Skift Take

A challenge for niche adventure companies is to navigate growth while maintaining the experience's appeal in the first place.

Aspen-based adventure travel operator Heli Adventures has acquired the iconic Silverton Mountain Ski Area in Colorado, with the highest ski elevation in the U.S.  

Silverton, loved by extreme adventure travelers, was founded in 2001 and has no set runs, no signage, and no grooming of trails. It’s a sharp contrast to commoditized, developed ski resorts and meant for expert skiers and snowboarders.

Founders Jen and Aaron Brill were selective in choosing buyers, according to new owners Heli co-founders Andy Culp and Brock Strasbourger, who finalized the deal at the end of September for an undisclosed amount.

Silverton features a single, two-seat chairlift and a small warming yurt, with the majority of its 26,819 acres accessible only by hiking from the top of the lift. There’s also a helicopter option: “So by using a helicopter, it allows you to reach and ski and ride terrain that would be impossible or extremely challenging without a helicopter,” said Culp. 

‘Right Fit for the Mountain’

The former owners, who had developed the mountain ski area from scratch, were also concerned that the overdevelopment of the ski area could negatively impact the small community surrounding it.

“We are not a big corporate group,” said Culp. “We are a small team of hungry entrepreneurs and passionate adventurers. And that was the right fit for the mountain. And that’s what Jen and Aaron were looking for when they chose us. Brock and I and our team are passionate expert backcountry skiers. That underpins why we pursued this business that we started in 2016.”  

Strasbourger described Silverton as “pure, unadulterated, underdeveloped, and preserved in its natural state. It’s a mountain experience that is different from a typical resort.”

The Silverton acquisition aligns with Heli’s existing adventure travel booking platform Heli.Life, which includes adventure experiences, such as kitesurfing and fly fishing. Silverton is Heli’s second ski area property: In 2022, it bought British Columbia’s Great Canadian Heli-Skiing and Heather Mountain Lodge, positioning the company as a mountain operator in addition to its online distribution business. 

“What that means for our business, as well as these operations, is that we can leverage all of our learnings, all of our insights into the market to make each of these operations marginally better, as well as position them more prominently within the adventure market,” said Culp. 

As one of only seven major heli-skiing destinations within the lower 48, Silverton offers single helicopter flights to untouched snow for $184, a bucket list adventure for Heli.Life’s 30-50 years old demographic, mainly from North America and Europe.

With an average of 10,000 visitors per year, heli-skiing accounts for about 50% of Silverton’s revenue, with the rest coming from guided skiing and lift ticket sales, according to Strasbourger.

Silverton’s Ski Experts a Resource

Both Culp and Strasbourger said the company is focused on community engagement with a long-term, sustainable approach to managing the new asset. Heli Adventure’s small team of seven will now join together with Silverton’s existing 60 full-time employees.  

Culp called the existing team at Silverton their best resource, “These folks have lived and breathed this operation for some of them for up to two decades. Some of these people are the premier ski guides and snow safety experts in the U.S. They’re amazing people, and we’re honored to have them.” 

“In the next 12 months, there will be no changes to the operation. This is an operation that’s performing very well with an amazing team,” said Culp. 

“Our number one objective right now is to establish complete trust with the operating team and the existing community of guests. We’re going to be spending the winter there. We’re going to be working closely with the team. And we’re going to work very closely with the local community to understand what are the small improvements that we can make to the experience and the mountain. But in a way that will not threaten the soul or the authenticity of the mountain experience. There’s a ton of responsibility that comes with it. But we are confident we’re the right folks for the job.”


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Tags: adventure, adventure tourism, experiences, skiing

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