by Tim Weed
I wasn’t worried for my own safety, but I was frightened on behalf of my 13-year-old son. The truth is, I hadn’t fully appreciated the difficulty of the spot I’d gotten us into. Below us, a knotted climbing rope disappeared into a narrow chute that was the only way down through a two hundred foot cliff band. There was no question of climbing back up; we’d skied fifteen hundred vertical feet of steep powder to get here, and this was the heart of avalanche country. Our guide was irrevocably out of sight, having painstakingly lowered himself and Joe, my son’s ski buddy, down the climbing rope to arrive at what was presumably safer terrain beneath the cliff band.
So here we were. Early this morning eight of us had strapped on avalanche beacons and packs with shovels and rescue probes and voluntarily entered the most extreme and dangerous lift-served terrain on the continent. My son Toby was next in line, then Brad, a new friend, then it was my turn. I’d been watching Toby, and I could tell from pallor of his face beneath the helmet and goggles that he was scared to death. Not that he would ever admit as much, but I could see it.
“Brad. Do you mind if we switch places?”
Brad nodded, immediately understanding my concern. It was easier said than done to switch places on the steep and icy slope above the cliff band. One false move—one caught tip or slipped edge—and all three of us would be sliding uncontrollably down into the rocky maw. In the end we managed it, and I gave Toby a few words of encouragement. “Don’t forget what the guide said about twisting your right arm around the rope so it doesn’t slip. And go easy. There’s no rush to get down.”
He took a tentative sidestep downhill toward the rope, and darted a glance up at me. I smiled and nodded, trying to project a confidence I did not feel.
The fact was, there was absolutely nothing I could do if he were to lose his grip on the rope. A previous party had scraped the spiraling channel through the cliff band down to ice, dirt, and bedrock. After the first ten yards or so the rope dropped into a slope angle so steep that it was impossible to see what came next. The guide and Joe might as well have disappeared into a bottomless void.
Silverton Mountain (13,487 feet) is not only the highest and steepest ski area in North America, it’s also among the newest. It opened for business in January of 2002, and immediately acquired the patina of legend, taking its place as the world’s only “extreme” ski area. Located in the heart of Colorado’s most notorious avalanche country, Silverton affords the experienced in-bounds skier something that was available to only a tiny minority before: affordable access into the storied realm of the Rocky Mountain backcountry. The mountain remains in its natural state with the exception of a chairlift and some limited avalanche control work. For most of the season, all skiers must be accompanied by highly trained, rescue-certified guides. The lone chairlift unloads at the top of a vertiginous high mountain cirque. Skiers can hike and traverse various ridgelines, gaining access to 1800 acres and 3000 vertical feet of steep, ungroomed snowfields. There is no easy way down.
To be honest, this trip was mainly an excuse to get together with an old friend. After college, Carl and I had worked together as ski instructors in New Mexico. We’d been bad boys back then, flirting with insubordination by turning our uniform jackets inside out and skipping line-ups so we could ski rather than work, and in the process we’d forged the bonds for a lifetime of friendship. Carl still lived in New Mexico, and it had been far too long since we’d spent any time together in the mountains. The years had taken their toll; suddenly we found ourselves middle aged. We figured that our day at Silverton might be the last time we’d be able to keep up with our sons Toby and Joe, skiers since infancy, who were right on the cusp of becoming teenage hotshots.
That morning the temperature had dipped noticeably as we passed through the picturesque old mining town of Silverton, a National Historic District with nineteenth century storefronts of weathered brick and stone left over from the days of gunfights and lawless saloons. It was twelve degrees Fahrenheit when we arrived at the ski area just after 8:15.
Right away we could tell that we were dealing with an Old School Operation. The lodge consisted of a Quonset hut with little decoration other than a beer-stained sofa and a refrigerator stocked with Red Bull. We filled out clipboards stacked with carefully worded release documents, and proceeded to a modified school bus stuffed to the gills with rental gear, including the safety tools every skier is required to carry: an avalanche beacon, a backpack, a shovel, and a probe.
There were probably sixty or seventy skiers there that morning, a mixed crowd of honest all-American duct-tape dirtbags who reminded Carl and me of our younger selves; mean looking trust funders in their twenties who stared at you, irritated, as you came into the Quonset hut with your kids, as if your presence threatened their carefully cultivated bad-assedness; and a few high-end Japanese tourists wearing DayGlo body suits. Carl and I were by far the oldest skiers there.
The guides divided us into groups of eight. Our group consisted of Carl, Joe, Toby, me, and three hardworking ski bums who’d made the long drive down that morning from their home in Vail. Our guide’s name was Troy. He worked as a horse rancher during the summers, and spent a lot of time skiing the legendary Red Mountain Pass backcountry when he wasn’t guiding at Silverton. Before we got on the lift he gave us a quick demonstration of how to use our beacons. “I know I can rescue you from an avalanche,” he remarked. “I just want to make sure you can rescue me.”
