Sunday, July 7, 2019

Reminiscing Silverton and its amazing powder skiing

Looking through some old photos, I came across Emil's, Laure's, and my trip to Silverton back in March 2010.
Heli ride!


Emil had gotten hooked on going to Silverton after reading some trip reports describing its ungodly amounts of powder accessible via its single ski lift. We also came across this NY Times article with the provocative opening line, "Chances are you're not good enough to ski Silverton Mountain."

"Only Experts Can Ski at Silverton" | Outside TV
Silverton still retains its reputation many years later.

Looking back at it today, the inflated "you have to be bad ass to ski here" reputation of Silverton is admittedly overblown. But we still had a great time and I would probably go back again.

When Emil implanted the idea in my head back then, I got super excited and couldn't resist the call of powder. Laure was on the fence at first, especially since she was struggling with an ankle injury, but she eventually succumbed to join for two days.
On our way to Silverton!

Silverton: the town

Silverton is a super charming town straight out of an old western movie. Most of the action is on a single strip of shops and hotels.

Silverton preserves its mining town charm in the Rockies.
Is this place for real?
Emil and I in front of the bakery where I think we had dinner.
We all shared a room at a hotel that put us up on the top floor. As we lugged our stuff up the several flights of stairs, we realized the air isn't so thick above 9000 ft (3km) above sea level.

Breakfast at Mother Kluckers.
I'm saddened to learn they closed down. :'(
Off we go.

Silverton mountain first impressions

The first thing you do at arrival in Silverton is to check in at their make shift tent lodge. Even though Silverton had a limit of 80 guided customers (practically nothing compared to a regular ski resort), their tent comfortably fit only about half that many people. After adding the work crew into the mix, this is what you got:
Utter chaos checking in at the tent lodge.
After signing our lives away, we picked up our avalanche safety gear (this was before we owned our own) at their lustrous demo center:
The Demo Bus.
If you haven't noticed already, Silverton has an interesting no-frills vibe. The message is very clear: Silverton wants serious powder skiers and passive aggressively shuns upscale ski resorts with fancy amenities. Maybe they overdo it.
Laure wasn't so stoked about the outhouse.
I believe they have since replaced it with a more decent restroom.

Getting ready

At the beginning of each day, guides split up people into two big groups (fast and very fast), and then create subgroups up to 8 people each. Since we felt like noobs, we joined one of the fast groups, which usually worked out fine.

At this point, we realized that Laure was one out of maybe four women in all of the 80 clients. Respect!

Avalanche safety orientation.
After getting into groups, the guides went over a ridiculously fast forwarded crash course of avalanche safety, in which we basically learned that guides may be able to rescue clients, but probably not the other way around. This may sound like Silverton is reckless, but in reality, they are extremely serious about avalanche safety. They do more avalanche control (i.e. blasting bombs) than any other resort in Colorado. As far as I can tell, Silverton still has a spotless record to date.

Climbing up

Silverton has a double chair lift salvaged from Mammoth ski resort. It takes skiers and snowboarders up to a ridge from where we could access endless options for powder skiing within an hour radius worth of hiking.
We had a chuckle reading this.
Hiking up the ridge during nice weather is awesome.

Before our trip to Silverton, Laure and I had started doing a few hikes from chair lifts at ski resorts, which we enjoyed. We were pretty excited to push ourselves further in Silverton.

Perhaps the biggest challenge was the altitude: 10,000 to 13,500 ft (3,200 to 4,100 m) above sea level. It is technically the highest ski resort area (if you can call it that) in North America. It wasn't so bad once we got used to the altitude, though.

Each hike usually lasted between 15 to 30 minutes.

Coming down

The reason everyone goes to Silverton is to ski and ride powder. In order to stay safe and also maximize the powder for everyone, the guides constantly discussed options and spread out throughout the region. This allowed us to enjoy untouched powder without competing against belligerently aggressive skiers, as we had gotten used to at regular ski resorts. Spreading out was also safer: less pressure on the snowpack and less chance of multiple people getting caught in an avalanche.
Our group's tracks on the left.
As another way to conserve powder, guides often asked their groups to stay on one side of the guide's tracks so that later groups could still enjoy untracked powder on the other side of the tracks. 
Laure at the end of a run.

Despite Silverton's reputation for extreme skiing, most often we didn't ski down steep slopes; usually only 20-30 degrees, which are like blue and black trails in the US. I'm not sure how much of this was because we were on a "fast" instead of a "very fast" group, though.

That being said, almost every lap had a few if not most sections of untouched powder. Sometimes we hit some steeper slopes too; 35+ degrees.

One fun area that we lapped multiple times was the 100 Acre Woods. It is a relatively steep area with lots of trees, boulders, and features to play with. The tree spacing is a bit tighter than most tree skiing we were used to in Tahoe, which made it extra fun.
100 Acre Woods.
Some of the most fun tree skiing I've done.
A lot of fun features @ 100 Acre Woods.

