Silverton 2024, flying up the mountain


I’m kneeling on hardpack snow, gloved hands covering a pile of backpacks. The rotor wash of the helicopter increases raising a storm of cool snow blowing everywhere. Two other riders are in the same position to keep the pile of packs from blowing off the edge of the mountain. I fight the urge to duck my head, remembering this morning’s safety briefing.

“Everyone wants to duck their heads, but if a gust hits the helicopter just as it is lifting, it might come sideways and bash you. You want to be looking at it so you can scramble out of the way. No, you can’t push the chopper if it gets near, please don’t try.”

How did I get here?

It’s been sitting as the top line of my running todo list for the past few weeks.

“Book Silverton, Thanos it if you have to”

It’s been years. I’ve been dreaming of returning to the land of Colorado’s extreme terrain for too long. Only trip to Silverton was in 2005, the time has flown.  I’ve been pinging friends, but most of them have reached the age where they no longer ski, or they are so busy with family and work they can’t take the time off.


I put out an initial ping to judge the extreme ski trip climate in my circle of friends.

“Sounds awesome, but can’t right now” is the general response.

Riding with a friend is the best, riding by myself can be pretty great too. I decide screw it, pick a date on the calendar, Friday March 1st, and book a six run heli-drop experience at Silverton CO. I’m an optimist, so I book a room with two beds. Hey, someone might want to go.

Why Silverton?

Silverton is a unique ski mountain. It has a single chair that goes up to a spine, then a guided group hikes to their drop in spot. These hikes last from 5 minutes to 1.5 hours at altitude until they get to their drop in points. The top of Silverton is 13,400 feet, so air is thin. All terrain is EX – Extreme, which is unmaintained, and mostly very steep to stupidly steep. The average grade of Silverton is 40 degrees, similar to the steepest found at a normal resort.  Silverton has zero, zero?, zero! beginner or intermediate terrain. 

Silverton is also about 6.5 hours away from Denver, so almost a full day travel each way. Three-day minimum commit. Might as well book the helicopter e-ticket while I’m driving all the way to Silverton.

I book and pay for the trip, which is basically an expensive ‘no refunds’ affair, then re-ping the friends I know who could ride something like Silverton.

“Can’t. Not in shape.”

“Can’t afford it.”

“Dates don’t work for the family”

Wife said absolutely not”

Solo fun it is. So be it. I’m going.

This going solo lasts for a week or two, when I realize my Chief Technology Officer’s husband grew up in Breckenridge, is a beyond-awesome rider, and might be interested.

I stop Brandi in the hallway at work:

“Do you think Brent would be interested?”

“Heck yeah! He never does anything for himself. He’s super busy right now, but I’ll ask him.”

Brandi comes back with “He’s 100% ready to go, but he’s super busy jamming against hard deadlines at work right now. If you don’t hear from him, it’s not personal.”

A day or two later, I get his number and text the details.

“I’ve booked a six run heli drop at Silverton. I booked a room for TWO nights.”

The response comes back.

“I’m IN!”

Yee-haw. Got a riding buddy, this is going to be more awesome.

Zero communications for THREE weeks.

Work buddy in the hallway: “You hear from Brent? Think he’s going to go?”

“Not yet. I give him 75 percent that he’s in and will show up. I’m going in any case, so…we’ll see.” 

He’s busy as heck, and I’m going regardless, so there really isn’t much pressure to communicate more.

Then, a day before we’re supposed to leave, the text from Brent rolls in:

“Where and when can I pick you up? I can drive.”

Super-duper, it’s ON and he’s IN!


Travel Time

Brent shows up on Thursday with his lifted F-150. I throw my snowboard, underlayers and other snowboard goodies in the back, and we begin the trek from Denver to Grand Junction, then south.

The weather and roads are perfect. This time of year, the mountains can be hit or miss. Feet of snow or bare roads, flip a coin. It’s been warm for few days, so travel is at ‘a sensible pace’ heading west at about 85 m.p.h.

Drive to Grand Junction. We get fantastic burritos at the quirky Octopus Coffee shop.  More fuel and we turn south to Ouray.

Drive is western-slope scenic. Desert with rock canyons and snow capped mountains in the distance. Travel is completely uneventful until we pass Ouray.

The drive to from Ouray to Silverton goes over Red Mountain Pass, on “the Million Dollar Highway” (youtube it). They call it the million dollar highway as it cost a reported million dollars a mile to build. It’s a hard won thin sliver of road that has been blasted out of granite.

The only time I’ve gone over Red Mountain pass was whiteout snowstorm at night. We needed a spatula to remove my wife from the back seat when we got into Silverton.

Today is sunshine and snowmelt around a mostly bare highway. Oddly, this was NOT better. Holy moly, look at that drop.

Brent is a great driver, but I’m a bit of a nervous passenger most days. Not having my hands on the controls is a thing. Looking out the window to the depths just beyond the white line to my right, I’m getting the heebie jeebies. Brent is also a fan of using the whole road, which is similar to how I take turns on a racetrack, edge to edge. This is admittedly A LITTLE disconcerting as a passenger. This is one-mistake-and-done territory. I silently will Brent’s driving to be on point. 

The picture does not do justice to the thousand plus foot plunge just on the other side of the while line.

We stop briefly at the top of the pass to take in the bluebird majesty around us. As we look, a helicopter passes overhead….I think that’s what we’ll be riding in. It passes a thousand feet above us and I get a burst of excitement. 

At about 4:30 p.m,. we get to our hotel, Smedley’s Suites. The place is old-west-old, but fantastic. Downstairs is an ice cream shop where you check in. The manager was friendly and pointed to a door down about 30 feet from the ice cream shop that led to a staircase. The hotel has three suites and they are all upstairs.

Room is great, spacious and in the middle of the very small town that is Silverton. We drop our bags in the room.

It’s about 4:45 p.m., so food it is.

Walk to Lacey Rose Saloon. Old-timey Western pub with amazing woodwork behind the bar and stained glass windows with animal heads on the walls. We get typical Colorado great beer and food with friendly service. Big day tomorrow, so we head back to the room and crash early.


I get my typical meh night’s sleep at altitude, tossing and turning and generally light restless sleep. We wake, then stagger across the street for food and coffee. Burritos, the ubiquitous mountain breakfast, are acquired at the Coffee Bear. Fast and good, no wonder there is a steady stream of people coming in. Also helping this flow of humans is Silverton’s scarce choice matrix. This small town is mostly closed during the winter, as Silverton mountain is small and exclusive as it’s experts only, guided and helicopter skiing. There’s not much else to do around when it’s winter.

Town to Silverton ski resort


The drive from town to Silverton mountain is slow. I’ve very OK with slow. Switchbacks turn to dirt and washboard gravel with ice and snow. I’m stoked we’re in Brent’s truck. I’d feel sad beating up my BMW on this. The truck’s 35 inch tires are absorbing the chatter much better than my low-profile 20s would. 


Silverton Check in

Check in at Silverton is in a permanent tent, just up a flight of stairs cut out of the snow and ice. I see a sign for rental gear. I need to rent a probe pole, avalanche beacon, and shovel, the bare minimum Silverton requires. I’ve added an avalanche float pack to my rental. Rental gear is out back of the tent, to the school bus moored just above on the hill. Yes, a real school bus.

Probe pole, beacon, shovel, and float pack are handed to me in short order. I’ve never worn a float pack, but figured if the helicopter can drop us off the beaten path, it’s likely worth it in case the snow starts sliding. Float packs are airbags in a backpack. If caught in an avalanche, pull the “oh shit” handle and the pack inflates – helping to keep you on top of the slide.

In theory.

This technology didn’t exist in 2005 the last time I rode Silverton. I’ve never used one, but the brochure of not dying in an avalanche seems nice.

Get a really quick run through of the float pack. Activating, deactivating, how to stow it on the heli, and how to deploy if necessary. Head is spinning a bit, but hey, we’re doing this, and there are no refunds.

