Mid-February and opening day at Bluebird Backcountry’s new ski area at Peak Ranch in Colorado, two hours from Denver, was just as the name suggests: sunny sky with a few high clouds. Snow coated a gorgeous mountain. The parking lot filled with curious skiers. The next day, a storm blew in and didn’t let up for the rest of the opening weekend.
On Sunday evening, the snowplow broke. Thankfully, a crew of about 10 volunteers showed up at 5am on Monday morning to shovel a foot of snow off the parking lot before customers arrived. “They’re all heroes,” said Jeff Woodward, 36, one of two cofounders at Bluebird Backcountry.
Passionate backcountry skiers with a start-up mentality launched Bluebird Backcountry to solve a problem. “There are a lot of barriers to entry to getting started with backcountry skiing,” said Erik Lambert, 37, the other cofounder of Bluebird. This inaugural season, which opened February 15 and closes March 15, is a chance for the cofounders to see if they can offer a solution.
Woodward and Lambert want to break down some of those barriers by designing a backcountry ski experience that’s welcoming, accessible and relatively safe for all levels of skiers and riders, not unlike what indoor climbing gyms have done for rock climbing.
One thing that you won’t find here are chairlifts or any kind of lift infrastructure. Instead, preset skin tracks lead uphill toward fields of powder. Bluebird wants to be a place for people to not only learn how to backcountry ski but also to grow a skill set that will help them be more confident in the backcountry, no matter where they are. At Bluebird Backcountry, skiers can practice skinning techniques, get continuing snow-safety education, refresh beacon skills, develop Leave No Trace habits and, of course, ski untracked snow with friends.
“Long-term, our goal is to create access, offer basic and continuing education, and give people a place to practice and a place to continue to grow,” said Lambert. First, Woodward and Lambert have to see if the business model works, and maybe figure out how to fix a snowplow.
Skin tracks tend to inspire good ideas and Bluebird Backcountry was born from a day of touring. Three years ago, Woodward was in Crested Butte, Colorado, with his family for the holidays in December. As a present, he took his younger brother ski touring. They rented equipment and went to a backcountry spot near town. When they got to the top, they were rewarded with a view of the Elk Mountains. “It was one of those bluebird days with snowy mountains around,” Woodward said. “[My brother] loved being out and away from the crowds.”
Woodward watched his brother laugh all the way down the mountain, even as he stumbled and fell in the deep powder snow. At the bottom, his brother was hooked and wanted to buy a backcountry setup. Something clicked for Woodward and he went to a coffee shop to sort it out on paper.
Woodward and Lambert—who live in Denver and Golden, Colorado, respectively—spend most of their ski days in the backcountry. Like a lot of backcountry skiers, they initially learned the skills from friends. Plus, living in a mountain town allowed them to surround themselves with community members who had knowledge to share and could become mentors. But what if you don’t have that kind of access or privilege?
Woodward’s career experience is in the tech world, and he used a problem-solving tool called Lean Canvas that was designed to help start-ups answer questions to build their businesses. What’s the problem? Who has that problem? What’s your unfair advantage? He jotted down bullet points.
“It quickly morphed into: My brother tried backcountry skiing and he loved it. He never would have tried it if I wasn’t obsessed with the sport. It’s really hard for people to learn how to backcountry ski,” Woodward said.
He took his notes and his idea of starting a backcountry ski area to some of his friends, including Lambert. The two had met as climbers when they both attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Lambert quickly jumped onboard and his marketing background was a perfect match with Woodward’s tech and operations background.
A Kickstarter campaign raised more than $100,000 from 1,024 backers, and anyone who pledged for day passes received ski ticket codes for a day of skiing. “People have an entirely different ownership over the success of the business when they are backing something,” Lambert said. Volunteers installed signage on the mountain and they ordered a rental fleet of backcountry skis and splitboards.
To ski tour at Bluebird Backcountry, you can either show up and buy a $50 ticket at the window, or you can reserve a spot in advance—only 300 skiers and riders per day are allowed on the mountain. Some packages include rental gear and lessons. That price is significantly less than the cost of a lift ticket at most major resorts, but backcountry skiing is usually free. The difference? Here, you have marked trails, basic infrastructure, ski patrol and the seeds of a snow-safety program.
Ahead of the 2020 season, Woodward and Lambert consulted with snow-safety professionals and avalanche experts to build a map of slope angles and terrain traps, aspects that might be prone to sliding and historic avalanche paths. That map is a starting point for Bluebird’s two ski patrollers, Pat Ahern and Bob Tierney, who manage snow safety on the mountain. But the patrollers don’t throw dynamite to mitigate avalanches. Instead, they use techniques that mountain guides often use in the backcountry, like ski cuts. Or they close terrain.
Opening weekend was sold out for a soft launch with 150 people, a good start to the first full month of operations. Woodward said they need weekend numbers to crest 200 skier visits for the business model to work. At this stage, a few other uncertainties hang over the duo, like if the snowpack is deep enough at Peak Ranch, where Lambert and Woodward are leasing a 1,500-acre, privately-owned slice of land for the season; what's needed to sustain a ski area, and what type of capital improvements might be needed. In the meantime, the short list of things to do is pretty long. Among the day’s tasks, Woodward had to troubleshoot the parking lot plow problem, install a woodstove in the warming hut and figure out how to improve the flow of rentals.
“There are days when we’re exhausted, like after shoveling a parking lot,” Woodward said. “But we’re solving the problem we’re trying to solve, we’re giving people a great time, and our team is wonderful. It’s pretty fun that way.”