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Thursday, April 1, 2010
Updated: June 21, 12:25 PM ET
Little Alaska

By Nate Deschenes
ESPN Action Sports

Tips for maximizing an unguided day: (1) Figure out which way north is once you hit the mountaintop.

In March, The North Face held its annual team photo shoot at Silverton Mountain in southwest Colorado's San Juan range. With 115 percent of Silverton's average annual snowpack and legendary big mountain rider Johan Olofsson and snowboarding's only cattle rancher, Mark Carter, teaming up, this was one trip we were not going to miss.

We quickly learned that beyond Silverton's obvious appeal -- big mountain lines and epic snow -- the overall experience of the place is unrivaled in the entire resort industry. In fact, "resort" is not even a plausible description of a place like this. You are not catered to, there are no gondolas or even high-speed quads, there is definitely no valet parking and -- to put it this way, the main lodge is a tent! This operation, and town of the same name, is ultimately as close to the old West as anything you will ever encounter, both in attitude and unspoiled riches. More than once the term "fast and loose" was thrown around, more as a description of a way of life than of the unpredictable mountain operations ... and I mean that in a good way.

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With late-season storms continuing to pound the San Juans and southern Colorado, Silverton's conditions are better than they have been all year. And with the unguided season upon us, you can still get up here and create an unforgettable experience of your own for the same cost of riding moguls at Vail. You make the call.

I had the chance to sit in with owner Aaron Brill and talk about the area's recent expansion and about what makes Silverton so special. Part snowboarder, part mountain guide, part owner, Brill started with a small vision that has morphed into a beast with a mind of its own. As he so perfectly sums up Silverton, "There's no turning back now!"

ESPN.com: What would you like to say about this place that you created?
Aaron Brill: There are so many people who don't know or have never been here that might be on the fence about pulling the trigger. They need to know that, at this point, we are the best place to go if you want to have an adventure-type riding experience. It's the sheer magnitude of this place. Between the lift-accessed terrain and now with the possibility to go heli-boarding you have an opportunity to actually ride lines, real lines. Nowhere else can really offer that. I think some people still aren't sure what Silverton really is.

And they probably don't know just how affordable it is, either.
That's exactly it. A guided day runs between $99 and $129 [an unguided day is $49], which is not that much more than a lift ticket most places. Beyond that, we offer single heli drops for not much more [$159 plus a lift ticket], something that only a few other places can offer. We also have sunshine and a light pattern here that all but guarantees that if you do drop in for a few heli drops it is going to be worth your while.

But what if it doesn't snow for a couple weeks prior?
We have enough terrain to afford us about three and a half weeks before we need a reset. Until then, there are plenty of fresh tracks. So you don't need to be here during the storm or right after; it's often just as good or better a week later.

Mark Carter and Johan Olofsson unload at the top.

And now you have opened a bunch of new zones, right?
We now have a total of 23,000 acres, much of which is heli-accessed. And you can hit that a couple different ways: For $320 you get a couple of heli drops and then basically human power from there. So we will put you back in one of those basins and it's up to you to score as many lines as you are capable of. Or you can opt for the all-day heli skiing, which is great because you get access to the chairlift as well so you could potentially get six drops and two or three chair rides during the day. That's a LOT of vertical.

How is the terrain over there?
We call it North County. In that area we have the highest LZ [landing zone] in the lower 48 [states], at 13,600 on Tower Mountain. That whole drainage is a huge north-facing headwall with couloirs that are just sick. We're talking big long huge runs with more huckable cliffs than you are ready for.

In sheer volume of what you had before this year and what you are riding now, what is the percentage that your terrain increased?
Before we had about 2,000 acres and now we have 23,000 so yeah, do the math ... quite a bit. And it's not like we were short before.

And there aren't many days that you don't fly here, which is rare, correct?
Yeah, today it was dumping and we still got people up there all day. There are not many places that have safe drop zones like we do here and in turn [other places] get shut down when it's snowing. We have lower LZ's that access some sick tree runs that would otherwise be off-limits if we weren't able to fly in bad weather. And even if it is socked in super hard, you will never get skunked here because we have the chair spinning at all times.

Mark Carter, taking advantage of below tree line offerings.

Do you get many crews like The North Face coming through here to get work done?
Yeah, but not an A-team like this one. Getting to ride with someone like Johan is a dream come true for someone like me. Once every couple years we get some legends rolling through to check us out and they inevitably love it and spread the word within the big mountain community.

One of the many benefits, eh?
Yeah, it's fun to see what has happened since I started this whole thing. My initial thought was to just buy 10 acres of land and put in a rope tow! Having that develop into a chairlift and now a heli ... man ... going from being some random guy who loves to ride to this has been a trip. The growth and appreciation I have seen from our employees to the entire industry has just been phenomenal and for that I am pretty proud. It's funny because the whole heli thing came from our need to conduct avalanche control on some of the higher alpine areas. And even though we don't make any money with the heli operation, that's not what it's really about for us; it's about sharing this experience with anyone who wants a real mountain experience. To come from living in our shuttle van to this is unimaginable. When I get a chance to reflect on it I feel extremely lucky and I also come to a realization that at this point I am all-in. ... There's no turning back now.