One Couple’s Quest to Visit All 33 Colorado Ski Resorts

It started as an antidote to cabin fever. 

This January, after a year of working from home amid COVID-19 restrictions, Jenn Ridder and James Owens of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, decided it was time to get out of town. 

“I don’t know if we started off wanting to ski all the resorts in Colorado,” Owens says. “But we wanted January to be the month where we’d ski every weekend and go to parts of the state we’d never been to before,” says Owens. So they took trips to some of the furthest corners of Colorado, visiting ski areas like Wolf Creek, Monarch, and Purgatory.

“Exploring the mountains is very much a part of who we are.” Photo: Kat Ciamaichelo

Both Ridder and Owens grew up in Colorado. By the time they met (both were working on the senate campaign trail in 2014) they’d each skied a number of mountains along the I-70 corridor. They soon found that a love of skiing wasn’t the only thing they had in common. In 2019, they were married. The ceremony was held on a little hill near their home. 

The first month of the quest to bust cabin fever was a huge success. By the time February arrived, Ridder and Owens felt like they were on a roll. They started to wonder just how many ski resorts they could fit into a season. So, they put their heads together and drafted a plan to tick all 33 of Colorado’s downhill mountains. 

“Every good adventure requires a spreadsheet,” Owens laughs. Theirs included the name and location of each ski area, whether it was on the IKON or GEMS pass, and the closing date. Timing would be the hardest part; both Ridder and Owens work 9-to-5 jobs, which left only weekends to ski. 

“But exploring mountains is very much a part of who we are,” Owens says. “We were just enjoying getting to know all the different ski cultures in different areas of the state.” 

Howelsen Hill, in Steamboat Springs, is the oldest continuously operating ski area in the US. Learning about Colorado ski history has been one of the highlights of the couple’s quest to ski out the state. Photo: By S. Larson, Courtesy of Steamboat Springs Chamber

On March 26, Ridder and Owens made it out to Bluebird for a quick afternoon session—their first time ever backcountry skiing. It was their 25th ski area of the season.

“It’s probably also the coolest mountain we’ve skied in the state,” Owens says. “Showing up, it’s like you’ve arrived at an Antarctic base camp or a moon base. There’s all these tents and a fire going. It was great to meet everyone and swap stories—there was this real sense of camaraderie.” 

Bluebird’s cozy base area gives it a unique, remote feel, says Owens. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

So far, Ridder and Owens are on track to hit all 33 resorts by the end of the season. 

“We’ve got four more weeks of this. There’s laundry that’s been piling up. But we’re looking forward to seeing this through,” Owens says. “So far, we’re on track to finish. Then we’ll just have to think up the next adventure.”

Soraya McMahon is the Most Interesting Woman in the World

Bluebird Backcountry Base Area Director Soraya Khalje McMahon doesn’t always ride motorcycles. But when she does, she goes street racing. And it’s child’s play—literally.

That’s because McMahon was 9 years old when she got her motorcycle.

“It was young, but not that young,” she laughs. That’s because she grew up in Amsterdam, where mopeds and motorcycles are a more casual part of commuter culture, and motorcycle racing is an established sport.

Still, convincing her parents was no small feat. “I was obsessed with motorcycles as a kid. I begged and begged my parents, and finally they were like, ‘Fine. Fine.’ and got me one, thinking it was just going to be a phase or something.”

It wasn’t a phase. Pretty soon McMahon was on the youth racing circuit. 

McMahon started racing bikes as a child. Photo: Courtesy of Soraya McMahon

She credits her early passion for the sport to an innate love of speed, a need to work with her hands, and a laser-sharp sense of focus that calms her mind—a focus her clinically diagnosed OCD and ADHD make difficult to find in everyday life. She also gives a lot of credit to her parents for supporting what became the first of a string of extreme hobbies. In some ways, she says, they kind of get it. After all, they’ve experienced plenty of extremes in their own lives.  

McMahon is now the Bluebird Backcountry base area director. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Soraya McMahon doesn’t always save lives. But when she does, she’s still in the womb.

When she was in her 20s, McMahon’s mother, Susan, moved from the U.S. to Afghanistan on a whim to help a friend start a clothing factory. There she met a handsome, well-read local hotel owner named Qadir. They fell in love and got married.

But by the time Susan was pregnant with McMahon, the country had begun to dissolve.

“The Russians invaded and all hell broke loose,” McMahon says. It became politically dangerous for anyone with foreign connections. “My dad came into the house one day and went over to my mom, and was like, ‘Sweetheart. Listen. Pack a bag, a small one like you’re a tourist. Take a car. Go to Pakistan. And I will see you in two weeks. If you don’t see me, go to America.”

Qadir had bribed an official, trading a pack of nudie playing cards for an exit visa.

So, his pregnant wife took the car and drove over the Khyber Pass into Pakistan, where she waited. But after two weeks, there was still no sign of Qadir.

The handsome young Qadir Khalje, circa 1980. Photo: Courtesy of Soraya McMahon

Finally, Susan managed to make a phone call home. She was told that he was coming on a bus from Herat, and he would be there on Friday at 5:00 PM. If he didn’t show, she was to assume the worst had happened and leave Pakistan immediately. 

Later, McMahon learned, her father had been torn between fleeing and staying to fight for his country. The only thing that convinced him to leave was the baby girl steadily growing in her mother’s belly. Today, Qadir still claims his unborn daughter saved his life. 

On Friday, Susan arrived at the bus stop and waited. Five o’clock rolled around. The bus came, and the passengers dispersed. But her husband was not among them. 

Just as she began to panic, there was a commotion of explanation and someone told her there was a second 5:00 bus that day, and it was still on its way. So Susan waited. And this time, Qadir appeared.

Reunited at last but without any money or resources, the couple fled to London, then Amsterdam, where they started a new life and raised their daughter. 

“No matter what happens now, they’re both like, ‘Whatever, we have each other,’” McMahon says. “They’re both really into treasuring the moment.”

Susan and Qadir are still together, and as supportive as ever. McMahon even convinced her dad to motorcycle around South America with her a few years ago. Photo: Courtesy of Soraya McMahon

Soraya McMahon doesn’t always hold down a regular office job. But when she does, it’s as a physicist at NASA.

Having developed an early fascination with motors and mechanics, McMahon went to school for physics and eventually landed a dream job as a theoretical physicist for NASA.

“But I didn’t love it,” she says. “I went home for Christmas and my mom was like, ‘Are you OK?’ I was like, no I’m not.” McMahon was depressed. She loved physics, but something was missing. She had realized that to be happy she really needed to be working with her hands.

“My mom asked me what I wanted to do, and I said all I really wanted was to go snowboarding in Colorado,” McMahon recalls. “So she said, ‘Go. Pack up your car. Quit your job. You’re not married. You don’t have kids. Just go and do it.’” 

“I realized if she moved to Afghanistan when she was my age, I could move across the country,” McMahon says. So she quit her job, packed up her stuff, and drove to Colorado.  

Born a rebel. Photo: Courtesy of Soraya McMahon

Soraya McMahon doesn’t always try downhill mountain biking. But when she does, she goes pro. And dominates.

“I moved to Colorado, but I really didn’t have a summer sport,” McMahon says. She liked the idea of mountain biking but had decided the tedious uphill portion was just not for her. Then a friend told her that Keystone Resort had lift-serviced downhill courses. 

McMahon tried it and was immediately hooked. Pretty soon, she was driving to Keystone every day she could.

“I had this crappy old bike, but the downhilling community is really supportive and they just embrace new riders,” she says. That year, 2005, she entered her first race. By 2009, she had her pro license. Sponsored by Giant Bicycles and a few other brands, McMahon raced and rode for 10 years, winning several national championships. 

McMahon spent 10 years as a pro mountain bike racer. Photo: Courtesy of Soraya McMahon

But after a decade, the sport had taken a toll on her body.

“It’s a lot of sleeping in airports with your bike,” she explains. “And crashing in downhill is no joke. It’s just painful, and it gets more painful the older you get. And if you’re pushing yourself, you’re crashing.”

She retired in 2013. (Though she has since started motocross racing.) 

Soraya McMahon doesn’t always dabble in bike mechanics. But when she does, she ends up owning the shop.

