Bluebird Snow Report: 3/10/21

Here’s the latest from the mountain!

Base Depth: 48″
Past 7-Day Snow Total: 6″
Current Conditions: Melt Freeze, Wind Drift, Corn

Skin Tracks 100% Open: West Bowl, Lost in the Woodwards, Meat Hill, Elkhide Uptrack, Ruder’s Ridge, Continental Divide Skin Track, Wapiti Way

Downhill Zones 100% Open: West Bowl, the Hundred Acre Woods, the Whumphing Willows, Meat Hill, the Bearclaw Meadows, Ursa Major, Ruder’s Ridge, Skyline, Hammerdown, Krem de la Krem, Cow Call, Plume.

Last week, Thursday morning brought us 6 inches of fresh snow at Bear Mountain. This storm passed quickly, leaving a sunny and warm Saturday and Sunday filled with great spring skiing.

This week, a low pressure system approaches from the southwest, bringing lots of moisture our way. While it’s shaping up to be a large upslope event, Bear Mountain can hope to pick up another 6 inches from Wednesday through Thursday.

Friday–Monday, winter moves back into Northern Colorado, with chances of snow every day.

Daytime temperatures will sit in the mid-20s, and nights dipping into the low teens. Calm winds will come from the south and east, gusting up to 12mph.

Ski the sun path this weekend, starting with more solar aspects in the morning (think West Bowl and The Far Side), and moving to the predominantly northern aspects as they warm in the afternoon.

A slice of our spring conditions last week:

Photo: Doug McLennan

Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Photo: Doug McLennan

Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Ski Noir 5280 Might Just Be the Coolest Ski Club in Colorado

Quincy Shannon is saving up for a charter bus. Make that a fleet of charter buses. 

Shannon, a Denver native and the founder of local ski club Ski Noir 5280, is a man of big visions. Right now, a lot of those visions center around finding new ways to share his lifelong passion for skiing with people who might never have gotten a chance, whether because of their socioeconomic status, the color of their skin, or a lack of transportation from Denver’s inner city to the mountains. (That’s where the buses come in. But more on those later.)

Shannon could have been limited by any of those factors, he says. But he got lucky.

“My mom, who’s a Denver native, her dad put her in Colorado’s ELK program when she was a kid,” he says. “She was one of very few Black kids in the program at the time.” But, thanks to that opportunity, she fell in love with skiing—and passed that love onto her son.  

Shannon practically grew up on skis, stepping into his first pair of bindings at age 3. Ultimately, skiing with groups like Denver’s Slippers-N-Sliders Ski Club shaped him into who he is today. 

“For a young kid who grew up in an inner-city type of reality where drugs, gangs, and all of those things were definitely a part of the backdrop that I had gotten used to, it was a great escape to be able to come somewhere in which you can just look and feel and smell and realize: Wow, life is really worth something more,” he says. 

Ski Noir 5280 members Ahmaad Brunson and Kacy Wilson transition for the downhill. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

The Color of Colorado Skiing

Colorado has more ski resorts and skiable terrain than almost anywhere else in America. Despite that, its few Black ski clubs have remained small—much smaller than Black ski clubs elsewhere, like the Jim Dandy Ski Club in Detroit or Black Ski in Washington DC, which have hundreds of members each, Tele Mike says.

Part of that is because Colorado has different demographics—there are just more Black communities in places like Detroit or DC, Tele Mike explains. And part of it is a matter of state history.

“There is definitely history here in Colorado of spaces that were not protected for groups of people who may identify as different in any kind of way,” Shannon says, noting that national parks remained legally segregated as late as 1948. “A lot of the focus [on racial issues in America] is on your Alabamas and your Mississippis, but we don’t always look West.” Even in Colorado, which Tele Mike says is fairly progressive, he still gets odd glances in the mountains, and new partners sometimes assume he doesn’t have much skiing experience or skill (that is, until they watch him start carving gorgeous turns.) 

