This article originally appeared on Ski Mag
In late September, before any big storm surfed the southwesterly flow from the Pacific to blanket the San Juans in early snow, Silverton sent out a notice from owners Jen and Aaron Brill about the sale of the ski area they founded 24 years ago. More of a Dear John letter to the cohort of hardcore Silverton enthusiasts who flock religiously to the unguided season or who gravitate every winter to ski or ride with their favorite guides, the news created a small avalanche of concern about what the future would hold for this quirky, in-the-know kind of place.
The new owners are business partners and close friends, Andy Culp and Brock Strasbourger, best known as the founders of Heli Adventures Inc. and operators of Great Canadian Heli-Skiing. The Brill's alluded to turning down more lucrative offers in exchange for Culp and Strasbourger's commitment to keeping the Silverton team in place, and for their deep passion for skiing and for the Silverton experience, or what Strasbourger sums up as "the early-morning powder-day energy where people are not showing up for work and everyone's super stoked." So far the messaging from the new owners is not much will change at Silverton in the near future, except for some things the cohort might deem as acceptable upgrades, such as a more permanent structure with heat to replace the tent, flush toilets, and maybe a place to buy coffee and breakfast burrito.
Culp started skiing at age 3 on ice in Vermont, he says, but after a pivotal trip to Snowbird at age 14 when it snowed four feet in as many days, he was hooked on powder. After a stint in the financial world in New York City, Culp moved out west to Vail and then Aspen. Around 2014, he worked for CMH selling heli trips, and found it cumbersome that there was no centralized link to information that he could send to clients.
"Customers wanted to go to other places like Alaska and Japan, but I could only sell a CHM lodge. I wanted to build a marketplace to sell everything and make discovery and booking relevant." That's when Culp met Strasbourger and the two realized they had led parallel lives. Culp presented his idea and Strasbourger had the experience in modern e-commerce to build it.
Born and raised in Aspen, Strasbourger's father started one of the first travel agencies in town back in the 60's, specializing in ski tours and business travel. Strasbourger frequented Ajax and Highlands, and also watched his dad prioritize people in his business, with hospitality-forward customer service. After college, Strasbourger worked in finance in New York City, and started his first e-commerce platform in 2009.
Culp and Strasbourger created Heli Adventures Inc. in 2015. "The outdoor adventure world was archaic, and Andy wanted to give old-school operators modern day simplified tools of e-commerce technology," said Strasbourger. "There were very few examples of verticalized groups going after specific segments like cycling or day tripping. Trip Advisor had these sightseeing opportunities, but not multi-day trips like heliskiing, yacht charter, yoga retreats, etc. We thought that we could start on backcountry ski and snowboarding because the customers were aspirational and adventurous and also wanted other opportunities."
Heli (heli.life) is a one-stop shop online platform for adventure travel, featuring almost 600 operators from heliskiing to diving, to yoga and more. Similar to an Airbnb for adventure travel, operators can build profiles on the site and drive bookings to their businesses. "The response was amazing for starting Heli as a side business," said Culp. "After the first season we had every BC operator, then we went into AK. We survived through Covid, and we should have given up 100 times, but we kept going, because this is what we live for."
The success of Heli allowed Culp and Strasbourger to move into a new arena in the outdoor industry--ownership of a boutique heli operation. "We had a clear understanding of most popular operations, and people from all angles came to us for advice so we looked at acquiring our own operation," said Culp. "Great Canadian Heli-Skiing came on the market. Every major cooperate group was there and interested, and lo and behold, Brock and Andy, the David vs. Goliath passionate guys who love this shit were awarded the deal because the sellers thought we were the best to take over and protect the legacy."
Taking over an established heli or cat skiing company is not without its challenges. They are guide-oriented operations, and getting the respect of a guiding team is key. "You can only establish respect by showing up and showing you are humble," said Culp. " I assured them that I'm not a trust funder, that we are in operation for a reason. The guides went from being nervous to realizing this is the best-case scenario because we are building an experience that we want to consume."
Balancing business acumen with a personal powder obsession--plus that David vs. Goliath vibe--convinced the Brills that Culp and Strasbourger were worthy of inheriting the keys to the Silverton kingdom. The Brills were not solely entrusting the resort they built to someone else, but also the family who helped create it. Over the past 24 years, the Silverton staff had bonded over decades of dawn-patrol avy routes, developing the heli operation and guiding and patrolling together. "Under the Brill's leadership, we pioneered a new ski area and opened up an incredible amount of terrain for people to enjoy, but it came on the footsteps of a massive amount of work in the most notoriously dangerous snowpack in the world," said Kim Grant, a 20-year guide and patroller for Silverton Mountain. "There's one chairlift that takes you to the middle of the mountain and you have to put in the boot pack, sometimes in waist-deep snow with 50 pounds of explosives on our backs, and then cruise down to meet your group and take them skiing all day. Silverton is not an easy place to work, but it sure is rewarding and fun."
Culp and Strasbourger knew that guides are the lifeblood of a mountain like Silverton. It helped their credibility, no doubt, that the lead guide from Great Canadian Heli-Skiing wrote a letter of recommendation vouching for their leadership. "First and foremost, we are passionate ski and snowboarders, living a mountain lifestyle and backcountry skiing," said Culp. "We have respect and humility for how this all happened, and for the blood, sweat and tears of the Brills. Our job is to celebrate it and continue to evolve with the team in the way that represents the true soul of skiing."
The strategy for year one? No major changes to the operation. The second lift that the Brills sought to install is on hold. There may be small new things, like embroidered guide jackets, but Culp and Strasbourger plan to listen to the guides' ideas about how to elevate the guest experience in a non-ostentatious way with safety as the main priority. They'd like to look at creating employee housing as well as improving the Silverton office, located in the historic Miner's building on 1069 Green street. They've already met with San Juan county officials, the Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Board of Tourism because they want to create good relationships between the community and the mountain.
To be sure, some hardcore Silverton junkies will bristle at change. But early signs point to a new ownership dedicated to maintaining the soul and authenticity of the Silverton experience. "I'm happy that the Brills found new owners who are skiers at heart and can take Silverton to the next level," said Grant. "There will still be the grit and the blood, sweat and tears, but it would be nice to have a place you can actually go inside and warm up in, and a coffee cart with breakfast burritos would be fun. I'm pretty stoked because between all of us and the new owners, we'll be able to find a balance between making it a comfortable place to be and keeping the soul that Silverton Mountain emanates."
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