This winter I bought season passes to Arapahoe Basin for myself and my sons. We’re usually Epic Pass skiers, but given the uncertainty around the pandemic and the sometimes last-minute nature of our day trips, not needing reservations was a big lure. So was avoiding the Eisenhower Tunnel and driving over Loveland Pass instead (weather permitting).
This new driving route, however, brought with it an unexpected twist. Each time we drove over the pass, in either direction, my two sons, 13 and 14 years old, became obsessed with the backcountry skiers they saw gearing up along the pass or popping out of trees as we slowly hair-pinned-turned beside them.
“Mom, when can we try backcountry skiing?” they started to implore sometime around February, when the lift lines at the Pallavicini chair were at their longest and the pillows of powder began to pile up two-cars-high along the pass.
I knew this day would come, when my boys, who I put on skis at two years old and now spend weekends chasing down steep, powdery glades, would surpass my own abilities and comfort zone on skis. It was at once a confirmation that I was doing something right and an acknowledgement that they now need more instruction and direction than I can provide.
While I’ve been skiing my whole life and consider myself a passionate recreational skier, I’ve only been backcountry skiing a handful of times. Which is why, when the boys started asking to try backcountry skiing, I immediately thought of Bluebird Backcountry, the new ski area that opened up near Steamboat, Colo.
Two things about Bluebird sealed the deal for me as the place to teach my boys about backcountry travel. One, the ski area has a ski patrol that performs avalanche mitigation. While avalanche safety is undoubtedly the most important aspect of getting into the backcountry—and we will eventually spend plenty of time and education on that—it was appealing to let them get to know the gear and the basics on backcountry travel without worrying whether we were in danger. Especially this season, which has proven to be the deadliest in the U.S. since 2010.
And two, the ski area has a full fleet of AT rental skis and boots on site as well as backpacks with beacons, probes, and shovels, making that aspect as turnkey as possible for people just starting out.
Bluebird Backcountry opened during the 2019-’20 season, and has since moved to its permanent location 25 miles southeast of Steamboat Springs. The ski area is backcountry only, no lifts, and comprises 1,200 acres of glades and open bowls, plus another 3,000 acres of more challenging guided terrain on Diamond Mountain.
My boys and I visited on a spring day in late March. The three-mile unpaved road to the ski area had our SUV lurching, tossing us about the whole way. “Like four-wheeling!” exclaimed my younger son, Jake, from the back seat, while Cole, 14, held on for dear life in the passenger seat. I made a mental note that we’d for sure need a car wash after the mud bath this would turn into for the drive out in the afternoon.
Bluebird’s base area is modest, with a couple yurts serving as registration, gear rentals, gift shop, and snack bar. Slope access passes were limited to 200 daily this season due to the pandemic, but it remains to be seen what next season will bring.
One of the major draws of Bluebird Backcountry is the ease of onsite AT ski and boot rentals. I have an AT setup for myself, but both boys needed full rentals, plus skins and safety gear including beacon, shovel, and probe. After getting into their equipment, we turned our attention to the important part: learning how to use it.
Bluebird Backcountry offers several levels of instruction for first-timers through experienced backcountry travelers, as well as slope access without instruction and season passes. We opted for its half-day Intro to Backcountry course, and met our instructor for the morning, Jared Current, at the firepit behind the registration yurt.
Our group, which consisted of myself and my boys plus a pair of splitboarders new to the backcountry, did our intros—including what we were hoping to get out of our day at Bluebird—and quickly delved into the material.
Over the course of about an hour, we learned how to turn our beacons on and off, get them into transmit and search modes, and the safest place to wear them amid our layers. We put our probes together and poked around in the snow, trying to get a feel for the different textures that lie beneath. We used our shovels to dig quick trenches in a hardened snowpack, with Current explaining how this heavy and chunky snow mimics difficult avalanche debris. Finally, we learned how to secure our skins to our skis and how to remove and store them away in our packs.
By 10 a.m., we were ready to hit the skin track.
We skinned through Bluebird Backcountry’s gate, its transceiver performing a safety check as we passed. For our first foray, Current tapped Jake as group leader, reminding him to check in with everyone before heading up the skin track and to keep an eye that no one fell too far behind.