Even in the West, Black ski clubs started as a safety-in-numbers measure for Black recreationists, Shannon says. Today, that feeling of safety still plays a role in the clubs’ popularity, but the camaraderie piece is huge, too.

“If I fall down twice and I’m by myself, I might say ‘Screw this. This just isn’t for me,’” Shannon explains. “But if have somebody with me to say ‘It’s OK man,’ or ‘I just fell , too, we got this, we’re going to get down together,’ then there’s a level of support that allows people to push themselves just a little bit further.” 

Mackenzie K. Phillips shreds hard at Bluebird. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Sharing the Love

By 2018, Shannon realized he had way too many friends that he wanted to take skiing, and that it just wasn’t easy to get everyone the gear and education they needed. So, he decided to turn his passion for teaching into something bigger: a ski club aimed at introducing skiing and snowboarding to young professionals in the Denver area—and growing the historically small percentage of Black skiers in Colorado.

Shannon put together a team of close friends. For a few weeks, they gathered in his living room regularly to talk about their goals and dreams for a ski club. They wanted something that was both unapologetically Black, and welcoming to all types of people. It should be both a safe space for first-timers, and a place where experienced athletes could find the camaraderie and partnership they needed.

Mike “Tele Mike” Russell navigates a few inches of fresh on Bear Mountain. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Tele Mike

On that inaugural team was Mike Russell, known to his friends as Tele Mike. Tele Mike is (you guessed it) a longtime telemark skier. Like Shannon, he got his start on an outing with a Black ski club, this time in Arizona.

“I didn’t take any lessons or anything—I just went flying down the intermediate run without a whole lot of control, yard-saling and nearly missing people,” Tele Mike laughs. “When I got to the bottom of the run, I was bruised, cold, and wet, but I loved it. After that, I started taking all my vacations to go skiing.” 

It was nothing more than a fun hobby until September 11, 2001. Tele Mike was commuting to work on the New Jersey Turnpike, watching the sky, when the second plane hit the Twin Towers. The moment threw his priorities in sharp focus.

“While witnessing 911, I asked myself what I truly wanted to do with my life. The undeniable answer was to become a skier. I moved to Colorado four months later.” Since then, he has skied big mountains all over the world. Shannon knew he wanted Tele Mike on the Ski Noir 5280 team. And for Tele Mike, it was a perfect fit. 

“I love showing anyone the beauty of the mountains, no matter what culture they’re from,” says Tele Mike, whose own heritage is Black and Native American. “I’ve worked with some inner city kids who don’t want to go to college or be in the corporate world because of all the things that can go on there with being a person of color and having to swim against the current. So I like to show people that skiing or snowboarding can be a path to a great lifestyle, as well, and that they can find a home here in the mountains.” 

Ski Noir 5280 members get in some laps at Bluebird. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

A Radical New Ski Club

In 2019, Shannon launched Ski Noir 5280 along with Sondra Scott, another Colorado Native, and Tele Mike. Since then, they have amassed over 50 paying members, as well as a much greater number of interested skiers. The club has provided a crucial entry point for dozens of new skiers and snowboarders, and a tight-knit community for everyone involved.

Ski Noir 5280 is now accredited by the National Brotherhood of Skiers, a nationwide organization dedicated to improving opportunities for Black skiers and riders. That status allows Shannon to partner with groups like Patagonia and Aspen Snowmass, which have donated gear. The donation system helps the club lower the barrier of entry to new skiers even more.

The next step? Transportation equity. 

Transportation has been one of the biggest challenges for prospective Ski Noir 5280 members, Shannon says. Today, he is working to raise enough money to purchase a charter bus, which will allow the club to give skiers and riders in need a lift to the slopes. In the future, he hopes the project can provide transportation to local middle- and high-school kids, and to groups in need regardless of age, race, background, or ability level. 