Lots of straps, buckles and off-on sequences, which, after a time or two, would make complete sense, but with the pressure of an extreme ski adventure on the other side of an in-the-mountains helicopter ride… a 30-second run through left many doubts. Brent has his own beacon, probe pole and shovel, so he’s hanging back in the tent.

Gear acquired, I head back into the tent to wait for check in and our safety briefing.

The crush of stoked snow-amped up humanity in the tent is adding to the chaos. A few dozen people mill about between the folding table check-in desk and the T-shirt racks. This is check in, retail sales, and a cooler-based-bar all in the same space.

It’s a bit of effort to find a place to stand without being on top of someone else or their equally large gear pile. I find a place in the corner and create a pile, hopefully out of the way, enough.

Brent and I wait in line to begin the helicopter check in.

They find my reservation immediately.

The check in girl flips a page, then looks up at us.

“I can’t find a Brent here.”

Brent nods “The reservation is likely under Pasko.”


I may have fucked up. Big, Time.

“I see Pasko, but no Brent Buck. The helicopters are all fully booked, and our guided trips are full. We might be able to waitlist you?”


Our lack of communication has hit critical mass. I flash to the brutal realization we may have driven more than seven hours for Brent to not be able to ride. If he can’t ride, he’ll likely be sitting in this tent for the rest of the day.

He thought I booked us both. This was not a reservation, it was pre-pay, and I had no idea if anyone was going when I booked. Looking back I can understand our ultra-minimal communication left room for ambiguity.

Shit, shit shit. 

With the intensity and fervor of true genius or complete madness, Brent turns toward me, shrugs and smiles;

“Buck Luck! I’ve got this. Take off, it will work out!”

A guide’s voice booms:

“Everyone on our heli trips, we’re meeting in the parking lot behind the SNO CAT.”

I pick up my gear and shuffle to stand in the parking lot so we can be assembled into teams of eight riders.

Brent is hanging at the tent to see what, if anything, he can hop into today.

The sun is shining, it’s warm, and I have “Shit, shit, shit” going through my head on loop.

We get assembled into our groups of eight. We gave our guides our weights, and after all groups were tallied, our group is the lightest. Being light, we hang out until the helicopter lands to refuel at Silverton’s base. It’s casual and everyone is friendly and introducing themselves. Other groups are hopping on the lift and the heli is picking them up at the top and flying them around.

It’s about 11am, we’ve been “hurry up and waiting” for a while now when the big silver helicopter makes it’s appearance. The guides say it’s windy, so despite the mild base temps, I have a head sock on and mid-layer. 


The helicopter guzzles fuel and we pile in.

First helicopter run up? No big deal. Our boards are loaded on one side, then we hand our packs to the guide on the other side. We pile onto bench seats, four across facing each other. They said it was windy today, but it is a fairly sedate ride up, at least so far. Ingress to the helicopter is interesting. There is a rope with a couple knots in it hanging in the middle of the door opening.

“Only grab the rope when getting in or out, the doors are thin and you can hurt them if you pull on them.” 

We land on a well-tended landing spot, down a bit from the peak.

We’re told to exit the helicopter, using the knotted rope as a grab handle, then pile on top of the backpacks and boards to prevent rotor wash from blowing things off the mountain.

The big bird lifts off, and we start handing out backpacks, skis, and snowboards.

Run 1, the warmup?

Our guide Calvin has us slide across from the landing pad to the top of a chute in the trees, about 30 yards away. I’m not in a hurry so I’m last in the conga line.

I stand up, then flop backward to my butt. The float pack is all kinds of off balance, loose, butt heavy, and center of gravity way too far back. I put a hand back to assist standing and my hand goes into the snow up to my elbow. I’m turtled just out of the gate? This is NOT a good start.

My inner voice is on the case. It’s playing the role of Captain Obvious.

