The Silverton Link-Up
Skiing in Jon Jay’s Backyard (Literally)
High in the hills above an old silver mining camp turned mountain town in Southern Colorado, a labyrinth of mining roads cut through the towering landscape. The old roads work their way up the narrow valleys, dissecting the steep mountain faces with the incredible precision of a surgeon’s blade. As my truck putters along one of these old roads, I’m in awe of the mechanical monoliths left behind by the silver miners that scour the landscape. Old buildings, mechanical apparatus, and infrastructure erected with the tremendous determination and incredible willpower of a type of human being that just doesn’t exist in today’s world of frozen pizza and Pokémon Go. Truly, these last vestiges still stand in remembrance of an era in Colorado history come to pass, but not forgotten by the lucky few who get to explore these mountainsides by utilizing the very same infrastructure miners used before us.
As I ease my truck to the side and prepare my gear, I take one final look up into the basin above me. Clouds fill the gaps between rock buttresses, an old cable car still swings from a wire. I can see out to the apron below the classic “Turkey Chute,” couloir. An old mining structure still stands below it, and another still stands in defiance of the power of mother nature beneath a huge cornice ripe to fall, cascading the slope down into the old structure. The contrast between steel and rock, natural and manmade couldn’t be more evident than in this place, right now.
Jon was already up, preparing coffee and toast for breakfast when I strolled into the kitchen on that groggy May morning. We chatted briefly about plans for the day. It was a cold morning and neither of us were feeling particularly motivated by the weather. Our late 7am wake-up was naturally keeping us away from the bigger objectives discussed the previous night, but so was the inclement weather. As we gathered gear and contemplated plans, Jon kept coming back to this cool link-up idea on Kendall Mountain, which rose directly from the valley behind his house. As we looked at the map on his wall, he pointed to Kendall, showing the ascent to its base via an old mining road, and the climb up the “Coyote” couloir. He described the rappel into the adjacent, well protected and inset “Wile E” couloir with just the right details. I was already hooked. We both hoped that the “Wile E” would not only hold great snow but provide the first descent in a series of link-ups that would bring us around in almost a half circle back to Jon’s house. Our day culminating in a descent of the classic “Turkey Chute” couloir two valleys over. With the weather being in and out, staying close to home seemed like a great option. We loaded up the truck underneath the towering shadow of Kendall. Views of our first goal flowing in and out of the quickly moving clouds above us. The worthy objective by any standards stood for just a few moments, visible to us and then was consumed again by clouds and snow showers. We loaded up.
Leaving Silverton behind us we zig-zagged our way up an old mining road toward our first objective. The easy skinning on the road provided a nice ease-into-the-day feel for me as my mind was still lagging a bit behind my body. I was tired from the previous day skiing in Aspen, and things didn’t start to sync up until we veered off the road and begun strolling into the basin below Kendall. With the “Coyote” couloir coming into view, a nice buzz began to follow us up the skin track. A possible byproduct of the mystical nature of the weather and the connotation the town’s namesake has with “extreme” skiing or just the usual excitement to be stepping into the unknown. I don’t know…
The Coyote Couloir, surrounded by towering walls and backed with views of Silverton, provided some fun steep climbing. Jon and I traded off steps through the breakable wind-crust. Our thoughts consumed by the moment, one foot in front of another, one plunge of the axe followed by the next. An anxious anxiety lingering with our hopes on better skiing conditions in neighboring “Wile E” couloir.
Fun climbing with incredible views and beautiful terrain features. I knew I was just experiencing a small piece of what Silverton really had to offer, but I couldn’t help but feel truly immersed in the landscape and the energy of the time and place. As we down climbed from the top of the Coyote things were really starting to “sync” up for me. Silverton came into view contrasting the deeply inset v-shaped valleys and dramatic white-capped peaks. Jon’s house was visible below us, just a stones through from the scoured summit ridge. I was a little lost in thought when I noticed Jon already searching the area for a suitable anchor to rappel into the “Wile E,” which was about 80 feet below the ridge.
Our search became a practice in down climbing and rock scrambling, and we quickly concluded a skis on down climb into the couloir might be a better call seeing as how much snow there was and how time-consuming it would be to dig out a suitable anchor for a rappel. Jon descended first as I shot photos from the security of the summit ridge. Jon executed through the thin upper portion of the steep vertical and peppery snow as rocks and wind crust sheered off the side of the mountain, falling 300 feet to the valley below us. Once Jon made it to the safety of the hanging snow field below our steep down climb, it was a quick ski to the top of the “Wile E.” I packed up my gear and headed down. Carefully.
The top of the “Wile E” provided just the right setting and conditions we were hoping for. Clearing skies gave us visibility of the valley floor below and a few ski cuts determined what we’d been hoping for; a super inset couloir with incredible snow conditions. Jon had the honors after paving the way from the summit ridge into the couloir and I shot photos from above. The seconds were pretty f-ing good, too!
Surprised by the deep conditions, but truly stoked, we kept up the energy, transitioning once again to continue our morning on Kendall. As we suited up for a few thousand feet of climbing, and a couple more miles on old mining roads, we took in views of the no-fall-zone we’d skied above just a few minutes earlier. Again in constrast, Silverton sat below us and we still had eyes on Jon’s house. An average day in Silverton? Perhaps…but I was happy to have my feet on secure ground, ready for the up again.
Adding another four miles to our day and several thousand additional feet of climbing didn’t seem so bad considering the snow we’d just skied, and we buckled down as we entered Blair Gulch. Inclement weather continued to chase us up the valley, but never bared down with its fullest force. After a quick transition into ski mode, and another back to skinning, we finally had our sights on our final objective. The weather was holding, and we took the opportunity to gain the entrance to the “Turkey Chute” couloir.
Jon took honors again, and I was thrilled to get some photos as he dropped in amongst the huge, inset walls of the “Turkey Chute.” The protected couloir offered powdery snow, as well as a variety of wind buff, ice and old avy debris. The setting and energy surrounding the line far overshadowed the mix of conditions, and good turns were celebrated in the same as the bad ones. A feeling of gratitude for the incredible day overwhelmed me as I sat waiting for Jon to take the top bit of the couloir. The setting was powerful standing beneath such incredible walls and above a vast array of mining apparatus. I took in the full scope of the contrast between new and old here.
Mechanical monoliths, a labyrinth of old mining roads and more couloirs, peaks and steep faces for skiing than in any one else’s backyard that I know of. Silverton is the real deal. Often explored, but lesser talked about. I’ll be looking forward to my next trip to this area soon!
Outing Specs via Suunto: (possible GPS failure?)
Distance: 11.55 mi
Ascent: 4885 ft
Descent: 4265 ft