KREMMLING, Colo. – “Welcome to a ski area with no chairlifts,” said Jeff Woodward as he showed me around the snow-capped private ranch that’s home to Bluebird Backcountry, about 30 minutes southeast of Steamboat Springs in northwestern Colorado.
Woodward and a business partner co-founded Bluebird Backcountry in early 2020, making it the state – and maybe the country — new ski area. Embracing the growth of backcountry skiing, an age-old winter sport that has taken off in recent years as an alternative to ski resorts, including in Western Washington, Bluebird Backcountry offers an “inbounds” hiking experience.
Don’t expect a climb – it’s the only human-powered ski area in the country.
As skiers and snowboarders – no more than 150 of them, the daily maximum – ascend and descend the 1,245 vertical feet on Bear Mountain‘s flanks unaided, there are safeguards here, unlike ski touring. in a wild setting. Day passes ($49) are required, which funds amenities such as avalanche control work and ski patrol. Uphill routes known as skin runs are marked, as are 28 downhill runs with a range of difficulty, from green squares through Aspen groves to blue squares in low-angle bowls and extreme couloirs double black diamond.
“We want to give people a less risky, more comfortable and safer place to go off-piste skiing,” Woodward said.
On a Sunday in February, the base area of Bluebird was a quiet hive of activity. (Bluebird opens December through March, conditions permitting.) In the blinding sun, half a dozen people bundled up against the single-digit temperatures as an instructor walked them through the basics of skinning their alpine touring skis and splitboards, the essential tools of the trade to move on snow. In another group, an avalanche education instructor oversaw an equipment check to ensure students were wearing the proper safety gear: shovel, beacon, and probe.
Inside the solar-powered pop-up shelter that looked more like a disaster relief command center than a ski lodge, staff helped first-timers select the appropriate rental gear. The shelter falls during the off-season, when the ranch manages 2,000 head of cattle and serves as a fall elk hunting operation, making Bluebird a no-trace operation. Outside, runners in spandex suits did warm-up laps before taking part in a bacon-themed ski mountaineering or skimo race – slices of bacon were served at race checkpoints. race and the winners won a frying pan painted gold.
“Megaresorts have lost some of their soul and we’d love to bring it back,” Woodward said of quirky touches like the Bacon Brawl. Bluebird’s low-key vibe is the opposite of Steamboat’s scene, which is about 27 miles NW above the Continental Divide on Rabbit Ears Pass. The daily capacity of 150 people at Bluebird is 40 times less than the number of skiers and snowboarders the Steamboat gondola can carry in an hour.
Bluebird’s audience may be niche, but there’s adequate demand for this one-of-a-kind operation two hours from Denver — and, one might suspect, for a similar operation on a tour. a day in Seattle – given the high barrier to entry in terms of price, equipment and the skills needed to learn off-piste skiing.
“We try to be very welcoming because sport isn’t always that welcoming and we think it should be,” Woodward said. “There should be a better way to learn this sport.”