Shuttling back

Some of the runs end up a bit far away from the ski lift. When we came down on these, the guide called up the infamous UPS truck that Silverton repurposed as a shuttle to pick us up.
The infamous repurposed UPS truck shuttle.
There was a snow bunny inside.

Heli ride: Grande Couloir

Easily the highlight of our trip was the run down Grande Couloir.
View of the Grande Couloir from the heli pad.
Before describing the couloir itself, it's worth explaining how the heli skiing works. Generally speaking, heli skiing is very expensive for multiple reasons, including gasoline. But Silverton has a clever way of saving gas: they have a heli pad at the top of the ski lift, which saves the fuel required to go up and down.

Additionally, Silverton was required to perform extensive avalanche control to get its permit, which in practice forced them to get a helicopter anyway. As a result, they offer helicopter rides for a relatively affordable price -- each ride costed about than $80 in 2010, although costs went up to $179 as of 2019.
Heading to the helicopter.
Our group was lucky to get the opportunity to be the first ones to come down this epic couloir after the last snow storm. The avalanche experts had thrown a few bombs earlier that morning to secure the area and cleared us to go.

Our group was too large for a helicopter single ride, so they made two trips to drop us off.

Helicopter dropping off the second group on the saddle of the couloir.
I have been told this landing requires an impressive amount of skill.

The run down from the top of the couloir was about 1,300 ft (400 m) of uninterrupted fresh powder.. The very top section was 40+ degrees, which then mellowed out on the way down.

Emil coming down the lower section of Grande Couloir
You can see some of the spots where they dropped avalanche control bombs.

In order to minimize avalanche danger, each of us took turns to do the entire pitch without taking breaks. It was an awesome mixture of glee and exhaustion.
View from the bottom of the couloir.
On our way out, we were still stoked about the Grande Couloir.

Final thoughts

I have a lot of nostalgia about our trip to Silverton in 2010. It was an awesome adventure and we got some really great powder.

On the other hand, I believe their "you have to be bad ass to be here" reputation is a bit silly. Ironically, as much as Silverton tries to be anti-mainstream, they kind of follow the stereotype of American culture of exaggeration. To Silverton's defense, it may not be really their fault, but really the fault of magazine writers or bloggers (like myself) that exaggerate their stories in order to get the attention of readers.

Alternatively, Silverton may be just a victim of the inflation of exaggeration. Most skiers and snowboarders have learned that ski resorts warnings about "expert" terrain are usually exaggerating. Some resorts even have skull and crossbones signs near double black diamond runs. Maybe it's because ski resorts don't want to get sued when someone gets hurt. But now ski resorts have to exaggerate otherwise skiers and snowboarders don't take them seriously.

On our last day in Silverton, we had two people on our group that were completely out of their league. One guy did not want to hike at all and the other kept whining that he could not ski between trees. How the hell did these people get there? Inflation of exaggeration.

Writing this post, I learned that the Silverton mountain founders went through a lot of red tape to follow (and continuously adjust) their dream. The costs to adhere to environmental requirements and also protect against lawsuits were so high that the founders went almost a full decade without getting paid. Thinking back about the demo bus and outhouse: maybe they weren't entirely just for image. Maybe Silverton mountain didn't have enough money to invest in more permanent infrastructure.

I would like to one day go back to Silverton. Ideally, I would go back in a full group of eight friends (Emil, are you reading this?) to effectively get a private guide and avoid wildcard characters.

We need five more.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

2015: Laure's Surprise Birthday Destination: Colmar, France and Freiburg, Germany

One month until the little one was due to arrive meant that we had just enough time to make one more weekend trip. And this is my favorite type of trip; the mystery birthday trip. Q had a tall order to fill - finding somewhere interesting within driving distance (no flying this late in the pregnancy), and preferably somewhere we hadn't been before. He came up with a full extended weekend for us.
Road trip route.

First stop, Colmar, France

We had been to Colmar once before, early in the spring before the tourist season began. What a mistake. The whole place was deserted, shops were closed, the weather was cold and gloomy, and whole vibe of the town was utterly depressing. We ate lunch and immediately drove back home. We knew it must be better during the tourist season so we vowed to return.
Cold, windy, and deserted.

As expected, everything was much nicer in June. The streets were lively with tourists, flowers throughout were in spring bloom, the weather was bright and warm, and the shops were open. The small medieval town was a joy to wonder through. Since this is one of the few towns that escaped the bombing of the WW2, the center of town feels like you are transported back in time.
Not overrun with tourists but the place felt warm and cheerful.

We spent one night in the small town and were able to see many of its highlights. We had a few delicious meals and used the Rick Steves France book's self guided walking tour to get a feel for town and see its highlights.
Tucked away in the middle of the block, we found this amazing garden restaurant.
The largest lunch portion burger and potatoes I have ever seen. The baby and I tried but couldn't finish all this food.
The center of Colmar felt like a fairy tale village.
Historically this was the tanner's street.