“When I was 25, I walked into a bike shop in Boulder, and I said, ‘Listen. You don’t know me. I know virtually nothing about bicycles. But I’m really smart and I’m really hard-working, and you don’t have to pay me a lot.” 

Kevin Kelly at Full Cycle hired her on the spot. She worked at Full Cycle for a few years before moving to Aspen, where she got a job at Ute City Cycles. She eventually invested in the shop, becoming a part owner and general manager. 

It was there that she discovered splitboarding.

“In the winters I had these clients—billionaires from Brazil. The Brazillionaires. They’re both helicopter pilots, and they had matching helicopters,” she explains. “They were really lovely people. And one day, the dad was like, ‘Hey. You like going into the backcountry. I’m going to get this splitboard thing, and we’re going to go together.’” 

McMahon had gone on a few hut trips and taken her AIARE 1 course, but splitboarding opened up the backcountry in a whole new way for her.

McMahon’s signature enthusiasm is one of the secret ingredients to Bluebird’s fun, down-to-earth vibe. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

“I had thought for so long that I was a downhiller, a sprinter, and that I just wasn’t cut out for the long endurance stuff,” she says. But between falling in love with backcountry skinning (and deciding on a whim to ride the Leadville 100) she realized endurance sports could be her thing, too.

“I don’t know if you could have convinced me that when I was 25 or 30. But I stuck with it, and now spending time in nature in this way is something I really love.” 

Soraya McMahon doesn’t always manage ski areas. But when she does, she’s as kickass at it as she is at everything else. 

In November of 2020, Soraya McMahon joined the Bluebird Backcountry team as the director of the base area. Her background in operations, volunteering with teens and new mountain bikers, and providing excellent customer service in outdoor shops across Colorado has made her a pretty perfect fit for the gig. 

You can find her running the show, skinning uphill with her signature cowboy hat on, and dominating in our regular staff s’mores-eating contests. 

She is truly the Most Interesting Woman in the World. 

Maybe even more interesting than the Dos Equis guy.

The Story Behind the Bluebird Backcountry Portal

Somewhere between Steamboat Springs and Kremmling, Colorado, you’ll find an interdimensional portal. At over 10 feet tall it’s striking to look at, though you’d be forgiven if you mistook it for part of the mountain. After all, it’s made of native beetle-kill pine—as much a part of Colorado as the hills or the snow. 

The portal is the bridge between two worlds: The comforting familiarity of the front-country, and the beckoning wilds of the backcountry. On the way out, it serves as a reminder for backcountry preparedness. And on the way back to the base, it welcomes skiers and riders home.

The portal sign, hand-painted by Megan Norton, welcomes backcountry skiers and riders home. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

It was built, as you might expect of an interdimensional portal, by craftspeople of the highest caliber: Jack and Megan Norton, of CrossCut Reclaimed in Kremmling, Colorado.

“When Bluebird Backcountry approached us to build the Mountain Portal we were instantly taken in with the idea,” Jack explains. “The figurative and physical symbolism was just too good to pass up.”

The Nortons are in the business of transferring and preserving the spirit of Old America—an artist and a woodworker by training, they find a new purpose for everything from historical industrial interiors, to old barn walls, to wood recovered from beetle-kill zones across the West.     

“We chose beetle-kill lodgepole pine instead of reclaimed wood for the Portal structure because it’s native to the valley where Bluebird is located, and it’s totally Colorado,” Jack Norton says. Jack built the wooden structure, and the sign, created from old reclaimed floor joist, was designed, laid out, hand-painted, and finished by Megan. 

Jack Norton built the mountain portal from beetle-kill pine—a quintessentially Colorado material. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

“The goal of the overall design was to be sturdy and enduring and to age and weather to become part of its surroundings,” Jack says. “The next time you pass through the portal, give it some love because it has the potential to be more than a couple pieces of wood and metal. The Portal could represent the very beginnings for a badass mountain guide, or the starting point for a search and rescue volunteer who someday saves many lives. And it’s undoubtedly the beginning of many people’s lifelong backcountry journeys.”

Jack adds that he’s no wizard (though we certainly feel the magic of the Portal every time we pass through it).

“I’m just a guy who’s good at making sawdust,” he laughs. “But I believe that energy accumulates at locations, and I believe the Mountain Portal can be one of them with everyone’s help.” 