At the top of the lift we strapped our skis to our packs and started hiking. For Toby and I, who had come from sea level just a few days earlier, the first few steps at 12,000 feet were rough. After awhile we began to feel well enough to look around.
Silverton Mountain is a dramatic alpine pinnacle, like something out of an antique Samivel mountaineering cartoon. The farther we hiked, the less earth surrounded us; before long we had a 360 degree view with no flat or even gently sloping ground in sight. Our first run was down a steep gully that looked nice from above but turned out to be crusty and rutted, and not a lot of fun to ski. Carl and Joe went first, skiing confidently like the Taos residents they are, and Toby held his own beautifully. I went last. I felt the altitude, but I managed to stay on my feet.
“We’re old,” Carl joked, “But at least we look better than those guys from Vail.”
At the bottom of the run we skied out to the shuttle, an old UPS delivery truck plastered with stickers that started rolling backwards when we first got in. On the way up the road to the lift it seemed to be stuck in first gear. When it kicked up into second, both Troy and the driver broke out in surprised cheering. (The other shuttle was an ancient, revitalized school bus with a ski rack, and “Silverton Mountain Correctional Facility” painted on the side. But despite the mountain’s radically low-rent image, behind the equipment shack sat a pristine, bright yellow, $3 million helicopter that charged $159 for a single drop-off, $999 for a whole day.)
Our second run was called “Mandatory Air.” Unlike the first run, not many people had skied it before us, and we were able to make a thousand vertical feet of nice powder turns in a wide-open bowl. But it turned out the reason for the nice snow—and for the name—is that the bowl terminates in a cliff band. The only way out (other than the “mandatory air”) is that narrow chute spiraling down through the cliffs. It’s too steep to sideslip; you have to rappel it, after a fashion, by lowering yourself down a knotted climbing rope tied to a tree. This entails a series of jumps punctuated by digging your edges into the side of the slope, which is tricky, the snow long since having been scraped away to reveal the underlying roots and rocks.
It’s impossible to convey how frightening this is, particularly when you’re watching your thirteen-year-old son, pale with fear, grab on to the rope and start jumping. You hope his hands don’t slip. After awhile he disappears from sight, and your anxiety is replaced by a flimsy faith that everything has turned out all right.
Toby did make it, as did Joe and everyone else in our party. In the steep trees beneath the chute Carl and I decided not to tell the boys’ mothers about this particular aspect of Silverton Mountain. “What happens at Silverton stays at Silverton,” we agreed, and then we high-fived, buoyed by relief and euphoria and ex post facto bravado.
We got a few more runs in. We even managed to find some good untracked powder in the trees, though one of the boys did end up skiing over a steep shelf or, let’s be honest, a cliff, from which the snow sheared right down to the jagged gray rock. At the end of the day there were some cut lips in the Quonset hut, some bloody noses and bandaged faces. There’s no doubt about it: Silverton is as close to extreme skiing as lift-served terrain in America can get.
I’m glad Toby and I shared that adventure with Carl and Joe. The truth is, the nature of the friendship between men is different from that between women. We don’t tend to cement our bonds with long conversations on the phone, or on ruminative walks, or during cathartic lunches. This may sound sexist, but it’s true. Most of the men I know, even writers and artists and other intuitively perceptive types, aren’t great at articulating our deepest feelings, least of all to each other. Moreover, I don’t think we really crave that kind of verbally transmitted connection. Perhaps we don’t even need it. For a lot of men, friendships are strengthened most by shared adventures. It’s the best way we have of breaking out of our habitual solitude, of finding communion without getting too much in each other’s headspace or invading the necessary spheres of privacy.
The adventures don’t have to be extreme or dangerous, either. It’s not always about testing yourself, proving yourself, or competing, although all of these aspects can figure in. It’s more about sharing the same kinds of experiences our distant ancestors would have shared as they filed across the savanna, or ran down a trail in the deep forest, or loaded up a travois to cross the tundra. The need to make these connections hasn’t changed. In this age of digital living, the need may be more acute than ever.
After that day at Silverton, there arose between Toby and me, at least intermittently, a new category of unspoken understanding hadn’t really been evident before. Sometimes it takes an adventure to remind us of the delicate thread upon which all our lives hang, and also of that thread’s opposite: the unbreakable bond that exists between fathers and sons.
Tim Weed’s debut novel, Will Poole’s Island (Namelos Editions, 2014), was named one of Bank Street College of Education’s Best Books of the Year. He is the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award and a featured expert for National Geographic Expeditions in Cuba, Spain, and Patagonia. His fiction and essays have appeared in Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, Talking Points Memo, Writer’s Chronicle, Backcountry Magazine, National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel, and elsewhere. Tim teaches at Grub Street in Boston and in the MFA Writing program at Western Connecticut State University. Read more at timweed.net.
All images courtesy Samivel