A single skier smiled as she glided her way down an ungroomed slope, toward a group of small, temporary buildings and people huddled around fire pits. It was one of the busiest days ever for Bluebird Backcountry. Just over 150 backcountry skiers dotted the rugged terrain — a fraction of the numbers seen at Colorado’s glitziest resorts.
Bluebird, which opened nearly a year ago before COVID-19 was ever detected in the state, seems tailor-made for pandemic skiing. That’s gotten the attention of a lot of new customers, many who are new backcountry converts.
“I didn’t want to deal with the resorts anymore,” said Lukas Seelye, who had been a traditional skier since childhood.. “They’ve been driving me crazy the last several years, honestly.”
The pandemic turned out to be “just kind of the push” he needed to get off the lifts and into the backcountry. Seelye, a nurse at Children’s Hospital in Aurora, has already been fully vaccinated against the virus but is nonetheless “still being cautious.”
Over the summer, he took a trip to Breckenridge and found himself appalled by the crowds. But at the foot of Bear Mountain, north of Kremmling, he doesn’t have to be in any line or hardly spend any time inside. And the bonus? No parking issues.
“This is a dream of a ski area,” Seelye said.
It’s also a dream you have to work for. With no chairlifts, the only way to ski down is to first power yourself up by “embracing the suck,” as Justin Talbot calls it.
“Oh yeah, I’m going to be dying out there, for sure,” he quipped. “That’s the plan.”
The uphill hike is part of the appeal. Talbot was there to learn splitboarding — a backcountry snowboard that splits into skis — something he’d never tried. He had, however, spent plenty of time hiking and camping in the snow in his home state of Wisconsin.
“Once you can get mentally over the ‘I’m going to be cold, I’m going to be tired, it’s going to be hard,’ you get to enjoy, you know, this amazing landscape,” he said.
At the direction of their instructor, Talbot and two buddies stomped to make sure their boards were securely on their feet, then started their stride toward Bear Mountain. The climbing skins on the bottom of their split boards gripped the snow as they moved under a big sky, with shivering aspens off in the distance.
Farther up the route, bundled up couples and friends chatted and ate bacon around a fire. Many were also newbies, but some were like Laura Geer, skiers who’d finally returned to the backcountry.
She first bought her equipment a few years ago, but then got scared.
“I didn’t feel safe, like, going out and doing the magical part of backcountry, where you are away from people,” the Boulder mom of three explained, “the freedom part of it.”
She can feel that at Bluebird, she went on, without the danger of being truly alone. Instead, she has an avalanche-controlled place to learn with the vibe of a friendly, pop-up village.
“Even, like, in the parking lot, you start talking to people right there,” she said. “People are so excited.”
Soraya McMahon, who runs Bluebird’s base area, described how daunting it was years ago to learn about backcountry terrain and techniques, and even how to use her gear.
Great mentors can be really hard to find, she explained. And without them, backcountry “can just be kind of expensive and scary.”
Now, there’s a place where people can get lessons and rent equipment, instead of having to buy it. It’s also a place for people to feel welcome in the backcountry community — a big focus for Bluebird employees.
“Because we were all lucky enough to have somebody in our life who was patient enough to be, like, ‘Yeah, definitely, this is a great sport. You should get into it.’”
Daily tickets are still available, but Bluebird’s season passes sold out in the fall, back before people had any idea what resort skiing would look like. Boulderite Avery Stonich bought hers before she’d ever even seen the place in-person.
She and her husband are now excited to spend much of the season camping nearby.
“It turned the COVID winter into a winter of excitement, instead of a winter of trepidation,” she said.
And for Bill Vivian, visiting from Monument, this has become a winter of honing a new skill. He tried backcountry once last year and got hooked. He brought his grown son, Hutch along “to get him addicted to it, as well.”
It seemed to have worked. Hutch Vivian said he “loved it,” and already could feel the same addiction welling up in him.
“Yeah, that hit about 5 minutes in,” he said, “so I think it’s going to stick. Pretty sure it’s going to stick, yeah.”
Then they first bumped, as a fresh layer of powder fell.