By Patrick Byrne, Public Affairs Manager, Colorado Ski Country USA
I first went to Silverton back in January of 2008, an epic road trip with my buddies Jon and Dave and their special lady friends Jess and Michelle, respectively. I left my imaginary girlfriend at home, because at the time she was merely an intermediate snowboarder and therefore totally unworthy of the legendary Silverton, where the easiest way down is a solid black diamond at any of the I-70 resorts.
Until that first day, I had naively thought of myself as a good skier: comfortable in steep terrain, skiing with good form all over the mountain, and starting to look like a pro in the bumps. However, I had never skied in deep powder. My setup (which I still wear today) consisted of super-stiff Nordica Vertech 75 boots circa 1998, which were suitable for racing on the east coast ice I grew up with, and narrow slalom skis that were totally inadequate for the challenge presented by this unique ski area. So, I rented what I thought were the widest skis I had ever seen (maybe 110 mm underfoot) from the converted school bus that served as Silverton's gear rental office.
I felt like I was riding two snowboards, because I was a hopeless newbie to what makes Silverton special: powder so deep you need specialized equipment including, probably, a snorkel.
After a brief tutorial about how to use an avalanche beacon, we ascended Silverton's one and only chairlift, a fixed grip double lift imported from one of the Tahoe resorts and installed by hand by Aaron Brill, Silverton's co-owner and our guide for the day. You can ski Silverton unguided, but unless you know the mountain inside out guided skiing is the way to go. The conditions at the top were favorable, so we bootpacked it for about ninety minutes across a scenic (but gnarly) ridge to an old radio tower that overlooked a 2,000 foot vertical descent in powder up to my waist.
I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Riding powder that deep felt more like surfing than skiing. Or, it felt how I imagine surfing would be like, because I'm as much of a surfer as I am the Queen of France.
Towards the bottom, I can remember losing an edge (and a ski) and sliding about 300 feet in the general direction of my doom before regaining some friction with Planet Earth. It was a lot more fun than it sounds, and I'd like to think it looked a lot like Silverton's venerable logo (at right). Meanwhile, Aaron bestrode the mountain like a colossus, strapped to the largest snowboard I have ever seen in my life. I was impressed, and more than a bit intimidated.
You can make most of a day riding at Silverton while only needing to ride the chairlift once. The hiking was just as enjoyable as my imitation powder skiing, and we made our way around the box canyon that constitutes the back side of the mountain, finding copious powder stashes all the way around. That's an added benefit of only allowing 80-100 people on the mountain per day: with the frequency that Silverton gets big storms, there is almost always untracked powder a short hike away.
I gradually got the hang of my mutant double-wide skis, and had a great day. When you make your pilgrimage to Silverton, I'd recommend having a recovery day in between your days on the mountain. We skied five runs on the first day and were wiped out beyond description; after sleeping the sleep of the innocent we packed into my car and drove back over the Red Mountain Pass to recover at the natural hot springs near Ridgeway. It was very necessary.
Day two was a much less humiliating experience, and at the end of the day we all celebrated our significant improvement as skiers and snowboarders in the yurt at the base area with more cans of PBR than physicians would deem advisable.
If you fancy yourself a good skier or snowboarder, going to Silverton at least once during your residence in Colorado is mandatory, like a hajj for snowriders. It's like no other ski area, and it'll test the limits of your endurance and ability while reminding you why you first took up the sport.