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Meet the new owners of Silverton Mountain

Andy Culp and Brock Strasbourger want to protect what they say should be a ‘true, pure ski experience’
Skiers descend Silverton Mountain in February 2022. The owners of the ski area plan to install a chairlift on the shoulder to the left of the avalanche chute above the skier in brown. (Jason Blevins/The Colorado Sun)

SILVERTON – The cameras are out. Andy Culp peers over the snowy cliff. Above him, Brock Strasbourger stomps his skis in anticipation.

They can’t see the bottom of the sheer face. But they know it’s snowy. Their guide, Fabio Grasso, offers some tips for where they should try to land. Culp points his Armada skis over the rocks and soars.

“That was a bit sketch but soft!” Culp yells back up to his pal.

Strasbourger follows, a curtain of snow billowing in his wake as he flies into the dense timber.

The two expert skiers let out a hoot and disappear into the old-growth forest next to the Cabin run at Silverton Mountain ski area.

Culp and Strasbourger are the new owners of Silverton Mountain, a single-lift, no-frills hill that draws adventurous and accomplished skiers who hike for some of the steepest and deepest lift-accessed turns in the West. The Aspen business partners have that same bold bent, pursuing thrills – and an investment – that fall beyond the easy, groomed pistes.

“We are skiers,” says Strasbourger, 36. “We are here to protect what makes this place special.”

Culp and Strasbourger are the heads of Heli Adventures Inc., an online marketplace for adventure travel with 555 global outfitters offering all varieties of high-adrenaline holidays. They launched the company in 2016, and it’s been based in Aspen since 2019. Culp, the 38-year-old CEO of the operation, and Strasbourger, the president, spent time in New York City working in finance.

Their approach at Heli Adventures – everyone just calls it “Heli” – is to give operators e-commerce tools and a one-stop online platform to reach more traveling customers. The success of Heli has enabled the business partners and longtime friends to move into owning the stoke machines, versus simply marketing good times. In late 2022, they bought Great Canadian Heli Skiing and a luxury lodge in the Interior region of British Columbia west of Calgary.

They were talking with Silverton Mountain owners Aaron and Jenny Brill back then and the purchase of the Canadian heli-skiing operation, Culp says, “signaled we were real.”

Protecting what the Brills built

The Brills spent 24 years building Silverton Mountain from scratch. Aaron in 1999 was living in a retired UPS truck up Cement Creek just below the Gold King Mine that once fueled Silverton when he began assembling what would grow to about 600 acres of mining claims. In 2001, he recycled a double chair from Mammoth and dug the 15 tower foundations by hand.

The Brills navigated the lengthy and costly federal review of the only ski area on Bureau of Land Management acreage in the Lower 48. That process opened access to about 1,300 acres of public land. The Brills battled lawsuits from neighbors and worked with avalanche experts who warned the steep and fickle snowpack in the San Juans would be exceptionally dangerous for lift-riding skiers deposited at 12,300 feet and hiking to nearly 13,500 feet. No one has ever died in an avalanche at Silverton Mountain.

They bought a Eurocopter AS350 B3e helicopter – known as an A-Star – and in 2010 secured federal permits to ferry skiers into more than 20,000 acres of even more remote terrain in the San Juans.

The Brills’ ski area revived Silverton’s winter economy, which until then pretty much went dark in the snowy months when the popular narrow gauge railroad wasn’t running trains from Durango. Winter taxable sales in Silverton – from November through April – were $6.6 million in 2022-23, up from $2.7 million in 2016-17 and practically nothing in the early 2000s.

And perhaps most importantly, the Brills assembled a staff of more than 50, most of whom eventually bought their own homes in Silverton. When the Brills sold to Culp and Strasbourger, they asked that the new owners keep every worker onboard for at least the first year.

That was “a no-brainer,” says Culp, adding it’s likely the crew will remain intact for well more than a year.

“We’re here to really honor and respect what I think we share with Jen and Aaron. That’s a vision for what a true, pure ski experience should be,” says Culp, riding the Silverton chair on an extraordinarily snowy morning. “That’s something that’s becoming increasingly hard to find in the ski industry.”

Strasbourger says he wants to protect what the Brills built.

“Which is, like, this gritty, soulful, one-of-a-kind experience that just doesn’t exist,” he says, also while dangling on the slow and lofty double chair. “It’s not just the mountain or the terrain. It’s the vibe and how you feel when you are here and the people that make this place work. That’s the most important thing.”

Increased heli-skiing grows business without growing the lift line

Culp and Strasbourger are spending a lot of time in Silverton this winter. They sit at every morning meeting with guides and are trying to ski with every guide. For most of the season, every skier at Silverton Mountain is guided, with tickets ranging from $229 to $269 a day. Late season unguided days cost $99. Silverton Mountain also offers rare single heli-skiing runs for $184.

The new owners are mostly listening this year, looking at what can be improved. There are a lot of options for improvements at the ski area, which uses a tent as a base lodge and has very little infrastructure beyond the chairlift. The new owners are not looking at significant upgrades, though.

There are no plans for development or building new structures. They aren’t planning to adjust the numbers of skiers, who are limited to 400 per day under the BLM permit. When the new owners talk about changes, they talk about new avalanche gear and outerwear for employees. Better lunches for skiers. Maybe some glading to improve a few runs in the tight trees. How about a taco truck at the base so skiers can hang out after their day on the slope?

The Brills sold the new owners the American Legion Building in town for $1.5 million. Culp and Strasbourger have retrofitted the building’s long-gone Miner’s Tavern into a clubhouse for their guides and employees. The new owners also spent $490,000 for a house in town where workers live. Maybe they can eventually use the Legion hall as a venue where Silverton Mountain skiers can gather at the end of the day for food, drinks and music.