The mission: Introduce the sport to new skies and riders—and make it look good. Pictured: Maurice Wills. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Building Partnerships  

In 2020, Bluebird Backcountry reached out to Ski Noir 5280 to invite Shannon, Scott, Tele Mike, and other Ski Noir 5280 members to Bear Mountain. The ultimate goal was a mutually beneficial partnership—an educational exchange. 

Bluebird plans to offer its beginner-friendly, ski-patrolled terrain to assist with Ski Noir 5280’s mission of sharing skiing in welcoming environment. And Ski Noir 5280 hopes to further Bluebird’s accessibility mission in return. 

“We have a lot to offer. We can do a historical walking tour of Denver and explain what redlining and segregation and all those other terms look like and feel like and taste like. We can explain how the Black community of Denver formed and what it’s like today,” Shannon says.“That way if Bluebird has a student or a child or a person from these neighborhoods, they can have a point of connection. They can say, hey, I’ve been to Welton Street Cafe. I’ve been to Mona’s. The food’s pretty good there, huh?’” 

Taking the time to understand someone’s background and point of view goes a long way toward bridging gaps in the Colorado ski community, Tele Mike says. 

“I know it can be awkward, but just talking and communicating is important,” he explains. “Reach out to someone and ask them if they want to try this sport. And once you get diverse people in the door, treat them like you would any one of your family or friends.” 

The hopeful result? A ski community that feels like home—for everyone. 

Bluebird Snow Report: 3/3/21

Here’s the latest from the mountain!

Base Depth: 52″
Past 7-Day Snow Total: 4″
Current Conditions: Packed Powder, Wind Drift, Corn

NEW Skin Tracks Open: Wapiti Way. All skin tracks now open!

NEW Downhill Zones Open: Cow Call, Hammerdown, Krem de la Krem, The Plume. All runs now open!

 

We have a good chance of a small storm coming in tomorrow morning. The storm’s southern track won’t hit us directly, but is expected to drop 4–6″ in the rabbit ears range, a nice refresh for our warming snowpack.

After that, a ridge of high pressure will persist into early next week, bringing clear and warm days with daytime temps creeping into the high 30s and low 40s, and nights dropping back into the teens.

The skiing and riding on northern and eastern slopes remains cold and wintery, with more solar aspects beginning to see the melt-freeze cycle we associate with the transition to spring conditions.

In typical Colorado fashion, it looks like we’re gonna get a chance to break out the leis and gaper outfits early this year, before hopefully being plunged back into winter by late March storms.

Here are a few photos from The Far Side, which just opened last week:

Photos: Erik Lambert

How to Build a Ski Area from Scratch

All Jeff Woodward wanted to do was take his brother skiing.

A longtime splitboarder himself, Jeff couldn’t wait to share the backcountry with his bro. The trouble? He’d forgotten exactly how much it takes to pull off safe, human-powered winter recreation. First, there was the gear. Poles, skins, helmet. Special skis, special bindings, special pack. Avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel. 

Then there was learning how to use it. Sure, there were avalanche courses and clinics, but in backcountry skiing, accruing experience is huge. Jeff wanted his brother to be able to gain enough experience to travel freely in the backcountry. But the only places a young skier could gain that experience? They were all in avalanche terrain. 

Not long after that tour, Jeff called longtime friend, ski buddy, and marketing whiz Erik Lambert: “I think I’ve got an idea.” 

Jeff envisioned something between a groomed, manicured resort and the wild, perilous backcountry. Someplace that was avalanche-controlled, but without lifts. Just endless mountain terrain, a few patrollers, and all the educational tools a new backcountry skier could dream of. 

The dream: A human-powered ski area in the Colorado Rockies. Photo: Justin Wilhelm 

Essentially, Woodward wanted to build his own ski area. It was daunting, but Erik shrugged. America was seeing a boom in interest in backcountry skiing and there weren’t enough experienced mentors to go around. This kind of venue is what the future of the sport needed. Erik was in.

