Mel Dan and Reg at the Top of Silverton Mountain

Even in this economy, some people do make their dreams come true.  And in so doing, they make others travel dreams come true too.

Welcome to Silverton, CO.  This isn’t any ski resort.  For one thing, there is only one lift and no bathrooms–just an outhouse.  Apres ski means a beer or a coke in the chilly tent that serves as a base lodge.  It’s heated by a wood stove. Only expert skiers need come and be prepared to work for your turns. You might have to hike 45 minutes—uphill in 10,000 foot-plus elevation. The payoff is skiing down.  Did I mention you need a shovel and avalanche probe?

That’s why my gang loves it. More than 400 inches of snow a year, heart stopping views in every direction and affordability too–$100 for a full day with a guide on a mountain with less than 100 people. Compare that with skiing with thousands—and paying more. (You can ski unguided for just $49 a day)

You can even heli-ski here—at $159 a trip—a whole day is at least a third less than any other resort. (Join the Silverton 81433 Bootpackers Union for the annual stompathon. For each full day you stomp down the snow with the ski patrol you will earn a free unguided ski day good for the 2011-2012 season. Be sure to show up on Dec 3,4,10 or 11 with your pants duct taped to your boots (no joke) to earn a free day of skiing.

“It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of fun and you just have to learn to roll with the punches when there is an obstacle in your path,” says Aaron Brill, the 40-year-old owner and founder, with his 39 year-old wife Jenny, of Silverton Mountain Resort that  is celebrating its 12th  anniversary this year.

 There are no groomed runs, no cut trails, just loads of nature’s finest black diamond skiing in the U.S.A. You can expect to get in anywhere from 3-6 runs during a day (roughly 10,000+ vertical) “We have as many skiers in a year as Vail has in one day” says Jenny Brill.

In case you are wondering, kids have skied here–seven is the youngest  and The Brills warn, and because there is a good amount of hiking, kids often tire fast. But they are welcome if they can keep up. Private guides are a good option for kids. People under 18 need their parent to sign a waiver.  

 “It’s scenery equal to other famous resorts like Telluride with Branson Missouri prices,” said Michael Constantine of the nine room B&B Inn of the Rockies, where we stayed, enjoying probably the best B&B breakfast I’ve ever had (quiche with seven vegetables and five kinds of cheese!)  “The mountain is one of a kind,” says Constantine, who has served as a ski patroller there.  “It has more snow and less people than any mountain in North America.” 

“It is super deep and super steep and a better scene than the resorts. It is totally different,” said Darin Ramirez, a 28 year old engineer from Denver warming up in front of the wood stove.  “If you want a vacation where you are chilling out, go to Vail,” Jokes Susie Kim, a cardiologist from Denver who logs plenty of time snowboarding at Vail Mountain.  “Here you work for it.” 

You just wouldn’t want to be sitting on a couch for six months and then come here,” jokes his friend  Theron Hreno, who is  from Boulder.

But the challenge is a big part of the allure. . “You push yourselves a little more than you might at Telluride or another resort,” one Silverton guide suggested.  “By the end of the day, people are so amazed to see what they’ve accomplished.”

“It is about the snow and the terrain,” said a retired engineer from Florida and a Silverton aficionado.  “People don’t come here for shopping or nightlife.”

That’s an understatement. There are only a handful of restaurants in town and they close by 8:30 p.m. But such nice people “Kids won’t run off here. They will hang with you and you will be making memories forever,” promises Jenny Brill.  

Incidentally, there is also Kendall Mountain  in Silverton –very small and very cheap–that is ideal for young kids or adults who just are learning and want to have some fun in the snow.

My knee has kept me off the steeps and deeps but my two daughters, Reg and Mel, and Reg’s boyfriend Dan Foldes, headed out at 8:30 a.m. and didn’t stop until they quit at 3:30 p.m.   I can’t imagine a better place for an adventure–loving parent who is an expert to bring a teen or tween for a memorable experience on snow.

In the beginning, Jenny Brill said, their families thought they were nuts—to build their own ski resort…from scratch! “They thought we’d be home soon! Now they are super proud. We showed them!” Not that it was easy. They did a lot of the manual labor themselves, even digging the posts for the lift. There were a lot of nights when Jenny Brill said she went to bed crying wondering how they’d make it.  “Five of the last 10 years were “brutal”   It seemed like something “traumatic”  “Now we’re making a living,” she said happily.“

The Brills met as college students in California—Aaron from Berkeley Jenny from suburban New York. Aaron always wanted to own and run his own resort and they spent their 20s working around ski country finding the perfect place—undeveloped, lots of snow and private property for sale.

That led them to Silverton, a tiny struggling town (just 500 people).   Jenny Brill notes that powder hounds who head to areas like Alta, Snowbird, Squaw Valley or Jackson get frustrated because the areas get skied out too quickly. Skiers and riders spend as much time waiting on lift lines as they do on the mountain. But simply heading into the back country can be dangerous- deaths and injuries every year attest to that.

Silverton Mountain provides lift accessed skiing and is designed to have a minimal environmental impact (no plans for condos or high speed lifts). Indeed, its how skiing used to be. Imagine Aspen in the 1960s and Telluride in the 70s. Imagine an experience where you can access more than 1,800 acres of pristine back country via chairlift and without a crowd.

Just don’t expect groomed runs or places for a fancy lunch or even a bathroom.   

Aaron runs the operations side of the business—the helicopters, the lifts, the avalanche patrol.  Jenny handles marketing the HR. “Other places have 10 different positions for we each are filling,” she says –all the tougher since the arrival of son Colt. 

But somehow they make it all work. Said Jenny Brill, “you go out with one set of expectations and when it doesn’t work out that way, you go around the obstacles in front of you…that’s life!

(Read Eileen’s Travel Diaries about Silverton)