Andy Culp and Brock Strasbourger purchased Silverton Mountain in Silverton, Colorado, today for an undisclosed price. The Aspenites are partners in Heli Adventures Inc., an online marketplace for adventure travel that’s been based in Aspen since 2019.
“It’s an honor to be in this position,” Culp said in an interview with the Aspen Daily News this week. “My first interest as a skier — loving backcountry skiing — is skiing powder and that’s got to be the best place in Colorado to do it. As a Colorado resident, I couldn’t think of a better next phase of my professional and personal life to be able to be a steward of Silverton.”
They started talking with Silverton Mountain’s founders and owners Aaron and Jen Brill about a year ago.
“To take over a brand like that is an honor,” said Strasbourger, who was born and raised in Aspen. “Silverton itself is one of the most authentic, genuine, kind of gritty destinations out there that any skier and snowboarder that lives and breathes that lifestyle has on their checklist. Everybody wants to make a pilgrimage to this place. It’s a rite of passage for a certain kind of quality skier and snowboarder. It’s just super exciting to take the reins of something that has such an incredible following and such a great reputation.”
Silverton Mountain opened in 2002 for guided-only skiing and snowboarding. It proudly boasts of 100% advanced and expert terrain. The Brills installed one fixed-grip chairlift that was recycled from Mammoth ski area. The chair provides access to 1,819 acres of terrain. The base is at 10,400 feet and the summit of the lift-served terrain is at 12,300 feet. Hikers can climb to 13,487 feet.
The Brills also have a permit to use 26,819 acres of public lands for a heli-ski operation. It’s one of the few, if not the only ski area in the U.S., to have terrain under permit from the Bureau of Land Management. Many ski areas lease public lands from the U.S. Forest Service.
“From my perspective, we are the largest ski area in the U.S.,” Brill said Wednesday.
He was “emotional and excited at the same” about the sale. He and his wife have dedicated 25 years to the vision. Getting the ski area open required countless hours researching mining claims that the Brills acquired. Foundations for lift towers were dug by hand and blasted with dynamite. They had to gain acceptance from residents of a small mountain town. And they assembled what Aaron described as “the best team in skiing.” Guides also work in snow safety, which requires lots of time and expertise in avalanche control in the extremely steep terrain.
“We have a very specific culture here that rewards good people with good values that do good work,” Brill said. The buyers will learn that soon enough, he said.
Brill won’t retain any ownership interest in the ski area he founded but he will help with the transition. He also owns a heli-skiing business in Alaska, where he guides for several months of the year. That operation wasn’t included in the transaction.
Brill said he talked with several interested buyers and he rejected offers before the relationship clicked with Culp and Strasbourger.
“We had four non-negotiables,” he said. “First, we had to have a purchaser that fully believed in our team of employees. That was super important. Second, 100% retention of all our employees. Third, hard-core, super passionate skiers. And, fourth, we weren’t interested in people with your typical real estate, golf course-type background.”
Culp and Strasbourger embrace the backcountry skiing lifestyle. They founded Heli Ventures in 2016 initially as a marketplace for backcountry skiing. They later expanded into numerous aspects of adventure travel, from mountain biking to yoga and safaris to sailing. Culp is CEO of the business; Strasbourger is president.
Part of their success is building relationships with the vendors and operators of the experiences they help market to consumers. Oftentimes, they fielded questions from operators who were looking for investors or buyers. They decided they needed to consider acquiring assets themselves rather than just offer the marketplace. They acquired a boutique heli-skiing operation called Great Canadian in December 2022. They adjusted well to vertical integration.
“We realized we were able to take these businesses over and build strong relationships with the existing teams and take a long-term approach to how we manage these tourism businesses with no sudden movements and figure out what the right path is,” Culp said.
They met Brill, built a relationship and started exploring acquiring Silverton Mountain. “We were fortunate enough to connect with him on a personal level with similar sorts of passions and a semi-non-corporate, anti-establishment kind of vibe that I think resonated with him,” Culp said. “So he felt that we were the right group especially with the experience that we had with Great Canadian to really be able to take over a business like his but with respect and for the right reasons.”
Strasbourger said the transaction didn’t follow the standard process, in large part because Brill wasn’t courting “the big corporate guys.”
“He was looking for the right time, the right fit and the right people and we checked a lot of the boxes,” Strasbourger said. He noted how important it was to the Brills to find the right buyers.
“This is their baby. They built this thing from the ground up,” he said.
Culp plans to live in Silverton this winter to watch, listen and observe.
“We’re going to be working shoulder to shoulder with the team and just getting to know everything,” he said. “Our thesis is not that we’re going to come in and clear house and start running these operations ourselves.”
He stressed that they will “respect” the local community and the soul of the area. They will “not try to make it anything else.”
“We have absolute respect for the legacy that has been initiated over the last two decades by Aaron Brill and the existing team,” Culp said. “We will be extremely respectful of how we take it forward.”
Heli Adventures made the acquisition with the help of investors. They acquired 600 acres of land at the ski area which includes the land used for the chairlift. They successfully applied for a transfer of the special use permit for the heli-skiing operation. Their purchase includes land in Silverton. They are considering one plot for a lodge with food and beverage. Another plot will be considered for employee housing.
Again, Culp stressed, they will listen to the community on what is needed. He said winning over residents is important.
“That’s what sort of keeps me up at night but in an exciting way,” he said.
For Strasbourger, helping operate Heli Adventures and now Silverton Mountain is sort of in his blood. His dad, Skip Strasbourger, co-founded S&L Travel Partners with Barry Lefkowitz in Aspen in 1971. It evolved into Aspen Ski Tours in Aspen in 1971 and eventually ski.com, a company that bills itself as the mountain travel experts for booking ski trips in North America.
Brock said he will continue living in Aspen but will travel to Silverton frequently this winter to ski and learn about the operation.
“It’s such an incredible vibe, the excitement and energy that people are showing up to the mountain with and waiting in line until the mountain opens,” he said. “It’s like something that I haven’t been around too often. It’s almost like sitting on the lift at Aspen Highlands on a big powder day, with the local vibe.”
He and Culp want to retain and nurture that vibe at Silverton Mountain.
“We’re honored that the Brills have trusted us with their baby and to take this to the next phase,” Strasbourger said. “We’re very excited that it’s in our hands and with people that really understand the legacy and the customer base and vibe and soul. We will definitely be protecting it.”
Scott Condon | Aspen Daily News | September 28, 2023