With the continuing rise of backcountry skiing and snowboarding’s popularity, a company in Colorado is taking matters into its own hands—er, legs—to address increased demand by opening the country’s newest human-powered ski area, sans chairlift.
Founded by partners and longtime skiers Erik Lambert and Jeff Woodward, Bluebird Backcountry opens Feb. 15 between Kremmling and Steamboat Springs, Colo., offering something no other resort in the country can: a lift-free backcountry ski area, complete with guides, instructors, ski patrollers, rentals plus a mid-mountain warming hut and tent at the base.
Enveloping 2,200 vertical feet of skiable terrain, the facility is located on 1,500 acres of private land on Peak Ranch, abutting 10,115-foot Whiteley Peak. It will open for 15 days between Feb. 15 and March 15, with tickets costing $50. For another $50, users can book a two-hour backcountry lesson. Capacity tops out at 250 to 300 skiers a day, with 300 acres open for unguided climbing and schussing, and 1,200 acres open for guided skiing. The first few days that the hill is open will be restricted to only 50 guests.
So far, the venture seems to be carving a unique, and needed, niche. During a 10-day Kickstarter campaign in late January, nearly 1,000 backers pledged more than $100,000 to open the new backcountry ski area. “We’ve been blown away by all the support we’ve received,” says Lambert, who with Woodward spent the past two years searching for the right spot. “It’s great to see so much early support for it.”
The premise is simple. More and more people today are bypassing (increasingly crowded) chairlifts and “earning their turns,” whether it’s in the backcountry or skiing up a ski trail at a resort. But many, including those new to the sport, don’t know enough about avalanches, or have the right gear, to venture into the backcountry. Voila! Bluebird gives them a place where they can skin up for powder turns, in a safe environment with avalanche hazard mitigation in place. (Patrollers will open and close terrain as needed to reduce hazards.)
The market is substantial, and booming. Snowsports Industries America, the sport’s trade association, estimates there are more than 1.3 million backcountry skiers and riders in the country. Sales of backcountry gear have risen markedly, with alpine touring (AT) bindings up 84 percent, boots up 18 percent, and accessories—including avalanche safety devices—up 24 percent. And the industry is psyched on the project.
“Backcountry skiing has multiple options, from pure backcountry to ski resort touring,” Ross Herr of leading equipment provider Dynafit. “The Bluebird resort will increase participation in AT skiing for those looking for a unique experience in a controlled environment.”
But with more people venturing into the backcountry comes increased potential for avalanche injuries. Eight skiers and snowboarders died last season in seven avalanches in Colorado alone, the most since 2013.
“There’s a huge demand for people wanting to figure out how to get started backcountry skiing,” Lambert says. “We’re trying to provide a simple way for people to get started in it without having a mentor, and make the sport more welcoming and friendly.
“The demand for backcountry skiing is outpacing the supply of mentors,” he adds. “The sport has high barriers to entry. Our goal is to help people get started responsibly and instill good habits.”
And Lambert and Woodward believe there’s a huge market for this. “Some people are more risk averse,” Lambert says, adding that a lot of people—such as new parents or those rusty on their skills—don’t want to put themselves in risky terrain. “You can see that with the growth of climbing gyms. They opened a door for everyday people to try climbing in a controlled environment. That’s what we’re trying to do with backcountry skiing.”
It was serendipity that helped Lambert and Woodward find their spot for the resort. While conducting a test ski last year, a volunteer mentioned a relative who owned a ranch near Kremmling. They visited the site, found its slope angles, aspen trees and rolling terrain perfect for their needs, and worked out a plan with the ranch owner to lease a portion of it.
And while they’re catering to novice backcountry skiers and those looking to improve their skills, “It’s a place for people of all ability levels,” he says, adding experienced backcountry skiers can use it to take friends who are just getting started. “And we hope to open steeper terrain in the future, making it more attractive to experienced backcountry skiers.”
They also plan to use it for continuing education courses, creating progressive tracks so people can develop backcountry skills responsibly. “It takes something that’s complex and requires a big skill set and makes it more inclusive and approachable,” he says. “But the focus this year is to give the introductory skier an easy place to try it out.”
The Gear You’ll Need
• Small backpack for water, food, clothing, safety equipment and other gear.
• Avalanche beacon, with charged batteries, to help people find you, and you others.
• Collapsible shovel and probe pole.
• Skis with alpine-touring (AT) or telemark bindings, allowing the heel to lift for walking uphill; or a splitboard for snowboarders.
• Climbing skins, which prevent your skis or board from sliding backwards while ascending.