Nights and Weekends

It would be a nights-and-weekends project, they decided. A fun idea to tinker with. Besides, Erik was busy running his marketing business, Bonfire Collective. Jeff was working a regular 9-to-5 selling software. What other time did they have? 

Besides, it was a crazy idea. In Colorado, i.e. “Ski Country USA,” resorts are a dime a dozen, and they’re huge, deeply entrenched fixtures of the state’s culture and history. Starting a new one would be like going head to head with the establishment. 

But the more they thought about it, the more Jeff and Erik realized this didn’t have to be a David-and-Goliath fight. Backcountry skiing had long existed in its own niche, quietly filling the spaces between the bigger ski hills. And in recent years, the two sports had even begun to intermingle, as uphilling became accepted at more and more resorts. Maybe the industry was headed in this direction anyway. Maybe all it needed was a nudge. 

After a year of poking around the market and grilling backcountry-curious friends on their interests and obstacles, Erik and Jeff decided to launch a survey. In the first night, they got 900 responses. In the first week, they got 2,000. Better yet: 70 of those responders had added a note: “How can I help?”

A few weeks later, the inaugural Bluebird team, a ragtag group of volunteers from across the spectrum of skiing and splitboarding experience, met for their first team dinner in Denver. Looking around at the 20 faces gathered around the long table, digging into tacos and talking about what the ski community meant to them, Erik says it suddenly felt real. Bluebird wasn’t just a dream anymore—it felt like they actually had a shot at this. 

Accredited guide Mia Tucholke leads a group near historic mining buildings during Bluebird’s first prototype weekend. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Working Prototypes

“There were no employees—we were all volunteers then—we didn’t have a location, we didn’t own a rental fleet, and we weren’t accredited guides. We just knew we had a good idea,” says Patrick Woods, an inaugural volunteer who’s now on Bluebird’s leadership team and helps develop operational and business strategies.

And the best way to prove a good idea in a saturated market? Start testing stuff. The only big question was where. 

“The hardest thing about this whole process was finding land that had all the qualities we wanted—plenty of snow, good terrain, and not too far of a drive—and getting permission to use it,” Erik explains. They looked at using US Forest Service Land, which is what the big resorts do. Then they looked at using private land. 

And during all that investigating, Jeff and Erik ran into another backcountry visionary: Jeff Crane. Crane had wanted to launch a similar human-powered ski area concept but had settled on refurbishing old Mosquito Pass mining buildings into backcountry huts through his nonprofit, the North London Mill Preservation. Joined by a shared love of the backcountry, partnerships began to form. The North London Mill Preservation would host the first-ever Bluebird prototype weekend on its site. Ortovox came forward to provide rental avalanche gear. And after attending one of the first prototypes, some representatives from Winter Park offered to host a third trial weekend.

Conducted under the watchful eye of Colorado Mountain School accredited guides, those first prototype weekends were an overwhelming success. One hundred skiers and splitboarders came out to try the new concept, 35 of them for their first-ever backcountry day. Finally, Bluebird had momentum.

Ortovox provided packs and rental avy gear for Bluebird’s first trial days. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Bacon Matters

The Bluebird team learned a lot from their trial days (in all, we counted 44 adjustments made over the first two prototype weekends). At the top of the list: Bacon matters.

“People needed a rest and refuel moment on the way to the ski runs,” says Trent Ruder, one of Bluebird’s first volunteers and now one of our chief strategists. That’s why the Mosquito Pass bacon station was such an “aha” moment for the crew (and why it still exists at Bluebird today). 

The team also learned just how important safety was to the mission; the spring of 2019 saw record avalanche cycles, which taught the squad how to monitor conditions in real time, reroute skin tracks, and pivot at a moment’s notice. 

“It was a historically bad year for D4+ slides,” says Patrick. “We made a commitment to prioritizing safety over anything else.”

