San Juan Mountains, Colo.



GES4460 / 5170 Field Studies: Silverton, Colorado



Presentations and Readings

(in Canvas)



Lab #1: Snow depth and SWE at different scale-lengths, and in different land cover types

Lab #2: Site-specific environmental influences on snowpack properties

Winterim 2024 course runs Jan. 7 - 14
Course Overview


The course fills with 12 students. A few Silvertonians that have been integral to the field experience include:

Fritz Klinke
Jeff Derry
Chris Schultz
Kevid deKay
Mark Gober
Fritz Klinke, NA Graphics
Jeff Derry, CSAS
Chris Schultz, USFS
Kevin deKay, Silverton School
Mark Gober, CAIC


A four credit-hour field course (upper-level undergraduate capstone / graduate level research project-based) that focuses on the science of snow and snowpack. The field course was pioneered by the late Mel Marcus in the 1970s.

What the course is not

An avalanche course or an opportunity to ski / ride Silverton Mountain.


In and around Silverton, Colorado (population ~600, elevation 9,318 ft.). Silverton stands in a high valley in the heart of the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.


The 8-day course runs in mid-January, the week before spring semester.

Learning Objectives

  • To instill a fundamental understanding of the science of mountain snowpack dynamics and spatial variability by assessing and measuring in-situ snow density, water equivalent (SWE), structure (stratigraphy), and depth at multiple scale-lengths;
  • to develop an appreciation of San Juan Mountain geomorphology, geology, ecology, climate, weather; and
  • to develop skills in field observation, data collection, data interpretation, data analysis, writing, and public speaking.

Experiential Learning

For a week, students are immersed in Silverton's physical and cultural landscape. The course is full of opportunities to learn through different formats: observation, self-reflection, interactions with instructors and locals, readings, lectures, and hands-on field work. From these activities, students build background knowledge from which they answer a central research question.


At breakfast, students are briefed of the day's events. These range from visits with avalanche forecasters to a full day of data collection and field work with a local snow scientist. Each evening, students gather for dinner, which often includes or is followed by a guest speaker. Students will spend some time each day reading articles and writing daily observations in a field journal. The last full day in town is reserved for students to finish writing their essays and to prepare their presentations. That evening following dinner, presentations are given to the instructor, fellow students, and usually to a few locals who were involved in the class.

Evaluation and Point Distribution

  • Pre-trip: All students must earn a passing quiz grade on the online UCAR COMET Program module 'Snowpack and its Assessment.' Due: Before departure.
  • Central Question Essay and Presentation (50%): Each student will answer their central question in 1) a 5-6 page handwritten essay and 2) a 5-7 minute oral presentation. Presentations will occur the last evening.
  • Field Journal (40%): Each daily entry will include field observations, definitions and interpretations from readings, notes from speakers, questions for speakers, and drawings/diagrams.
  • Journal Article, Report, or Book Excerpt Synopsis (5%): Each student will spend ten minutes summarizing one-on-one with the instructor any paper from Section 1 of the course readings list.
  • Class participation (5%): Students who complete all lab work, actively participate, regularly ask questions, and who are well-involved in the group dynamic earn these points.

Meals and Lodging

An agreement has been made between UCCS and a Silverton-based hotel to provide lodging, breakfasts, and dinners. Students are on their own for lunches. Student Lodging is provided by (TBD for Jan. 2024).


In addition to regular UCCS tuition fees, the trip costs each student approximately $1,200.00. This estimate includes breakfasts and dinners, lodging, transportation, CSAS support, meeting spaces, and course materials.

You'll Need Snowshoes

These can be rented from UCCS.

Other Logistics

There are a lot. Brandon holds a mandatory pre-trip meeting mid December.


Safety - especially when driving and riding in vehicles - plays a large role in the course. Safety will be discussed pre-trip as well as throughout the week.


Covid protocols for the course will be discussed at the required pre-trip meeting.

Physical Requirements

The field studies course involves walking in/around town on icy roads and sidewalks, snowshoeing in steep terrain across deep, soft snow, and shoveling snow for extended periods. Participants must be able to exert themselves at high altitudes (11,500 ft.) in windy, snowy, sunny, dry, cold to extremely cold conditions.


Jan. 2016 included several days of -15F morning readings. Jan. 2017's course was 'the year of the pineapple express:' Feet of snow fell, temeratures were warm 24/7 (above freezing from time to time - courtesty of Pacific air aloft), the sun was out for about 20 minutes, and both passes in/out of Silverton were closed for days. One Jan. morning a few years ago, the temperature dropped to -34F. Two years later, the temperature dropped to -30F. In sum, during the week, expect several days of sunny skies, a few to a lot of days of snow (heavy wet to blowing and drifting), and temperatures ranging from 40F to -30F.

Background of Silverton and the Silverton Field Experience

The Town of Silverton, Colorado, with a 2021 population of 651, sits in a high 2,837 m (9308 ft.) valley in the heart of the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. The town averages 394 cm (155 in.) of snowfall per season (WRCC 2015). The only paved access into town, US Highway 550 (the Million Dollar Highway), boasts steep grades, sparse guardrails, and a pass exceeding 3353m (11,000 ft). The highway is notorious for usually brief but sometimes multi-day snowstorm and avalanche closures (e.g., 2017 and 2019) and rockfall closures (e.g., 2014). Given that the snow season begins in October and ends in May, and that snow occasionally closes the road in winter, the town remains mostly isolated much of the year.

The last major mining operation closed in 1991 and Silverton’s chief economic driver has shifted to seasonal tourism. Tourists are drawn to Silverton by its prosperous gold and silver mining history, historically preserved business district and mining structures, extensive outdoor recreation opportunities, western-themed hotels and saloons, and magnificent glaciated volcanic landscapes. Most visit during the warm months and in the early fall, and arrive via the Durango-Silverton Railroad or US Highway 550. On busy days, such as July 4th, the town’s head count can swell to over 30,000.

The wintertime economy is based primarily around the local extreme ski area, Silverton Mountain, which limits its operations to Thursday through Sunday. During the cold months, only a few businesses remain open. These include a liquor store, two or three gas stations, a small grocery store, and a handful of restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and hotels. Occasionally, a gift shop or art gallery will open as the skiers arrive in town late in the week. Kendall Mountain, an in-town single-run ski area with an Olympic size ice rink at its base, is open Fridays through Sundays, and mostly attracts local (Ouray to Silverton to Durango) families.

Also during the winter and spring, the town draws groups of faculty and students who attend avalanche school or take a field course. Business owners are happy to see vans full of students arrive in town in the winter, as this visitorship provides a much needed boost to an otherwise sluggish wintertime economy. For decades the town and its surrounds have served as a natural laboratory for field-based research in the physical and natural sciences.

In 1974, Dr. Mel Marcus, a professor of geography at Arizona State University (ASU) and former president of the American Association of Geographers (AAG), began leading snow and ice field courses to Silverton. From the beginning, Dr. Marcus recognized that Silverton was well-suited to host field courses. The town was an affordable option, with logistical benefits as well – Silverton is an easy day's drive from ASU, and Mel had become friends with locals who helped organize student food and lodging in town. From 1974 to 1997, Dr. Marcus made the annual trek north to Silverton with dozens of students from ASU.

Today, some of Mel's former graduate students, and other graduate students at ASU with interests in mountain geography who went on to teach at the university level, keep the Mel Marcus tradition strong by continuing to bring students to Silverton from their respective universities.

Contact Brandon

  • 719.255.5146
  • [email protected]
  • 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway, Colorado Springs, CO 80918