By R. Scott Rappold
Silverton, Colorado. It conjures an image in the minds of skiers, of deep powder in the jagged mountains known as the "American Alps," of terrain so steep that "double-diamond" doesn't do it justice, of bucket-list lines and helicopter drops off the top of the world.
In the shadow of famed Silverton Mountain - where everyone must wear avalanche gear and beginners need not apply - lies Kendall Mountain. Since 1963, the ski hill has been providing a way for local kids to learn the sport and local skiers to enjoy a low-cost option compared to surrounding resorts in the San Juan Mountains.
But times may be changing for Kendall Mountain. The town of Silverton, which owns the ski area, in 2017 launched a public process to look at the potential of the ski area, what the community wants to see and how much a major expansion would cost.
The goal: To see if an expansion could provide a year-round economy for Silverton, which does most of its tourist business in summer and empties in the long winter.
The challenge: To preserve the low cost, laid-back and family-friendly atmosphere while still being able to compete with other resorts for traveling skier visits.
"People have been talking for decades about how to do more with Kendall," says Lisa Branner, community relations manager for the town of Silverton. "We see it as a real gem in our community and we want to find ways to do more with it for the benefit of the community as well as our visitors."
A unique experience
You don't pay to park or ride a bus to the lifts at Kendall. They don't make snow. There's no ski patrol, ski school or bar. The community center that serves as the base lodge has a small snack bar, rental shop and an ice-skating rink.
There's one chairlift serving 16 acres of terrain, 240 feet of vertical feet, making it the smallest ski area in the Colorado Ski Country USA family of resorts. There are groomed trails, tree runs and a small terrain park. An adult lift ticket runs $25.
The ski area was built by a local hotel in 1963, closed in 1982 and reopened by the town in the 1990s. The community center was constructed by hand by volunteer residents.
"You can wave at everybody in the parking lot. You know everybody there, and the visitors pick up on that too ... I think people really appreciate the down-to-Earth vibe there," says Branner.
But Silverton can feel a little too down-to-Earth once summer ends and the town's main source of tourist dollars, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, stops running. The only access is a long, snowy drive over several mountain passes (though the drive itself, on U.S. Highway 550, is one of the most gorgeous in North America.) About two-thirds of residents leave and most businesses close, having made their money for the year in the four hectic months of summer.
A year-round economy
The need for a year-round economy led to the current discussion, and a study commissioned by the town and released last fall pointed to one major theme that could help drive that: expansion.
Kendall does a great job introducing kids to the sport (every public school student gets a free pass) and even gets its share of out-of-town skiers during the holidays, but the study said it remains too small to attract most traveling skiers. And Silverton Mountain is too much of a niche, expert-level skiing experience to have a huge economic impact.
"At this point in time, Kendall Mountain is like the beginner mountain, and we have the opposite end of the spectrum with Silverton Mountain being only expert terrain," says Branner. "Part of the motivation here is to fill that gap in-between, with more intermediate terrain, things that are going to attract families, so we have some terrain that appeals to everyone."
The Kendall Mountain Recreation Area Viability Assessment determined Kendall has the terrain to grow by as little as 300 acres or as much as 800, with three new lifts and a magic carpet for beginners; base area and on-mountain restaurants; and an expanded base lodge. Planners also determined the ski area could become a part of Silverton's robust summer recreation scene, with zip lines, an alpine slide, biking and hiking trails and other improvements.
The total cost: $25 million, a sum Branner says the small town does not have.
For now, how to pay for such improvements is on the back burner as the community decides whether to pursue them at all. Of the 117 residents who participated in the study, 108 were in favor of further exploration of the idea of expansion and year-round recreation at Kendall. But just as strongly, they don't want to see Kendall lose its family-friendly focus, low-key vibe and emphasis on serving the local community, says Branner.
She says there is also a strong feeling against any massive development or condominiums at the base. Rather, people see downtown Silverton, only a 5-minute walk from Kendall, as serving as the base area.
"In my mind, the study raised more questions than it answered. What ultimately do we want Kendall to be when it grows up and what types of resources would we need to accomplish that?" says Branner. She expects another year of planning before there are any answers.
"The question was, really, 'Do we have the raw ingredients?' And the answer that came back from this study was, 'Yes, we have the raw ingredients.' The question the community is facing is how that would unfold and what do we want to see over there."
R. Scott Rappold is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience, including 10 at The Colorado Springs Gazette, where he wrote about skiing, hiking, camping and all the things that make Colorado great. He is now a full-time ski bum who writes when he needs money for beer or lift tickets. He lives in Colorado's beautiful San Luis Valley. Read more of Scott's stories .