Silverton Mountain is unlike any other ski "resort" in the world. It only has one, very old and slow 2 man chair lift. It only allows 80 skiers on the mountain per day. It's only open for 4 days of the week and for most of the season you cannot ski unless you're with a guide.
Why? Well it's the highest and steepest ressort in North America and it's doesn't have a single groomed trail - the mountain is left in it's natural state with no cut runs making it a paradise for powder lovers. Their tagline? All thrills, no frills. And they mean it!
You have to book in advance which means you're playing a bit of a lottery if, like us you're coming a long way for one day! Many of the riders come from the surrounding areas of Telluride, Montrose and Durango and can book once they're sure of the forecast - for us it was a stab in the dark that paid off, and with nearly 2 feet of snow falling earlier in the week, the mountain opened to us on the Thursday morning with acres of untouched powder glistening in the sun.
We fuelled up at the Brown Bear cafe which became our breakfast spot of choice for the duration of our stay in Silverton - big portions of hearty food are served quickly from 6:30am to groups of hungry skiers and trust me you need all the calories you can eat for a day of hiking and skiing! Having had our fill we stocked up at the village grocery store, grabbing sandwiches from the deli for lunch (surprisingly made fresh and really quite delicious!) as well as candy bars and water - and headed up the mountain for check in at 8:15. You can order lunch from Silverton Mountain guides if you want but taking your own is easier and requires less admin...
When you buy a pass for Silverton Mountain, the confirmation email tells you to arrive for 8:15 if you're hiring gear and 8:20 if you're not, to give you a few minutes to fill out some paperwork and get into your group for the day. These FAQs and general info would suggest that you can expect a slick operation. Don't. Silverton Mountain is one of the most spectacularly disorganised places I've ever been to - but roll with it. You can either get stressed and frustrated about it, or embrace it as part of the charm. Just try and get there early to beat the crowds!
We dealt with the chaos, picked up our skis from the old school bus (truth) and waited by the chair lift to find out who we'd be grouped with. Another process that could be managed in a far more efficient manner - skiers and snowboarders are lumped into groups on the day according to self-appraised abilities. It's arbitrary but it seems to work and if someone is mis-matched they can swap them into another group during the day as everyone is looping the same chair. And so after quite a bit of faffing, we were finally off! The skiing in Silverton revolves around one chair lift and a hiking trail at the top - it's high and the views are spectacular.
From the top of the chair, groups splinter off in a million different directions tackling the many chutes and bowls. Guides are very good at sharing the terrain and ensuring that groups are not skiing on top of each other - in fact after our first run we barely saw another group all day. They're also very good at preserving the snow by asking riders to "stack lines" and making tracks close to those already made, rather than carving up a whole face. At first you wander if this "policing" is a bit over the top but actually it doesn't take away from the experience at all and there's something satisfying about knowing that you're being considerate to other groups who will be able to have fun in the days that follow even if they don't get any more snowfall.
The runs themselves are long, steep and awesome fun!
All of them finish out on a path which takes you all the way down to a road where another old school bus runs in a continuous loop to take you back to the chair, giving you just enough time for a high five, a quick snack and a breather before you're off again.
No one hangs around here as everyone wants to make the most of the day - even lunch is limited to a very quick stop, so the longest break you'll likely get is on the 10 minute chair ride! But from there the hike can be gruelling - the shortest walk is 5 minutes and the longest is 45-60 minutes! At an altitude of 13,000 feet that's hard work!
By the end of the day our legs were ready to give up so we decided to go for a single hell-drop for our last run. The resort offers anyone doing a guided day, a hell-drop for $179 which is by far the best value hell-skiing offer I've ever seen. A once in a lifetime opportunity, we stood at the top of the chair waiting for our ride to arrive before we spotted the yellow chopper swooping in from the opposite peak. We clambered in waiting to take off to our final descent.
Tears filled my eyes as we soared across the valley - happy tears, as I felt the breath escape my lungs, snatched away by an experience I'd dreamt about for as long as I can remember. I was still speechless as we unloaded and could barely muster a sentence by the time we'd strapped on our skis and started making out way back down.
The ultimate end to an unforgettable day.