SILVERTON, COLORADO – Aaron Brill moved to Silverton determined to build a new ski area from the ground up. Brill’s vision was for an all-expert ski area with a focus on big mountain adventure. During the 1980s and 1990s, when Brill and his then-girlfriend Jen were dreaming up what would eventually become Silverton, the ski resort industry was in a period of growth, with real estate development at the forefront.
When Silverton Mountain opened in 2001, it was notable as much for what it wasn’t as what it was. Other North American ski areas evinced little interest in expanding expert skiing options because it was intermediate skiers who, by and large, bought the condominiums that buoyed resorts’ bottom lines. The first all-expert ski area in America—with no easy way down, no clearcut trails, no grooming, and no real estate development—Silverton was designed to be, in Brill’s words, “All thrills and no frills.” And that’s how it’s been since the mountain’s inaugural skier ran the gauntlet that is Silverton.
This week, Silverton Mountain announced that it had been acquired by Colorado-based Heli Adventures, Inc., and, after nearly 25 years running and operating their dream mountain, the Brills are looking forward to focusing on their family.
The interview below is excerpted from Aaron and Jen’s hometown paper, The Silverton Standard & the Miner.
Silverton Standard: It’s been nearly 25 years of operating Silverton Mountain, what influenced your decision to sell?
Aaron Brill: It’s been an honor and a pleasure building Silverton Mountain from the ground up. We never thought we would ever sell the ski area, but the volatility of the ski industry has increased year after year, and we realized the ski area really needs a better capitalized owner to deal with that in the long term. We saw so many friends lose their successful businesses during Covid that they had worked at tirelessly for their entire lives; it was an incredibly sobering moment. When the Colorado government in March of 2020 shutdown all ski areas on a whim, it took all we had to keep things going.
Silverton Standard: There have been plenty of challenges over the years. What other notable ones would top the list?
Aaron Brill: Every day is a challenge, and that’s one of the reasons why we love the ski industry! Every day is different and requires problem solving and quick adaptation. Some of the biggest hurdles over the last 25 years would be getting the initial BLM approval for the ski area. This was a Herculean task to convince the BLM 25 years ago that this was a good idea. The BLM did not understand or administer ski areas at the time, and they were not sure what to do when a 27-year-old snowboarder walked into their office with plans for a backcountry ski area. Back then, my vision was simple, so I thought it would be easy: I was going to put a lift on private property adjacent to BLM public land and let skiers access the mountains unfettered.
Jen Brill: The BLM only allowed us 10 skiers a day that first year! How crazy is that?—just 10 skiers a day at a ski area. But that’s what we dealt with. The following year they granted us 20 skiers a day, and then the year after that, 40 skiers a day. Starting a new business is always hard, but we didn’t anticipate those artificial hurdles being imposed upon us the first few years. Nowadays, our BLM relationship is much, much better.
Aaron Brill: There were so many challenges, but perhaps the most unique was when Red Mountain Pass closed due to the Ruby Walls rockslide in January of 2016. The rockslide took out a section of Highway 550 above Ouray, in the narrowest section of the highway. The mountainside was still unstable and CDOT was trying to figure out how best to address the issue, but the highway was the critical corridor to Silverton, and there was talk of keeping 550 closed for the entire winter. I volunteered Silverton Mountain’s unique big mountain technical experience and our heli skiing helicopter, and we were brought into the job. Our role was to climb the mountain each day and dangle from ropes on the unstable bluff, send loose boulders down the mountain, and then to drill and place rock netting on the cliff via helicopter. It was incredibly dangerous work that involved our ski guides, helicopter, pilot, and crew—including myself—and we were literally dodging death each day. We are accustomed to doing dangerous things, but this was all-time dangerous work, and we got it done safely and without incident.
