Getting to Silverton
durango is a small airport mostly served by turboprops
Silverton is about 1H20 from the Durango airport, or longer if the weather is bad. Note that the town is at 9300ft of altitude, so while it will help you getting used to the altitude, it may also make it harder for you to sleep (diamox for altitude and sleeping pills help).
Johannes booked us up a bread and breakfast: Villa DallaValle. The lady who ran it was super nice, prices were very reasonable, and they even had free wifi. What else can a man ask for? :)
The deal about Silverton
So, when my colleague Johannes tried to invite me to join him, I was really on the fence. Quite frankly, I hate hiking, I even dislike unbinding when a ski resort has an uphill on path and I'm much happier when I can board down, already strapped in, from the lift directly to the slope and back to the chair before I unstrap :)
At Silverton, not only hiking is required, but it could be 5mn if you're lucky, or a more typical 15mn. If they haven't had snow in a while and you want to start from the 13,300ft peak (from the 12,300ft-ish top of the chair), you could be hiking for 1h+.
The good news is that you get to pick which group you're in, and you can pick a minimal hiking group, although unfortunately for us, that also meant intermediate group, and at least one skiier was a bit too intermediate to our state on the first couple of days (more on that later).
They do avalanche control and have mandatory basic avalanche training and force you to rent an avalanche beacon. Now, they still do avalanche prevention and they have professionals that know when the snow is likely safe, or not, but it's hard to get 100%. In the meantime, in 7 years of operation, they haven't had anyone fully covered in an avalanche yet, so that's not bad considering that even regular resorts have avalanche accidents sometimes.
So, Silverton (which actually the name of the nearby former silver mining town), the resort is technically in gladstone up a one way road. The place is not fancy, and it's not trying to be (eh, how could they be with only up to 80 guests per day?).
The resort is a tent in the snow with no running water but an outbound only phone, the rental "shop" is a likely broken down school bus wedged in the snow The only thing that looked new and in good shape was their powerful Eurocopter Heli (the same kind that flew to the top of everest), which is the one right place to spend money :)
Oh, in exchange for the lack of water, you get a free red bull :) and if you order the $10 sacked lunch, it also has a bottle of water. Now, the trick about sack lunches is that in the more advanced groups it may be tricky for you to have the time to pick it up, even to eat on the lift, or at least get it anywhere close to noon (unless you're willing to sit a run out). If you don't mind surviving on bars or somesuch, and you are more advanced, I recommend you carry your lunch with you and eat it on the 10mn lift as you get hungry, or while waiting for the pickup van after a run.
The last thing to mention is the restrooms, all I'll say is that if you don't have to use them, you'll be happier (they're an outhouse) :)
silverton: a tent, a burried schoolbus, and the heli
If you look at the tracks, you'll see they go back to a road. You can't ski all the way back to the lift (although the backside does have a cat track you can take back to the road), and once you are at the road, they pick you up with a fan, schoolbus, freshly jumped former UPS truck :) , or a pickup truck.
the sole ski lift
Silverton Day 1
This was the hardest day for me of course since I hadn't been able to exercise in 3 weeks, or see anything but sea level. Despite the diamox, I could tell the effects of altitude, but thankfully they did not cripple me.
Being in the intermediate group and only doing 5 runs was the right thing to do for that day. Our last ride up, the 15mn hike up did take its toll on me. I made it but had to stop a couple of times, I could clearly feel the effects of altitude.
The snow itself was fantastic, fresh tracks everywhere since it had just snowed 20" a few days prior and the resort was closed.
a primer on avalance training
one of the many hikes past the lift
Silverton Day 2
For day 2, I had acclimatized a bit more and we were hoping to go to a slightly more advanced group as long as it did not include major hiking. Unfortunately, we were told that advanced groups also meant advanced hiking. In the end, we got stuck in the same low intermediate group with the same slow skier. Doh! (yes, they should really have an advanced skier, more moderate hiking group)
That said, it's not like the day was bad :) The snow was still great and we actually had some sun and nicer weather (even got a tan through my sunscreen).
