Skiing The Silver Couloir In Colorado’s Gore Range
Destination: Silver Couloir, Buffalo Mountain, Gore Range, Colorado
Elevation Gain/Loss: +/- 3300 ft.
Distance: 5.5 miles
USGS Quads: Willow Lakes, Dillon, Frisco, Vail Pass
The Silver Couloir is an all time classic line. It’s an easily accessible 3000 foot couloir located on the North face of Buffalo Mountain in Silverthorne, Colorado. Buffalo is an iconic peak that reaches 12777 feet / 3894 meters. The peak is located just off of I-70 at Silverthorne and the Silver Couloir is visible as you are driving south on Highway 9. It is an all time classic line that is featured in Chris Davenport’s 50 Classic Ski Mountaineering Lines Coffee Table Book. I have skied this line at least 5 times over the years. If you’ve never done it, you need to.
In April 2014, I headed up Buffalo Mountain with two friends – Walt Luke and Francis Do. Walter and Francis are friends of mine from when I used to ski instruct in Vail, CO. Both are highly accomplished instructors and if you ever need a lesson, be sure to book them. Francis also does podcasts about the snowsports industry. Check them out on his website.
The approach to Buffalo Mountain takes you through the Wildernest area of Silverthorne. Turn past the Lowes and keep driving until you get as close to the mountain as possible. I usually ski this line in April, but this is the most snow that I have ever seen at this time of year near the Buffalo Cabin trailhead – usually I am hiking in ski boots for about a mile or so. The trailhead begins at approximately 9700 feet. This trail is a popular for the local residents so be sure to watch out for dog doo.
The skin meanders through a forest of lodgepole pines. There are plenty of dead trees courtesy of the pine beetle that has run rampant in CO for the last several decades.
After approximately a mile, you will reach the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness of the White River National Forest. Continue on the will packed trail until you reach a smaller sign for the Buffalo Cabins. At this crossroads you turn west and start your true ascent.
As you approach treeline, the views are fantastic. I-70 crosses the valley and wraps around Lake Dillon. It cruises through the towns of Silverthorne and Frisco as it splits up the 10 Mile Canyon where Copper Mountain and Leadville lie in the distance. Follow highway 9 south toward the town of Dillon, Keystone Ski Resort, Montezuma, Loveland Pass, and Arapahoe Basin. Luckily you are high enough to escape the sounds of I-70 and the views are jaw dropping.
Above treeline, a steep slope wraps you around to a mellow ridgeline. Often I have seen Mountain Goats happily living in this zone – not on this trip though.
At the summit of Buffalo Mountain, the views of the untouched Gore Range are fantastic. This is definitely a mountain range that few people explore. To the North is Red Mountain. To the West over Red-Buffalo Pass you can glimpse the famous “sidecountry” lines of East Vail. In true distance Vail is so close, but the meandering interstate takes you on a much longer 25 mile detour over Vail Pass. The Holy Cross stands in the distance as a proud 14er.
I have to mention my beloved Dynaster Cham 107 HM. These flat tailed, light weight skis are perfect for most every backcountry adventure.
After we reached the summit at 12777, we took in the views, ripped skins and headed over to the Silver. We made it about 100 feet when we had to stop and hop over some rocks.
Then it was time to ski. In respect for the mountains we leapfrogged the entire 3000 foot line. There was some obvious evidence of wet loose debris in the couloir, but due to freezing levels the previous night, we were confident the snow was solid. As we neared the last 500 feet, the snow got a bit sticky and we quickly ducked into the forest.
The Silver Couloir is a highly aesthetic line. It starts out quite steep at the top and mellows to about 38 degrees in the gut. It is wide enough for large turns and has plenty of “safer” stopping points to rest the legs as you leapfrog the line. That being said, while in the Couloir you are exposed the entire time so it is mandatory to ski it safely and smartly.
We got some excellent shots of skiing and splitboarding in the Silver Couloir. Francis snagged this flick of me on his iPhone:
At the bottom of the couloir, you have to tuck into forest for your traverse/ascent back to the car. This is often the most tiring part of the day. After 3000 feet up, 3000 feet down, it’s time to skin again. If you hit the forest too high, it is quite a cliffy zone to maneuver through. If you hit the forest too low, you will end up in the drainage. The ideal elevation is approximately 9600 to 9700 feet where a will worn summer trail is located that wraps back around to the ridge on the East face. It is recommended to have a GPS that will help you navigate this highly forested terrain. You do have to crest a ridge that require about 400 feet of uphill. There is a mellow zone to ascend if you can find it. After you reach this ridge, it’s an easy cruise down your morning trail back to the car.
As we wondered back down the trail, there were fresh tracks in the snow. We speculate that they were lion tracks. They were roughly the size of my fist (larger than a black diamond pole basket), had claw marks at the front. For a while we thought they were a large dog because they followed the main trail for a bit next to a well established skin track. Then the tracks turned off into the forest at a random point, not to be seen again. I researched lion prints later online and they certainly appear similar.
Finally we made it back to the trailhead and headed down to the metropolis of Silverthorne for a tasty meal at Smashburger.
No matter where you go in the Silverthorne area, you can see Buffalo Mountain. Ski the Silver Couloir and you certainly won’t look at the mountain the same as you did before. It’s a classic that deserves respect, but also one that needs to be skied a lot because it’s awesome.
You can learn more about the Silver Couloir in: