and Di Whitney survey ”training runs” in the heli windshield. Photo by Sasha Motivala
How Silverton Mountain Guides are Mining a new Approach to Heli-skiing Alaska’s Wild Backcountry
BY BRIGID MANDER
The group of eight 30-something professionals from Denver, Colorado, was a mess. Physically, they looked beat. Mentally, they were nearly incapacitated. They had been reduced to a starry-eyed, floating state. For the time being, the crew seemed held together by an adrenaline high and some version of disbelief.
“We skied 21 runs today,” one from the giddy group informed us. Smartphones came from all directions, with shots of skiers on Alaskan spines, lost in powder, dropping steeply and hitting airs like ski movie stars. Although the trip had ended with some extra heli-time costs, this team would have given a year of their lives for the experience. In all likelihood, attaining such euphoria probably adds one.
The man who’s made a name for himself by regularly reducing people to this state was nowhere to be found. Aaron Brill, who together with his wife Jen, started Silverton Mountain ski area in Colorado and followed it up with this offbeat but tightly run heli-ski operation in Alaska, is a quiet, determined snowboard athlete, guide, entrepreneur, and helicopter pilot. Aaron, a man preoccupied with making ski dreams reality, generally skips the schmoozing of cocktail hour. When you’re blazing a trail that runs counter to accepted wisdom and the beaten path, partying is low on the list.
“When you’re blazing a trail that runs counter to accepted wisdom and the beaten path, partying is low on the list.”
Across much of the ski industry, recent years have seen the propagation of a lemming-like approach to success: find big-money clientele, adjust the business model to coddle and attract them, schmooze and entice them to spend as much money as possible—even if it pushes the actual sport of skiing itself to the periphery. This trend is resulting in cookie-cutter ski resorts, over-the-top real estate, and amenities like five-course lunch options that take up more of the day than actual time on the slopes. These, not skiing, are the moneymakers. Deviating from the formula would be a financial nosedive.
But 15 years ago, a brash move by Aaron and Jen Brill, then a pair of broke, upstart, but intensely passionate snowboarders, famously challenged the accepted order. As it turns out, in a happy by-product of chasing their dream, they proved you can still make money from just simply offering skiing and riding.
Now respected as two of the hardest working people in the industry, against all odds, the Brills have engineered and executed a specific dream: to create an area where they themselves—high-level, big-mountain snowboarders—would want to shred.
A search for the perfect spot eventually led them to Silverton, Colorado, on a mountain that was part of an old mining claim. It was big and steep, with lots of features and exposed terrain. Perfect. They wanted skiers to come to Silverton after everywhere else failed to cut it, when skiing was on the verge of taking over (or already had) the purpose of your life, and you’d become a junkie searching for a rich, deep-white experience.
Undaunted by reams of government red tape and an industry’s worth of onlooking naysayers, the Brills secured the permits to open their ski area and implement a novel, bare-bones formula. They erected a used double chairlift purchased from Mammoth Mountain in California for $50,000 (the down-on-its-luck-town of Silverton chipped in a small amount of funding). Aaron blasted rock, poured concrete, and became an assistant surveyor to save money. They put up a 1,200-square-foot pole tent as a base lodge, added some couches and a keg, and opened for business.
Skiing and snowboarding purists, turned off by the commercialism of other resorts, flocked to this promising new place only to find it exceeded expectations. Initially maligned as a simplistic deviation, Silverton’s concept quickly earned the founding duo legendary status in the ski industry. They’ve been called the saviors of skiing’s soul, an antidote to vapid, luxury, mass-market ski experiences, and some of the few remaining believers that skiing alone—the kind of skiing that not everyone can or even wants to do—is enough to attract business.
At Silverton Mountain today, the amenities still include just one lift, hike-accessed terrain, a helicopter that sells rides for $179 a run, and zero groomers. The terrain requires guided skiing for most of the season, and if you’re not good enough to ski serious, big-mountain terrain, well, they don’t want your money. If you need luxurious frills to make it through a ski trip, pick a different destination. There’s somewhere else, almost anywhere else, better suited for you.
“It’s definitely something [that gets] more to the roots of skiing and snowboarding,” says Fabio Grasso, a guide at Silverton for the last 13 years, of the operation and the Brills’ management style. “It’s for clients who want to focus on the skiing.”