“Oh, can someone help me stand up? Promise I won’t slow everyone else down in this extreme terrain if you do…” 

This is not a good look. I heave over to my stomach, the heavy flopping pack still trying to turtle me in the effort. I push to my knees and stand up. A quick ‘no one saw that’ shake and slide across to the group who is assembling near the trees. 

Confidence level: Disbelief with a dash of ‘That just happened’

Calvin surveys the hill and addresses us.

“I’ll head down this chute, and holler back to the group. We’ll go one at a time”

Calvin makes a couple of turns and disappears out of sight. Thirty seconds later we hear:

“That roll over is a small 15 feet cliff. Landing is good though”

Small 15 foot cliff, as viewed from below


Run 1, less than a minute into riding and ….yeah ‘small’ 15-foot cliff. 

I just flunked standing up, so slip the edge as conservatively as I can. Still a bit off balance, I’m in ‘try not to flunk lunch’ mode.

Rest of run 1 through the trees and open chutes is variable. Very variable. Clearly it’s been warm. Some thick crusty turns, some light and fluffy ones and much in between.


Run 1 pics


I’m still a tick off balance, but keeping it together much better as we go. We have two standout riders in our group already, one skier and one snowboarder. They are killing everything. By the end of the run, I’m starting to find my legs but overheating badly. The lack of wind, warmer temps, and altitude have me huffing and puffing on high despite having all vents on my jacket and pants open. I don’t want to slow the group down to take off helmet, god awful backpack, jacket and whatnot. For now I suck it up.

The helicopter lands in an open field and we pile in to begin the climb for run 2.


Run 2

Run 2, I take a quick break while the gear is being handed out and strip off my extra layers. Oh thank god, this is better. We begin a short hike up and over some rocks from the landing pad.

Wind-blown and rocky at the top. We start on sheet ice and continue to wind-blown spindrift. Below that, it looks better, but is crusted hard rodeo bumps with scattered rocks peeping out. Next is a shady wall, which is ripping powder perfection. Below that, our guide is assembling our group and yelling to all who approach to slow down as there are shallowly buried avalanche debris (hunks of ice just under the surface).

Below this stopping point, the trees are thick powder fun. I’m riding better, starting to feel the flow.

Run 3

Uneventful trip to the top. The guides keep saying it’s getting windier, but we haven’t seen it yet. The top is a picturesque mountain scene from bluebird dreams.

We skate along the top, reaching a section with the typical very hard-packed start, then some trees with amazing powder below.

People are riding well, and I’m finding my feet after all. The trees are steep and this gives way to nice chutes with good snow below. Yessssssss!!!!

Ascending to Run 4

The stuff of dreams, after the stuff of nightmares. A classic case of be careful what you wish for.

Ride buddy leans toward me as we huddle waiting for the heli to land.

“Wind is picking up, heard them talking on their radios. I don’t think we’re getting run 4.”

I’m a bit disappointed when I hear this, until we get picked up to start up the mountainside for run 4. Disappointment turns to pure stoke.


The helicopter is ascending next to a mountain, and it’s clear there is more wind as the altitude-straining engines change pitch when the gust hits. The screaming engines are working hard in the the thin air, and harder as they deal with the gusts. The previously smooth ascents have given way to bucking and shuddering.

We crest the top and HOLY MOLY. Helicopter gets hit with a wave of wind pushing us nose high and backward. The pilot angles away from this, then begins a canted dive back toward the valley floor. The heli seems just shy of sideways as we scream downward, nose hard down. This is an E-ride. I know the pilot does this every day, but wow. I should have tightened my seat belt more, much more – no! More than that! And some AirPods to cancel out the unsettling engine howl would be really great right about now.

We descend rapidly and the heli banks around the valley. Seems clear we’re setting down at base where we started.

One of my fellow riders taps me.

“Yep, we are going to land at the base.”

At this point, I’m actively breathing slowly to calm myself. I have a general fear of heights and the little lizard deep in my brain is trying to tilt, hard. I doubt following its advice of ‘fuck this, panic hard and dive out now!’ is going to help, so I ask the lizard to kindly shut the hell up. We agree to disagree. Outside the window, the changing pictures of oh-too-close mountains and heli-banked turns which have us stacking sideways add to the disquieting howl of straining engines. I shift from “Total bummer about no run 4.” to “I’m A-freaking OK with setting this bitch down and diving out. Don’t care where if we can land rather than crash!”

I fight back against my inner monologue who now just keeps yelling in a high clipped taunting voice on repeat:


As we swoop, approaching the base we pass the landing area and begin to ascend next to the lift. The rest of the ascent is calm, but I’m still happy to get out on level ground. No happier than that. Holy crap I’m relieved to be out of that thing.

After diving out, I’m trying not to kiss the slope in thanks. My nerves are frayed. A glance around shows others are similarly relieved to be on solid snow. No one screamed out loud on that ride, I’m taking this as a united group win.

Run 4

Calvin looks up from his radio and says: “We got lucky! We weren’t going to open this run until tomorrow.”

This run is pure pure joy the entire way down. In a steep shady valley, we rip both sides in deep and light powder. At least as important, this snow is really consistent. This run alone was worth the time and money of getting to Silverton.

As we descend, a couple of the riders in our party start to struggle. We have a 67 year old man who is an excellent skier, but is starting to fatigue. As the party moves in a group, he’s having to push himself at altitude and in difficult conditions.

About half way down the older skier trips and a ski ejects. The ski runs down the steep slope about 75 yards. So now the tired guy is having to walk down a steep chute in ski boots through knee deep powder to get his other ski. This is a compounding problem. He gets sorted, takes a break and continues bravely forth.

I enjoy the sunshine and beauty all around as we wait for the rest of the party to join.

At the bottom we are walking distance from the base. The helicopter is done for the day. I tip Calvin and trudge toward the tent. This experience is AWESOME, and I can’t wait to give back this god damned float pack.

Gear returned, I don’t see Brent anywhere in the tent. This is good.

He’s likely found something to ride and I hope he’s had a great day.

I have more riding in me, but this also was enough if that’s what it is.

I buy a T-shirt and put some things in my everyday backpack. I figure I’ll stow my gear in the truck, come back to the tent, buy a beer from their cooler, then wait for Brent.

As I exit the tent, I run into Brent walking toward the lift with his snowboard tucked under his arm.

He seems pumped. “Hey! A guy just dropped from our group. Do you want to ride?”

This is like getting another quarter at the arcade when I was a kid.


“Let me talk to our guide!”

Brief convo and a bit of gesturing in my direction, Brent turned back toward me.

“YOU’RE IN!!!!”

The guide comes over, smiles broadly and introduces himself. He then makes me raise my hand and promise:

“I will not get injured on this run.”

He and I have similar goals. During the morning safety briefing they mention the nearest actual medical care is in Montrose, more than 4 hours away. The briefing includes the sage advice.

“Ride a full click more conservative than you would at a typical ski resort.”

The guide raises his avalanche beacon sensor toward my chest.

“Let’s just make sure you’re still on and transmitting.”

I blanch: “I just turned in my beacon. I can run to get the gear!”

“Ok, we’re getting everyone together. You don’t need to run, but please don’t dawdle getting your pack.”

I have nightmares of paperwork and helpless mountain worker shoulder shrugs as I race to see if they’ll give me my pack back.

Cute and cheerful Emma is working in the gear bus. I explain the situation as rapidly as I can.  Without blinking she smiles and completely hooks me up.

“Did you want a float pack again?”

“NO, regular pack is just fine. Thank you!”

She hands me the much lighter and smaller pack with the required avalanche beacon, probe pole and shovel in it. I jog down the icy steps. I meet the guide coming up about half way.

“I was going to see if you’d run into red tape, and was going to help you with that.”

What planet am I on? Not sure, but I 100% love this. Everyone is stoked to ride, including the guides. The vibe is priceless.


