Even if you aren't a big skier, it's clear the days when celebrities like Anjelica Houston and Jack Nicholson could hide out undisturbed in little-known mountain towns like Aspen are long gone. For anyone hoping to carve freshies, or even just find a spot in the parking lot at popular resorts, it often feels like there’s less elbow room than ever on prime slopes, and ski town locals have bemoaned the recent crush and rising housing prices.
That overcrowding has driven some powder-hounds off-piste and into the backcountry – a solution that requires technical skills, special equipment and avalanche know-how that can take years to acquire, even for advanced skiers. But this year, one Colorado company is trying to make the off-piste experience more accessible by opening the first ever chair-free, human-powered ski resort in North America.
Bluebird Backcountry is inviting skiers to skip the traditional chairlift, rope tow, or adventurous SnowCats in favor of slipping some skins on their sticks to hike or uphill themselves to pristine, unimproved runs. Bluebird's founders have leased 1500 acres on Whiteley Peak, which sits about two-and-a-half hours from Denver between Kremmling and Steamboat Springs, and are opening for business on 15 February.
The leased area on Whitley consists of open meadows and aspen groves spread across 300 acres of “avalanche-evaluated terrain” where the on-site ski patrol checks conditions, as well as an additional 1200 acres that can be accessed with a Bluebird guide. Equipment rental is available, as are lessons for those who aren’t familiar with using skins or how to uphill, along with other aspects of backcountry skiing.
Because part of Bluebird’s mission is educating skiers in backcountry best practices, no matter where skiers choose to go on the property, they’re required to carry basic avalanche rescue gear including a beacon, probe, and shovel. And because they’re capping initial sales at 100 season passes for an initial 15-day test season, you’re guaranteed to have plenty of powder to yourself.
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That alone is plenty of incentive for ski enthusiasts who are dismayed at increasingly-crowded slopes in well-known destinations like Vail, Breckenridge, Mt. Rainier, and Park City. Thanks to a combination of rapid growth in ski-adjacent western metros like Denver, Seattle, and Salt Lake climate change, social media, the shuttering of mom & pop hills, marketing moves like multi-mountain passes, and rising housing prices in mountain towns, it can be a fraught time to hit the slopes.
That’s driven some experienced skiers away from groomed trails, and backcountry skiing and ski-touring have never been more popular. But backcountry skiing and snowboarding present added barriers to participation, requiring specialized equipment and know-how such as the ability to self-assess avalanche risk. Unless you’re plugged into a community familiar with going off-piste and willing to show you the ropes, it can be hard for some skiers to learn the skills they need to safely venture to more remote runs tucked away in the San Juan, Sawtooth, and Wasatch mountains.
It’s that exact dilemma Bluebird is hoping to solve – and it looks like skiers are interested. The project, funded on Kickstarter rather than with venture capital dollars or traditional investment, has already raised twice its initial goal. If the short, no-frills initial season goes well, who knows what the 2020-2021 ski season might look like for backcountry rippers with a slope of their own.