Next stop, Freiburg, Germany

Just as spring rain shower arrived, we were on our way to Germany. We couldn't have planned the timing any better. During our drive, sheets of rain were coming down so fiercely that all cars on the autobahn were moving at a snail's pace - a bizarre sight to see on a road that doesn't have a speed limit.

Freiburg is a quaint small city with a young college feel. There isn't much to see besides the main Church/Minster but what little there was to discover we learned through the self guided tour in the Rick Steves Germany book. We're big Rick Steves fans if you couldn't tell.
Liking the young vibe in the Tapas Bar.
The Freiburg Minster is so large, I couldn't find a spot in the square to capture the whole building.
In the old town, the entrance to shops had their floor entrance decorated with its line of business.

By the early evening, the rain had stopped and everyone returned to the center of town to enjoy the warm spring night. We spent on evening wondering the historic center and soaking in the lively atmosphere.
Beer Garden in the center of the old town.

Side trip, The Black Forest

This day was originally planned as a lite hiking day but mother nature had other plans for us. With scattered rain showers throughout the day, we decided it would be best to do some joy riding through the black forest, visit the German Clock Museum, pop into a Ski Museum, and have a piece of black forest cake from several different bakeries.
Original ski touring equipment.
An unexpected find during our drive. The museum is housed in a cute chalet and housed more than we expected.
The coolest low tech alarm clock I have ever seen.
Blown away with the collection of Cuckoo clocks
Naturally, every bakery we stopped in had the Black Forest cake and each were delicious.
Another bakery, another cake to try.
And another.

I hate to say it but we were underwhelmed by how little we saw driving through the southern portion of the black forest. It was like a forest could have been almost anywhere; nothing too special. We would occasionally pass through a German village (and stop in a café for another piece of black forest cake) but no village was super charming. Perhaps this region is best enjoyed on a hiking trail rather than on the road.
Not too interesting but the roads were very well maintained.
One of the more interesting stretches of road.
Paying our parking ticket. Hehe, it says "Gute Fahrt!"

Friday, March 10, 2017

Paris with a bump

We couldn't resist one more kid free trip to Paris with friends. So once again we booked train tickets to the city of lights for a long weekend. I always thought of Paris as a place for young couple taking romantic walks, not wobbling pregnant ladies but Paris proved me wrong. I would even go as far as suggesting Paris as a possible babymoon destination.
Eight months and counting.

Like many of our trips to Paris, our plans involved a little bit of sightseeing, eating cuisine we can't find back in Switzerland, and shopping. Thanks to the low Euro value, it was perfect for stocking up on maternity/nursing clothes and baby gear.
Like many trip before, Vélib' was our preferred way of travel.

We decided this was a good time to finally visit the Louvre and the Orsay Museum. Who knows if our little one was going to be able to tolerate visits to the museum - so it was either now or maybe in 15 years. Soon after Q and I got to the security line at the Louvre, we were led by security to the front of the line. Turns out pregnant ladies and their partners get to skip the line! At the Orsay, we were led to the priority line! Even at the Bastille Sunday Market, I was waved by a vendor to the front of the line to buy produce. And at a busy espresso bar, with stand up counters, an employee of the shop offered me her stool. People even offered me their seat on the Metro. I thought Parisians never give up their seats on the Metro. Who knew the French have a soft spot for pregnant ladies?
Saved hours thanks to the bump.

No one pulled out the red carpet for me once we got inside the Louvre - I still had to elbow my way to the front of the ever present mob to see the Mona Lisa. We kept our museum visits short and focused. In our usual fashion, we followed the Rick Steves free audio guide through the Louvre and the Orsay, hitting the major highlights. His self guided tours are meant to roughly be one hour long, which is as much culture we could fully digest at a time.

We enjoyed seeing the highlights of the Louvre but really enjoyed the Orsay. The Orsay is in an old train station and many of its original architectural details can still be found throughout the museum. The main view greeting the visitors definitely left an impression on us. Our favorite floor would have the be the Impressionist Gallery on the top floor. That floor changed us into Impressionist fans.
It's either now or who knows when.
One is never too young for the fine arts.

Something Q might be a little embarrassed of is that when I go to Paris, I go shopping.... for American items. I always stock up on granola (which is almost as good as what I can get in San Francisco) and pick up a few other hard to find items like aluminum free baking powder, specialty baking supplies, and make-up. Sometime I even go to the GAP to feel like I'm back in the US.
It might be overpriced but it's cheaper than a flight to the US.

We also eat closer to our US diet in Paris. Burgers are all the rage and so is brunch. We also got some decent ramen. But of course we left room for great french food and drinks - virgin drinks for me.
American sized brunch.
Hard to find places like this in Switzerland.