Silverton's skins game
Silverton Mountain hosts third annual Hard Core Mountain Challenge

Crested Butte's Ethan Passant leaps to the front of the pack just off the start line./Photo by Julie Bliss

The Silverton miners, railroaders and mailmen of a century ago were the original hardcore backcountry skiers, but for them it was about getting home on time from the mine or making it to Sunday services. People still talk about backcountry heroes like Gus Talbot, the mail carrier, and Rev. George Darley, who were the talk of the town in 1877 when they skied from Burrow’s Peak to Silverton in a blinding snowstorm – 23 miles and thousands of vertical feet in one day.


It’s 127 years later, and Megan Kimmel carries on the tradition by skiing to work, six miles each way to the Silverton Mountain ski area. Last Saturday, Kimmel tacked on another 4,000 vertical feet to her daily trek by competing with 28 other backcountry skiers in Silverton Mountain’s Hard Core Mountain Challenge.

Though the equipment is better, the high-tech precautions against avalanches more efficient, and the dental hygiene of the participants favorably improved, the Hard Core Mountain Challenge poses the same fundamental challenge that faced Silverton’s preachers and miners 150 years ago: Hike up a mountain; then ski down it.

This particular mountain, however, is nearly a 2,000-foot climb and is famous for having the steepest slopes in North America with grades ranging up to 55 degrees. (It also has the best powder, according to Skiing magazine).

Optical illusion

After the initial “whoop” at the beginning of Saturday’s race, the only sound one could hear in the valley was the heaving breathing of 28 individuals trudging up the mountain. Within 100 yards of the starting line, everybody’s hats were off and the sweat started to pour.

Watching people ski uphill is like witnessing a canoe float upstream: It feels like one of those optical illusions that they have in children’s museums. The technology, however, is not much different than that once used by the likes of Rev. 4

A pair of skis awaits its owner prior to the race./Photo by Julie Bliss

Darley and Gus Talbot. The snowboarders use snowshoes; the skiers have “skins” stuck to the bottom of their boards. The skins are a synthetic reproduction of animal skins and burlap sacks that the Silverton miners once put on the bottom of their skis. The skins catch and stick to the snow in the same way your hand catches if you were to pet your dog the wrong way. Part of the challenge on Saturday was at the check-in at the top of the mountain where the racers had to quickly turn their skis, snowshoes, or split boards into something that could go downhill – fast.

Taking off his skins at the top of the mountain, Ethan Passant made it look like the only thing he climbed that morning was out of bed. Having won the event for two years now, the Crested Butte Ski Patrol member is the unofficial king of the mountain in Silverton. On Saturday, Passant was up and down in 40 minutes, 10 seconds. That’s a thousand vertical feet every 10 minutes. This effort gave Passant the time to sun himself at the finish line for nearly four minutes before the next contender, Michael Pennings, from Ridgway, skied in. Steve Banks, also from Crested Butte, rounded off the top three skiers with a time of 45:37.

Sara Ballantyne, an Eco-Challenge champion, mountain bike legend and former Durango resident who won the event two years ago, reclaimed her title as queen of the mountain with a time of 52:17. Following her was Silverton Mountain’s own “ski-to-work” Megan Kimmel (58:24) and Carrie Eldred (1:21:14) from Durango.

The top placers on snowboards were three first-timers from Durango: Matt Steinward (55:45), Josh Vermette (56:02), and Jonelle Vermette (1:12:38).

Ironically, the consensus on Saturday was that the 2,000-foot hike up was the easy part.

“Coming down hurt 10 times as much as the climb up,” Ron Raynor, one of the racers from Durango, said. The racers skied down a ravine to the left of the lift where, at times, the path through the rock walls was little more than the width of a body. “It was tracked out,” Raynor continued. “It was steep as hell, trees everywhere. We were going mach 90 into the trees.”

To unwind, Second-place woman Megan Kimmel, of Silverton, removes her skins after reaching the top./Photo by Julie Bliss

Alpine perennials

The uphill/downhill event itself might be viewed as a memorial to those like Rev. Darley, who used to ski to work and a celebration of those today – like Raynor, the Vermettes, and Steinward – who work to ski. Today’s alpine perennials slog through the 9 to 5 (or 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.) – slinging beers, teaching Texans a bit of slope etiquette, or watching TV all night at the front desk of a hotel – all the while dreaming of that next free day of sunshine, powder and 13,000 foot mountains.

Last week, at an undisclosed location, the Vermettes, Raynor and Steinward immersed themselves in the best snow they’ve experienced in 10 years. Tales were told of flying off 30-foot cliffs and gliding into pillows of 5-foot powder. Where was this backcountry nirvana? “It was just a small step down from heaven.” Josh said. “Somewhere north of Purgatory,” Raynor tagged on.

Silverton’s Hardcore Challenge was the first time the four have competed in an uphill/downhill competition, but the group goes uphill/downhill for pleasure nearly every day. Raynor has had 42 days of skiing this year, and the Vermettes have clocked in a cumulative total of 4 more than 100 days. At the least they put in 3,000 vertical feet and have covered as much as 12,000 in a single day. The winter in the San Juans this year makes all the tourists and dirty dishes worth it.

“It’s all about the mountain kicking your ass,” says Jonelle about the race and backcountry skiing in general.

After Saturday’s race, as their breathing started to level out, the four looked at each other and then back up at the mountain: “Let’s go do it again,” someone said.

Skiers ascend the steep calf-burner of a skin track./Photo by Todd Newcomer

Surrender to the snow

“San Juan County’s history could be written as a century of struggle against snow,” states a 1970s avalanche pamphlet written by the University of Colorado. Indeed, throughout the 1800s, avalanches and snow slides accounted for just as many deaths as pneumonia and mining accidents.

One gets the sense, however, that the philosophy behind the Mountain Challenge, and the philosophy behind Silverton Mountain in general, is to give up the struggle and let the snow win. In fact, the idea of letting the snow win is probably behind Silverton Mountain’s growing reputation as one of the best ski hills in North America.

Other ski resorts keep up the struggle against snow and weather with grooming, snowmaking, trail markers and signs telling you where to go and where not to go, and, of course, warm lodges with ski bunnies sitting on frontier-style leather couches. Silverton Mountain, on the other hand, has surrendered: The runs are made by nature and the powder is created by the great snow guns in the sky. The lodge is a tent with a wood stove and a keg rolled out of the back closet. The furniture in the tent and base area might be labeled “thrift-store miscellany, circa 1978.”

Ron Raynor of Durango makes his way to the checkpoint at the top./Photo by Julie Bliss

One of the terms of this surrender to the snow is that the skiers at Silverton have to do more work. All skiers must bring their own shovels and avalanche beacons – and they need to have passed a written avalanche safety test.

“You earn your turns,” Aaron Brill, co-owner with his wife Jen, is fond of saying.

“I think they have a good concept,” said Saturday’s winner, Ethan Passant. “Because it’s like the people who are ready to move away from the areas, but not quite maybe ready to go backcountry unguided by themselves, they can come here and be between the two. It’s kind of like a controlled backcountry experience.”

The Hard Core Mountain Challenge is then perhaps less a challenge than it is a toast made with keg-poured beers in Dixie cups: a toast to a town’s historic relationship with snow, to the bliss of backcountry skiing, and to the uber unresort called Silverton Mountain.

In the words of Raynor: “It’s about enjoying what the mountain gives us.”

Racers left their mark enroute to the finish
line./Photo by Julie Bliss







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