Stayin’ alive

The nation’s first human-powered ski resort opens

Credit: Emma Athena

My thighs burn hotter than red coals, muscle fibers straining, screaming. I have to release. I fall. Face-first like a tripped kid on the playground. Rather than asphalt, though, it’s three feet of pillowy snow that catches my chin, then cheek, then forehead, as my left ski goes flying and my right shoulder drives straight into the slope. I pause as ice crystals turn to water against my bare skin. Like an exhale, my thighs release their ropy grip.

My third try at powder skiing feels just as hard as my first. These skinny, slippery sticks stuck to my feet… How to keep them from sliding underneath the snow? How to turn when there’s nothing firm to push against? How to glide and bounce, fly and float like everyone else?

From the top of the run — the most mellow at Colorado’s newest ski resort, Bluebird Backcountry, the country’s first chairlift-less, human-powered ski resort — the only answer I could muster was my thighs. So, I leaned back, kept my ski tips up, squatted low for balance, and dropped into the 17 inches of fresh snow. Within a minute my thighs were on fire, and that’s when I ate it.

I sit up, shaking the snow from my ear, my rogue ski a few feet below me. I slide down to grab it, clumps of snow tumbling in my wake. 

Though I’m a novice skier, I’m a backcountry skier. Three years ago I bought my first pair of skis and went straight for a touring set up (skis with adjustable bindings that allow both uphill and downhill movement). Around the same time, Jeff Woodward and Erik Lambert, two backcountry fiends from Denver and Golden respectively, were starting to brainstorm concepts for Bluebird Backcountry. They envisioned a ski area with no chairlifts and hundreds of acres of avalanche-evaluated powder, where someone could safely learn the innards of backcountry touring while still enjoying traditional resort amenities like ski patrol, a lodge, rentals and guides.

If only Bluebird had been up and running when I started: I’m the perfect example of someone who would’ve benefited from its existence. All things considered, I’m lucky I’m still alive. 

•  •  •  •

Whiteley Peak and its craggy, castle-like summit reaches over 10,000 feet, forming the centerpiece of Bluebird’s terrain. Hills coated with fondant-like snow roll east toward Grand County’s ranchlands. Northward, Highway 40 runs up and over Rabbit Ears Pass to Steamboat Springs. About 20 miles south is Kremmling, a 1,500-person town that’s been growing its adventure-industry offerings (hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, ATVing) for years. Bluebird is the latest addition. 

When I moved to Colorado, in February 2017, I knew I wanted to ski, and I wanted to ski big mountains like I’d seen in ski movies. Too broke to afford new skis or resort passes, my partner and I scoured Craigslist. We bought used cross-country skis for $35 and drove up to Nederland’s Hessie Trailhead (not understanding the difference between cross-country and backcountry touring gear). All we knew was we wanted to be in the mountains, far from I-70, lift-line crowds and empty bank accounts — we didn’t know anything about avalanches, the deadliest natural hazard in Colorado. 

A few months later, I started working at REI and there I learned what backcountry skiing is really about. With my employee discounts, I bought my touring set up; as winter rolled around again, I ponied up for Eldora’s season pass. 

I watched YouTube videos and taught myself to ski on the bunny slope, following toddlers leashed to parents. I loved facing gravity head-on, gently pressuring the inner arches of my feet — pizza then french fries.

The next year, my partner got a splitboard (thanks to a media discount I scored after leaving REI). We attended one of Neptune Mountaineering’s Avalanche Awareness sessions hosted by Friends of Berthoud Pass. We couldn’t afford beacons, shovels or probes, which we knew we needed, but figured we could just stay in terrain too-gentle for avalanches, with trees and other skiers who knew more than us. That spring we summited 14,231-foot Mt. Shavano and skied down its Angel of Shavano couloir. I pizza-ed the entire way.

Last Christmas my partner booked me a $559 spot in an AIARE I (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) course. Instead of him joining me, we decided to pay $427.14 for one beacon, shovel and probe. Maybe next year we’ll be able to afford all of that again for him — but maybe not. Long story short: skiing, even backcountry, is expensive as hell.

I never bought another resort pass. I love the meditation of uphill skiing, the feeling of working toward something momentous, the childlike glee of downhill motion. It all comes with an edge, though — now knowing its hazards, hearing about backcountry fatalities in the news, reading about buried friends of friends. Last year 25 people died in U.S. avalanches; so far this year, 16 people have perished, four in Colorado.

I DIY-ed most of my backcountry skiing not to reject safety, but due to financial constraints and the fact that I had no one to teach me. My mountain-love mixed with my autonomous personality, lead me to countless slopes I truly had no business on. Driving through Kremmling the day I visited Bluebird, a radio journalist was reporting two Coloradans buried and killed in an avalanche near Vail. This is exactly the situation Woodward and Lambert hope to resolve.

Credit: Emma Athena

Inside the Bluebird Backcountry ski patrol hut (1.5-mile into the resort, at the base of Whiteley Peak), Woodward hands a volunteer a pack of bacon. “Here,” he says, “I brought a resupply.” 

On the cookstove, the pan is already hot, sizzling with fatty strips. The next burner over has a giant bubbling pot of hot chocolate — free for all Bluebird guests to indulge. Two skiers come in, taking off their goggles, sniffing the air, “Mm, bacon!”  

The idea for Bluebird surfaced after Woodward took his brother backcountry touring a few years ago. The two had a blast, but when they returned, his brother, a novice, was at a loss for what to do next, considering he had no mentors nor easily accessible gear. 

Woodward and Lambert, buddies from Dartmouth College, talked this conundrum over and came to a realization: There exists no straightforward way to learn backcountry touring, and at the same time, interest in the backcountry is growing exponentially — in 2018, sales of backcountry touring bindings jumped 84%, according to Snowsports Industry America. The two set out to create a solution for those backcountry-curious, tapping into the growing market. 

Lambert likens the backcountry industry to that of climbing. But, while climbers have gyms to practice in, backcountry users have no safe location in which to learn. “Backcountry skiing is about 30 years behind rock climbing,” Lambert says, envisioning Bluebird closing that gap.

At Bluebird, avalanche conditions are pre-evaluated daily, and while they won’t use ammunition to help mitigate dangers, they’ll only open slopes safe for users. Still, all Bluebird skiers/splitboarders must carry a beacon, shovel and probe — which they can rent on site — along with any specialized touring gear, including boots, skis and skins. They also offer a half-day “Intro to Backcountry.” A day pass costs $50.

“The whole concept is an alternative to the resort scene,” Lambert says. Chairlifts or no chairlifts, it takes a lot to get a ski operation running. Finding suitable land and a decent insurance policy took months. Without investors or clear pathways to follow (no one’s ever done anything like this before), they crowd-sourced funding. Their Kickstarter surpassed expectations: 1,024 backers pledged $107,493 (free bacon and hot cocoa were incentives), and they donated $5,000 to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center to celebrate. This season, Bluebird is only open weekends until March 15. They’ve opened about 300 acres for unguided access, with an additional 1,200 acres for guided parties. 

The day I went, I ran into a friend who was taking the intro course. Then I met two people from Boulder — one of whom had stopped backcountry skiing five years ago, but decided to try Bluebird because it felt safe. Another gentleman I chatted with on the uphill track lives in Breckenridge, backcountry skis all the time, and loves the idea of Bluebird as an alternative to days when it’s too dangerous to ski elsewhere.

Despite widespread positive support, “Some people are not happy with what we’re doing, or they don’t understand it,” Lambert says. “We are people who like to share great experiences rather than hoard them — that has been our driving philosophy on this.

“Ultimately, the reality is that the interest in backcountry is huge,” he continues. “If there’s no easier ways to get around the high barriers of entry, then we’ll have more people who are just going for it, rather than working their way safely into the sport.” 

In other words, someone like me. 

When I finally make it to the bottom of that powdery run, exhausted, I look back up the slope, Mt. Whiteley standing in its glory: a perfect bluebird backdrop sky. While the other ski lines weave like strands of elegant DNA, mine is a crude Christmas tree. I click out of my bindings, switch everything to uphill mode, and head back up to try again.