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At Bluebird Backcountry in Colorado, a safe way to go ski touring

This ingenious and laid-back ski area was the brainchild of Jeff Woodward, who grew up in Newton and learned to ski Tuckerman’s Ravine while a student at Dartmouth

Sam Wright, 11, and instructor Ty Sauerbrey do an avalanche beacon check before heading out onto the trails during a Backcountry 2 course at Bluebird Backcountry Ski Area in northern Colorado. Andrew McNamee, another participant originally from Gloucester but now living in Denver, looks on in the background.Kari J. Bodnarchuk

KREMMLING, Colo. — Bluebird Backcountry in northern Colorado may be the only place of its kind in the world: a ski area with no lifts where it’s safe enough to backcountry ski in a wilderness environment — with little risk — even with your tween by your side. A place where day passes cost as little as $39, no permanent structures mar the landscape, you can sleep onsite in a geodesic dome, and you can ski open bowls and aspen glades all day long, stopping for free bacon served on the trail. Oh, and a place where your well-behaved dog can accompany you anytime.

This ingenious and laid-back ski area was the brainchild of Jeff Woodward, who grew up in Newton and learned to ski Tuckerman’s Ravine while a student at Dartmouth. He moved to Colorado in 2007 and fell in love with backcountry skiing (also called ski touring or alpine touring) after many wilderness adventures in the Rockies. For Christmas 2016, Woodward invited his brother Danny from Boston to go ski touring.


“I rented him some gear and took him on a mellow route to Coney’s outside Crested Butte,” says Woodward. “It basically blew his mind. It got me thinking: ‘He wouldn’t have tried it unless I got him the gear. Why isn’t there a safe place to backcountry ski?’”

Skiers in a Backcountry 2 course at Bluebird Backcountry Ski Area in northern Colorado do a "party run" on West Bowl. A "party run" is when the whole group of people descends the mountain at the same time. Kari J. Bodnarchuk

Woodward now leases a private cattle ranch in Kremmling for the winter, offering 1,200 acres of avalanche-controlled and ski-patrolled terrain from late December through March (open Thursdays to Mondays only). The property owner runs guided hunting tours in the fall, but come winter for the past three years, Woodward has set up a no-trace seasonal base lodge (made of fabric over a steel frame), developed a trail network with 28 runs and 11 marked skin tracks, and created a ski area that’s welcoming for beginner to expert backcountry skiers and splitboarders.


Beginners come to learn the basics of ski touring or try out rental gear before buying, whereas experienced skiers often visit at the start of the season for shake-down runs with new gear. Or they may want to practice skiing with their dog in backcountry conditions before tackling unpatrolled areas where the avalanche risks are real. Others, such as a group of women who call themselves the LOLOS (Little Old Ladies On Skis) come for the fun and camaraderie.

Skiers are welcome to camp in their vans in the parking lot or pitch a tent for $25 per night. Or they can stay in one of four base-area domes, which have beds with mattresses, a wood-burning stove, a kitchen space with pots, dishes, and utensils, and access to an outhouse — all that’s needed is a warm sleeping bag and food.

Bluebird Backcountry is located on the Continental Divide at the base of Rabbit Ears Pass in northern Colorado, about 30 minutes from Steamboat Springs and the small town of Kremmling (population 1,506), and three hours from Denver. Two mountains fall within its boundaries, but only Bear Mountain is open for skiing, offering more challenging terrain; beginners often head to West Bowl, a hill to the north, for warmup laps, practice, and instruction. Resort skiers and riders may appreciate this fact: Bluebird allows just 200 people per day so there’s plenty of elbow room.

“It’s primarily a place to ski, but we also focus on education,” says Woodward.


Instructor Ty Sauerbrey (right) shows Andrew McNamee (originally from Gloucester and now living in Denver) how to take off climbing skins without taking off one's skis during a Backcountry 2 course at Bluebird Backcountry Ski Area in northern Colorado.Kari J. Bodnarchuk

That’s why I took my son Sam, 11, to Bluebird in January. I love ski touring and have backcountry experience, but I’m not knowledgeable enough to teach someone else. I wanted Sam to learn how to backcountry ski in a safe environment from a certified instructor.

