s fundamental problem. In operating largely on federal lands, he must reduce avalanche risk to paying customers to a level acceptable to the federal government. The fed’s acceptable level of risk is low.

It can be done – with enough money, most anything can be done. But can it be done with a revenue stream of no more than $10,600 a day?

The simple math doesn’t look good for Brill’s dream of creating the “UnVail,” the “UnBreckenidge,” the “UnResort” of your choice.

Real estate deal

Vail, from its inception, was a real estate deal. That’s no condemnation, but a simple statement of fact. When local boy Earl Eaton led Seibert up what is now Vail Mountain in March 1957, Seibert knew he had the ski terrain that would brighten thousands of faces. By then, he also knew roughly what he had in mind at the base of the mountain.

A war hero as a member of the 10th Mountain Division, Seibert had frolicked in Aspen for a few years and then spent time in the Alps, studying resort villages. He never intended that Vail would be solely a ski area.

But, as it turned out, it was a real estate development first, and ski area second. The money needed to make the ski area go didn’t arrive until he and other principals agreed to throw in lots to original investors.

As Seibert recounted in his book, “Triumph of a Dream,” the investors weren’t sure the ski area would survive, but they figured they’d at least get summer cabins if it didn’t.

What resulted was a Swiss-imitation village that, despite critics early and late, works charmingly well. It also has spawned dozens of imitators from coast to coast, beginning with Snowmass Village in the late 1960s, most of them trendily calling themselves “villages,” some even with covered bridges.

After a profusion of new ski areas in the 1960s and 1970s, however, only a handful have opened in Colorado since Beaver Creek opened in 1981.

Others that opened later were SilverCreek, now called SolVista; Cuchara, which is now closed; and Arrowhead, which has been absorbed into Beaver Creek. Of the three, only Cuchara was located on public land.

The Forest Service also approved creation of a new ski area at Catamount, near Steamboat, but developers backed out because of the

flat market for downhill skiing. Instead, the base area was developed as a golf course community.

But criticism has been mounting in recent years of Vail as the place where the sport and lifestyle of skiing was hijacked by money and business. The best articulated argument may come from Hal Clifford, a long-time journalist from Aspen and elsewhere. In his new book, “Downhill Slide,” Clifford argues the process he traces to Vail Village in 1962 has corrupted the sport and the mountain towns near ski areas.

These ski valleys, Clifford says, “are losing what it was that made them special in the first place, and so becoming more like the rest of America. Such a fate will ultimately undermine the appeal, the quality of life and the economic success of these places.”

Inspired by New Zealand

Like Seibert, Brill’s inspiration comes from the other side of the world. Visiting New Zealand in 1992, he discovered small ski areas, staffed primarily by volunteers, where nothing more fancy than a rope tow accessed thousands of acres of extraordinary skiing. Fittingly, while in New Zealand, Brill bought the Sorrel boots he now uses for his similarly aged snowboard.

Returning to the states, bouncing from Steamboat to Bozeman and

elsewhere, Brill nurtured the idea of having his own ski area. He discovered Lake City had a dormant municipal ski area, and while inspecting the terrain on a DeLorme map he flipped the page to Silverton. What he saw there impressed him even more. Amid the green blocks indicating public lands around the ghost town of Gladstone, he saw white that indicated private land. Among all of them were snug topographic lines.

Inspecting the scenery in the flesh in 1999, Brill liked it even better, and soon he was chasing down the 20 or so owners of former mining claims on his chosen mountainside. Target price for the 350 acres, he says, was $1,000 an acre.

On this land he has installed a 28-year-old lift purchased from California’s Mammoth Mountain, doing everything by hand and on foot until the helicopters dropped the 15 lift towers into the concrete pads in the fall of 2001.

In Silverton, he has been welcomed almost without exception. Since 1991, when the Sunnyside Mine closed putting 800 people out of work, San Juan County has consistently had the highest unemployment rate in

Colorado.

In summer, when 2,000 to 3,000 people live in Silverton, the economy is strong and largely connected to the twice-daily runs of the narrow-gauge railroad from Durango. In winter, however, the trains stop running, and the town’s population droops to 500 or less.

Monthly sales taxes sag more severely yet, from summer highs of $95,000 to winter lows of $6,000. There is even concern that the school must be closed – only 40 students remain.

Many residents see this as Silverton’s new gold mine, if a small-producing affair. Last winter, his ski area employed only eight, including Brill and his partner, Jenny Ader.

Taming the snow

Use of federal land is key to Brill’s aspiration. From where his lift tops out on private land at 12,247 feet, skiers and snowboarders can hike to gain access to 1,300 acres of Bureau of Land Management property. To Brill’s dismay, though, the BLM has required an environmental impact statement.

An EIS costs around $130,000 and takes about 18 months to complete. One reason for the more thorough assessment, says Richard Speegle, project manager for the BLM, is that Silverton Mountain lies in a possible corridor between habitat of the Canada lynx, a species protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Avalanches, though, are the overriding issue.

