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Silverton Mountain ups skiing capacity

Bob Berwyn

Reports that Silverton Mountain will open Oct. 17 were slightly premature, but the anticipation and excitement are understandable. The one-lift ski area tucked deep in a spectacular San Juan canyon has already had more than four feet of snow this fall, and most of that is settling into a nice base, at least higher on the mountain and on the north-facing exposures, according to owner Aaron Brill.But Brill says an opening date has not yet been set in stone. Plans are to open sometime between Oct. 17 and Thanksgiving, depending on the weather.&quotWe just need to get some colder temperatures. We’ve had plenty of snow, but it’s been warming up and melting off the bottom of the mountain,&quot Brill says.In case you’ve been living in a cave the past couple of years, Brill’s new ski area is not your average modern-day resort. The one lift, built on a string of mining claims extending up a steep mountainside, provides access to thousands of acres of untrammeled terrain left pretty much the way Mother Nature intended it steep and deep.The plan seems to tie in well with the resurgent interest in all-mountain, all-snow skiing and riding. Crested Butte may have jump-started that bandwagon more than a decade ago when it started hyping its North Face terrain. Soon, extreme ski camps were generating a big-mountain buzz, and ski makers started going wide, a trend that enables more skiers to handle variable snow conditions. As the demand grew, resorts around the country emphasized their &quotoff-piste&quot offerings, with Vail, for example, touting a &quotbackcountry-like&quot experience in Blue Sky Basin. Even prim, family oriented Keystone has started pitching the cliffs and glades of the Windows terrain in recent seasons.But Silverton Mountain is a different creature altogether. It’s still a hybrid of sorts, with the old double chair from Mammoth doing most of the uphill work. But the terrain and the downhill side of the equation is definitely more in the realm of the backcountry experience.Brill plans no slopeside condos or golf courses, and won’t cut any trails or do any grooming. The focus is on carving, pure and simple. The ski area opened for business last season in one of the most miserable snow years on record and still managed to stay open through May 18, hosting about 700 visitors, Brill says. There’s an emphasis on snow safety and environmental education, and Brill plans to expand that part of his operation in the future. This season, for example, there will be a series of avalanche education programs, including a level II course with a blasting component, Brill says.For now, Brill is operating year-to-year until he gets a long-term permit from the Bureau of Land Management. The permit enables up to 40 skiers per day to access 1,300 acres of BLM terrain with a guide, double last year’s quota of 20 skiers per day. Once it opens for &quotgeneral admission,&quot guests will still have to show that they are avalanche savvy, and that they have the appropriate safety and rescue gear.Brill says he was hoping to up the number to 99 skiers per day, but is satisfied with the permit. &quotWe really wanted to see how the snowpack responds to more traffic,&quot he says.Early critics of Brill’s novel idea questioned whether the notoriously unstable San Juan snowpack could ever be tamed on the steep slopes of Silverton Mountain, but Brill says skier compaction appears to be the key to ensuring a workable snowpack. Based on observations from last season, Brill says slide paths that have traditionally run to the valley floor behave much differently after they’ve been skied early and often.&quotThe San Juan snowpack is so tender that just a little bit of packing makes a big difference,&quot he says.Brill says avalanche experts have noticed a similar phenomenon at backcountry areas that see a decent amount of traffic, at Loveland Pass or in the East Vail chutes, for example. That’s not to say the backcountry snowpack is safe all of a sudden, just because it’s being skied more often these days. But Brill says the traffic makes a noticeable difference in the way the snow behaves at his ski area. Of course, skier traffic alone will not mitigate the avalanche hazard enough, so Silverton Mountain will need an extensive avalanche control program. The area could shut down operations completely during times of extreme avalanche danger, according to the permit application.The potential avalanche hazard is one of the key issues being studied by the BLM as part of the permitting process. The agency will also evaluate and disclose impacts to lynx habitat, the local economy, private land adjacent to the area, and temporary public-access closures due to avalanche control work at the area.Brill says he’s in the home stretch as far as the federal permitting process goes. The BLM has decided to do a more extensive Environmental Impact Statement rather than an Environmental Assessment, as planned earlier. But that could be done in time for Silverton to open for general admission next season.The BLM is still accepting written comments, which must be postmarked by Oct. 31 and should be mailed to: Silverton Outdoor Learning and Recreation Center EIS, BLM Columbine Field Office, 15 Burnett Court, Durango, CO 81301. For more information, contact Richard Speegle at (970) 375-3310.INFOBOX:If snow conditions are half-way decent this season, Silverton Mountain will offer a ski experience like no other in Colorado, with lift-assisted access to some of the states most challenging and diverse backcountry skiing and riding terrain. The ski area is beginning to take reservations for its limited-capacity guided ski tours, as well as for educational programs and some slots are already selling out. More information is available at http://www.silvertonmountain.com.


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