“We love kids,” said Ty Sauerbrey, our BC2 guide, who noted that most kids who ski Bluebird range from about 10 years old and up — old enough to follow instructions, strong enough to ski off-piste for a few hours, and big enough to fit the rental gear (touring skis go down to 120cm and the smallest boots are 22.5 in mondo sizing).

Bluebird offers everything from a two-hour Ski with a Mentor experience that lets you hit the slopes with an instructor, ask questions, and practice skills (a great deal at $35) to women’s clinics, Skiing with Your Dog instruction, Ski Mountaineering, and other classes geared to all levels of skiers and splitboarders (it’s holding three more hut-based avalanche training courses in March). It also offers Beacon-Seeking Saturday, when several avalanche beacons are buried near The Perch warming hut, so skiers can practice their search and rescue skills.

Since Sam and I have some basic ski touring experience and understand the gear, we signed up for Backcountry 2: Moving through the Backcountry. Our small class included Gloucester-native Andrew McNamee and partner Eleanor Rush, who live in Denver.

The base area at Bluebird Backcountry Ski Area in the town of Kremmling in northern Colorado has a couple of no-trace structures (made of fabric and steel framing) where visitors rent skis, buy trail passes, stock up on supplies, and meet instructors for one of the many beginner to expert backcountry ski courses. Bear Mountain, which is part of the inbounds terrain, rises in the background. Kari J. Bodnarchuk

You can bring your own gear or rent on site — the ski area has a big selection of high-end equipment, including Black Diamond, Elan, and Dynafit skis with Dynafit bindings, and K2 and Dynafit boots. We chatted about gear first — what size daypacks work the best, what to pack in a wilderness first aid kit, and why it’s essential to carry lots of universal screws, duct tape, and ski straps in your repair kit. Then we strapped on skis and shuffled past the après firepits toward the West Bowl Skin Track.


Unlike in the true backcountry, ski patrol remains on hand in case you get hurt or need help. When you head out on the trail here, you pass through an archway where a staffer scans your ticket — that’s how they know you’re on the trail. You get scanned back in when you return, and patrollers will head out to find you if you don’t report back by the end of the day.

We spent the next few hours learning how to move efficiently through the wilderness, adjust layers to prevent overheating, and make different kinds of turns while ascending steep slopes, including “seashell,” A-V-A, and kick turns. At the top of one small hill, Sauerbrey taught us how to pull our skins off without removing our skis — a great lesson in balance and technique — and offered tips on how to ski powder and stay off our edges (helpful for people like me and McNamee, who grew up carving on New England hardpack and ice).


Skiers head up a skin track on West Bowl called Lost in the Woodwards, named after the founder of Bluebird Backcountry Ski Area in northern Colorado: Jeff Woodward, who grew up in Newton, Mass. Woodward created the ski area three years ago and developed a trail network with 28 runs and 11 marked skin tracks — ideal for beginner to expert backcountry skiers and splitboarders.Kari J. Bodnarchuk

We stopped off for lunch in The Perch warming hut, where a staff member grills bacon throughout the day and hands it out for free to skiers — a very popular perk. The warming hut — also a fabric and steel-framed dome — has a wood stove, recycled astroturf on the floor, a couple of picnic tables, and the bacon grill. It’s the perfect place to strip off a layer, recharge, and debate whether gummy bears taste good wrapped in bacon (they do, according to Sam).

After a morning spent skiing open hillsides, our group decided to skin up through a forest to the top of West Bowl at 9,300 feet and descend through a stunning aspen grove. We fell, cheered each other on, and did our best to keep up with Sam, who fearlessly dodged trees, ducked through narrow passageways beneath branches, and hooted with joy all the way to the track that led us back to the base area.

For a snowy Saturday mid-winter, we saw only a few dozen people all day, including participants of a women’s backcountry clinic, several small groups or couples, and a bunch of happy dogs.

Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at travelwriter@karib.us.

Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at travelwriter@karib.us.