Eventually, maybe the buildings could become lodging or worker housing or both, Culp says.

Where they are looking to expand is with more private heli-skiers. Aaron Brill hosted lots of heli-skiers at Silverton Mountain in the past decade but he only recently began flying his helicopter over to Aspen to pick up deep-pocketed clients for skiing in his permitted acreage. Culp and Strasbourger are planning to expand that program. They have two Bell 205 helicopters, which can carry more skiers than the A-Star. They are working with hotels in Aspen and Telluride to maybe start offering exclusive heli-skiing for high-dollar guests.

“That way we can grow the business without, you know, having to grow the lift line,” Strasbourger says.

‘A small group of private investors’

The details of the Silverton Mountain sale were not announced.

Deeds filed last fall in San Juan County show that the Brills sold about 600 acres of mining claims and the American Legion building and home in Silverton to Culp and Strasbourger’s newly formed HD2 Silverton Mountain, LLC for $6.7 million. That is for real estate and does not include the price for the ski area operation or Silverton Mountain brand.

The Brills had good years and not-so-good years at Silverton Mountain, based on their revenue-based rent payments to the Bureau of Land Management. The agency charges the same as the Forest Service for ski area operations on public land – 1.5% of gross revenue under $3 million up to 4% of gross revenues that exceed $50 million.

The Brills paid the BLM as little as $10,809 for the 2009-10 season and as much as $31,394 following the 2021-22 season, according to rent payment information provided to The Colorado Sun through a public records request. That means Silverton Mountain generated between $700,000 and $2.1 million in revenue from its BLM-owned acres those seasons, which accounts for about two-thirds of the ski area’s lift-served terrain.

Culp says Heli has enlisted “a small group of private investors” who are shareholders in their new companies.

On Sept. 12, Heli Destinations 2, LLC, filed a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission showing the company had sold $13.53 million in equity shares out of an offered $25 million. In January 2023, a couple weeks after announcing Heli Inc. had purchased the Great Canadian Heli-Skiing and Heather Mountain Lodge in British Columbia, the group’s Heli Destinations 1, LLC, reported to the SEC that it had sold $8.95 million in equity shares out of a $15 million offering.

Culp says the business has no institutional investors.

“We really only reached out to a handful of people,” Culp says. “Everyone is extremely passionate about the sport of skiing. They trust that we are the right folks to run the operation and they believe in us.”

Culp is quick to dismiss any notion that his investors may be pursuing the popular private club scene that is thriving in new-school ski resort projects. The private Yellowstone Club in Montana has in the past decade proved the members-only ski resort model, and others have followed suit. The New Wasatch Peaks Ranch on Utah’s Wasatch Back offers five new high-speed chairlifts, dozens of runs and a golf course for luxury homeowner members. The Cimarron Mountain Club outside Montrose offers 2,000 acres of skiing to only 13 homeowners.

“That is not the vibe here. That’s not the crowd,” Culp says. “We want to be accessible to anyone and everyone.”

‘New energy’ in the new chapter

When talking with locals and employees around Silverton, the phrase that keeps coming up is “new energy.” There’s excitement about the new owners and their plans as well as the departure of the Brills. The Brills could be polarizing. They fought hard to expand their heli-terrain and irked a handful of locals. Owners of big businesses in small towns tend to attract critics, but the Brills also had plenty of fans who appreciated their contribution to the local economy.

The new ownership has made both camps happy, says Mayor Shane Fuhrman, whose renovated Wyman Hotel is popular with skiers. People who were Brill fans were happy to see them get a new chapter and the rest were happy to see them leave.

“So this has kind of brought everybody back together again,” Fuhrman says. “I think this idea that the new owners have come in to observe for a year has been really well received in the community. I see that the discipline and professionalism that the Brills instilled is carrying on at Silverton Mountain with the crew that is still there. And Andy and Brock seem to recognize that strength and they are stepping in saying, ‘What can we do to better support you guys?’ This has been a really cool thing to see.”

In early February, Culp and Strasbourger hosted a fundraiser for First Descents, the Colorado-born nonprofit that offers weeklong outdoor adventures for young adults with life-threatening illnesses. The two investors recently purchased First Descent’s profit-making venture, Stoke Brokers, which, like Heli, designs curated outdoor holidays. At a live auction at Silverton’s community center, Culp offered two sets of two-person, two-day heli-skiing trips at his Great Canadian lodge, raising $20,000 for First Descents.

He says First Descents and Heli “will be close friends and partners forever … given the complete alignment of our missions: nourishment and unity through adventure.”

Eli Alsup grew up in Silverton. His family has a long history of working on just about everything in the town. He’s a liftie at the mountain, but hopes to follow the tracks of his brother and become a guide. Lots of guides have followed that path, starting as interns who shovel a lot of snow all season and ending up leading skiers into technical, challenging terrain.

“Everyone works so hard here. And growing up here and now working here, I get to work with guys who were my first ski coaches and see how motivated they are to make this place so special,” 23-year-old Alsup says. “This is the coolest place I’ve ever worked.”

Culp says it’s people like Alsup as well as the veterans who will guide Silverton Mountain into the next chapter. It’s not about new money or new stuff.

“It’s going to be that team organism that is going to naturally say, ‘Here’s where we can bring a little more stoke to the mountain, to the experience,’” Culp says. “We are not here to turn this place into anything other than what Silverton Mountain can continue to be, and that starts with the team.”