Silverton, Colorado – population 650 – is home to two ski areas with a grand total of two double chairlifts. The smaller of the two at just 16 acres, owned and operated by the town, is Kendall Mountain. Silverton recently commissioned SE Group to study possibilities for additional ski terrain and year round recreation. The viability assessment, released last month, is very intriguing.
Kendall Mountain Recreation Area’s current lift, installed in 2006, is a 1972 Poma double with a 1990 return terminal. The lift has a design capacity of 800 people per hour (pph), but currently operates at 760 pph. It rises only 263 vertical feet on a mountain that stretches some 3,500 feet above the top terminal. The setup reminds me of Whitetooth before Kicking Horse or Powder Springs pre-Revelstoke Mountain Resort. Both were modest community ski areas at the bases of large mountains transformed into destinations by private developers. Silverton isn’t currently considering anything on the scale of the new British Columbia resorts but the project could eventually yield Colorado’s third largest vertical drop in a place known for epic snowfall.
As part of its public outreach, the town held multiple community meetings to gain feedback over the past year. Top priorities residents came up with at a first brainstorming session were expanded lifts and terrain. SE Group identified excellent ski terrain on the central part of the mountain with a large quantity of terrain suitable for ability levels from novice up to advanced. Importantly, the mountain’s high elevation would provide desirable snow conditions without the need for snowmaking.
SE Group also notes there is potential for Silverton to rise in popularity as a ski destination, benefiting both Silverton Mountain and Kendall Mountain as well as nearby Purgatory Resort. The study concludes that “expanded skiing infrastructure on Kendall Mountain would benefit the existing Silverton Mountain Ski Area by providing a complimentary experience that would draw additional visitors to the area during the winter season.” Silverton currently offers guided lift and helicopter skiing for experts only.
The core plan is four new fixed grip triple chairlifts with 1,800 per hour capacities. Each would be under 3,500 feet long, reducing the need for detachable technology. The first option would occupy a mix of Bureau of Land Management lands and private mining claims with total vertical soaring to 3,700 feet – an increase of over 1,300 percent. Under this scenario, Lift 3 would become the first in the nation to top out over 13,000 feet. Five lifts would service more than 800 acres of terrain, equivalent to Eldora or Monarch Mountain but with more vertical. Comfortable carrying capacity would be 2,000 skiers, up from 160 today. A second map demonstrates how lifts could be built entirely on public land. Vertical would be 3,500 feet with a summit at 12,800 feet (still the second highest in the country if built today.) Acreage is more modest, however, around 300.
Like many other towns with ski areas, Silverton isn’t really a ski town. The super successful Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is expected to deliver more than 200,000 visitors next summer. The town recently added a disc golf course at Kendall and hosts many events at the base lodge, which doubles as a community center. SE Group says a zip tour, alpine slide, scenic lift rides, hiking and biking could all be offered in the future. The entire plan encompassing expanded summer and winter activities could cost $25 million to develop. If all of the capital costs were paid for without a loan, the assessment calculated the break even point would be 71,044 visits. With financing and interest in play, it would take 116,299 visitors for the town to begin to make a profit.
Then there’s this line: “If it is desired to have a detachable lift or gondola or tram or anything else, those are all certainly possible, but would be up to an order of magnitude more expensive.” This is where I see the potential for a public-private partnership. In some ways, the railroad passengers are like cruise ship passengers being dropped off for hours in ports seeking adventure. Successful lift-based cruise excursions include the Mt. Roberts Tramway in Alaska and the Rainforest Adventures franchise throughout Central America and the Caribbean.
It just so happens one of the most prolific ski resort developers of the current era is based at the other end of the railroad. In a statement to the Durango Herald, the company that operates six ski resorts throughout the Southwest says, “While it’s very early in the process, Mountain Capital Partners, which owns and manages Purgatory Resort, is interested in exploring a potential partnership with the town of Silverton to expand the ski terrain at Kendall Mountain.”
James Coleman, Managing Partner of MCP, has what some would consider a full plate: A possible base-to-summit chondola at Arizona Snowbowl, the first lift-served bike park in Texas, an Element by Westin hotel with its own high speed lift at Purgatory, three new lifts proposed for Sipapu and a 4.3 mile gondola idea in Utah. But if he’s up for it, a Kendall Mountain project could bring success with great snow, established summer traffic and broad community support.