The positive response to Silverton in Colorado inspired the Brills to step it up one more notch. In 2009 they took the concept to Alaska, called it Silverton Mountain Guides, and proceeded to turn the heli-ski formula on its head. Operating on their own terms, Jen and Aaron created another industry black-sheep niche for themselves: they won’t take just anyone with the money heli-skiing with them. Would-be clients are pre-screened for a certain level of skill and they’ll turn you away until you meet it, but they’re not suffering for business. On the contrary, their Northern Chugach season, which starts at $7,880 per week, sells out within hours. SMG is booked solid until 2018, with a waitlist, while many other operations struggle to fill seats.
In order to give more guests opportunities to get on their program, they decided to expand beginning in winter 2015-16. Fittingly, it wasn’t the usual approach to add another helicopter. The Brills added a new season: early winter in Seward, Alaska. Due to traditional helicopter leasing costs, no other heli operation flies those months in Alaska, but all Aaron saw was cold powder, plenty of light for a full day, and the added bonus of shredding big faces and spines in pink alpenglow and long winter twilights.
After Seward, there’s no rest for the weary. The SMG guides and the chopper head back to Colorado for heli-ski drops at Silverton Mountain until mid-March, and then back to Alaska for the traditional heli season. “They still really like to get after it [on the mountain],” Grosso says. “They haven’t slowed down much, even as we see them take on more and more on the business side.”
“What people underestimate about Aaron is how much he wants to [ride]. He’s still in it for the money, but he doesn’t compromise on the terrain.”
Aaron’s snowboard track leads down a knife-edge ridge, cutting through deep, fresh powder that immediately sloughs down the drop-off to the left. We follow, lining up between Aaron and our second guide, “88,” referred to as such because, the more senior guides gleefully informed us, he showed up to Silverton, Colorado, looking for a job in a 1988 Oldsmobile.
We’re all alone, high in the Northern Chugach. I’m not sure how many runs we’ve even done today so far, so fast and efficient they are. And we haven’t stopped for lunch. No one even suggests it. (I scarfed down some snacks in the A-Star between this run and last, a more exciting version of the chairlift lunch.) Not one person is interested in wasting time sitting around and eating, when we could be skiing faces like the one dropping out of sight below. The tails of my skis hang over the precipice behind us, my tips poke into thin air over the line we are about to drop into. It’s steep; I can’t see anything but the first few feet.
Aaron gives some directions on where to turn once we drop in, where to watch for sloughing snow, and where to start straight-lining in order to air over the bergshrund at the bottom. Basically, make about three or four big fast turns and then point it. He disappears into the void, leaving a cloud of white smoke, and reappears shortly far below on the sunny glacier.
“Go for it,” says 88, cracking a grin. I drop in, railing a high-speed turn into one of the steepest, deepest, and fastest runs I’ve ever skied. Gliding into the sun where Aaron is, 21 runs of like this is clearly more than enough to turn one’s brain to mush. Enough to empty a bank account. And then come back for more.
Heli-skiing is expensive. It’s expensive for the client, and it’s expensive for the operator. Profit margins, when they exist, are thin. Competition is cutthroat. Myriad variables that can affect business are unpredictable: bad weather, bad snow, and poor snowpack stability are the major issues.
When Silverton expanded to Alaska, they wanted to cut out some of these factors and bring their brand of soul skiing with them. Based on the reactions to Silverton Mountain in Colorado, Aaron was certain there was enough business out there from skiers and riders who could hang skills-wise, and who would be able and willing to pay the cost of heli-skiing.
So the AK operation maintains a bar to entry that has nothing to do with bank accounts. Before they’ll touch your money, SMG first wants to know you can hang, because mellow glacier runs or long lunch breaks would suck the life out of Aaron, Jen and their guides, and the operation would cease to exist.
A vetting of ski or snowboard skills by the crew during a few ski days in Silverton, Colorado, is preferred for new Alaska clients, and if they pass muster, they can join an Alaska trip if and when there is space. There’s a little flexibility: if you can’t make it to Colorado but desperately want to get on board, a phone interview grilling by Aaron or his guides will assess whether you’ll cut it. If the client doesn’t fit the bill, a polite redirection to a more traditional operation is offered, at least until the hopeful client hones their skills to a higher level. For SMG, there are a few reasons for this.