After a couple of runs, our guide asked us if we would fancy joining a heli ride, to which we said "hell yes" :) We were actually reserved for 2 heli rides the next day, but they weren't booked, so it made sense to do one right away since the snow was pretty awesome.
It was my first heli ride from and to a mountain top, being a pilot myself I know that it's tough to fly low in mountains in any conditions other than no winds, and for a heli it's even more interesting since the heli has to land right on a mountain top where the wind and turbulence can be the strongest, and it may have compensate for the weight of and balance of the passengers and getting and out of the heli if the heli has to hover over terrain that's not quite landable (like let's say soft snow on a mountain top). Also, landing on a spot that is no bigger than a kind size bed is no piece of cake. Luckily, their pilot is as top notch as the high power Eurocopter they use (on top of him also being an airplane and heli instructor and very nice fellow, like everyone who works at Silverton).
The ride down from the first mountain top we flew to was reasonably easy terrain, but great powder, and definitely gave us a taste for the next day.
After 5 rides (including the heli ride) the day was over, mostly due to the fact that we got stuck in the intermediate group again.
a custom half pipe for Shawn White, celebrity snowboarder
that looked like a guide, having a little fun :)
top of the world! (kinda) :)
Stuck in sugar snow
Now, the "fun" story is that on the way home, we wanted to go to the local ski shop. I had an incorrect understanding of where it was, so we took a snowy county road to get there. The fact that it only had a few snowmobile tracks maybe should have been a clue, but we had a 4WD, so we just pressed on.
That plan worked out until we got to an intersection where it became clear that where we were trying to get was not the right place. By then, Johannes had gotten off the snowmobile track to make a U-Turn. We lasted about 5 seconds before the car sunk in sugar snow and refused to move. Traction control on and off only changed the amount of wheel spin and the car manual revealed that it didn't have a locking differential (which means that it can refuse to turn at least 2 of the wheels if the other two are slipping).
Sugar snow is basically 100% traction-less and rocking was not even an option since the car would not move an inch. So, we broke out the avalanche shovels we had from our gear and started digging to put rocks under the tires. It had some success but we were not able to get the car entirely back to the harder snow even 1H+ later. By then, Johannes had a good idea and picked up some boards of wood from the nearby abandoned paper mill. Once we those dug in under the tires (all 4 just to make sure), getting out only took 3mn, but that was 1H30 after we got there...
By then a couple of locals had just driven the road up too because they saw someone had driven it, so it must have been drivable :) We assured them that it would be a good idea to get out in reverse, which is what we did too (they did tell us that we were not supposed to use the wood from a building that actually was a historical site, but Johannes' story was that he found the boards on the ground, and he's sticking to it :)
About 2H later we were back to the hotel, with at least a good picture from a higher vantage point, and the ski shop we were going to was actually much closer than we though, the road we had tried to take was all for naught.
oh boy, this is bad...
stones and rocks didn't help enough
that finally worked (we had one for each wheel)
Silverton Day 3
By day #3, I was as acclimatized to the altitude as I felt I was going to get, and we did not want to repeat the slow "intermediate" group a 3rd time, so we went to the advanced group. We ended up with 2 crazy Swiss snowboarders who just kicked ass. The good news is that we did not have to do much hiking because there was just so much powder to be had nearby, and because we were going to get two heli rides.
The powder runs we did almost off the lift or from a short hike were quite good, then the subsequent heli ride was a warm up per se (which was good for me because I had somehow put 3 core shots in my board and started an edge separation the previous day, it was out for repair, and I was having a hard time getting used to the new board and stance).
