I was stepping out of my bindings at the base of Steamboat one sunny afternoon after a glorious day of spring skiing with my kids. It was the 1980s — a lifetime ago in the evolution of alpine skiing in Colorado. “We have to keep doing this before we get old,” I said to my companions.
A gray-haired guy stepping out of his skis nearby overheard me and responded, “Keep doing this and you never have to get old.”
It became my mantra.
This ski season has tested my resolve, however. Even my grandson says what’s happening at the resorts is getting old … really old.
After the COVID challenges of 2020-21, the crowds roared back to Colorado resorts with a vengeance. Part of it was the growing appeal of outdoor activities in quarantine months. Part was the relaxing of pandemic measures at the resorts that last year included such things as reservations to ski and mask requirements on gondolas.
Most of it likely was the desire to just have uninhibited fun again.
Then the snow came in January and the hoards descended. Resorts were slammed, and Vail became the poster child for mismanagement.
Labor shortages colliding with Epic skier numbers created a social media firestorm. Parts of Vail Mountain were closed for lack of lift ops and skiers griped about, well, everything.
But it wasn’t just Vail.
At Heavenly in Lake Tahoe they call the need to arrive at the resort well before the lifts open an “alpine start,” which sounds a lot more exciting than the frigid pre-dawn wake-up call it really is.
My grandson knows the alpine start all too well.
He has become accustomed to groggily eating a breakfast burrito with his mom in the Mary Jane parking lot to kill time waiting for the lifts to start. For a kid who usually doesn’t get out of bed until after 11 a.m. on weekends, that kind of dedication to the sport is awe-inspiring.
But he knows that late — or even on-time — arrivers can find themselves seriously out of luck.
Those who pull into Winter Park after 8 a.m. on weekends have routinely been met with signs announcing the parking lots are all full — even in town.
So, while we wait for the ski industry to figure out how to manage crowds and preserve the experience of a perfect day of spring skiing, I suggest an audacious alternative to 5 a.m. alarms, 20-minute waits in lift lines and $14 bowls of soup.
Zero chairlifts. All soul.
It’s the slogan of the cheeky little pop-up ski operation that emerges each winter on the hillsides of Bear Mountain near Rabbit Ears Pass.
Bluebird Backcountry is one of a kind and certainly not the place to go if your idea of a great ski vacation is a dozen frantic downhill runs a day without ever breaking a sweat.
There you have to earn your turns by sticking skins to your skis or split-boards and hiking up along the Continental Divide before you rip your way down bowls or through tree runs on trails never ever to be desecrated by a groomer.
Think Tenth Mountain Division without the firearms.
You even bring your own beer.
Both times I’ve been to Bluebird I’ve met skiers from New York, so the word is definitely out.
CEO Jeff Woodward said most of the buzz has come through word of mouth.
“We’ve had a fair amount of earned media, too,” he said. “It’s a compelling story.”
As traditional ski resorts have become more crowded and expensive, the allure of backcountry skiing has grown, Woodward explained. But a lot of neophytes wisely are seeking a place to learn backcountry skills without fear of dying.
With its avalanche mitigation, marked trails and experience ski patrollers, Bluebird provides a safe way to learn the sport.
In addition to providing blue to triple-black-diamond trails for recreational skiing, the operation offers backcountry training and avalanche safety classes. Skiers are required to wear beacons and carry shovels and avalanche probes as part of the mission to teach best practices when venturing into the backcountry.
After a day of strenuous skiing, everyone gathers outside at the base to listen to music and share stories of doing three, four, maybe five sick gnarly runs — that’s skiing both up and downhill, remember.
The biggest challenge for Bluebird is the same thing that makes it so appealing — its remoteness.
It’s 35 minutes from Kremmling and Steamboat, and at this point has no lodging except for a few camping sites in the parking lot near the portable toilets. There are no bars or restaurants at the base. It’s minimalist, for sure.
The founders hope to enrich the experience without blowing it.
“There’s a difference between a really fun ski day and a really fun ski experience,” Woodward said. “We’d like to be able someday to create that great feeling you get with a hut trip, but for now we just want to make sure you have a really fun ski day.”
What they lack in infrastructure they make up for in what Woodward calls “stoke.”
There are warming yurts and firepits in various locations around the mountain, a bandstand for live music at the base and the quirkiest feature of all — free bacon.
It’s a long story, but suffice it to say the savory snack that helped get skiers through the death march at a prototype for Bluebird Backcountry some years ago has become the signature treat at Bear Mountain.
At today’s Jerry Jog uphill ski races, along with the costume contests, the obstacle courses and the ski clinics, Woodward said participants will earn 10 seconds off their race times per slice of bacon eaten.
“It’s really goofy fun,” he said. “I plan to ski in jorts.”
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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