June 21, 2024

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A Colorado Ski Area With No Lift Lines? This One Has No Lifts at All.

8 min read

I was breathing hard by the time I reached the 9,845-foot peak of Bear Mountain, and it wasn’t just because of the altitude. I had skied all the way up.

Bluebird Backcountry, 1,200-plus acres of terrain about 28 miles east of Steamboat Springs, Colo., is like a ski area without chairlifts, explained Jeff Woodward, its co-founder and chief executive, who stood with me at Bluebird’s high point. But it seemed subtler than that: The area — unique in the nation — offers backcountry skiing that simplifies some of the thorniest parts, like avalanche mitigation and terrain selection.

Backcountry skiing or snowboarding usually means getting away from maintained slopes and resorts. It relies on equipment like skins — pieces of material attached to skis to increase traction for climbing — and bindings that allow the heel to move while traveling uphill and then lock it down for the descent. Backcountry snowboards, or splitboards, come apart into two skis for the climb.

It’s a way to ski untouched snow, away from the crowds of traditional resorts, and it has been the fastest-growing segment of snow sports for nearly a decade, a popularity that only grew during the pandemic. Participation numbers have quadrupled in the past four years, according to a study by Snowsports Industries America, a trade organization focused on outdoor winter activities. Backcountry equipment sales have increased a similar amount in the same time, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.

But the sport has a steep learning curve, and it can be dangerous. When you ski outside a resort, where the ski patrol manages the terrain, you’re opening yourself up to hazards like avalanches, which kill an average of 27 people in the United States each year, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. This winter, the center reports, there have already been seven avalanche deaths in Colorado alone, and many more people have been injured.

I learned to backcountry ski first from my father and then from a boyfriend, and that’s typical of how people have historically tended to pick up the sport: through a close relationship, says Jordan Bohme, Bluebird’s education manager. Either you knew someone experienced who wanted to teach you, he explained, or you invested thousands of dollars in gear and formal avalanche education before you even knew if you liked the sport. “That gatekeeping culture of mentorship, and the expense to buy in, has kept the sport small, and largely white, male and affluent,” he said.

Mr. Woodward said Bluebird was trying to change that by providing education about equipment and safety as well as a place to learn the physical skills. Rental gear, starting at $35 a day, allows people to try the sport before they commit. The area also maps out trails and manages avalanche risk to keep things safe. Day pass rates start at $39, and a season pass runs $249. The resort is open Thursday to Monday, and dogs are welcome to join for $10.

The idea for Bluebird was born in 2016 when Mr. Woodward took his brother backcountry skiing on a blue-sky day outside Crested Butte, Colo. His brother loved skinning uphill and sliding down an empty mountain, and Mr. Woodward started thinking about how other people might have that same experience.

He put the idea in his journal that night. “I wrote, ‘What if there was a climbing gym for skiing?’” Mr. Woodward said. He couldn’t stop thinking about the middle ground between resorts and true backcountry. He pulled in a couple of collaborators, including his college friend Erik Lambert, and they started dreaming about what a backcountry ski area could look like.

“Our biggest assumptions were that there was a demand for it, and that we could get land,” he said. “Land is hard to test, so we decided to test demand. We made a Facebook post in February of 2018 saying, ‘Would you want a backcountry ski area?’ We expected a couple hundred responses, but we got 900 overnight, from all across the country. It went from a fun project we’d been telling people about over beers to something we thought we should probably do.”

They knew people wanted a place to backcountry ski safely, but starting a new area, especially one that doesn’t hew to the traditional form, takes more than just customers. You need snow, slopes and road access — which limits possible locations — and then you need infrastructure, insurance, instructors and more.

They spent the next two winters hosting pop-up backcountry events on Forest Service land and closed ski area terrain. By the end of that second season, they decided they needed a permanent location. The co-founders and a team of volunteers spent the summer scouting Forest Service land, private parcels and unused parts of ski areas. By the fall of 2019, they hadn’t found any options. But then one volunteer came back from a family reunion in Kremmling, Colo., a small town about 30 miles south of Bluebird, with a lead. A relative was a ranch manager, and he might have some land that could work.

The Bluebird crew toured the ranch and found it to be both snowy and skiable. They spent the beginning of the winter marking boundaries and mapping ski runs, and in early 2020, the area opened for its first season.

The ranch proved to be a lucky strike, as well as a challenge. It offers an ideal combination of backcountry terrain, ranging from beginner-friendly rolling meadows to steep chutes off Bear Mountain. But because it’s a working cattle ranch, crews have to set up everything the ski area needs, from a base lodge to trail signs, from scratch every fall and remove it in the spring.

