Destination — Bluebird Backcountry, CO


WORDS — Aaron H. Bible

Bluebird Backcountry was born in 2019 as Colorado’s newest ski area. Heading into this winter, it’s a budding locale for backcountry beginners and tenured riders, alike. And, uniquely so—it’s one of the first-ever, uphill-specific ski areas in the world. With zero chairlifts, plenty of soul and the potential for a deep snowpack, the experience at Bluebird rewards those willing to put in the hard work on the uphill, and rewards the community that is popping up around it.

But, before going full hog with the wild concept, founders Erik Lambert and Jeff Woodward had to gather an enormous amount of data, intrigue potential sponsors and generally build good will through online surveys and communication with the Front Range community. Immediately, the response was positive and the duo soon realized that they had hatched an idea that had legs but needed a home. Bluebird was to provide a safe, accessible, tiered and controlled place for people to “learn” to backcountry ski, replete with ski patrol, lessons, rentals and a laid-back, welcoming vibe. What was blasphemy to some in the backcountry ski world prior to its existence has now turned into one of skiing’s most coveted destinations. 

“First, we put up a website with a survey and we got 2,000 responses,” said Lambert, adding that 94 percent of respondents absolutely loved the idea. “We put it up on Facebook and got 900 responses overnight. Then we did a couple of weekend prototypes on Forest Service land, outside of Alma and at Winter Park, and we showed people a great time.” More quickly than anticipated, the concept was proven to be not only something the ski industry was missing but filled a void that backcountry skiers didn’t quite realize existed at all—a place to learn and grow, stretch the legs, with the safety net of a ski patrol and the opportunity for mentorship from other like-minded skiers. 

The resort sits on a private ranch with what might initially appear to be some unassuming peaks and glades, nestled down a dirt road near the turn-off for Rabbit Ears Pass and Steamboat Springs, Colorado. A series of enviable yurts, tee-pees, containers, generators and a massive quonset hut made cozy with retired Astro Turf make up the infrastructure of the ski area’s lodge. Radios crackle like the fire pits you’ll later warm your digits around, as the morning’s activities come to life, just like any other “real” ski area. 

“This whole thing started almost four years ago when I took my brother backcountry skiing as a Christmas present,” said co-founder Woodward. “He had this amazing day, but it made me realize that it’s hard to safely try this sport: One, you need gear and, yes ,you can rent it, but it’s expensive. And, two, [backcountry skiing] requires a mentorship model—you really have to have a friend that will take you out to show you the ropes.”

While some might turn their noses up at this human-powered, backcountry ski area located outside of Kremmling, Colorado, most do not, and the area has been selling out faster than a Phish concert at Madison Square Garden. While the ski area does limit its capacity to 200 tickets per operating day, if you’re able to grab a spot (or a season pass), you’ll be greeted by a friendly crew of skiers and snowboarders with a passion to reduce the barriers of entry for the sport and improve gaps in backcountry education. Each morning, patrol mitigates to the same standard as other resorts, evaluating, ski cutting and opening and closing terrain as needed. Bluebird is also an official AIARE course provider, and is offering Backcountry Skiing 101, 102, and 103 level courses throughout the 2021-22 winter season. 

Looking ahead, Bluebird Backcountry aims to build its leadership role in the backcountry space while making it easier to get into the sport (and experience backcountry skiing) while creating confident, safe and educated skiers. Backcountry skiing is so much more than “getting your Avy 1”—it’s about getting out year-after-year, learning route-finding and decision-making techniques, sifting out the right ski partners and, of course, perfecting a bombproof kick-turn.

“We wanted to shape how people learn how to backcountry ski, have a place to practice and provide a way to bridge out of that [so skiers can eventually] have the experience, knowledge and confidence to go out of bounds elsewhere,” said Lambert. “Learning requires mentorship, but mentorship doesn’t scale properly. Bluebird provides that.” 

This story originally appeared in FREESKIER Volume 24.
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