Silverton: Land of the endless vertical

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Cross one off. At the beginning of the year, I wrote a five things to do this year list. The number one thing to do was ski Silverton, and that goal has finally been achieved. Let me just say, it's all it's been promised to be and more.

Driving over Red Mountain Pass in the snow on Wednesday night was a scary experience, but we arrived and checked into the Triangle Motel. Like many Silverton accommodations, it's eminently affordable. As a plus, the guy who runs the desk also works as a guide at Silverton.

The town of Silverton is surrounded by breathtaking mountain vistas in every direction, providing a nice backdrop for the seven mile drive to the mountain, some of which is on a dirt road.

Silverton is unlike any skiing experience in Colorado. Perhaps the best description is "backcountry lite." Instead of having to skin up for your turns, an old double chairlift takes you most of the way. During the high season (mid-January to the end of March), Silverton is only accessible for guided skiing. The guides are experienced skiers with avalanche and first aid skills, as well as extensive mountain knowledge.

"Most of them come from ski patrol background, so most of our people have a lengthy history of ski patrol experience, or mountain guiding experience," said Silverton founder Aaron Brill.

Silverton has 23 guides total, and up to 100 skiers per day are allowed on the mountain.

"During the guided season, we do around 80 people or less (per day)," said Brill.

The groups are kept small, no more than eight skiers, and are broken down into fast and moderate-paced groups. From the top of the lift, you can expect to hike up a boot pack for anywhere from five minutes to an hour, depending on the terrain you want to hit.

After checking in and also booking a heliskiing drop, my friend Kathy and I gravitated to the moderately paced group of skiers, as opposed to the fast group. The first part of the chairlift ride is in the trees, but as you get above treeline, mountain peaks are seen in every direction, and, if you are coming after other skiers, you can see skiers hiking the ridgeline to different bowls.

Our guide was Mariah, a guide in training, and her partner for the first couple of runs was Nate. After a 10-minute hike and a short traverse, we were skiing deep powder in the trees, getting excellent turns on steep lines. After exiting the chute below the trees and arriving back at the road, a shuttle picked us up and drove us back to the lift and we headed up again, this time going down the back side, accessed via a short ski traverse and no hiking.

After a 15-minute lunch break, we headed back up the lift and did a 30-minute hike up the ridgeline to access a steep chute that widened into a deep fluffy powder on a wide apron. By this time my legs were burning, but my heliskiing option came up (I was on standby since I booked that morning), and it was back up the lift to get on the helicopter.

Heliskiing is pretty intense. It requires amazing trust in the pilot, who lands the chopper right next to the skiers while you crouch over the gear to prevent it from being blown away. When the helicopter touched down, the skids were only a couple feet from where we were crouched down, and the rotors were turning above. Nate loaded the gear and we took off, flying across the valley to a different ridgeline to ski another steep chute that opened into untracked powder over 1000 feet below.

After taking a shuttle back to the base area, most of the day's skiers and snowboarders gravitated to the tent to grab a beer from the keg and talk about the excellent runs we'd all gotten.

Check out the following photos from the day, as well as a video I shot of the helicopter ride, to see why Silverton is a must ski area.

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