Silverton Mountain continues uphill slog
Completion of the 'dream' to wait at least another season

Sven Brunso takes the honor of the first turns at Silverton Mountain last year. While awaiting word on the fate of its permit to operate on 1,300 acres of public and private land, Silverton Mountain will be offering guided tours again this year. / Photo by Scott Smith

Several years ago, Aaron Brill first hatched his dream of an atypical ski area where the turns would be steep, uncrowded and always fresh. He decided to deliberately skirt the temptation of real estate and base the ski area purely on skiing and lift ticket sales. He also wanted to make this ski bum’s dream accessible to the ski bum and said he would limit ticket prices to $25.

However, several years later, Brill has realized only a portion of his dream, and Silverton Mountain continues its uphill struggle. Most significantly, the ski operation will be limited for the second year in its two-year history to guided tours and $99 lift tickets as the Bureau of Land Management begins the environmental impact statement it announced would be necessary more than a year ago.

“It’s a slow process, but at this point we’re in it and in the home stretch, so I don’t really complain about it anymore,” said Brill.

A last-minute surprise

Last season, the resort finally opened for skiing Jan. 19. The opening had been delayed by the construction of a recycled two-seat lift from California and the inspection of the lift. Additionally, Brill’s plan for operations had to be adjusted because of a decision by the BLM.

Brill owns 350 acres of old mining claims on the 13,487-foot Storm Peak, roughly six miles from Silverton. However, he has gone after a permit to allow skiing on 1,300 adjacent acres of public land. Last fall, as Brill was making the push toward opening day, the BLM decided a rigorous environmental impact statement would be necessary prior to issuance of the permit. At the time, Brill was disappointed.

“We are talking about an area that has been heavily impacted by mining over the years,” he said at the time. “We proposed no permanent structures on public land. The lift is even on private land, so, the decision definitely surprised us.”

Consequently, the resort was limited to 20 guided tours per day. Brill said that this year he had hoped to up the number of guided tours to 99 and drop the ticket price while awaiting the findings of the EIS. “I can pretty much say I’m not going to get 99,” he says. “I’m about 99 percent sure that we’re going to get 40 per day. But 40 is better than 20. And $99 is still a steal compared to cat or heli skiing.”

Flaws in the system?

With another year of guided tours and the forthcoming EIS process in mind, Brill blamed a flawed review process.

“The (review) system is pretty much broken,” he said. “It’s exactly the same whether you’re Silverton, Hesperus or Vail. Still, we’re doing everything we can to be ready for next winter on all fronts.”

In the meantime, the BLM has handed responsibility for the EIS to Cirrus Ecological Solutions, of Logan, Utah. The environmental consulting company has worked extensively on ski area expansions, including Snowbird and the recent Telluride expansion, as well as heli-skiing permitting. Neil Artz, Cirrus’ team project manager, said that with Silverton Mountain the biggest potential issue is skier safety.

“All of the prospective alternative actions are driven by different ways to address the primary concern, and that’s skier safety with respect to the unstable snowpack,” he said. “That’s really the driving issue.”

Artz said that a group of snow-safety experts are reviewing the results of a five-year study conducted by Brill. The BLM will eventually choose what it deems the best alternative based on Cirrus’ findings and public input.

“The alternatives we’re looking at are addressing different ways to balance the guided and unguided programs,” Artz said.

Brill said he favors the proposed action, which is unguided skiing.

Artz added that another area the EIS will address is other backcountry travelers using the public land and impacts of the ski area upon them.

“Another consideration is safety of other backcountry tourers that are not resort guests and may wish to use the permit area or areas outside the permit,” he said.






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