What Happens When You Take Your Mom to the Highest, Steepest Ski Area in North America
Day One: The Approach
Four hours into the drive from Frisco to Silverton Mountain, my leg starts to fall asleep and my eyelids grow heavy. My mom and I are off on a mother-daughter adventure I booked back in December for my mom’s 58th birthday. I spent the better part of January and early February calling her back in Rhode Island reporting bad news and dry weather as the storms repeatedly neglected central and southern Colorado. We finally thank Ullr for granting us this one epic snow day with 25 inches of fresh snow in the last 24 hours, Silverton Mountain’s first big snowfall of the season.
Having never driven to Silverton, neither Mom nor I was prepared for the excitement that followed on the last 45 minutes of our journey on Highway 550 up Red Mountain Pass. We’re suddenly very awake as we snake around the snow glazed, hairpin turning, guardrail-less, sheer-drop-into-the-abyss road. Torn between driving in the middle of the road and risking collision or driving on my side and maybe off the edge, I quietly focus ahead as my mother sits with her imaginary passenger foot brake fully engaged, both hands over her eyes.
We arrive in one piece to Silverton on a quiet Wednesday evening. We are one of a few cars out on the roads of an old mining town frozen in history. Exposed brick buildings and Old West facades painted in bright colors line the streets. Snow falls heavy and quietly, hushing the town and promising pillowy turns for tomorrow.
We pull onto the notorious Blair Street in front of the Villa Dallavalle Historic Inn. The bed and breakfast was built in the mid-1900s and served as a boarding house for miners among the dance halls, saloons, and bordellos on the street. The old building, filled with Silverton historical décor, serves as a warm welcome to the true Wild West. We tromp along the unplowed sidewalk to grab dinner at the Eureka Station, a Cornish Tavern just down the road. We eat an eclectic mix of Udon and a Cornish Pasty (pronounced pass-tee), popularized by Cornish immigrants who came to mine in the mid-1800s. Back in our hotel, we crawl into bed, make one last prayer for snow, and attempt to sleep before our big day.
Day Two: In Deep
We’re up early and dressed so we can brush off the car and grab a quick bite before heading to the mountain’s base area. It’s hard to leave our cozy dining room with fresh eggs, potatoes, yogurt, and pancakes for breakfast, but we have a very important date.
The Silverton Mountain Base Area sits at 10,400 feet above sea level. At about 8 a.m., cars are already filling the parking lot, doors open, music playing as people in all kinds of colorful get-ups pull their boots on. Silverton Mountain is the kind of place where no matter your job description, you’re there for the big mountains and low maintenance kind of vibe. Even Silverton Mountain’s Chief Operating Officer, Tim Petrik, was out parking cars and helping to organize guides.
After we get our boots on, we drop our skis by the lift and hike up to the tent—their version of a lodge—to check in and get our tickets. The place is buzzing with men and women eager to get out on the hill and snag a piece of the first big snowfall. I can tell we chose the right day to come as I finish putting together my pack next to Tim’s wife, Michelle, out for her first Silverton day of the season.
The crowd is divided into three groups based on hiking speed and intensity: slow, medium, and fast. We’re in the medium group with six other people; Michelle, a New Zealand couple who work at a backcountry area back on the island, two instructors from Purgatory, and a man named Bruce who was an original investor in the area and is a well-known and frequent skier at the mountain.
Our guide, Calvin, gives us a quick safety run down, emphasizes the risk of avalanches, does a beacon check, and acquaints everyone with what the day will hold. Then it’s time to set out. The storm that brought us our fresh snow is still blowing through, so visibility is low, and the winds are high. The terrain we can see directly around us begs to be explored, flaunting untouched fields of white powder and tall pines protecting endless routes of tree runs.
We unload the lift at 12,300 feet at the top of an incredible cirque. Silverton is the highest and steepest ski area in North America with a peak elevation of 13,487 feet, so it feels like you’re standing on top of the world. The six of us fasten our skis to our packs and trek up the ridge for about 15 minutes on a boot-packed staircase against blowing winds and snow towards Hollywood Rock. It isn’t until we drop in and traverse to our first run that we can see the pitch of pristine meadows and chutes before us. Our first run is Concussion, a narrow gulley on the Western face that funnels into a drainage at the bottom.
The group gives me and my mom the gift of first tracks on the first run, and I follow her into the softest floating turns I’ve taken in over a year. After an early season of firm snow pack, it takes both of us a minute to remember how to ride in the deep snow. Each run at Silverton accessed from the lift averages about 2,000 vertical feet, which is longer and harder skiing than I’ve done all season, and certainly more than the Northeast mountains my mom has been riding. When we’re at the bottom waiting for the shuttle to bring us back to the base, I can’t tell if my mom is speechless from the thrill or if coming from sea level has her wishing for more air. Either way, unanimous breathless smiles call for another round.
Our next two runs are down Waterfall to Riff and Tiger Main on the East and West faces. Our hikes are between five and 15 minutes, so we’re nice and warmed up before popping our skis back on. We ski everything from wide open aprons, to steep chutes, meadows, and gullies, stealing fresh tracks everywhere, all day. Considering the poor snowpack, some of our runs require tactful navigating of avalanche debris, rock gardens, and cliff bands that have yet to be buried, but the effortless skiing in all the beautiful places in between make even the stickiest of spots worth dealing with. “It’s pretty cool you have a mom that rips,” says one of the New Zealanders. I’ve never known my mom, a PSIA Rocky Mountain examiner, to ski any other way, but as I look out into the San Juans from above 12,000 feet, I know that I am incredibly lucky to have a mother that has the same definition of fun as I do.
Each run starts back at the base area, so lunch is at the group’s discretion. Ours was a quick bite at the picnic tables before heading back out for our last run on Cabin on the Northern face, a wide-open meadow, followed by a steep pitch and drainage gulley. After a five-minute hike out to the road, the bus comes to pick us up and brings us back to our cars. We throw our boots and skis in the trunk and head back to the tent for a little après refreshment, where the bar is offering Moscow Mules and a selection of cold beer. Our eight-person crew and Calvin enjoy a drink as we talk about the memories we’ve made and what tomorrow holds.
At the end of the day my mom and I haul ourselves back into the car, legs Jell-O, but minds and hearts full. I cannot express my gratitude to this place for our perfect storm, and to my mom for sharing her passion for the mountains and skiing with me.