Jen Brill: That’s Aaron’s best skill set: finding ways to accomplish dangerous things in a safe manner. There was also the memorable mega-avalanche cycle in March of 2019, when the road to the ski area was buried under 20 feet of debris that took weeks to clear. The only way to get the guests who drove all the way to Silverton, the long way because Red Mountain was also closed for weeks, was via helicopter. Or the big avalanche cycle of 2005, which tore out the powerline to the ski area. We rented a large generator on a trailer to keep the ski area open, and the truck driver from the flatlands of Albuquerque slid off the road 300 feet into a vertical ravine and put the generator in the creek.
Silverton Standard: What changes have you seen in Silverton over the past 24 years?
Jen Brill: In 1999, there were very few businesses open in the winter. Aaron was living in his car, using the pay phone at the Triangle Motel and the computer at the library to write business plans while he was getting the ski area built. Thankfully, the Brown Bear Café was one of the only restaurants open, and it had a salad bar or Aaron probably would have gotten scurvy as he was eating tuna and ramen every day.
Silverton Standard: What would you consider your most significant accomplishment in Silverton?
Aaron Brill: We are extremely thankful that Silverton and San Juan County welcomed us and have been so supportive all of these years. We could not have done it without their support. We are also very proud of our team, which consists of the very best people we have ever met. We’ve known many of our employee since they were college kids, and now they have their own kids and are homeowners.
Silverton Standard: Long ago, when you first started, there were naysayers with predictions of doom and gloom regarding avalanche safety, but it appears as if the opposite has happened…
Jen Brill: We are really proud of our perfect safety record, and the state of the art snow safety program we developed. And that during our watch, we have been able to avoid any avalanche fatalities. This is a testament to our amazing crew, and our dedication to our guests’ wellbeing.
Aaron Brill: Silverton Mountain operates in a much more challenging snow climate than anywhere else in the U.S., yet we’ve been able to maintain a perfect safety record. This is incredibly hard to accomplish. Unlike other ski resorts which all have some low angle terrain to work with and can keep their steep terrain closed after large storms, 100% of our terrain is steep avalanche terrain that we open every day. We are really proud of that.
Silverton Standard: What’s next for Aaron and Jen Brill?
Aaron Brill: I still love ski guiding and guide every single day of the winter in Alaska. We will continue to own and operate Silverton Mountain Guides Alaska (SMG AK), which is the premier heli-skiing operation in Alaska. SMG AK is the only operation that is open for the entire winter season, from October through May, in Alaska, and I guide every single day of the entire season up there. We have the most terrain of any operation in North America, with more than 25 million acres, and I really enjoy sharing that experience with our guests.
Jen Brill: Because we are out flying every day, all season long, and since this will be our seventeenth season operating in Alaska, we have an intimate knowledge of a massive amount mountains all across Alaska. It’s awe-inspiring.
Aaron Brill: And it’s not out of the question that we build another ski area someday. Silverton Mountain will never be duplicated; it’s such a unique and special place and a legitimate top 5 ski area in the U.S. I get approached regularly by people wanting my assistance to build a new ski area, but I haven’t had the bandwidth. I have had my eye on locations with even bigger mountains over the years, so you never know…
Silverton Standard: What’s the status on the new lift?
Aaron Brill: As much as we tried, the second lift will not be going in this season. Finding the right used lift took more time than expected. I know some people will think the second lift was just about making the ski area more marketable, but Grady and I have been talking internally about putting in a second lift for the past 5 years.
Silverton Standard: What does the future of Silverton Mountain look like?
Jen Brill: Andy Culp and Brock Strasbourger [CEO and president, respectively, of Heli Adventures, Inc.] are energetic, hardcore skiers first and foremost. And we only considered parties with a similar passion for skiing and those who fully believed in our employees. Silverton Mountain is our baby, but our employees’ wellbeing moving forward was a requirement when considering doing this. We rejected other more lucrative offers from people who didn’t have what we felt was the right vision for Silverton Mountain, and we believe that Andy and Brock are the right fit. They have a proven track record and are great with guest services, which will be a huge asset to our ski community.
Photo courtesy of Silverton Mountain