Meet Brent, we hop on the lift. The sun is shining and it’s WARM. Open your jacket warm. Smile and enjoy the sunshine warm, oh yeah.

We get to the top and do about a five minute hike, then skate along the ridge to a drop-in point.

The open powder field lasts about 100 yards, then we hit a wall of trees.

“Does anyone NOT want to ride the trees?”

One skier raises his hand.

“Ok, you can take the gulley skier’s right* of these trees. The rest of us will ride the trees and meet you below where everything comes together.”

  • Skier’s right’ is to the right of someone looking downhill, as if they are skiing. This contrasts with ‘lookers right’ as if someone was looking uphill and giving directions.

I look, and whoa, these trees are TIGHT. The snow is fantastic, so I shrug, bend my getting-tired legs and SMILE. Brent has disappeared in a cloud of awesome as he is blasting through the trees at a psychotically brilliant pace.

The entrance to the trees is just to the right of the guy in yellow’s right leg. Opening is about 2.5 feet across.

Tight tight steep trees with amazing snow give way to more open glades below.

It’s super fun to watch Brent ride. He’s a top, top-shelf boarder.

About halfway down one of the guides suggests Brent lead the group.
“I’m not sure where I’m going,” he said.

“You rip! Just tear it up and stop down a few hundred yards and wait for us.”

Poof, and he’s off in a flash. I proceed with an ear-to-ear grin enjoying every deep turn in these powder perfect trees.

We take a break and catch our breath as the group works its way down.

Sitting slope side, we swap stories of the day’s adventures. Brent managed to get on a guided group with a single heli run. The rest of his runs were hike-tos, some fairly long.

When comparing run notes, I believe Brent’s guided hiking runs with a single heli up might have been the call this day. Buck Luck indeed! I believe the helicopter was landing where it could with the wind, where the guided hikers could hike to the best snow around.

We end the run in a mogul field that leads to some flat let’s get-out-of-here groomed terrain. We dump out on a road where there is a waiting bus. A couple minutes on the bus and we were back in the parking lot. I return my gear and Emma seems grateful “Thanks for bringing it back!” I give her a $20 and tell her honestly she made my day. Brent and I buy a beer from the cooler and sit outside the tent for a few minutes before starting back to town.

The drive back is Ansel Adams picturesque. Time of day and the afterstoke glow add to the experience.

We get dinner at ‘the other’ pub that was open, The Eureka Station. Place looks upscale. The food is pricy but fine. Glad we got a big basket of fries as my truly excellent buffalo lasagne was about 5 ounces, beautifully plated. Tasty and solidly unable to meet the requirements of ‘you rode all day.’

After food, we head back to the Lacey Rose for a couple more drinks. The place has great beer selection, great service and a better feel.

Retiring back to Smedley’s Suites, we declare it a most excellent adventure, and promptly collapse.

Waking and a bit stiff from all the fun, we get a good breakfast at the Kendall Mountain Cafe, then start the long drive back to Denver.

Red Mountain pass is still a thing. A scary drop-to-your-death thing. We are in no hurry, so stop at a couple places to look at the amazing scenery.

We opt to go 50 east to 285, which passes Gunnison. I have the notion of taking a few turns at Crested Butte, just north of Gunnison, but it looks like it has been warm here. Crested Butte is known for its steep terrain. With the temperatures, most of these steeps are going to be a sheet of ice with rocks poking out. The lemon doesn’t seem worth the squeezing.

We continue to enjoy the beautiful tour of Southern Colorado.


Will I be back?

Oh hell yes. I HAVE to go back. I have 2 heli-run credits to use.

Will I rent another float pack?

After talking with Brent, I believe most of my struggles were from not tightening the straps enough. In my haste I had left everything loose in a ‘whatever’ approach, and this left everything saggy/soggy and flopping about.

When I go again, if it’s a big powder day I’ll take more time up front and adjust things properly.

This was a bucket list experience. I’m glad I went.

Huge Thank you to TheMightyAnne for her editing help. It was useful to realize there is in fact, no ‘silent K’ in ‘pants’