This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Existing members, click here to learn how to upgrade)
On a late-season Saturday in Winter Park, a group of 25 volunteers go over last-minute plans for the day. It’s 8 a.m, and snow that fell the night before is already beginning to melt.
Rachel Vermeal, a 43-year-old ski instructor with 20 years of backcountry experience, is dressed in golden tights and a Wonder Woman shirt. She reminds her fellow instructors to make time for questions, recommending they count to seven after asking their groups if there’s anything they’d like to go over before moving on.
Erik Lambert, the co-founder of Bluebird Backcountry, which is testing a new model for a lift-free ski area, speaks up next.
“Help people understand what Bluebird is and what this event is,” he says. “We’re basically learning today. Record observations around what people are struggling with.”
The Winter Park uphill skiing event is one of several this season where Lambert and his business partner Jeff Woodward tested their dream to develop the world’s first uphill-access-only ski resort. Earlier this year their guides hosted dozens of paying skiers climbing up the slopes around Mosquito Pass near Alma.
The two entrepreneurs think the hard distinction between front and backcountry is strange, and are looking to slip into the gap, creating an experience for people who are tired of lift lines and overcrowded groomers, but still want an indoor toilet and a Bloody Mary when they break for lunch.
“The backcountry segment is growing rapidly, despite all the barriers to entry,” Lambert said. “We hope that we can revolutionize education by filling those gaps, and revolutionize the culture of skiing here in Colorado by giving people more options.”
Woodward came up with the idea after taking his younger brother into the backcountry for the first time. When his brother asked if he could buy backcountry skis, boots and bindings and also use the setup at resorts, Woodward realized how hard it was to learn to backcountry ski without a mentor. He emailed Lambert a few weeks later.
“There are a lot of barriers to entry. It’s harder than almost any other sport, and it’s more intimidating than almost any other sport. Maybe there’s a business to be made solving this problem,” Lambert remembers thinking. “We believe there should be some way for someone who’s interested and doesn’t know someone else who already backcountry skis to start learning.”
“Backcountry-lite … a better bridge.”
Lambert and Woodward are still in the early stages of the business, testing out what services people would expect from a hybrid backcountry-resort ski area. Currently, the events focus on beginners, teaching backcountry skills and figuring out what skiers new to the slopes beyond resorts are most wanting to learn. If the company is able to move to its own location, they hope to attract more advanced skiers keen to explore mitigated terrain on days when avalanche danger is high.
“Skiing hasn’t changed a ton in the last 30 years. The last big changes to in-bounds skiing were the terrain park and the snowboard, and that was a long time ago,” Lambert said. “We really think there’s a need in this area for a backcountry-lite resort, and we’re trying to figure out a way to make that happen.”
Southern Colorado’s Silverton Mountain was born nearly two decades ago with the promise of a backcountry experience that used a single chairlift to ferry advanced skiers to mitigated but ungroomed terrain. In 2008, Telluride opened up expert terrain on its Palmyra Peak, which requires a long, steep hike to access, but is still controlled for avalanche danger. The Bluebird Backcountry plan is different in that it eschews chairlifts, hoping to attract skiers and snowboarders who want to earn their turns.
Lambert and Woodward created Bluebird Backcountry in response to what they see as a large market gap. Other than a handful of free avalanche awareness slideshows in the Front Range, the first step in formal education is a $450 Avalanche 1 course. On top of the cost of the avalanche-safety class, backcountry skiing requires specialized gear, which many first-timers have to rent. The expense and time commitment can be intimidating to people not even sure if they like the idea of walking uphill on skis.
Jeff Doersch, 26, signed up for a day of instruction at Bluebird as a way of dipping his toes before deciding to fully commit to the backcountry. Doersch has skied at resorts all his life and has recently started taking the idea of transitioning into the backcountry more seriously. As his group pauses for a break — bacon and brownies cooked fresh on a Coleman stove — he mentions his motivations for signing up for the class.
“I’ve always been intrigued, but it’s hard to get out there without knowing,” Doersch said. “I knew it was a huge expense up front.”
Doersh said he’s tired of sitting in Interstate 70 traffic every weekend and signed up for Bluebird because it seemed low hassle. He leaves the rest stop with his group and skins uphill on rented skis while listening to advice from Vermeal. She explains proper kick-turn technique (used to climb switchbacks on steep slopes) and tells him to maximize efficiency by not lifting his ski tips while skinning. The sky is blue, and Doersch is enjoying himself.
While some people at the event are completely new to the backcountry, others have already taken Avalanche 1 and are looking to cement their skills. “Part of the design of that course is to make you hyper aware of all the dangers that exist in the backcountry, and to scare you a little bit about avalanches,” Lambert said. “There should be a better bridge to give people on-snow experience, to allow people to develop their skills, and learn and practice before going out into the true backcountry.”
