Bluebird Backcountry, the lift-free, human-powered ski area on a lonely mountain between Kremmling and Steamboat Springs, is closing for good after four seasons.
“We are bummed. This is not the plan we wanted,” Bluebird Backcountry co-founder Jeff Woodward said late last week.
Entrepreneurs Woodward and Erik Lambert opened Bluebird Backcountry on a private mountain outside Kremmling in 2019, hoping their idea for a “backcountry lite” ski area — with guides and instructors introducing uphill skiing and backcountry safety to skiers willing to work for their turns — could forge a new model for the resort industry.
Bluebird Backcountry was popular. Visits climbed every season. Skiers took lessons and joined clinics at the lift-free ski area. They booked 41 beds in an assortment of trailers and yurts, filling the resort every winter weekend. Sales climbed 22% and visits were up 36% in 2022-23 from the resort’s 2021-22 season.
The arrival of the pandemic did not bode well for many startup businesses reliant on visitors. But Bluebird Backcountry offered outdoor recreation in a somewhat controlled setting. The ski area employed top-tier snow safety experts who helped mitigate avalanche hazards, and the pandemic fueled visits.
The resort also met a growing demand for backcountry skiing. In early 2020, participation reports from SnowSports Industries America and the Outdoor Industry Association showed about 700,000 skiers traveling in the backcountry on specialized Alpine touring equipment. By 2023, that number had reached more than 2.2 million.
Backcountry skiing for the past several years has remained one of the fastest growing niches in the ski world. And just about every ski area has crafted policies for uphill travel, catering to a growing swell of skiers eager to climb. The city of Aspen has even positioned itself as a hub for human-powered uphill skiing, with events and hundreds of skiers scaling the Roaring Fork Valley’s four ski areas.
But the backcountry boom alone was not enough to float Bluebird Backcountry. Woodward said the location of his ski hill — on the remote, 1,200-acre Bear Mountain a three-hour drive from metro Denver — was a challenge. About 60% of Bluebird visitors were from the Front Range, and surveys of those skiers showed the long drive deterred repeat visits.
Startup investment pool drained by economic unease
The resort needed some outside investment, but the pool of investors willing to fund a startup business has withered in the past year with spiking interest rates and growing wariness of the country’s economy.
“We have a steep hill to climb to get to profitability, but we are heading in the right direction. I think Bluebird Backcountry at Bear Mountain could have been profitable in a few years,” Woodward said. “I think if we were closer to the Front Range we could have overcome the fundraising challenges.”
New ski areas are very rare. The last new hill to open in Colorado was the revived Echo Mountain in 2005 at the dormant Clear Creek County ski area, which had been closed since 1975. Before that, Aaron and Jenny Brill opened their single-chair Silverton Mountain outside Silverton in 2002. Beaver Creek was the last major ski area to open, debuting in 1980.
Woodward and Lambert felt 2020 was “a perfect time” to open one of the country’s only human-powered downhill ski areas. They hoped skiers were growing bored with traditional lift riding and crowded slopes. They wanted to create a place where skiers could gain experience with uphill travel through avalanche terrain in an accommodating setting.
They tested their concept in 2019 with a team of 25 volunteers spending several spring weekends guiding 171 visitors into undeveloped areas of Winter Park ski area. The next year they leased Whiteley Peak, a prominent volcanic plug on the southern end of the Rabbit Ears range near Kremmling and opened to visitors in late December. They moved Bluebird Backcountry up the range to Bear Mountain for the 2020-21 winter and spent three seasons at the private ranch offering clinics, classes, guided and unguided skiing along with camping at the 1,200-acre ski hill.
Over the years Bluebird Backcountry has hosted more than 19,000 skiers. On a busy Saturday in March this year, they logged more than 300 visitors. The ski area was festive, with costumes and themed events. At several remote locations across the ski hill, employees would fry up batches of bacon, offering tasty rewards for hard-working skiers. Skiers would pay $50 for a ticket and another $50 for two-hour backcountry lessons.
“Countless people had life-changing experiences here,” Woodward said, hoping that his team of 25 seasonal employees helped foster a new generation of backcountry skiers “and introduced a much-needed antidote to the overcrowded and overbuilt ski industry status quo.”
Woodward and Lambert had never operated a ski area before launching Bluebird Backcountry. They are not sure what’s next. They are selling the base-lodge tents, yurts and other assets of the ski area. They are hoping aspiring innovators can find seeds of new ideas in the Bluebird Backcountry run. The concept still has legs, Woodward said, especially if an entrepreneur can find a location closer to a metro area.
“We’ve put our hearts, souls and most of our life savings into this and we’ve learned so much as first-time founders,” Woodward said. “There is an opportunity here for sure for someone with passion and the right location. We are happy to share our ideas and insights with anyone who wants to follow our path.”