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Silverton Mountain Ski Area changes hands
Aspen adventure-travel duo takes over
The News: Aaron and Jen Brill sell Silverton Mountain Ski Area and other Silverton properties to Andy Culp and Brock Strasbourger, Aspenites who operate an adventure-travel company. The move has sparked both anticipation and anxiety in Silverton, much as the original proposal for the project did some 25 years ago.
The sale price was not disclosed, but county records indicate the buyers paid $6.7 million for the real property associated with the ski area, which is made up mostly of patented mining claims, and another $1.99 million for in-town residential and commercial properties. That presumably does not include the cost of the intangible assets.
The Brills say they will now focus on their Alaska heli-skiing operation.
The Context: Aaron Brill first came to Silverton in the late 1990s seeking a site for a New Zealand-style, no-frills, lift-accessed backcountry ski area. He found it on the steep, avalanche-prone slopes surrounding the Gladstone townsite in the Cement Creek drainage and near the site of speed skiing competitions in the 1980s.
I happened to start an alternative newspaper in Silverton just as Brill was laying the foundations of his new venture. Those were interesting times in the San Juan high country, to put it mildly.
By then the Sunnyside Mine had been closed for a decade and the community had tried doggedly to fill part of the void that opened up when a couple hundred miners lost their jobs and livelihoods, and the town’s population had dropped from about 800 to half that.
Tourism kept the economy trucking along in the summer, but winter was tough. Most businesses were summer-only affairs, opening up in May to get their share of train riders’ cash, and shutting down and boarding up their windows come October while the owners fled to warmer climes.
Contrary to many reports, however, Silverton was anything but a ghost town — even in February. It had Kendall Mountain ski hill and the Silverton Avalanche School. It had cottage industry: a sled company, a ski company, a letterpress-printing parts mail-order company. The county historical society leveraged millions of dollars in grants to refurbish historical properties, creating an industry in and of itself, while the economic development association fostered new business. The local theatre group stayed active year-around and a handful of establishments stayed open in winter, catering to locals and backcountry skiers.
Still, there was always an underlying hankering for something a little bit bigger, something that would create the critical mass needed to support year-around businesses and amenities, which in turn would attract more visitors and residents, hopefully adding enough students to the school to keep it viable.
Enter Aaron Brill and Jen Ader and their proposed Silverton Mountain Ski Area. Their vision was to build a sort of town ski hill for the extreme set, or, alternatively, a boutique resort for the dirtbag adventure crowd. It would have one lift, a couple dozen employees — with a bulk of the payroll going to avalanche mitigation and snow safety workers — no real estate, no glitzy base area, no lodge, and, best of all, $25 lift tickets.
The scrappy, low-key vibe appealed to most locals, who saw it as a relatively low-impact way to boost the winter economy. There were concerns, of course: Snow safety experts worried about a bunch of skiers cutting turns in some of the nation’s most avalanche-prone terrain; the added activity might stress Canada lynx and other wildlife; backcountry skiers resisted losing access to once-obscure powder-stashes; skeptics worried that Brill was just setting the stage to sell out to a Vail or Aspen, which would then turn around and make Silverton into a, well, Vail or Aspen.
But Brill actually got a boost — at least that’s how I see it — from a competing proposal forwarded by a guy named Jim Jackson.
Jackson, a former speed skier from Aspen, had been making noise about developing some iteration of the Velocity Peak Ski Area since 1992. But he had kept plans under wraps for years as he searched for investors, leaving it up to Silverton’s hyperactive gossip mill to churn out potential details. When Brill showed up with his own ideas for the same terrain, Jackson was forced to show his hand.
Jackson’s plans were decidedly more grandiose than Brill’s. His resort would be centered on the southern flank of Storm Peak and would feature a total of 10 chairlifts, one gondola, and a tram radiating out into the Cement Creek and Animas River drainages. Gladstone, under this long-term vision, would be developed, along with an area near Storm Peak's summit. There were even plans for Tower Lodge, which would sit on a ridge near the 13,500-foot Tower Mountain. The centerpiece of the project was the Silverton Scenic Tram and its accompanying base area — with a 150-room hotel, an Olympic-size pool, and more — in Silverton's Memorial Park.
“I know this town has a deep-seated apprehension of becoming another Aspen, Telluride, or Vail," Jackson told me back in 2001. "Which is why we haven't glossed this over with real-estate development.” He was certainly right about the apprehension, but what he missed was that a project of that size would spur a building boom, gentrification, and, yes, the Vail-, Aspen-, Telluride-ization of Silverton.
