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The mother lode of steep and deep

As avalanche-control blasts echoed in a narrow valley walled off by towering, jagged whitecaps, a guide stretched one hand high above her head while cupping the other around her nose and mouth, creating an air pocket.
In this Dec. 15, 2005 photo provided by Silverton Mountain, a skier heads down Silverton Mountain in Silverton, Colo.
In this Dec. 15, 2005 photo provided by Silverton Mountain, a skier heads down Silverton Mountain in Silverton, Colo.Aaron Brill / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

As avalanche-control blasts echoed in a narrow valley walled off by towering, jagged whitecaps, a guide stretched one hand high above her head while cupping the other around her nose and mouth, creating an air pocket.

Skiers and snowboarders - already required to strap on homing beacons and backpacks containing small shovels and extendable probes - looked on quietly as the guide demonstrated how to survive in a cascading mass of snow.

Precautions taken at Silverton Mountain render the threat of avalanches low. Yet little can be left to chance at this breathtakingly steep, rugged throwback of a ski area that bridges the thrills of the backcountry with some basic conveniences of conventional resorts.

"It's similar to helicopter skiing, except about $2,500 less," said Jonathan Hauger, a Colorado resident and repeat customer. "It's a little scary sometimes because it's really steep. You're looking down a 55-degree slope and you're thinking, 'I really can't make a mistake here, because if you lose it, you could go down like a pinball off the rocks.'"

Now in its fifth season, Silverton Mountain isn't for everyone and won't be for the foreseeable future because its young owners don't really want it to be.

Aaron Brill, 34, who founded the ski area with wife Jen, 33, was tiring of typical American ski resorts, wondering why the United States had nothing resembling the New Zealand ski areas known as club fields, where real estate development is negligible, prices reasonable, runs uncrowded and untracked snow plentiful.

"I got tired of skiing at mountains that got tracked out in half a day," Brill recalled. "It's not only me who thinks that way, so why not provide good skiers with what they want?"

For now, guided skiing is required at Silverton, but that is expected to change in April. A new Bureau of Land Management permit will allow the Brills to let up to 475 skiers a day venture out on their own from the top of the mountain's lone chairlift.

Some areas that require hiking and have some of the most extreme terrain may have to be kept off-limits to those without guides, but there will still be plenty of open bowl and tree skiing from the lift, which covers 2,000 feet of vertical and drops skiers off an elevation of 12,300 feet.

There's an additional 1,000 feet of vertical for those in good enough shape - and in good enough form on the slopes - to hike up. One drop-in is so steep and narrow that skiers must hold on to a rope as they slip down to an area wide enough to make a couple of hair-raising turns. The reward, of course, is a glorious expanse of deep and often fresh snow.

The snow is so deep, in fact, that wide-based powder skis - "fatties," if you will - are a must for most skiers. Annual snowfall is about 400 inches.

The combination of abundant snowfall, the grandeur of the San Juan mountain range and the charm of the nearby town of Silverton, an historic mining town that still boasts a legacy of Victorian architecture, drew the Brills here.

The Brills were in their 20s, living in Montana in the late '90s, when they decided they wanted to open a no-frills, expert ski resort. They studied topographical maps and snowfall statistics. Then, in some ways similar to the gold and silver prospectors before them, they came to Silverton hoping to find deep snow and thrilling slopes. They hit a mother lode.

Silverton's offerings range from open bowls to glades, couloirs and chutes.

Bands of small cliffs traverse some runs, offering thrill-seekers ample opportunity to get air before plunging into deep beds of powder.

What skiers won't find are groomed runs or anything suitable for intermediate or beginner skiers. And unlike the Brills had hoped, they also won't find cheap lift tickets - at least not yet.

The Brills hope to make prices for unguided skiing relatively low, but for now, prices that include a guide range from $99 to $129 a day, depending on the date, and reservations are required, since there are only so many guides available on a given day. (Until this season, permits only allowed 80 skiers per day and the Brills expect to keep in that range until unguided skiing begins.)

