(Bloomberg) -- The tiny but mighty heli-ski haven of Silverton Mountain Ski Area in Silverton, Colorado, has a new owner—and it’s not Vail Resorts or Alterra Mountain Co. The property has been acquired by Heli Adventures Inc., an adventure-travel company headquartered in Aspen, Colorado.
The deal was made official on Sept. 27 for an undisclosed sum. Heli operates heli.life, a booking platform that has grown from its original focus on heli-skiing to include such pursuits as kite surfing and fly fishing, and the acquisition signals its broader ambitions to become a mountain operator. Heli purchased British Columbia’s Great Canadian Heli-Skiing and Heather Mountain Lodge in 2022, and Silverton is to become its second property.
Like the Canadian property, Silverton is a well-respected heli-skiing haven, with a proposition that’s uniquely affordable. For just $99 per flight, powder hounds can access the sole ski area in the contiguous United States to offer single helicopter flights to untouched snow.
Silverton was founded in 2001 by Jen and Aaron Brill, a couple that had moved from Montana with the vision of creating a no-frills ski area for expert skiers and snowboarders. No-frills is still the modus operandi. A small yurt at the base of the mountain is used as a warming hut, and a single, two-seat chairlift climbs 1,900 feet up the 13,487-foot mountain, offering access to a few runs. The remainder of Silverton’s 26,819 acres of terrain, which includes chutes, bowls, cliff drops, and steep tree skiing, can only be reached by skiers and snowboarders who hike along a ridgeline from the top of the lift—a process that can take from 15 minutes to an hour. Upon descending, visitors load into an old school bus for a five-minute ride back to the lift. Heli-skiing, which is operated by the resort itself, offers a faster way back up.
Overall the terrain is steep, with an incline that generally ranges from about 30 degrees to to 55 degrees. This is a choose-your-own adventure with deep powder skiing and spring corn. Die-hards deem it unrivaled.
It’s also unique in its bare-bones spirit. Unlike most ski areas, Silverton lacks food services and bathrooms—there is an outhouse—and none of the slopes are groomed. Avalanche mitigation work is done to prevent slides, but visitors are required to carry safety equipment, including a transceiver, shovel, and probe. Apart from a few weeks in the spring, skiers and snowboarders must be accompanied by a guide.
This might sound like an unlikely acquisition target. Industry insiders have long speculated that industry titans Vail and Alterra could each use it to broaden their portfolio; not only is the product unique, neither company owns a ski area in southern Colorado. (Silverton is so far south, it’s closer to Albuquerque, New Mexico, than to Denver, though out-of-state visitors are wise to take a small connecting flight from Denver to Durango, Colorado, just an hour away by car.)
According to Silverton co-founder Aaron Brill, Heli’s wasn’t the first offer. “There were other, more lucrative offers, including large operators that we turned down,” he says. “But we had very specific criteria for who we wanted to sell to: They had to fully believe in our team of employees—and retain employees, be super passionate about skiing. We also weren’t interested in having discussions with golf course-real estate-type people.”
Heli founders Andy Culp and Brock Strasbourger intend to upgrade the ski area but hope mostly to stick to the Brills’ original mission. “You can keep the soul of the place and the minimalist feel but also have running water and bathrooms,” says Culp, speaking exclusively to Bloomberg. “At some point, we’re envisioning a very lightweight base village with a warming hut where the yurt is now. But the first year will be a listening tour, to learn and build trust with the staff.”
Included in the purchase is 1069 Greene St. in the town of Silverton (about 15 miles from the base of the ski area), a 10,000-square-foot, two-story building that was used for administrative offices. “Silverton has a shortage of beds,” says Culp. “So we’d like to convert that into a boutique hotel with food and beverage within the next few years.”
Culp and Strasbourger, who both have backgrounds in finance, are exploring the addition of two chairlifts that already have municipal approvals. “We need to explore the feasibility of that, but our intention is to responsibly and sustainably expand the ski program, both with the guided lift skiing product and the heli product,” says Culp.
When asked whether the current heli-skiing deals will be sustainable in the long term, Culp is resolute. “Nothing will be changing, including pricing, in the near term,” he says.
The new owners face a somewhat turbulent political landscape in the town of Silverton. One topic that has divided townspeople is whether they should embrace the concept of a bigger, resort-like ski area that would attract more people and additional revenue. “Nobody wanted a huge company to come in and create a huge resort, but most people support some responsible growth and development of Silverton Mountain Ski Area,” says Shane Fuhrman, Silverton’s mayor.
“Silverton is an unbelievable brand with an unbelievable reputation, and everything we do will be orchestrated with the mindset of keeping its authenticity and grit intact,” explains Culp, adding that the mountain’s appeal is not just about value. “Silverton has world-class terrain. And for expert skiers, whether you’re a dirtbag or a billionaire, you go there to ski the best terrain in Colorado.”
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