This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
Silverton Mountain owner Aaron Brill this week unveiled plans for a new chairlift at the steep ski hill in southern Colorado. It’s been more than 20 years since Brill grabbed a Yan double chair out of a recycling bin at California’s Mammoth Mountain and installed it on mining claims he had quietly assembled above Cement Creek outside Silverton.
He and his wife, Jenny, have built a unique ski experience around that ambling double chair, which climbs 1,900 vertical feet and offers skiers access to 1,800 acres of steep, technical terrain. Silverton Mountain is one of the few ski areas in the world that cater only to expert skiers, with no grooming, snowmaking or intermediate terrain.
The new chair will climb the shoulder of Butter Bowl, opening alpine and gladed terrain previously accessible only to heliskiers at Silverton Mountain. And like that Mammoth chair, it will not be new.
“Well, new to us,” Aaron Brill said.
He hasn’t picked a chair yet, but “there are a lot of options,” he said. The last couple of years have seen dozens of ski areas yanking out chairs and replacing them with newer, more efficient lifts. Last year set a record for new chairlift installations. So there are a lot of chairs destined for recycling yards right now.
He’s looking at doubles, triples and quads. Not for increased capacity but stability when the alpine winds howls, he said. (Dangling on the ski hill’s double — with no safety bar — during gusts is a uniquely Silverton Mountain experience that really hammers home that expert-only message.)
The new lift is planned on the Brills’ private land, which means the expansion does not require intensive study by the Bureau of Land Management. (Silverton Mountain is the first and only lift-served ski area in the Lower 48 with an operating permit to access BLM land.) Last month San Juan County planners and elected officials began reviewing the lift installation.
The Brills’ original plan from 2000 called for two surface lifts to move skiers along the ridge at the top of the ski area. Brill is requesting an amendment to change the language of that plan to allow chairlifts, not just rope tows. (That original plan also called for a 2,200-square-foot base lodge and 10 cabins that have not been built.)
In a letter to the county asking for an amendment to his development plan, Brill said surface lifts “are nearly impossible to find” and changes to this international building code that govern ski lifts have “made surface rope tow ski lifts nearly obsolete.”
The county asked for public input into the chairlift plan and residents joined the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce in unanimous support.
Silverton, the only community in San Juan County, used to go dark in the winter before Silverton Mountain opened in 2002. Now, thousands of skiers visit every winter. And winter business is booming.
From December 2016 through April 2017, the county reported $3.8 million in net taxable sales. For that same span in the 2021-22 ski season, the county reported $8.8 million in spending by visitors and residents. (Only about 700 people live in San Juan County year-round.)
“Our winter economy is currently supported by winter tourism dollars and increasing usage and expanding Silverton Mountain with a chairlift would continue to grow our winter economy,” reads a letter of support the chamber sent to San Juan County commissioners last month.
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In 2015, the Brills faced heated backlash from local backcountry skiers when they proposed an expansion of their helicopter skiing acreage. The owners asked the BLM to approve a swap of 5,556 acres in their heliskiing permit for 16,252 acres of new terrain. Backcountry skiers argued the expansion would close prime glades for human-powered skiers. The BLM approved the plan in 2017 and a federal appeals court rejected an appeal of that approval in 2018.
“I think people realize that the helicopter expansion we did with the BLM was not all it was hyped up to be in terms of noise and impacts to backcountry skiing. We have literally never encountered backcountry skiers where we ski,” Brill said. “So it’s nice to see support for continued skiing opportunities in Silverton this time around.”
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Brill is hoping to find investors who can help with the expansion, but he said outside funding is not a requisite for the new chair, which he hopes to have ready for the 2023-24 ski season.
The ski area is located inside a federally designated Opportunity Zone, which offers tax incentives to investors who park money in “economically distressed communities.” Brill thinks the incentives could draw investors “with a passion for skiing” that could align with growth plans at his ski hill.
“The Opportunity Zone for Silverton and San Juan County is untapped,” he said. “No one has done any OZ investing here so there’s a lot of upside.”