Silverton's not even for all expert skiers. The high altitude, periodic hiking and the requirement to ski in groups makes for a methodical pace. Skiers often won't get more than five runs in, which is hard for some to accept when they've paid as much as $185, including rentals.

"I've heard people complaining that they only got five runs," said Doug Wall, a Silverton resident and bar owner. "But it's a backcountry experience - backcountry with a lift."

Obstacles are unmarked. On many parts of the mountain, guides point out hazards the best they can, then make the first tracks while ordering the rest of their group to stay to the left or right.

Wall and most other locals in the town of Silverton defend the young ski area and its adventurous owners, speaking almost reverently about the resourcefulness the Brills showed in obtaining their chairlift - a retired double from Mammoth Mountain that they bought for $20,000 - and doing much of the tree-stump clearing and cement-pouring required to install it.

While the Brills recently received permits to build a proper base lodge, all they have for now is a white, metal-framed, weather station-like structure that was towed to the spot where it rests, just above the base of the lift. The bathrooms are more like outhouses. The rental shop is an old bus. And when skiers take runs that don't lead back to the lift, an old brown UPS truck that serves as a shuttle picks them up and takes them back to the main base area.

Still, few complain at the end of the day. Instead, some of the most rugged, skillful skiers around sit back on second-hand sofas inside the base camp, sipping beer served from a keg behind a makeshift bar, recounting their runs and humbly thanking the Brills for providing what none of America's conventional resorts could.

"It's such a great story. I got a sense of what skiing might have been like 30 years ago," said Mike Conners, another repeat customer. "I know tons of people who really love them for what they've accomplished."

If you go:

SILVERTON: Reservations required for Silverton Mountain skiing: or (970) 387-5706. Town of Silverton: or (866) 675-6900. Silverton Magazine:

GETTING THERE: The ski area is a five-minute drive from the town of Silverton, located at 9,305 feet in the crater of an extinct volcano, surrounded by towering whitecaps. You can't get there without driving over a mountain pass, which also means you can get stuck there if there is a snowstorm. Nearest airports are in Durango, 45 miles away, or Montrose, 60 miles away. From Montrose, drive through picturesque Ouray, another well-preserved Victorian mining town known for hot springs and ice-climbing. In summer, the famous Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway runs to and from Durango.

Silverton is 360 miles from Denver (I-70 West, US 50 East, 550 South); 400 miles from Salt Lake City (I-15 South, I-70 East, US 50 East, US 550 South); and 265 miles from Albuquerque (I-25 North, 550 North).

GETTING AROUND: The town of Silverton, set up in a compact grid, is very walkable. But you need a car, preferably a four-wheel drive, to access Silverton ski area and for day trips to Ouray, Durango, or more conventional skiing at Durango Mountain Resort.

LODGING: Several small hotels in Silverton offer nightly rates of $45-$150. The largest historic hotel, the Grand Imperial, dates to 1883 and has a bullet lodged in the wall - evidence of Silverton's wild past as a mining town full of saloons and brothels. The Canyon View, a newer hotel, is comfortable, reasonable and pet-friendly, with dog treats in the room.

DINING: The Explorers Club - which provides uncooked steaks, fish or vegetarian fare that patrons grill themselves, with sauces and seasonings from the bar - is among the more unique spots in town. Other options include Pasta la Vista, the Silverton Brewery, Kendall Mountain Cafe, the Gold King Dining room at the Imperial Hotel, the Brown Bear Cafe, the Chattanooga Cafe, Pride of the West, Mobius Coffee and the Cow Palace cafe.

THINGS TO DO: For those who can't handle Silverton Mountain's extreme runs, Kendall Mountain Recreation Area - offers beginner and intermediate skiing, with a rope-tow lift, at just $7 ($4 for children), sledding, ice skating, snow cat ski tours and ice-climbing, as well as walking tours of brightly colored Victorian buildings.