Silverton Mountain ski area sold to Aspen-based adventure travel company

Aaron and Jenny Brill are selling Silverton Mountain, the ski area the couple started building in the remote San Juans more than 24 years ago. 

“It’s a pretty emotional day,” said Aaron Brill, who in 1999 landed in Silverton after scouring the West for locations to establish a no-frills, steep-and-deep ski hill for expert skiers. 

The Brills are selling to Andy Culp and Brock Strasbourger, whose 7-year-old Aspen-based Heli Adventures Inc. offers an online marketplace for heli-skiing and adventure travel. The adventure travel company in late 2022 purchased a boutique heli-skiing operation and lodge in British Columbia. 

The Brills began looking for an investor in 2022 as the ski industry weathered the shutdowns of the pandemic. The search for investors morphed into a possible sale. The Brills since the mid-2000s have guided helicopter skiers in Alaska and the couple’s Silverton Mountain Guides has more than 25 million acres of permitted terrain across Alaska. The Brills are not selling their Alaska heliskiing operation. 

Aaron had exacting requirements for a buyer. A new owner would have to retain every one of the ski area’s 50 employees. They had to share the vision for the ski area with a “strong passion for skiing” and “were not golf course-slash-real estate guys,” he said. And they had to have deep pockets to keep the ski area vibrant.

“Those were nonnegotiable for me and that really weeded out a majority of potential buyers who were interested,” said Aaron, a notoriously driven, hands-on operator who handbuilt the Silverton Mountain ski area.

Skiers hike to the 13,487-foot peak of Silverton Mountain ski area in February 2022. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

In 1999, a 28-year-old Brill pulled into Silverton in a retired UPS delivery van. Up Cement Creek, just below the Gold King Mine that once fueled the Silverton economy, he parked the van at the base of some mining claims and started hiking. He had a bit of family money and, after visiting dozens of private ski clubs in New Zealand, a dream of building an affordable, single-lift ski hill that could ferry expert backcountry skiers deep into the steepest terrain possible. 

He saw potential in the steep Velocity Basin. He assembled about 220 acres in mining claims with “less than what it costs to buy a condo in Telluride,” he said. He found a double-chairlift in a recycling yard in southern California and shipped it to Silverton. He hand-dug the foundations for the lift towers, hauling up bags of cement every time he trudged up the hill. He took a test so he could use explosives to create the foundations. 

His hopes for a speedy review by the Bureau of Land Management faded quickly as the land management agency took more than five years of intensive study for his plan to access some 1,300 acres of public land surrounding his land. The BLM approved his plan in 2005, creating the only BLM ski area in the lower 48 and the first new ski area in Colorado since Beaver Creek opened in the early 1980s. 

Aaron hired high-profile lawyers and beat back lawsuits by angry neighbors, including a legal battle with an Aspen man who had spent 20 years tinkering with a plan to build a $20 million resort with a gondola and mountain-top restaurant. 

Many avalanche professionals warned Brill that ferrying skiers into the hazardous San Juans would be dangerous. The snowpack in the southern Colorado range is notoriously fickle with high avalanche danger. Silverton Mountain patrollers heave more explosives into the avalanche-prone terrain than any other resort in the state.

“Everyone told me 24 1/2 years ago that we could not do Silverton Mountain without having fatalities all the time. We have never had a snow safety fatality,” he said. 

The base-area ski map at Silverton Mountain starts with text reading “You could die here today. This is not a regular ski area.” (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Jenny Brill likes to say her husband’s primary skill set “is mapping out the best way to do dangerous things safely.”

“And I think we proved that with Silverton Mountain,” Aaron said. “There were so many forces that tried to keep us down, from the government to naysayers. I looked at it like a battle of will. I simply put my head down and willed it into existence. I could not see it any other way. I had to treat it like I was a boxer, thinking I’m taking this to the mat every day.”

The multimillion-dollar price tag for the BLM’s lengthy environmental review nixed hopes for $25 lift tickets. But the Brills stayed true to their promise of no real estate development and an acute lack of luxury. The base area is a tired tent without running water. The UPS van still shuttles skiers. There is no grooming or snowmaking.

But the Brills did add a Eurocopter AS350 B3e helicopter and in 2010 secured a permit to access about 20,000 acres for heli-skiing around Silverton Mountain. They expanded into Alaska soon after and now have more than 25 million permitted acres with helicopters delivering skiers to peaks across the state from October into June.

“Silverton Mountain is amazing and will never be duplicated and it’s a strong business,” said Brill, who secured his helicopter pilot’s license a decade ago. “What I realized over time is that my passion for guiding people is strongest in AK. And in AK I skied every day of the winter. October through May I’m out with every single group. It’s inspiring in AK.”

The Colorado ski area has become a testing ground for expert skiers, drawing thousands of visitors every winter for both guided and unguided skiing. Those skiers rescued Silverton’s winter economy. 

After the last gold mine around Silverton closed in 1991, the town hibernated in winter, with business owners nailing plywood to downtown windows in the snowy months when the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was not funneling daily loads of tourists into the town. Winter time taxable sales in Silverton — from November through April — have grown from $2.7 million in 2016-17 to $6.6 million in 2022-23.

Most of that growth is from the ski area and its 50 employees. 

“When we moved here there were about 20 people between the ages of 19 and 40. And that’s being generous,” said Jenny Brill. “Now there are tons of young people.”

A majority of Silverton Mountain’s long-term employees own homes in town. 

“We have known these people since they were college kids and interns. Now they are homeowners and raising families,” said Jenny, choking up a bit. “Wow, this really is emotional.”

This story will be updated.