Finally, the Bluebird team realized that location wasn’t the end-all-be-all of the mission—the runaway success of the prototypes had more to do with the welcoming nature and stoke of the people who were there than with the slopes themselves.

“There was this high-energy sense of fun and community we created out of thin air at Mosquito,” Trent explains. “That remains today, even with many new staff, a new location, and a more formal business.” 

As more survey results and feedback rolled in that spring and summer, Jeff and Erik realized Bluebird was ready for the next step: A real ski area with a real season.

The slopeside bacon station (and fabulous costumes) that started it all. Photo: Doug McLennan

The Great Colorado Land Sprint 

Mosquito Pass, and later Winter Park, had been perfect for prototypes, but if Bluebird was going to live beyond its whirlwind trial days, it was going to need a more permanent home. And with winter approaching fast, Jeff and Erik only had a few months to find it.

“We started doing what we called the ‘Land Sprint,’” Erik says. Volunteers split off to scour the state, inspecting every likely parcel of land within striking distance of Denver. But by August—just three months before the start of Colorado ski season—they were still turning up empty. 

In September, just as Erik and Jeff were starting to panic, they got a phone call. One of the volunteers had found a piece of property. It was outside of Kremmling, just beyond the two-hour-drive radius of Denver. 

Right away, Erik and Jeff packed up the car and made a visit. It didn’t take long to realize that this mountain—Whiteley Peak—was going to be the perfect spot for a longer test season.

Whiteley Peak at Peak Ranch, Bluebird’s first home. Photo: Doug McLennan

Then came the second crux.  

“We were just two guys with no ski operating experience,” Erik explains. “If you’re doing something out of the box at the last minute, insurance companies are going to have questions.” In the meantime, Jeff and Erik were scrambling as fast as they could to get everything in place, just hoping it would all work out. And it did: Mountain Guard ultimately gave Bluebird the green light on a solid insurance plan—the final big hurdle. 

Now it was time for the final sprint: Actually setting up the ski area.

Erik, Jeff, and Amelia Altavena, Bluebird’s director of surprise and delight, take a break to survey the new terrain. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

The Home Stretch  

“Most Kickstarters are 30 days,” Erik says. “Ours was 10 because we needed the money faster.”

But the idea resonated, and the Kickstarter exploded in a flurry of donations. In fact, the team exceeded their goals by enough to provide free bacon and hot cocoa all season long.

Now the pressure was really on: Jeff and Erik had investors. They had to make good on their promises—and fast.

By this time, Jeff had taken a sabbatical from his full-time job, and Erik was pouring 80-hour weeks into getting the ski area set up. And between all the organization, paperwork, marketing, and mapping of the mountain, there were a thousand little things no one ever anticipated. 

“I have fallen into a role of procuring odd supplies for Bluebird,” Patrick reflects on his job. “Lately, my wife has been calling me Red from The Shawshank Redemption as ‘I’m known to locate certain things from time to time.'” Need some old artificial turf from a high school to floor your base-area lodge? Patrick can get it for you. Need a drag groomer to tow behind a snowmobile? Patrick is your man. 

It’s a good thing he was on the team. A month out from opening day, the Bluebird base area was a mad scramble to assemble all the gear you just can’t buy at the hardware store. The team needed to do everything from plowing the parking lot, to putting up signage, to digging through frozen ground to try to put up a weatherport with zero winter construction experience (they eventually had to outsource the latter). They forged partnerships with the local community, reached out to ski groups and local businesses, worked on getting accredited by the National Ski Areas Association and, later, Colorado Ski Country USA. By the time opening day rolled around, everything was in place.

“It’s been a four-year sprint,” Erik says. “We were able to pull everything off by the skin of our teeth.”

