Risk-Ski Business

Can Aaron Brill's single lift save Silverton and earn salvation for the sport?

Some Silverton residents oppose the Silverton Mountain area. A handful of backcountry skiers angry over losing their pristine runs have complained, and a few locals fretted about avalanches. A homeowner near Brill's base location filed a lawsuit against San Juan County, contending that county planners had failed to follow proper procedures in approving Brill's plans.

Recently, however, the lawsuit was summarily dismissed. Brill has just completed a two-year avalanche study of the area, in which he concludes the risk is manageable; it is being reviewed by avalanche experts at the U.S. Forest Service. And even in a pro-development climate, Brill has endeared himself to local officials by actually listening to their concerns. "Aaron has been flexible and willing to work with us," says Norman, adding that when officials expressed concern about parking and signs, Brill quickly agreed to changes.

"People are always skeptical when some guy like me shows up in their office saying he's going to do something of this magnitude," he adds. "They've been told so many times a ski area was going to be built they won't believe it until they see it. And if you come into a small town and start telling people, 'This is how I'm going to do it,' they'll show you the door."

Aaron Brill may become skiing's prophet of no-profit.
Aaron Brill may become skiing's prophet of no-profit.

Brill has also managed to raise some money through sponsorships, advertising and advance ticket sales. The Triangle Motel (Brill's neighbor) and the T&T Market have purchased space on lift towers. Mad Mama's Pies and the Wyman Hotel have bought space on lift chairs. He has sold about twenty "lifetime ski passes" for $2,500 each. A bigger deal to lease the naming rights of the entire ski area to two dot-com companies for $250,000 fell through when the economy tanked, but Brill says the addition of two additional investors -- hardcore skiers as well as money men -- has kept the project afloat.

"This is going to be one of the steepest lifts in Colorado," says Haaland, staring through his surveyor's lens across an alpine meadow dotted with wildflowers just above tree line. Although it varies, and in some places drops nearly to a 60-degree pitch, the terrain on Brill's mountain will be between 37 and 42 degrees -- twice that of some big resorts' intermediate runs.

From the top of the lift, ambitious skiers might decide to hike east to what Haaland calls "Billboard Peak," named for a radio repeater perched on top. "From there it's a 3,100 vertical feet down to the base," he says. "Even better than Pallavicini at A-Basin" -- the double-diamond, out-of-bounds bowl famous among expert riders. "It'll be the best run in Colorado."

Silverton Mountain definitely won't be for everyone. Brill hopes to cap traffic at 475 skiers a day. Riders will be required to take a test to prove their knowledge of avalanches; those who fail have to take a day-long course before boarding the lift. Each skier and snowboarder will need to rent an avalanche beacon and carry a shovel. A $1 fee will be tacked on to the price of the $25 lift ticket for search-and-rescue insurance.

And, despite his early plans of a rustic mountain that barely makes a dent on the map, Brill has been forced to adjust his dream to accomodate a few economic realities. Plans for a small tow quickly gave way to the need for a real lift -- necessary, he has concluded, to haul enough skiers up the hill to make money. The notion of a few portable toilets at the base of the hill has been replaced by the relative luxury of a 2,000-square-foot lodge, and a cluster of cabins.

At the end of August, the BLM will begin public hearings on Brill's proposal to lease 1,600 acres next to his own land. After that, the BLM will do an environmental assessment -- some of the land is lynx habitat -- and fill out more paperwork. Although skiers should begin riding his lift and negotiating their way down Brill's private land early this winter, it could be another year before they can veer off onto federal land. But so far, Richard Speegle, the BLM recreation manager, has been impressed.

"Aaron came in here green, not a ski developer, no experience with the federal bureaucracy," he says. "This has been a real learning experience for him. His proposal started as a $20,000 one, then $100,000, and now just under $1 million. It's changed a whole lot from when he started."

It's not all downhill from here. More than one local has pointed out that a small group of extreme skiers is hardly likely to lift Silverton out of economic malaise. Moreover, whether a tiny, hand-built ski hill can survive in a corner of the state featuring Telluride on one side and the burgeoning Durango Mountain Resort on the other remains to be seen. "It's noble, and a good idea," says Speegle. "But from an economic feasibility standpoint, well, it's unusual."

Then again, it could work. "Aaron Brill's project will draw more people into the community," says Silverton town administrator Dave Erickson. "Maybe some will stay."

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