Although Jackson and Brill both brushed off the idea that they were rivals, many in the community were happy to frame it as an either/or proposition. Did you want the Aspen guy with his mountain-top lodges, luxury hotels, and 10 lifts that likely would overwhelm the community and alter its identity? Or the scrappy, one-lift, Silverton-esque ski hill pushed by a hands-in-the-dirt guy like Brill? A lot of folks, especially Brill’s supporters, wouldn’t accept a neither/nor approach: If you were against Brill, they figured, you must be for Jackson — probably because you saw a way to cash in.
While Jackson was shopping around for investors (unsuccessfully), Brill purchased dozens of patented, 10-acre mining claims, found an old chairlift and installed it on a steep strip of private land, and applied for a permit to run a skiing operation on public land from the Bureau of Land Management. Brill had moved to town early on and Ader soon followed. Jackson visited occasionally, staying in a friend’s backcountry cabin that had been creamed by an avalanche. Brill was winning the popularity war, hands down.
Still, there was some opposition to Silverton Mountain, and the fight between supporters and opponents could get ugly. Brill posted his avalanche-mitigation-testing permit area with no trespassing signs. They were routinely stolen. When I ran a picture of one of the apparently stolen signs in the San Juan Mountain Journal, Brill supporters went ballistic, even accusing me of somehow breaking the law (publishing photos of stolen goods?). Seven locals then defiantly went skiing in the permit area as an act of civil disobedience, even as Brill’s employees were conducting explosive work, setting off a firestorm of controversy. And after Jackson tried to block Silverton Mountain avalanche-mitigation work and skiers from his mining claims within Brill’s permit area, Brill convinced the county to condemn Jackson’s property, raising alarm bells among private property rights proponents.
Brill ultimately got his BLM permit, the controversy died down, and he continued developing the ski area in the manner he had proposed — mostly. The base area consists of a quonset hut. They shuttle skiers around in an old bus. There’s still only one lift and no real estate and certainly no frills. A scrappy ethos rules. Snow safety is a major priority, and the feared avalanche fatalities have not come to be. But the $25 lift ticket? Nope. Most of the year it’s guided-only skiing, which will set you back $229-$269 per day. Unguided skiing in the spring is $99 and for just $10,000 you can rent the whole area for a day.
Several years back Silverton Mountain acquired a heli-skiing permit for a huge swath of terrain surrounding the ski area, again drawing resistance from backcountry skiers who stood to lose dibs on first tracks in all of their old haunts. In a sort of ironic twist, Silverton Mountain, the anti-Aspen ski area, is now offering Aspen-based, San Juan Mountain heli-skiing for $3,500 per-person, per-day (so long as you bring seven friends along).
Silverton Mountain has clearly helped the winter economy without overwhelming it. The area reportedly employs about 50 people, or nearly one-tenth of the year-round population. Many of the skiers stay in local lodging and eat at local restaurants, which has enabled more merchants to stay open through the snowy months. That, in turn, attracts more non-Silverton Mountain backcountry skiers and gives skiers at Kendall Mountain places to spend money. The unique flavor of Silverton Mountain has lent a certain cachet to the community that wasn’t there before. When I first moved to Silverton and told people I lived there, they’d give me a sideways look, then ask: “Isn’t that where they do the wife-swapping thing?” It wasn’t, at least to my knowledge. Now Silverton’s reputation is more about steep skiing and adrenaline living — and perhaps spouse-swapping, too, I suppose.
Of course, none of this made Silverton into another Telluride, Aspen, or even Crested Butte. It’s still scruffy and scrappy and raw, it feels downright dingy in November, and is still annoyingly slushy and muddy come March and April. The duct-taped down coat remains the predominant fashion choice. Politics are still infused with hypoxia-induced psychosis. The school still struggles to hold onto students after they reach middle school. But is it still Silverton? That’s hard to say. The American Legion, Miner’s Tavern, and the old theatre are gone, and now serve as Silverton Mountain’s HQ. Housing costs have shot through the roof, which is the same story everywhere, so certainly can’t be blamed on the ski area.
What happens now is anyone’s guess.
An old Silverton friend remarked on the irony of having fought off Jackson’s Aspen-esque proposal so many years ago only to end up with Aspen guys owning the ski area. And real estate agents reportedly are seeing a surge of interest since the sale was announced. Yet the new owners told the Aspen Daily News they plan no immediate large changes, they would respect the community, and “will not try to make it anything else.” Presumably they have no interest in turning Silverton into Aspen, even if they could. We’ll just have to wait and see.