KREMMLING — Cory Feign was ready to try this whole backcountry skiing thing. The Boulder resident had skied the resorts and was eager to explore beyond the boundaries.
He wondered what gear he would need. How would he identify a safe place to ski? Should he buy all the gear — backcountry skis and avalanche equipment — and take an avalanche safety class before even venturing into the backcountry?
“It seemed like there were some difficult but important decisions I needed to make and it was like ‘Argh. I don’t know what to do,’” he said. “So we came here.”
Feign was among 94 skiers last Thursday at Bluebird Backcountry, the state’s first human-powered backcountry ski area, where skiers can hike uphill on skis — called skinning — to reach fields of untrammeled powder. He and his friend rented equipment and followed established skintracks into backcountry terrain that had been assessed and mitigated to reduce the threat of avalanche.
“It was the perfect middle ground. It was really the perfect balance of getting away from resorts but not totally off on our own yet,” Feign said.
Erik Lambert smiled as Feign talked about his experience. He’d heard that story a lot in the past few weeks, ever since he and Jeff Woodward opened Bluebird Backcountry on a private ranch beneath the 10,115-foot Whiteley Peak. They’ve hosted hundreds of skiers on about 1,500 acres of guided and unguided terrain over the past month.
Lambert and Woodward’s plan is to offer a baby-step into the backcountry. They call it “backcountry lite.” As more skiers venture beyond the boundaries of resorts, they hope to build a place where skiers could hone some of the technical skills needed for backcountry travel in an area where lessons are available, avalanche risks have been mitigated and ski patrollers are ready to help.
“The classic saying is ‘know before you go,’ right?” Lambert said, repeating the avalanche education mantra urging backcountry travelers to have the right skills, equipment and knowledge before skiing in avalanche terrain.
“What we are finding is people who try to take avalanche education before they have a basic understanding of their equipment or technique end up not getting the most out of an avalanche course,” he said. “So our hope is that people can go experience a bit of the backcountry before they go take an avalanche course so that they can have a bigger arsenal of knowledge and experience to go truly out of bounds.”
Call it “Know Before You Know Before You Go.”
“We hope Bluebird is a place where you can not only begin your journey, but you can continue that journey over time and practice,” Lambert said. “So you can build your experience on snow and be more ready for true backcountry travel.”
It was less than a year ago that Lambert and Woodward first tested their plan. They had an idea and a list of people ready to both volunteer and ski-test the concept. The pair hosted more than 170 skiers at test events last ski season at Winter Park ski area and at the proposed backcountry hut near North London Mill in the Mosquito Range. Last fall, they negotiated a deal with the owner of the ranch below Whiteley Peak with a plan to host skiers for 15 days on the slopes spilling from the southern end of the Rabbit Ears range.
Response has been beyond their expectations. On the first weekday of operation — March 5 — the parking lot was almost full by 9 a.m. They expected a mix of about 80% from the Front Range and the rest from nearby communities in Grand County, Steamboat and Summit County. But so far, a little more than half their visitors are from the Front Range, up to 30% are locals and more than 15% are coming from out-of-state.
“We are learning all sorts of stuff we never anticipated, and we are doing stuff we never anticipated,” said Lambert, who helped string more than 1,400 feet of rope across the ski area to help guide skiers.
Skiers can venture around the ski area to get stamps in a passport booklet and earn a free beer at the end of the day. There’s a stamp at the mid-mountain Perch, where volunteers keep a cast-iron griddle filled with sizzling bacon all day. A stamp at the beacon park, where skiers can test their search skills; a stamp at the summit, stamps for multiple laps and for connecting with Lambert or Woodward or even Shasta, the giddy pup bouncing around the base tent. They have flowery leis for skiers who might need a partner.
The bulletin board in the base tent offers a daily weather and snow condition report as well as the likelihood of a mountain-lion sighting (Moderate!)
“We are learning and growing every day and making changes every day to find ways to make it more welcoming and more experiential and more educational,” Lambert says as he hustles around the turf-carpeted building they erected in a field. “We want this to be a fun place that is less committing than going into the true backcountry.”
The pair went big on snow safety, hiring the legendary Pat Ahern as a ski patroller and snow-safety expert, along with Bob Tierney, a former snow-safety manager for Vail Resorts. Ahern directed snow-safety programs at Telluride when the resort opened its Prospect Basin and Gold Hill terrain. He was with Silverton Mountain for six years in the early 2000s, as that ski area got off the ground.
Silverton Mountain and Bluebird are the last two new ski areas to open in Colorado. And both took very different tacks from the tried-and-true resort model. Aaron and Jenny Brill almost 20 years ago assembled a collection of mining claims and installed a second-hand lift to develop a no-frills hill for skiers seeking adventure. Lambert and Woodward also are veering off the beaten path with a model that eschews lifts and lures skiers with the promise of something beyond the traditional resort experience.
“It opens backcountry skiing to a whole different group of people,” said Ahern, who since 1988 has patrolled at Jackson Hole, Big Sky, Arapahoe Basin, Wolf Creek, Silverton Mountain and Telluride. “Initially I thought this would be a bunch of skiers wanting to come and just tear it up, but look in the parking lots and it’s a bunch of people who have never backcountry’d, and they are learning something new.”
So what similarities does Ahern see between his years on the frontline at Silverton Mountain and his initial weeks at Bluebird?
“The owners of both places are some of the hardest working people I’ve met,” he said as he dug a snow-profile pit near the mid-mountain Perch to analyze the snow and identify layers that could pose an avalanche risk. “They are different, but they are driven. I get emails from them at 1:40 in the morning. They are getting after it, that’s for sure.”
Woodward and Lambert are forging a new business model. They are taking cues from both the guiding world and the resort world to create something new. They picked a good spot to test their theory, across the valley from Baker Mountain, a nearly 10,000-foot peak that hosted skiers and a rope tow in the early 1950s and where, as legend holds, the term “champagne powder” originated.
(That same legend tells that Baker closed in 1953 after a host of challenges posed by too much snow.)
Early signals indicate Lambert and Woodward, while not necessarily wallowing in an overabundance of powder, are on the right track. But they admit they have a long way to go to be financially sustainable, with the hundreds of visitors paying $50 a day not quite enough for the operation to break even. But after a month, they feel they can approach other landowners and maybe even public land managers with evidence that their plan works. Maybe they can develop Bluebird Backcountry locations in other places.
“If we find that we are creating the answer to the problem of ‘How do I get started backcountry skiing and where do I go to learn and practice and grow?’ and if we are solving that problem here in Colorado, then that problem almost certainly exists in other locations,” said Lambert, whose final days of the season are March 13-15. “And however we solve that problem we can replicate it in other places.”
Try Utah, says Maverick Bolger, who came over from Park City with his wife, Lauren, to ski Bluebird for a couple days last week. They are land use attorneys and they are seeing projects — big ones, like the heli-skiing community of Sanctuary and the proposed resort for the former Wasatch Peaks Ranch near Ogden — built around a different kind of ski experience.
“We are seeing people interested in the highest levels of financing so I think, yes, we could see more of these popping up,” Bolger said. “This feels awesome to me. It’s not a giant corporate model, but it’s the stuff that skiers like us want. There’s a bit of the social element infused with the solitary ski mountaineering experience where you just want to get out on the skin track and empty your mind. We had a blast today.”