Jen Brill, the co-founder and co-owner of Silverton ski mountain, Colorado chats finding land, riding as a mum and winning over the locals
Photography by Scott Smith
I met my boyfriend Aaron in college, and since he was a child he’d dreamed of owning his own ski area. We went to New Zealand and saw the club ski fields there. It’s a pretty cool concept where a bunch of people get together and take turns running a rope tow [basic ski lift], everybody pays 300 bucks or something membership and you have to work the lift one weekend a year. It’s a community thing, you buy a bunch of land with your friends and you can all ride it together.
We got serious about it in our mid 20s, and started looking at maps with three location criteria in mind: it had to have over 400 inches of snow annually (1016cm), be steep and with private property adjacent to public land, so we could build the lift on the private land. We were looking in Canada and Nevada but we weren’t looking in Colorado as it has a lot of ski areas and we were like, “If something was worth developing they would have done it." But we found Silverton and bought our first piece of property there when I was 27.
Property here is kind of considered junk, in that you can’t build on it because it’s all in an avalanche path, so the only thing you can do on it is hike or mine it, and mining has died.
The town were really supportive but the federal government was hesitant. They had a lot of stodgy professor-types telling them it couldn’t be done financially, as a lot of ski areas were closing down. But Aaron and I were skiers and snowboarders and we knew there was a market, you just couldn’t invest in snowmaking and buses and staff you needed to do the hard work yourself. We hiked the mountain a lot that first year and did a lot of explosive work to test the area for safety.
The old miners who often don’t like skiers were fine as were the environmentalists but the backcountry skiers were against our plans. They didn’t want more skiers coming but the avalanche danger is so high here in the middle of the year that they weren’t skiing anyway. We tried to explain to them that they’d be able to use the area more as we were going to do avalanche control work and so it would be more skiable.
I’ve been skiing since I was four. I was a ski racer growing up and our family went to the mountains every weekend in Vermont. I learnt to snowboard when I was 21 and thought it was really easy after the first couple of days. In a year I was as good a snowboarder as I was skier. I entered slopestyle and big air contests, though it was the mid 90s and they didn’t look like they do today.
We’re not in it for the cash, granted we don’t want to lose money and you have to be smart business people but we have a passion for skiing and the mountains.
The idea to focus on advanced, hike-to terrain was originally inspired by Montana. Lots of people there ride one lift and then hike the whole rest of the day, and we knew there were advanced and expert skiers here who want to hike but they don’t want to hike five hours to get to their run. We realised if you had a lift with a little bit of hiking that would do it and you’d look after avalanche side so people would have to worry less about that.
One of the reasons we’re so accepted here is that when we came to town we didn’t say this is what the ski area is going to be, we said, “What do you guys think?"
We’re only open Thursday to Sunday, but we don’t open for Aaron and I the rest of the time. When we started the mountain that’s what I thought was going to happen! But I had no idea about the amount of work I was getting into. In the early days I guided everyday but then I’d go home and have to return 20 calls and 80 emails. About five years ago I stopped and really just guide on the days they really need me.
Motherhood has changed my riding, I totally take less risks, but I appreciate everything. The old me only wanted to have fresh but now all skiing is fun and I love being out in the mountains, it’s renewed my passion. I don’t go as fast and I’m ok with that.
This is a male dominated business. When we started every article was about Aaron. I was doing 50 per cent of the work but the story was a man and a dream not a man and a woman and a dream. I’m fine with that, you just have to be strong and realise that if you’re the only woman doing it you have to pave the way for the other women out there.
For more on Silverton Mountain head to silvertonmountain.com