Then for the second heli ride, we did the narn: the highest peak you can fly to in the mountain (and definitely not hike to). The pilot landed on a spot that was no bigger than my bed, and just slowly sunk the heli in the fresh snow until he felt a stable enough mountain top to let us off (of course, they know it's supposed to work, they've done it before and scouted it when there is no snow, but still, damn impressive). The ride down was a bit of side slipping at the top but much fun below that. Well worth it :)
The best part was that despite the 2 heli rides, we still squeezed in 6 rides that day as opposed to 5 (the most you can reasonably manage if you hurry is around 7 it seems).
vantage point from first heli spot
the heli was nice enough to wait for us at the bottom for a 2nd ride
nice heli panel
top of the Gnar
the heli landed on that little spot
See a video of a nice heli landing on Gnar
our guide scoping the way down
Silverton Day 4
Day #3 was really the highlight of the trip for me, although the powder was really the best on days 1 and 2, as it was already warm enough by day 3 that it would melt and freeze overnight in some places.
Climbing up to the Billboard: buyer beware
Day 4 was mostly a chill out day, except that due to few customers they only had a single advanced group and a few people wanted to hike to the Billboard, which is the highest hikeable peak (about 13,000ft from the 12,200 chair top). I wasn't really stoked by a 1H+ hike, but went with the group since I knew that I was in good enough shape to hike 700ft up. The problem was that the path became more sketchy as we went up and went from a hike to a mountaineering climb which I was not ready for. By then there was really only one way: up and in some spots I was hoping not to slip while hanging on to rocks (with my snowboard attached sideways on the back of my pack, and throwing me a bit off balance or hitting the rock face on the left). Some portions were roped, making the climb less dangerous, but other portions weren't and you had to climb up diagonally to the mountain face, as the guide admitted later were 'no fuck up zones' as slipping and falling would have had very possible dire consequences.
We finally got to the top after a pretty steep climb that you can only do by stepping in not always very deep boot kicks and pulling yourself up on a rope, while wishing your snowboard boots had crampons and that you had proper climbing and safety gear. At least they had a rope, without which I would have fallen down a couple of times since I slipped and hung on to the rope.
For those who might think I'm a pussy, I hiked up Mt Whitney, the highest peak in the continental US (1500ft higher), but notice how I said hiked, not climbed. My only point is that I really wish they had warned us that this was not a hike up but a serious climb up with real dangers others than normal snowboarding dangers (never mind if it's in a portion of the unreadable 10,000+ word waiver they make you sign without you being able to humanely read it without missing at least the first run in the morning).
I mentioned that to the owner, and hopefully guides will at least give people a fair verbal warning to people about the climb before they go on it. My take is that your risks of injuring yourself or dying from that climb are higher than the avalanche danger, so it can't hurt to let people know verbally when they join a group and give them the option of switching (which was my other suggestion: they should have an advanced skier/boarder group with minimal hiking and one with 'bring it on' hiking, to each their own).
The rest of the 4 runs we did were fine, powder was better in the trees by then due to the sun and fast melting snow in some spots.
long ass hike to the billboard
the hike became a somewhat dicy climb after this point
at the top, finally
the ride down was pretty nice
We got super lucky with the weather. Silverton is all about powder riding, and we were lucky enough to get said powder. The heli rides aren't that cheap of course, but compared to other heli options you may be able to find, they are actually quite reasonably priced, especially for a heli that costs over $2000/h to run. Now, if you hate hiking or don't do well at high altitudes, you may want to think about it twice. I personally dislike hiking when I'm boarding, but I like powder more than I disliked the hiking, so I was willing to take the tradeoff. To each their own :)
The operation is obviously small since they can only make up to $6400 per day with an 80 guest limit, and days where they have fewer, but they definitely make the best of it, and are super friendly and helpful.
If I can have good odds of getting fresh powder again, I'd be game for doing this again.
Here are a few pictures that my buddy Johannes, took:
bridge was slippery and with very uneven snow
Plenty of powder (and stay between the lines)
chatting with the eurocopter pilot