We all tested out how to travel efficiently on our skins, heeding Current’s advice to glide with skins to snow rather than lifting skis off the snow. We got into a nice rhythm for the 10-minute skin to the top of a small slope well in view of the base yurts, then gathered up under the shade of a stash of evergreens to transition for the downhill.
It was the boys’ first test on how to remove and store their skins, switch their bindings into downhill mode, and layer up appropriately after breaking a sweat on the track. Both boys needed very little help, if any, but it was nice to know that Current was there to assist. “It’s just a matter of doing it a few times,” he explained. Our group skied and boarded one at a time down to the yurts, then transitioned back to uphill mode.
Our second outing would take the rest of the morning, and Current gave us more freedom to explore in and around the skin tracks, encouraging the boys to venture into the slightly deeper snow on either side to get a feel for the differences. We paused several times on the way up to practice different ways to make turns on the skin track, including the A-V-A and rounded-turn techniques. Kick turns are taught in the Backcountry 2 course, but my boys were eager to learn so Current showed us anyway.
We concluded our uphill skin at Bluebird’s mid-mountain yurt, The Perch, where bacon was frying on a camp stove. The boys brought their paper-towel-wrapped bounty out to one of the picnic tables where Current had gathered us for a debrief, rattling off quick-fire questions that we all answered with ease: “Name a turn technique to use on the skin track.” “What are the names of the three pieces of safety equipment we have in our packs?”
A beacon park is located just beyond The Perch, and Current asked the boys if they wanted to try to locate one of the two beacons buried in packs. Jake went first, and Cole and I watched as he skinned over the area of clearly disturbed snow, switched his beacon to search mode, and got out of his skis when he was within 10 yards of the buried pack. He dropped down to his knees and crawled across the snow until he got within 2 yards, then fished his probe and shovel from his pack. After less than 30 seconds, he felt the pack beneath his probe, and unearthed it with quick shovel scoops. It took 12 minutes, a good first-time effort. Cole went next and did it in eight. (“That’s because he got to watch me go first,” Jake countered.)
Current set us loose for the rest of the afternoon, which would be the real test of how much we’ve learned and how comfortable we would feel skinning, transitioning, and skiing by ourselves.
After gearing back up we decided on a 1.5-mile skin to the top of West Bowl and a ski down through nicely spaced glades with the Roald Dahl-esque name of Whumpering Willows. Cole’s ski popped off on a particularly slippery and steep section of the track, then my ski came off as I attempted to help him get his back on. We both learned that it’s best to retreat to flatter ground when trying to reengage a pin binding.
We took a little extra time at the summit to take in the views of the Flattops, appreciating the moment more than usual, as we had worked harder than usual to achieve it. And indeed, the ski down through sun-dappled aspens with not another sole on the slope with us made it incredibly clear why people ski outside of resorts.
There are several more courses we all need to take, including an AIARE Avalanche 1 course next season, before I would feel comfortable taking the boys into the true backcountry. But first we plan to come back to Bluebird for a Backcountry 2 course next season to learn more about efficient uphill travel, better downhill technique in the variable conditions we’re likely to find, and basic avalanche safety. And I need to invest in either AT or hybrid setups for them both, which is no small task.
All in all, Bluebird Backcountry provided an excellent intro to what can be a very intimidating segment of our sport, and most importantly, a way to do it safely with young enthusiasts. What a brilliant way to continue to grow the pastime and introduce it to a new generation who can enjoy it for years to come.
Bluebird Backcountry Information
- Season: December to April, depending on snow coverage
- Location: Bear Mountain, off Route 14, roughly 20 minutes north of Kremmling and 40 minutes southeast of Steamboat Springs
- Skier Services: A snack yurt serves light fare such as breakfast burritos and chili. And the free bacon at The Perch, of course.
- Lodging: Bluebird Backcountry partners with Hotel Eastin, in Kremmling, to offer a discount. Also in Kremmling, Allington Hotel & Suites is clean and convenient.
- Cost: For the 2020-’21 season, a day pass cost $50; a season passes start at $299. Backcountry 1 (Intro to Backcountry) is $69, not including a day pass. A full day AIARE Avalanche 1 course (3 days) is $550. Pass fees and courses will be updated for the 2021-’22 season here.