Brighter Skies

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Colorado’s Bluebird Backcountry is a fully human-powered ski area, complete with rentals, instruction, guiding and lodges and devoid of chairlifts. In a time of uncertainty and change within the ski resort business, this model, and variations of it, may be the clearest way forward.

A Bluebird guest works her way up the Eagle skintrack toward Pride Rock, with Bear Mountain, Bluebird’s new location for this year, behind her to looker’s far right. [Photo] Courtesy Bluebird Backcountry

Three brightly-colored-puffy-clad skiers walk into a saloon. On any other night, we may have been met by clichéd stares from the bearded men who line the tables, perhaps with a tumbleweed skittering across the floorboards. But it’s Thursday, which means one thing in Kremmling, Colorado, a 1,450-person town on the road between Denver and Steamboat Springs: trivia night at the Grand Old West bar. While I try to return a few sideways glances with a smile and a nod, most folks’ attention focuses on the woman at the back of the bar as she hollers off answers to the game’s latest round.

After my second day of skiing at Bluebird Backcountry, a new ski area concept that lies about 30 miles north of town at the eastern flanks of Rabbit Ears Pass, I’m ready to kick back alongside the resort’s cofounders, Erik Lambert and Jeff Woodward. It’s early March, but the sunny day had felt more like May.

We’d toured around their softly contoured terrain, taking laps up the set skintracks and down through open slopes and aspen groves. Between runs, we paused at the Perch Warming Hut, a 20-minute skin from the parking lot and base area, to snag some of the bacon and burgers a staff member was cooking on a small, outdoor grill. It’d been a good, simple day.

Dartmouth College alumni and Bluebird co-founders Jeff Woodward and Erik Lambert make creating a start-up ski area look laidback. [Photo] Courtesy Bluebird Backcountry

Simple, however, doesn’t mean run-of-the-mill. Lambert and Woodward are winding down their inaugural season at their first-of-its-kind, entirely human-powered ski area. Located on land leased from Peak Ranch, a 50,000-acre cattle ranch, Bluebird offers most of the conventional ski-area amenities—equipment rentals, lessons, guided tours, base-area infrastructure—and no chairlifts. During the first season, which ran from February 15 to March 15, their terrain encompassed 1,600 acres, 500 of which were patrolled (and they call “inbounds”) and the remaining 1,100 accessible only with a guide. While Bluebird doesn’t bomb to control for avalanches, the ski patrol team assesses the rolling, mostly low-angle hills each morning, evaluating the snowpack to determine if any particular slopes should be closed. Lambert and Woodward’s goal is to mitigate some of the barriers to entry to getting into the backcountry, like equipment costs and avalanche knowledge, to provide more introductory opportunities.

“The idea came to me while I was taking my brother out to backcountry ski,” Woodward told me the night before, as we stood around a small campfire beside some cabins on the edge of Kremmling. “He was just learning, and I realized how dangerous and expensive it could be. I was like, ‘There has to be an easier way to learn.’”

Bluebird’s base lodge welcomes guests to a new type of ski resort. [Photo] Courtesy Bluebird Backcountry

In 2018, Woodward and Lambert conducted a survey to gauge interest in a learning-centered, chairlift-free resort, and after receiving over 3,000 responses that largely voiced positive and supportive feedback, they assembled a team to plan and develop their concept.

By April 2019, Lambert and Woodward had set up two trial runs: one on Colorado’s Mosquito Pass and the other at Winter Park Resort after it had been partially closed toward the end of the season. Over six days, Bluebird hosted approximately 170 guests and used the opportunity to understand skiers’ interest in lessons and the amount they were willing to pay for the experience.

Then, one of Lambert and Woodward’s volunteers mentioned a connection—their dad’s cousin owned a cattle ranch just outside of Kremmling, and, if there weren’t too many headaches involved, he’d be open to leasing some acreage that is too snowy for grazing in the winter. The two jumped at the offer and set up a Kickstarter to raise money for a base lodge and mid-mountain warming tent, as well as to fund a paid patroller position.

New year, new terrain: Bluebird’s new zone includes everything from mellow glades to steep couloirs. [Photo] Courtesy Bluebird Backcountry

By the time I was eating bacon at the warming tent during Bluebird’s month-long opening, Lambert and Woodward had raised $107,000 from 1,000 backers, who, depending on the amount of their donation, received Bluebird schwag, day passes or, for those who chipped in over $950, a privately guided day. For Lambert, their crowdfunding success lies in the appeal of their mission, which focuses on providing education and access.

“We’re building programs for beginners, intermediates and experts,” he explained earlier that day in the base lodge, a cozy, permanent structure with a round roof and AstroTurf floor. “The first thing you learn in your lesson is that you’re not really ready to go into the backcountry. So we try to instill backcountry habits, even though they’re not necessarily necessary in controlled terrain. We focus on skiing in pitches, beacon checks, making sure you work with your partners.”

“Backcountry skiing is growing,” he continued. “I think people are looking to avoid the ‘industry’ of skiing—parking problems, gondolas—they’re ready to learn something new. But taking an avalanche course and hiring a guide can be a big leap. We focus on meeting one another, finding mentors and learning in a place that’s safe and controlled.

LEARNING TO BACKCOUNTRY SKI AND RIDE in such a controlled environment—with access to mentors, lessons, ski partners and rental equipment, including touring setups and avalanche gear—is about as smooth of a transition as one could hope for. And, with increased interest in the sport, Bluebird’s timing and pricing—a day ticket costs $50—couldn’t be better.

For the past decade the population of backcountry skiers and riders has been steadily rising, and, most recently, that number jumped exponentially—from a reported 1.4 million users in the 2017/18 season, according to SnowSports Industry of America (SIA), to SIA’s reported 6 million today. Add in surging equipment sales in 2020, an outcome of last spring’s early resort shutdowns and this season’s unpredictability related to Covid-19, and the need for education and an easy backcountry introduction is more relevant than ever.

More broadly, corporatization is sweeping across the resort business, with companies like Vail and Alterra together now owning more 50 resorts globally. Along with such a shift, the cost of skiing at resorts has skyrocketed—a day ticket at Vail, Colorado, for example, costs $209—and coop pass models, like the Epic and Ikon passes, are widely considered to be further driving resort crowding. Factor in the reservation systems being implemented by most major ski areas due to Covid-19 regulations, and smaller, independently owned operations stand in sharp contrast.

Lambert takes a stroll through the property last winter. [Photo] Courtesy Bluebird Backcountry

Bluebird similarly requires a reservation system, limiting the total number of guests per day to 200 and for the purpose of reserving guides, lessons and rentals and for signing up for avalanche courses. But their vibe focuses on building community, and their model seeks to promote accessibility. And they’re not the only ski area focusing on these values and looking to bring the backcountry into their offerings.

WHILE VERMONT’S BOLTON VALLEY RESORT is far from entirely human-powered—they have six chairlifts—their backcountry terrain encompasses 12,000 acres of trails and glades that are adjacent to the 45,000-acre Mt. Mansfield State Forest. The resort’s backcountry program is entering its fourth year and, like Bluebird, offers lessons, rental touring setups, a backcountry warming tent and guided tours. Within their menu of courses, the introductory-focused ones have seen the most traffic.

“Our most popular…

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