The dreamers: Aaron and Jen Brill built Silverton Mountain… and powder freaks keep coming. Photo courtesy of Scott DW Smith
Silverton Mountain co-founders Aaron and Jen Brill reflect on their first decade of operation and what to expect next.
One of Colorado’s most distinctive ski resorts celebrated a milestone earlier this year when Silverton Mountain hit its 10th anniversary on January 19. The “all thrills, no frills” mountain boasts over 1,800 skiable acres accessible from a single chairlift that peaks at 12,300 feet, with hiking to 13,487 feet and more than 400 inches of snow a year. It’s a mecca for advanced and expert skiers looking to avoid lift lines—there are typically less than 80 skiers on the mountain at any time—and seeking out powder and 1,900 feet of vertical drop. Avi gear is required for guided or unguided skiing. Founders Aaron and Jen Brill took the time to sit down and tell us more about their vision and where the epic mountain is headed.
So did you wake up one day and say, “We need to open a lift-accessed backcountry ski resort for experts?” What was the impetus?
AARON: I guess I was just tired of chasing, moving from town to town, trying to find a place that I wanted to live and ski and couldn’t find it. So I figured, why not try and build it?
What were some of the early challenges to getting it off the ground? Is it true that you hand-dug the lift stanchions?
AARON: Yup, it was definitely very labor intensive, very grueling. If someone asked me to do it now, I’d be like, “Sure, as long as you pay me to do it.” You can’t really say we were underfunded because we never really had the funding to complete the project. We had this one loan from the state of Colorado from the economic development group to get things going, but that didn’t even cover one-tenth of the overall cost. It was a paycheck to paycheck type thing where you kept trying to raise money as you kept trying to work.
What changes have you seen over the first decade of operation?
AARON: The changes have really been focused on just one thing, and that’s just having more terrain open more of the time. It’s a pretty massive undertaking getting that much advanced and expert terrain open on a daily basis, because it’s more than anyone else has anywhere in the U.S. So that has been our big focus. For the first couple of years, some of the alpine stuff higher up on the ridge would only be open a dozen times a year or something, and so each year we try to have more of that high alpine terrain open more often. That’s kind of where the whole helicopter thing came about—we were trying to figure out how to do that in the safest and most efficient way possible from an avalanche control perspective. If we need the helicopter for avalanche control, how do we pay for it? And that’s where the heli skiing came from.
During the 2010 Winter Olympics, TV coverage focused on Shaun White and his “private halfpipe at Silverton Mountain.” How did that come about, and did it turn into a huge boost for business?
AARON: It was an amazing product to be a part of, for sure. Those types of things aren’t the huge business boosts that you would think, but I think what it does is over the long haul, it kind of puts you on people’s radar.
JEN: I find that it’s really helpful when you say “Silverton Mountain” to someone and they’re not clear. Then you say, “Where Shaun White trained for the Olympics” and then immediately they have that image of this place in the middle of nowhere with tons of snow and awesome peaks. It immediately brings them to where we are.
Why do you think Silverton Mountain has been so successful while other mountains that have opened in the last decade, such as Echo Mountain here in Colorado and Tamarack Resort in Idaho, are struggling?
AARON: It’s simple: basically the quality of the terrain and the quality of the snow. Really it comes down to the product—the mountain is spectacular, and people are willing to travel to the remote corners of the world to try a new mountain experience if they think it’s worth it. There are people that travel to the interior of Canada every year. It’s just part of skiing culture.
What aspect has been the most rewarding?
JEN: I think for me, it’s that moment at the end of the day when everybody says, “That was the best day of my life.” That’s something that is really common, and it’s really cool to be a part of some of the best days of people’s lives.
What are your goals for the next decade?
AARON: There’s still a lot of the mountain that we’d like to get into more often, and then running water is something we plan on upgrading to, so we’ll have flushing toilets, things like that.
Can you explain a bit about your philosophy of affordability?
AARON: It is really important. Our lift prices for unguided skiing have never changed—it’s been the exact same price since the very first day. There are a lot of people who go skiing that have no problem paying whatever people want to charge, which is why Telluride can charge $100 a day. But there are also a bunch of hardcore skiers that can’t afford to pay that much, and so you don’t want to shut them out just because the majority of the people can pay. People are really passionate about it, and it would suck to price the people out of it that want to partake in it. Same thing with heli skiing—that’s why our heli skiing’s so cheap at $159 bucks. It’s changing it from an elitist-type sport to something that we have very young, not affluent people taking part in on a regular basis.
JEN: I’ve always felt that heli skiing is something that’s on your bucket list, but are you ever going to do it? And the fact that you can is pretty amazing. We realize that people are going to have some expense to get here, too. So we really want to keep the skiing inexpensive. We have discount season passes that get you 15 days at Monarch, Loveland and A Basin, and all the unguided skiing with us you want. Plus, half-price drop-in heli skiing, half-price guided tickets without reservations, half-price beers.
Have you ever had someone show up looking for the bunny slopes?
JEN: Yeah. There’s been a handful of people who have walked in … But most of the time, people that come up are prepared. We have this saying that “If the lift line looks steep to you, don’t ski with us today,” and there are people who look up at it and say, “I’m good, actually” and they’ll come up with an excuse. But I do think we overhype it—since we are all advanced and expert terrain, there are plenty of people that are good enough to come that haven’t, and they should give it a try and get a private guide or come one day unguided and go at their own pace, and they’ll realize that actually their skill level is fine to live up to the mountain. •