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The state's first-ever human-powered, backcountry ski area hosted hundreds of skiers last spring. Bluebird Backcountry will open for the entire season in a new location near Kremmling in December. (Shondia Houtzer, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Erik Lambert and Jeff Woodward are expanding their Bluebird Backcountry uphill-only ski area into a full season with 1,200 acres on Bear Mountain north of Kremmling.

After a 14-day test season last spring drew more than 1,000 skier visits to Bluebird Backcountry’s innovative lift-free, backcountry-lite ski area, Woodward and Lambert will offer 62 days of skiing between December and March. They have reached a deal with the same ranch owner who hosted them this spring, with three times as much terrain and an area for overnight camping. 

Their season-long offering of Colorado’s first uphill-only, human-powered ski area arrives as resorts across the country announce plans to manage lift-accessed crowds during the pandemic using limited sales of day tickets and even mandatory reservations. Lambert and Woodward used reservations last year to control crowds. They’ll do the same this season, capping visits at 200 a day.

In many ways, their ski operation is ahead of the pandemic curve. But their prescience lies solely in an appreciation for earned turns. 

“We thought lift lines were dumb years ago,” Woodward said. 

The new area gets about 45% more snow than the terrain around Whiteley Peak where Bluebird Backcountry hosted skiers last season. With 1,200 acres of north, west and east-facing alpine and gladed terrain, the new ski area offers much more room for skiers to explore and avoid crowds. The backcountry model already kept crowding to a minimum and this year, Lambert and Woodward designed a new check-in system that eliminates the need to go inside the base-area tent. Lesson size is limited to six skiers and masks will be required at the base and the area’s two warming huts. 

Erik Lambert and Jeff Woodward will open their uphill-only Bluebird Backcountry ski area on 1,200 acres near Kremmling for the entire season. Last year they tested their no-lifts concept for 14 days on 400 acres close to the same area. (Provided by Bluebird Backcountry)

And like all the other resort operators, Bluebird Backcountry is offering full credit for season pass buyers who don’t end up using their pass for the 2020-21 season and refunds if the ski area is closed for 14 or more days. (A limited supply of season passes, which offer unlimited access without the need for reservations, is available at $299.)

The intro-to-the-backcountry ethos remains a priority at Bluebird Backcountry. Both Woodward and Lambert developed the concept based on the idea that skiers should have a place to learn the basics of backcountry skiing in a gentler, less hazardous environment. The pair will employ ski patrollers, a snow safety team to mitigate avalanche hazards and a crew of backcountry guides to help skiers explore more than 3,000 acres beyond the ski area boundary.

This year Bluebird Backcountry is an official provider of American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education courses, with certified instructors offering three levels of lessons so skiers can progress through their backcountry education. And again with the perfect timing, as federal land managers, avalanche educators and backcountry gear manufacturers and retailers brace for an unprecedented surge in interest for backcountry skiing. With crowds limited at resorts, everyone is expecting skiers to flock to the snowy backcountry, just as they did when ski areas closed early in March.

“We already saw that this spring when the ski hills shut down and there wasn’t much to do so people went into the backcountry,” said Woodward, who saw a lot of first-time backcountry skiers learning the sport in avalanche terrain last spring after his own ski area closed. “Our goal here is to offer the best way to learn how to backcountry ski and learn how to do it well and have a safe time.”

Jeff Woodward and Erik Lambert built a temporary hut at the base of their temporary Bluebird Backcountry ski area last spring. This year there will be two warming huts and a base tent for skiers accessing more than 1,200 acres. (Shondia Houtzer, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lambert and Woodward were initially attracted to the idea of a backcountry training ski area when they took avalanche safety classes with skiers who were still learning how to uphill ski and use safety equipment. 

“I always thought it was silly to buy a bunch of gear and then pay for an avalanche course before you even figured out if you liked the sport,” Woodward said. 

The two are offering a membership deal on top of a season pass that offers skiers discounts to Bluebird Backcountry’s three AIARE avalanche safety courses as well as unlimited clinics and ski-with-a-mentor days. 

Since Lambert and Woodward dropped news of a new location this season, hundreds of people have signed up for the Bluebird Backcountry email list and early access to pass sales and deals. 

“That’s pretty good considering we’ve spent about $8 on advertising,” Lambert said. 

The growing interest in the coming season jibes with demand from last spring, when Lambert and Woodward recruited dozens of volunteers to help hundreds of skiers explore the gently sloping terrain below Whiteley Peak. Last year, they expected a lot of first-timers, but they hosted “an incredible variety” of skiers with a wide array of backcountry experience and ski abilities, Lambert said.

“That was fun for us trying to figure out how to serve all these different types of skiers,” Lambert said. “And it’s exciting for us because that means a lot of different kinds of people are intrigued by this idea.”

Even though they had reservations that limited the number of skiers at Bluebird, Lambert and Woodward trimmed the season last year by a weekend when Gov. Jared Polis required all ski areas to close on March 14. 

If the state’s high country sees a spike in COVID-19 cases this year, Woodward hopes health officials will look at the detailed plans resorts have developed for limiting the spread and differentiate between operations rather than issue a blanket closure of all ski areas. 

“Resorts have pretty detailed pandemic plans they didn’t have before, which then leads the regulatory agencies to look at different operations in light of the actual exposures,” Woodward said. “We think that with a 200-person-per-day operation, where people are primarily outside with the people they came with, we are a different type of operation than say a 25,000-person day at Breckenridge.” 

Last year, some Kremmling businesses said they noticed an increase in winter business thanks to skiers at Bluebird Backcountry. Woodward and Lambert said the town embraced their operation. The Grand County town sees traffic in the fall hunting season and again in summer with rafters and campers, but the winter has traditionally been quiet aside from a few snowmobilers.

“We saw a lot more Subarus with skis on top and people coming in in their ski gear,” said Rick Reliford, who in 2017 opened Kremmling’s Grand Adventure Brewing Co., which now includes a restaurant and a distillery. “I’m glad to hear they are coming back. It was certainly noticeable last year.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins