With no lifts and a focus on learning the backcountry ropes, Bluebird Backcountry is perfectly positioned for pandemic skiing.
The closing of ski areas on March 14 in response to the novel coronavirus sweeping the nation spurred a bum rush on backcountry ski gear that, according to Aspen’s Ute Mountaineer, precipitated 10 days of Christmas-like buying as people scrambled to obtain the tools needed to keep them skiing. Now, with an impending ski season that promises closed bars, intimidating daily reservation systems, potentially crowded and/or limited parking, reduced amenities, and COVID-19-era protocols that could take some of the joy out of our usual resort experiences, backcountry skiing is poised for a revolution.
“This whole thing started almost four years ago when I took my brother backcountry skiing as a Christmas present,” says Bluebird Backcountry co-founder Jeff Woodward. “He had this amazing day, but it made me realize that it’s very hard to just safely try this sport.”
Woodward and his partner Erik Lambert knew this much about backcountry skiing: The gear is expensive and intimidating, the activity potentially dangerous and inconvenient, and, says Woodward, it’s a mentorship model of learning, which isn’t easy to build into a business plan. So the two created a ski area without chairlifts, serving what they saw then—and even more so now—as a gaping hole in the world of backcountry.
“We wanted to shape how people learn how to backcountry ski, give them a relatively safe place to practice, and have a way for them to bridge out of that, develop good habits, and develop the experience, knowledge, and confidence to go out of bounds themselves,” says Lambert. “Learning requires mentorship, but mentorship doesn’t scale properly. Bluebird provides that. We hope we can provide the full spectrum of backcountry learning, avalanche education, and a place to practice all of those skills in a relatively safe, controlled environment.”
To attain that, Bluebird patrols and mitigates risk to the same standard as other resorts, employing professional ski patrollers who evaluate, ski cut, and open and close terrain as needed.
Bluebird Backcountry plans to open for the season on Christmas Eve, earlier if snowpack allows, and operate Thursday through Monday with a maximum of 200 skiers per day. The “resort” will move about four miles northwest this year from its inaugural location. Operations on about 4,200 acres, 1,200 of which will be avalanche-evaluated and patrolled, including a contactless check-in station and warming huts.
Important to its mission, Bluebird will be an official American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) course provider, and is offering Backcountry Skiing 101, 102, and 103 level courses throughout the season. So is Bluebird the future of skiing? One thing is certain: It will create more backcountry skiers away from the resort, and it’s essential those new skiers know how to be safe out there.
Season passes and day tickets will go on sale November 1 on the resort’s website, bluebirdbackcountry.com.
—Aaron H. Bible
Cover photo by Jesse Melchiskey, courtesy of Bluebird Backcountry