By Bluebird’s first opening day in 2019, everything was in place. Photo: Doug McLennan

Opening Day 

The morning of opening day at Peak Ranch, Erik worked registration. He greeted and signed in crowds of newcomers—first-time skiers and backcountry pros alike. By the time his shift ended and he was able to head out the back door, people had been on the mountain all morning.

“I will never forget coming around the bend and seeing this mountain, which I’d seen deserted for so many months, just covered in tracks,” Erik says. “My brain did a double-take. And then I immediately started glowing. Because I realized that every one of those tracks represented someone having an amazing day. This is what we’ve been working for this whole time—to give people the chance to come out here and experience something different.”

Since that 14-day test season in February and March 2020, Bluebird has moved just down the road to Bear Mountain, where snow and guest parking are both in much greater supply. But though the location is different, the fun, welcoming Bluebird vibe remains exactly the same—and with folks like Erik and Jeff at the helm, we can guarantee it always will.

Check out a timeline and learn more about Bluebird’s history

 

I Tried Backcountry at Bluebird—What Now?

Congratulations! If you just finished up your first day at Bluebird, you’ve embarked on your journey to earning your turns. It’s a whole different world than riding the lift up, right? (Just ask your tired quads.) 

Now that you’ve gotten a taste for the backcountry, it’s time for some continuing development. Part of the backcountry’s allure is that it’s an unforgiving place, and being a mindful, informed, avalanche-aware skier is a lifelong practice. However, learning as much as you can and getting some experience under your belt early on is one of the best ways to keep enjoying those powder turns for many seasons to come. Here’s what’s next. 

Keep showing up

Practice makes perfect—and Bluebird’s ski patrol means you can focus on honing technique rather than on avalanche danger. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Like any skill worth having, backcountry skiing or splitboarding requires practice. The best way to hone your technique (and get fit enough to have fun at altitude) is to click into those bindings and skin uphill as often as possible. We may be biased, but we definitely recommend coming to Bluebird Backcountry a few times during your learning years. That’s because here you have a ski-patrolled zone to explore—a less risky option than heading out into the unpatrolled backcountry before you have those crucial avalanche awareness skills. (Bonus: Bluebird guests get a discount for themselves and a friend on their second visit (check your post-visit email for the discount code.)

Take your first (or second) lesson

If you’ve taken a downhill-skiing or  snowboarding lesson at a resort, you know it’s impossible to master all the skills in just one day. The same applies when you’re getting the hang of the uphill portion, too—it’s tough to retain all that information in a single dose Bluebird offers Backountry 1 lessons for first-timers, as well as Backcountry 2 and 3 lessons to move students all the way from never-ever to avalanche course-ready. Between lessons, keep your knowledge fresh by spending an hour at a specialty clinic, where you can pick up skills like navigation and pro skinning techniques. 

Seek out mentors

Heading out with more experienced friends is a great way to hone backcountry skills. Photo: Doug McLennan

There’s something really special about friendships forged in the backcountry, and one of the best ways to master a new skill is by pushing yourself with friends who are more knowledgeable. Lots of the best backcountry tips are earned through experience, so hitting the skin track with a friend who’s got some tours under their belt is a great way to add to your repertoire. (Looking for a mentor? Check out Bluebird’s Ski with a Mentor program.)

Sign up for an avalanche course

An AIARE avalanche course will give you a framework for backcountry decision-making. Photo: Erik Lambert

The bottom line is that there’s no way to responsibly recreate in the backcountry without some knowledge of avalanches and how to avoid them. You can start your avalanche education by attending a workshop at your local gear retailer or avalanche center, checking the forecast every day during the season, or picking up a book like Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. But there’s no substitute for experience—a few days in the field with a qualified AIARE instructor will teach you some of the most crucial wilderness skills in your toolbox. 

Already finished your AIARE 1? Time to start looking at partner rescue and AIARE 2 courses. Like we said—the pursuit of backcountry mastery means a commitment to lifelong learning. And all that time getting to know the mountains? That’s half the fun.