The base area comprises a series of canvas tents and geodesic domes. There’s no running water. When you drive in from Highway 14, it feels as if you’re heading into the forest, until white tents appear on the edge of the meadow. You can camp in the parking lot for $25, in true low-key backcountry fashion, and this year Bluebird added plastic domes, which sleep up to five people for $229 a night, as well as common areas for après-ski.

I arrived on a Friday in January and spent that evening in the common tent, sitting around the wood stove with a group of friends from Denver. I met one season-pass holder who visits frequently because she likes the low-stress access to the backcountry. She’s planning to get married at Bluebird this spring.

We woke up Saturday morning to 16 inches of new snow and a line of cars arriving. People were milling around the main tent, picking up rental splitboards and avalanche beacons — devices that help rescuers find you if you’re buried — buying coffee and breakfast burritos, and assembling for classes.

That morning, Bluebird was hosting two avalanche classes, and three of its signature backcountry classes. Mr. Bohme said the instructors had developed the curriculum to guide people through the steps of backcountry skiing, from the rudimentary, like figuring out the boots and bindings, to the more complex, like identifying hazardous terrain. The $80 Backcountry 1 class is the most popular option. He said that around half of the area’s visitors are new backcountry skiers, and that 65 percent come from the Denver area. That morning, there was a group who had flown in from Wisconsin to take an advanced Backcountry 3 class.

Past the tents, there’s a wooden arch called the portal, where workers check your ticket and avalanche beacon. They check you back in at the end of the day, too, to make sure everyone is off the hill. Once you’re through the portal, two uphill skin tracks diverge into the mountains.

Because of the new snow, the Bluebird ski patrol was busy with avalanche control — intentionally setting off any possible snow slides while the terrain was empty — so the steeper terrain on Bear Mountain was slow to open. My ski partners and I skinned through a slightly sloped meadow up the West Bowl track.

I’ve been backcountry skiing for nearly two decades. I feel fairly comfortable assessing risk, I like skiing away from crowds, and I enjoy a challenge. That led to my biggest questions about Bluebird: Would I be bored? How much range did it have? Did people use Bluebird as a steppingstone and then head out into wilder places?

The skin tracks, which are marked with distance, slope angle and elevation gain, felt as if they approximated a chairlift’s path. I was surprised by how much I liked the signage and direction, which eliminate some navigational stress and effort. I thought about Mr. Woodward’s climbing-gym analogy: a place where newbies can safely learn and experienced people can find low-stress exercise.

After about a mile, we made it to the Perch warming hut. One of the avalanche classes had gathered inside, and an employee was grilling and handing out free bacon, a Bluebird quirk. She said she went through 12 pounds on a busy Saturday.

From there we headed deeper into West Bowl through a grove of old aspens. We ascended the ridge along the rolling edge of a fence line and looked across the bowl to 200-foot-high Meat Hill, right above the Perch, where the Backcountry 1 and 2 classes had assembled. Mr. Bohme had described it as ideal learning terrain.

At the apex of West Bowl, we pointed our skis down into the Whumphing Willows glade. A steep drop gave way to a meadow of evenly spaced trees. The new snow sprayed up over my shins, and turning felt effortless. We glided to the Perch for a piece of bacon and then headed up again.

On the up track, I considered what I like about backcountry skiing: solitude, exploration, exercise, untouched snow. The moving meditation of huffing up and gliding down. Bluebird is a slightly reduced version of all that. But that’s not bad.

It felt good to walk uphill without thinking much about hazards or navigation. I didn’t look at my phone to check a map, and there was no cell service, anyway. Snow is complicated; you can’t eliminate all risk. But at Bluebird I could relax a little. I could focus on my breath and on the forest.

And I could focus on skiing. In the afternoon, once the ski patrol had wrapped up its avalanche work and opened up more terrain, I skinned toward the top of Bear Peak with Mr. Woodward and his wife, Amelia. The sun was trying to break through the clouds as we curved along the edge of the mountain. We saw two other groups on the way up, but when we transitioned to downhill mode at the top of a glade called Ursa Major, there was only one ski track cutting across the snow in front of us. From there we slipped through an open alley of fir trees, turning through those 16 untouched inches of snow, feeling weightless, alone and free.

Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to receive expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places to Go in 2023.

Heather Hansman

2023-03-10 10:00:23

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