Katie Freeman, 36, falls into the second group. She’s been in the backcountry seven times over the past three years, always with more experienced friends, and had taken Avalanche 1. But when her friends moved away, Freeman decided she wasn’t comfortable with backcountry decision-making.
“I wanted more experience in a safe environment and to learn from people with more experience than me,” Freeman said. She found Bluebird on Facebook and signed up.
“We’re trying to bridge the gaps between the education that already exists, and give people the confidence and practice before they go out-of-bounds,” Lambert said. Currently, Bluebird offers supplemental training and soft skills, but not the intensive, formalized coursework provided by groups like the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. That might change Lambert said.
“Our hope is that we would have whatever level of instruction you would want to get at some point,” he said. “We would hope you could get your Avy 1 or Avy 2 at Bluebird Backcountry at some point.”
Vermeal signed up to volunteer as an instructor for the event because she wants to provide guidance to skiers unable to find mentorship for the backcountry. “People not knowing their limitations going out is a little scary,” she said. As the skiing population explodes, Vermeal thinks it’s getting harder for people to develop the skills they need to stay safe. She hopes Bluebird can provide a space where people feel comfortable asking questions.
As she leads her group of five beginner backcountry skiers up the groomed ski slope, they pass under a gondola taking passengers to the top of the mountain. No one seems to mind the walk. Vermeal pauses frequently, making sure no one is lagging behind, and reminds the group to drink water. As they skin, she offers individual skiers feedback on their technique, and general tips on things like going to the bathroom while backcountry skiing, or how to remove skins in deep powder.
As a woman in backcountry skiing, Vermeal felt she had an opportunity to be a role model for other women entering the sport. At Winter Park, 15 of the 43 participants were women. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said. “If I don’t do this then what woman is going to?”
Right time, right place to pioneer
Beyond education, Lambert sees Colorado, specifically the Front Range, as uniquely positioned to pioneer a new kind of ski resort. “There’s more avalanche danger in Colorado than any other state, just because of the snowpack, and then on top of that, you have hundreds of thousands of skiers who are looking for the next thing.”
Lambert and Woodward think they’ve found the next thing.
Ski resorts are getting more crowded every year, and traffic alone is enough to put a sour taste in resort skiers mouths. Parking has become close to impossible, so more skiers are turning to the backcountry. But it’s not all about resort negatives. The beauty of hiking through Colorado forests and up jagged peaks to ski their untracked bowls is the experience many are looking for.
Lambert and Woodward know people are interested in Bluebird but are still figuring out what the resort might look like. They spent the spring running two prototypes of Bluebird and getting feedback from guests. In March, Bluebird organized a four-day session at Mosquito Pass, in the true backcountry, where guests skied in guided groups. In April, they followed up with two days at Winter Park, giving visitors free-ski or lesson options.
“They’re very different prototypes, very different experiences, and we’re observing and recording and learning, and then iterating rapidly on the experience. When people come out tomorrow there’s going to be a bunch of changes that happened overnight,” Lambert said. “We’re still in the learning phase, but we’re in the learning phase with an eye towards where we could put this in a permanent location.”
Lambert said a permanent location for Bluebird has always been the goal, and they’re well on their way, although a big obstacle remains: finding land. The pair plan to spend the summer figuring out how to make that happen, whether it’s leasing an undeveloped part of an existing resort or scraping together the funds to buy something of their own.
“Part of what we’re doing here is testing demand and proof of concept. We did that with a survey a year ago, and it came back really positive,” Lambert said. “We thought, ‘Let’s get people on snow. They said they’d pay for it, let’s see if they’d really pay for it.’” After six operating days, they know Coloradans will pay for the experience Bluebird is looking to provide. Bluebird charged $50 for a day at Mosquito Pass, and had $50 and $75 options at Winter Park, with varying amounts of instruction.
Lambert learned to ski the backcountry in New Hampshire, when a slightly experienced friend told him he would like it. Lambert coughed up the cash, bought a touring setup, and went to ski the Gulf of Slides. “Gulf of Slides is named aptly. There had been two avalanches recently that wiped out a bunch of trees, there had been at least 100 trees in each avalanche path that had been ripped out. I skinned right over them and didn’t even think too much about it.”
Looking back now, Lambert is blown away by his first experience but said he sees the same things happening with younger skiers in Colorado today. “We see people who are going up to Loveland Pass and just trying it out without any knowledge, kind of in the way that I just went for it when I was much younger.”
Lambert said he hopes Bluebird can give people a safer option. “I love teaching skills and I love learning. More than anything I love sharing experiences that bring me joy, get me outside and put me in my happy place.”
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