“There’s really nothing like it in the lower 48 states, where you have lift-access to that sort of avalanche terrain,” says Speegle.

Also unlike New Zealand, the U.S. government implicitly assumes responsibility for public safety when it grants a permit for commercial skiing on federal lands. That onus is, in turn, put on the shoulders of the ski area operator. Merely getting to the ski area requires driving a road for six miles of road located below 45 named avalanche paths.

Ninety percent of avalanches that capture people are triggered by their victims. That danger picks up sharply on slopes of 30 degrees or more, and Silverton’s slopes start at about 35 degrees. Many of the ski trails descend into 50-degree funnels that are bordered by thick trees.

With enough skiers, snow can be compacted, diminishing risk. But at Silverton Mountain, there is too much terrain – nearly as much as Telluride – for so few skiers, and 50-degree slopes are difficult to manage no matter how many skiers.

Snowpack forecasting will become more important, says Craig Sterbenz, Telluride’s snow safety director and a consultant to Silverton Mountain, but he doesn’t see avalanches alone breaking the idea.

“Almost any avalanche problem can be dealt with,” says Sterbenz. “It’s just how much money you’re willing to spend.”

A narrow niche?

Until he gets the permit from the federal government, which many seem to think he will, Brill has authority to take up guided tours of up to 40 skiers a day on public lands. To qualify, clients must first pass an avalanche awareness test and then carry beacons and shovels. Cost of these guided tours is $99 a day.

This, says Ed Ryberg, sounds an awful lot like helicopter or Sno-cat powder skiing. Ryberg, a Forest Service winter sports administrator who has skied or snowboarded most of the resorts of the West, has unflinching praise for Brill’s determination – and for the terrain.

“It’s excellent skiing, there’s no doubt about it,” he says.

Ultimately, however, Ryberg says he foresees Brill retreating from his dream of low-priced, high-quality skiing for a few hundred people. To make the numbers work, he predicts, Silverton Mountain will ultimately provide a small amount of so-so terrain for yo-yo skiing, then provide the guided tours – at a premium cost – to access the steeper, more avalanche-prone terrain. Even $10, 000 a day in revenue, the maximum under Brill’s scenario, is unlikely to cover the cost of such an operation.

As is, he says, Colorado ski areas make a big play for this narrow market of steep and deep – Copper Mountain with Tucker Mountain, Telluride with Prospect Basin, even Breckenridge and Winter Park and now Aspen Highlands.

But the best parallel may be at Berthoud Pass. A tiny ski area, it’s only an hour’s drive from metropolitan Denver’s 2 million residents, the largest concentration of skiers in North America. Yet, as a conventional ski area, Berthoud Pass got only 25,000 skier days, income falling short of expenses. Last year, converting to a Sno-cat skiing operation, Berthoud Pass’s skier days seemed to do better.

Similarly, says Ryberg, Silverton Mountain’s ultimate niche will be to mine the 40- to 50-year-olds who can afford $100 for a day of high-quality guided skiing. The real question at Silverton, suggests Ryberg, is how deep Brill’s resources are.

“Can he stay in there until these processes, such as the EIS study, have run their course?” Ryberg says. “And then the real hard part begins?”

Dissent in Silverton

In Silverton, meanwhile, Nicole Barr is leaning against the windmill of local sentiment. But Barr sees Brill’s great adventure as a mistake for two reasons.

First, she sees too much danger from avalanches. A backcountry skier who skies 150 days a year, Barr says she avoids the area around the ghost town of Gladstone, where Brill’s ski area is located, until March at the earliest, after the snow has begun stabilizing.

“I just think the place he picked was wrong,” she says.

For that matter, anyplace around Silverton would be wrong to her. She sees Brill as just another developer of a seasonal economy. From Brill to Seibert to Copper Mountain Village, it’s just a matter of degree, she says

“I have lived here for 11 years, and I don’t work in winter, and we even have a kid and figured out a way to buy a house,” she says. “We save our money during summer to get through the winters, and other people can too.”

Barr says she chose to live in Silverton specifically because it had no ski area – because it was unlike most Colorado mountain towns. Even one lift is starting down the wrong road.

“That’s how Telluride started out, with just one lift, and how Aspen started out, with just one lift,” she says.

Whether Brill’s ski area ends up with 20-year-old Generation Y snowboarders or 50-year-old baby boomers, Bar sees little real gain for Silverton.

Either way, she says she sees a downhill ski area as a false savior for Silverton’s winter economy. Better, she says, to entice year-round enterprise of some sort.

Perhaps the essential question is whether you can have tourism while keeping your honor, commercial skiing while still retaining the spirit of the sport, and sex while keeping your virginity.

For more information on Silverton Mountain, call the ski area at 970-387-5706 or visit http://www.silvertonmountain.com.


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