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Ski resort has 'a lot of heart, no attitude'

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Media Services
The payoff of Silverton Mountain's rustic amenities is skiing down in pristine backcountry.
The payoff of Silverton Mountain's rustic amenities is skiing down in pristine backcountry.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Silverton Mountain Resort is a rustic retreat with bare-bones amenities
  • The payoff for working harder is skiing down in pristine backcountry
  • Spend a day on an uncrowded mountain with a guide for a little more than $100

(Tribune Media Services) -- Talk about being 21st-century pioneers.

Jenny and Aaron Brill are raising the only infant in a tiny Colorado town, a town located more than 9,000 feet above sea level that offers heart-stopping mountain views in every direction and more than 400 inches of snow a year. And despite the economy, they're making their dreams come true -- and a lot of skiers happy in the process.

"It's a lot of hard work and a lot of fun and you just have to learn to roll with the punches when there is an obstacle in your path," says Aaron Brill, 38, the owner and founder of Silverton Mountain Resort in Colorado, along with his 37-year-old wife, Jenny. The resort celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Silverton Mountain Resort isn't just any ski resort. For one thing, there is only one lift and no bathrooms, just an outhouse. Apres ski means a beer or a Coke in the chilly tent, heated by a wood stove, that serves as a base lodge. Only expert skiers need come and be prepared to work for your turns. You might have to hike 45 minutes -- uphill in 10,000-foot-plus elevation. The payoff is skiing down in pristine backcountry. Did I mention you need a shovel and an avalanche probe?

"The challenge is a big part of the allure," says longtime Silverton guide Kim Grant. "You push yourselves a little more than you might at Telluride or another resort," she says. "They might be a little frightened at the beginning but by the end of the day, they are so amazed to see what they've accomplished."

I can't think of a better adventure for a snow-loving parent and teen or tween, though even six-year-olds have successfully navigated these slopes, Jenny Brill says.

It won't bust the budget either -- a little more than $100 for a full day with a guide on a mountain with less than 100 people ($50 a day when you can go unguided). Compare that with a lift ticket at a major resort that will cost close to $100 for a day of skiing on a mountain populated by thousands. You can even heli-ski here -- at $159 a trip -- a whole day is at least a third less than at any other resort. And the inns and hotels in town are modestly priced too.

"It's scenery equal to other famous resorts but with Branson, Missouri, prices," says Michael Constantine, who owns the nine-room B&B Inn of the Rockies where we stayed, enjoying probably the best B&B breakfast I've ever had (quiche with seven vegetables and five kinds of cheese!). "The mountain is one of a kind," says Constantine, who has served as a Silverton ski patroller. "It has more snow and less people than any mountain in North America."

That may be why last season snowboard champion Shaun White's sponsors built him an Olympic-size Superpipe at 12,000 feet where he could practice new tricks for the upcoming Olympic Games in Vancouver.

Another plus: The kids will have to hang with you because there's really nowhere to go apres ski. There are only a handful of restaurants in town and they closed by 8:30 p.m. There is also Kendall Mountain -- very small and very cheap -- $10 lift tickets -- which is ideal for young kids or adults who are just learning to ski and want to have some fun in the snow.

My knee kept me off the steeps and deeps the day we visited, but my two daughters, Reg and Mel, and Reg's boyfriend, Dan Foldes, headed out at 8:30 a.m. and didn't stop until 3:30 p.m. Lunch was a sandwich waiting for them when they came in tired but all smiles.

In the beginning, Jenny Brill said, their families -- one on the East Coast, the other in Northern California -- thought they were nuts to want to build their own ski resort ... from scratch! "They thought we'd be home soon!" she said.

The couple did a lot of the manual labor themselves, even digging the posts for the lift. There were a lot of nights when Jenny Brill said she went to bed crying wondering how they'd make it. Now powder hounds -- and that includes many parents with young skiers and boarders along -- are discovering the place that has long attracted hikers and mountain bikers to the pristine mountain terrain in summer.

The Brills met as college students in California. Aaron always wanted to own and run his own resort and they spent their 20s working around ski country finding the perfect place -- undeveloped, lots of snow and private property for sale.

That led them to Silverton, a tiny struggling town (just 500 people). B&B owner Constantine says he thinks Silverton is weathering the recession because "people have always struggled here."

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Today, Silverton retains its funky charm (it has just one main street) and residents are glad for the influx of backcountry skiers. Silverton Mountain, open just four days a week, is designed to have minimal environmental impact (no plans for condos or high-speed lifts). Indeed, it's how skiing used to be. Imagine Aspen in the '60s or Telluride in the '70s, suggests Constantine. Imagine an experience where you can access more than 1,800 acres of pristine, near empty backcountry via chairlift.

"It has a lot of heart, and no attitude," said Clifton Yen, who came all the way from New York for two days here. "Expect magic!"

That was Aaron and Jenny Brill's dream from the beginning. Aaron runs the operations side of the business -- the helicopters, the lifts, the avalanche patrol. Jenny handles marketing and the HR. "Other places have 10 different positions for the jobs we each are doing," she says. These numerous tasks are all the more difficult since the arrival of son Colt four months ago.

It is amazing that you go out with one set of expectations," says Aaron Brill, "And when it doesn't work out that way, you go around the obstacles in front of you. ... That's life!

(For more on Eileen's adventures in Colorado ski country, read her trip diaries at www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.)

© 2010 EILEEN OGINTZ DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.