“It’s just better with better skiers,” Aaron says. “It’s safer for everyone, and less stressful for me and the guides. And the guests are happy when everyone skis at a higher level.” This steadfast insistence on a certain level of skier has practical business applications, and it keeps the owners and the guides not only interested, but passionate. “What people underestimate about Aaron is how much he wants to [ride]. He’s still in it for the money, but he doesn’t compromise on the terrain,” Jen says.
Jackson, Wyoming-based cinematographer and producer Sasha Motivala is a veteran with various heli-ops, both filming and as a client, and he’s a convert to Silverton’s program. “While it might not be film lines, it’s the closest I’ve come, and we didn’t even have to coax the guides into it,” Motivala says. “That was just the norm. You do have to have [the money] to heli-ski, but also have to have spent the real time in mountains to ski with Aaron and his guides, who are damned if they are going to spend their precious time skiing 35-degree powder or anything that resembles a warm-up run.”
Motivala’s feelings echo the whole base of Silverton’s clientele: good skiers willing to pay for heli-runs, but only if they get bang for their buck.
Today, SMG presides over the largest tenure among Alaskan heli-ski operators, at about 15 million acres. From a utilitarian point of view, this only makes sense when you understand that Silverton also has no set base lodge. “The whole goal is mobility,” Aaron says. If the skiing isn’t prime in the current location, SMG can pull up stakes and move the whole show to another Alaskan location with better snow or weather. “That can be a bit of a gamble … but when it works—and it usually works 9.5 times out of 10—the guests realize we are really committed to providing the best possible ski experience for them and come back year after year.”
To make such mobility possible, Aaron and Jen have arrangements with a multitude of lodges around the state, and if need be, the operation can take to RVs in something out of a ski movie: friends, guides, skis, cans of beer, and a helicopter in tow.
SMG sends two guides for every group, as opposed to the usual one-guide industry standard. That means one less paying client in the heli, but it’s another piece of the Brills’ carefully crafted puzzle. With two guides, groups can shred much more challenging and interesting terrain. It’s a safer, smoother experience, not to mention more fun for the guests—and the guides. “Their safety talk and protocol are amazing, and really professional. They don’t care what you think you know—you have to listen to them,” says Bjarne Salen, a filmmaker and ski mountaineer who spent time in the Chugach with Aaron and SMG last spring. “And they were really smart with the business. There’s so many good skiers that work a lot and have the money for this. I’d send any friend to Aaron.”
“Everyone wants their own lift or helicopter, but few of us would have the ambition or the drive to actually make it happen.”
For his part, Aaron believes it’s exactly this approach that his clients appreciate. “I think it’s a big reason people notice the [professionalism at SMG], and why I feel comfortable allowing our guests into hyper-challenging terrain,” he said. “Two experienced guides per group can focus primarily on the care and safety of the guests within the run, which creates an attention to detail like no other operation can provide.”
Even the helicopter is different. SMG uses a powerful AStar B3e on a long-term lease, meaning they keep it year round. They fly early season in Seward, midwinter in Colorado, spring back in AK, and use it for reconnaissance and other work the rest of the year.
The simple ski bum dream Silverton offers belies the immense effort that went into the making of both the Colorado and Alaska operations. “You just wish you had had that idea,” Motivala says. “Everyone wants their own lift or helicopter, but few of us would have the ambition or the drive to actually make it happen.”
It defies belief, based on claims by the rest of the ski industry, that this duo could make money without real estate deals, luxury amenities, or baller, big-money investors. “It’s really just a matter of where you place your revenue stream,” Aaron says. “For example, in college I wanted a hot tub. To save money, I lived in a house with no furniture [and] slept on a camping mat, but I had a hot tub outside.”
With laser-like focus and unwillingness to stray from their own ski dreams, the Brills created an oasis for others from the merciless, uniform commercialism of the rest of the ski industry, and are making it work in the process. It’s the act of making some money without losing your own soul, according to Jen. “You can’t get rich off it,” she says. “It depends what making money means to you.”
But by doling out bits of their own dream, of lives rich with profound experiences, the Brills are blazing a trail in the industry. For those lucky enough to get on board, that path leads fall line down the deep and steep.
Brigid Mander is a skier and writer based in Jackson, Wyoming, who has graduated from ski bum to Responsible Professional Journalist, but still knows how to live on 92 cents a day. For this story, Mander’s ski bum research helped her understand how the Brills live and share remarkable ski dreams.