Ski Tribes of the San Juans

Ski cultures are territorial, especially the old ones. The locals band up like gorillas claiming large swaths of alpine territory. The troops get protective when others invade. Guarding the stash can become a way of life. The local chiefs are elusive and operate in the shadows. These full-timers are the real silverbacks. The local tribe knows more than god about the terrain and roams in the less obvious. Their timing always seems perfect as you gaze upon their tracks from a distant ridge and wonder. They lurk in the areas that we all want. They arrive there while we are drinking coffee. They have spent a lifetime looking for these places and have discovered them. The lines are not documented but recorded in the minds and verbal histories of the privileged. This is their land, their terrain, and you are a visitor. You might see their tracks, but sightings are rare. Tracking them can be dangerous prospect. They might feel hunted and reactions are unpredictable. You should stick to what you can ski from the road.

This tribal phenomenon is rich in the Southwestern Colorado San Juan Mountains. This area is home to one of the oldest ski cultures in the country and is also one of the least developed. For example, there is no formal written documentation or publication of first descents and features are often unnamed; most significant information has transcended the generations through verbal history. At 13,000ft plus, alpine ridge crests develop distinctly segregated circles that separate the populations. This cultural division has always reminded me of the evolutionary history of minority groups in Southwestern China. Large groups of people separated by terrain that after thousands of years have distinctly diverged languages and traditions. Silverton, Ophir, Ouray, Ridway, Durango, Telluride all have separate castes of usual suspects operating in their respective terrain. They even have different names for the same futures seen from opposite sides. The explanation for this is simple. The terrain is constructed in such a way that discourages travel. One could ski tour from Silverton to Telluride faster than one can drive there. The biodiversity is limited. So is information sharing.

Asking around the verbal history of the area is vague. I have picked up scraps of information in coffee shops, taverns, and road cuts. My casual research tells me the early ski explorers in this avalanche stricken terrain were some of the nations first avalanche forecasters hired by the state of Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and National Forest Service. Their job was to keep Highway 550 open for commerce. This effort was not in vein since during the winter of 2006 – 2007, the CDOT triggered 464 avalanches with explosives for mitigation purposes. 159 of the controlled slides impacted Colorado highways. Veteran CDOT forecaster Jerry Roberts is a local living legend and was part of the first the group responsible for most of original exploration and naming of the back country zones in the Silverton area in the mid 60’s-mid 70’s.

Compared to the big ski descents in the Elk Mountains by Colorado ski legend Chris Landry and company, the history in the San Juans would play out in the shadows and go unnoticed. Do to the correlation with avalanche mitigation several of the ski runs here were named after slide paths that hit the highway. The only ski beta sold for years was the Colorado Department of Transportation slide path map. This is the most intact record of the San Juan ski history. The passes are still today mitigated by CDOT with artillery from a vintage Korean War howitzer. One of the culprit paths is named “The Battleship” in its honor. Outside of these documented paths the consistency of names drift. Which name you use will indicate just how long you have been here. Roberts’s crew skied most of the main drainages for better understanding of the continental snow pack.  Roberts stated ”We were not special skiers in any way, we were just the only ones exploring.”

The snow pack is technical. More, it is intriguing. To complicate matters there are six to seven micro climates in the San Juans that manipulate the weather. This is dependant on how the storm tracks into the range and how the mountains alter the air masses relative to the complex terrain. Telluride will get 15” and Silverton will accumulate 2” yet the towns are 12 miles apart as the crows fly. Truthfully, the opposite trend is typically the case, but Silverton wants Telluride to believe just what it needs to.  The local wind effect here makes it difficult to find the stashes at first. The wind here is the most powerful factor. Large wind events will strip windward faces to the ground. The snowpack will be transported in its entirety to the leeward aspect. This all making perfect avalanche country.

Contemporary bands of elusive locals from Silverton are the contributors to recent King Lines. Not naming names to protect the innocent, they can be found all living on one of the most unassuming back alleys on the other side of the tracks in the town of Silverton. They are a group of unsung heroes without team name or sponsor. They are tackling the never skied bold lines San Juans 13K peaks and taking the secret home with them. A few of them are responsible for a descent of Hunter in the Alaska Range. Mount Hunter is a entry test piece of American mountaineering to climb let alone ski. They sneak into the deep corners of the San Juans, redefine the standard, and slip back into town to saddle up to the Miners Tavern. That’s the way its been done here for decades and that’s the way the trend seems to remain. The most common trend in the terrain accessed from the Highway 550 these days is the presence of more people. The rapid pulses of public interest in back country skiing due to the advances in gear, media, and its availability are making places like the San Juans more accessible.  Silverton Mountain, Helitrax, San Juan Ski Co, Southwest Adventure Guides are all services bringing the public into the snow. Andrew Klotz is the author of new guidebook “Cold Smoke” writes about San Juan backcountry and showcases 25 classic tours of the area. This book has had little effect on the true secrets of the area covering only few of roadside classics. Recently the town of Silverton has transformed from a mining boom town and has seen a resurgence as a ski advocates epicenter. The Elementary School even has PE classes on skis for local kids. The town's main ski hill, Silverton Mountain, is a brutally rugged, experts only, sidecountry ski area. More, the sleepy town hosts collections of boutique manufactures like Venture Snowboards and Skis, Scotty Bobs Skiworks, Mountainboy Sleds, Montanya rum distillery, and the Silverton Brewing Co. The town's exports have become cold powder, skis, split boards, local brews, and kicksleds

All of these factors are encouraging new activity to what is easily seen from the road and the ski are, bringing a new resident culture to the range with it. Yet, the core tribes of the range are still skiing the lines that have never seen second descents by outsiders. The silverbacks’ wish to keep it that way.  Approach at your own risk.

Written story by OR Brand Ambassador Mark Allen. An IFMGA guide, he spends winters in the San Juan Mountains of Silverton guiding ski, ice, and Level 1-2 AIRE hut based avalanche courses as the Ski and Avalanche Director for Southwest Adventure Guides (SWAG) of Colorado. Check out his program list at www.swaguides.com. The video was filmed and edited by OR athlete Mike Bromberg, also IFMGA certified as a guide. Mike splits his time between Crested Butte, Colorado and Chamonix, France.