Jen Brill at Silverton Mountain. Photo courtesy of Silverton Mountain.
“Silverton is class five everything,” Jen Brill, co-owner and guide at Silverton Mountain, told me over the phone last fall. Whether it's the always-icy two-lane mountain pass to get there, the food and bar scene (or lack there of), or the steepest on-area skiing in North America, literally nothing about this small Colorado town is intermediate. "So, naturally," Jen said, "this place breeds a special kind of woman."
If you know Jen, or any of the other women who have made Silverton their home for extended period of time—like the legendary Kim Grant just to name one—you will agree with that statement. But if you have never heard of Jen Brill, let me enlighten you.
Jen, about to drop. Photo courtesy of Silverton Mountain.
Jen is 44 years old, owns a ski area with her husband, and is a mom. In other words, she has a lot of shit going on. But twenty years ago her life completely revolved around snowboarding. She bounced around, chasing winter, until she found herself in Montana and decided to stay awhile. She worked as a babysitter and did data entry on the side, strategically maneuvering her work hours around riding. Then, she sort of accidentally became semi-pro when she started entering – and winning – small comps at Big Sky because she wanted to hang with more snowboarder girls. “I found that in comps, you find yourself doing stuff you wouldn’t normally try. And I liked it. But I also found that I wasn't using my brain as much as I wanted to."
So she used her degree in environmental science to get the Surfrider Foundation to start its first inland chapter that focused on the Hydrologic cycle. "I was able to help organize river cleanups and local water testing in my off season,” she said. “At the same time, Big Sky built their terrain park and invited me to be an athlete for the mountain.”
That was in ‘98, which is also when Jen’s boyfriend (now husband) Aaron moved down to Silverton to sus things out. He had big dreams of starting his own ski area and it wasn’t long before Jen followed him down there and they decided to try and make the dream a reality.
Aaron and Jen Brill. Photo courtesy of Silverton Mountain.
“I was 28 years old and it was rugged at first. There were no jobs, and out of the 20 people who were my age, four of them were girls. And they all hated me. My closest friends at the time were the librarian and the San Juan County assessor because I was always looking at land and land prices,” Jen said.
But somewhat surprisingly, Jen and Aaron found that 96 percent of the town was in support of the ski area. “People liked that we were doing it ourselves,” Jen said. “I thought that the main opposition would be miners and old timers, but they all knew the town needed something. Those opposed were actually the local skiers who didn’t want more people in the mountains.”
Jen told me that building a ski resort proved to be a practice in ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Every damn day something would go wrong. “We didn’t have the luxury of money and most people thought we were absolutely insane—they were like, ‘good luck’ and then they’d giggle amongst themselves,” Jen said
Jen and the boys. Photo courtesy of Silverton Mountain.
But Jen and Aaron persevered, and before they knew it they found themselves with a brand new one-of-a-kind mountain.
Silverton Mountain has one chairlift—which is really all you need to access an alpine environment surrounded by 1,819 acres of steep and deep ascents. It’s the highest and steepest ski area in North America with a peak elevation of 13,489 feet. And besides avy mitigation, the mountain is left in its natural state with zero cut runs. It’s a literal haven for backcountry skiers who fancy big lines and expert terrain. The skiing at Silverton is guided-only December through March and unguided in the off-season.
The first few years the mountain was open, the groups of skiers were mainly men. “When they saw that I’d be guiding them I could just see the disappointment in their faces,” Jen said. “But I picked the expert groups anyways because I wanted to have fun. I’d try to make some sexist jokes at the beginning to let the boys know it was ok."
Instead of getting respect by telling these guys that she literally owned the mountain, she'd sprint ahead on the first run to show them she wasn't slow, or do an air on the way down. "There was so much pressure to prove to them that they were not with someone that sucked,” she said.
Jen Brill gets elevated. Photo courtesy of Silverton Mountain.
I asked her if she had more stories like that – about men underestimating her – and she did. Tons. Like the time when she and her girlfriends were at Big Ski Sky and went to ski the Big Couloir and Ski Patrol made them take out their avy gear and show them how to us it—all the while letting the men go through without a second look. And the real bummer is, Jen has never sought out special treatment, she’s just a fan of equality.
That's why the girls who work at Silverton are equal or better than most of the guys out there. "When you are asking for equal things," Jen told me, "you have to be performing as an equal."
Jen thinks women (and men) have come a long way since that day at Big Sky. She admires the way younger women are no longer hiding their feminine side and how aren't letting people get them down. “In the last 20 years there has been a transition. Women are buying gear, booking trips and working at all the ski mags and companies. And the younger girls I follow online spread kindness, humor and support. I love it.”
This serves as a stark contrast to when she was in her young twenties. "Many of my riding heroes like Morgan Lafonte, Circe Wallace, Janna Meyen, Tara Dakides, Kristen Ulmer, and Wendy Fisher were badass but came off as masculine. They were just trying to fit in and be one of the boys. But today women have the luxury of being feminine in the mountains and that is cool.”
Photo courtesy of Silverton Mountain.
Things have definitely changed in Silverton since Jen first moved there. Groups of women frequently come to the mountain and throw down. And it's certainly on the bucket list of most of the female skiers I know (including me). On top of that, Jen started doing an annual women's weekend called Sisters' Meeting in the Mountains where women get together to ski and partake in educational and inspirational presentations from the most respected and badass women in the industry.
I'm not sure Jen knew that when she and her husband moved to the small mining town 17 years ago with dreams to build a ski area that she would find herself pushing and kicking and eventually annihilating any and all glass ceilings for women.
I wonder if she knew that she would be the one who would make Silverton a place for women.
From The Column: Women in the Mountains
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