Beware all ye who enter here: Tons of fun lie ahead. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

P.S. Jack and Megan have hidden a message on the Portal. If you find it, there’s a prize waiting for you. Contact Jack at jack(at)crosscutreclaimed.com and tell him what it is, and he’ll make “something (small) and cool” just for you. 

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. 

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

 

Lessons from a Lifetime Spent in the Colorado Snowpack

Picture it: it’s the mid-1990s, and Summit County is getting yet another record-setting storm. There’s relatively little traffic on I-70, so getting up to Breckenridge, Keystone, or Copper Mountain is an easy trip. If you’re a snow-loving kid growing up in Denver, things are as good as it gets. 

For Lucas Mouttet, that was reality. He spent those snow-heavy La Niña years ripping laps at the Summit County ski areas, and when it was time to head off to college, Lucas wasn’t ready to leave the Colorado mountains behind. So he enrolled at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where he studied microbiology and immunology. 

With the ski areas along the I-70 corridor now 90 minutes farther away, Lucas started looking for a closer mountain fix for his weekends. That’s how he discovered backcountry skiing at Cameron Pass.

“I would bootpack up by myself,” he recalls. “Then I read an article in the local paper where someone made a comment about the ‘idiots’ doing exactly that.” When two people were killed in separate avalanches in the very spot where Lucas had been skiing solo, he realized he needed to learn more about how to travel safely in the backcountry. 

The Bluebird Avalanche Education Director, Lucas Mouttet, in action.

Though backcountry skiing was on the rise, it hadn’t yet gained the level of popularity we see today, so Lucas had to get creative to get an avalanche education. He chatted up brand reps at the local gear shop to learn more. In 2006, he started working with the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol, which acts as a search-and-rescue group and teaches avalanche courses in the Cameron Pass area. 

The following season, Lucas completed his Instructor Training Course with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), the industry standard for avalanche education curriculum. But he didn’t stop at completing the certification—he continued checking out snowpacks around the world, climbing and skiing across the United States, South America, and Europe. (His favorite place to ski, aside from his home state, is British Columbia.) In 2016, Lucas launched Never Summer Outdoor School, which conducts avalanche and wilderness medicine courses in Colorado and Wyoming. 

Today, Lucas is the Bluebird Avalanche Program Director, and he oversees each of the AIARE courses offered at Bear Mountain. In addition to managing Bluebird’s staff of qualified AIARE instructors and communicating with students, this also means honing avalanche curriculum, scouting out the best spots for courses to bring students to teach them as much as possible about the snow, and sometimes acting as course leader. (And, since Bluebird is a startup, it also means plenty of “other duties as assigned.”) 

When he’s not playing in the snow with his students, Lucas is likely playing in the snow with his family. He, his wife, and their two daughters, ages 8 and 10 (the older of whom has already skied West Bowl at Bluebird this season), live just down the road from Bluebird Backcountry in Steamboat Springs, where they spend as much time as possible together on the slopes. 

Lucas’ best tip for spending long days outside? “A hot drink in a thermos,” he says, without hesitation. “I probably go through 10 boxes of Yogi Egyptian Licorice tea every winter.” 

Lucas and his family spend as much time as possible on the slopes together.

Sign up for your AIARE course at Bluebird

Keep an eye out for a future post on Lucas’ tips for showing up fully prepared to your AIARE avalanche course!

The Bluebird Patrollers on Skiing, Snow Safety, and a 32-Year Friendship

Ski patrolling is a notoriously difficult job, and like in any tough gig, the coworkers in the trenches are bound to get close. Even still, Bluebird Backcountry patrollers Bob Tierney and Pat Ahern are an exception: After meeting on the job 32 years ago, these two are still best friends.

“It was 1988, and we were both new patrollers in Breckenridge,” Ahern says. He remembers first spotting Tierney in a first-aid class as part of their training. Before long, they were officially coworkers, and they found they gravitated toward one another.

Then, that first Christmas on the patrol, Ahern, a Breckenridge local, helped Tierney cut down his first holiday tree. “We ended up forging a long-term friendship,” Ahern says.

 

Pat Ahern (left) and Bob Tierney (right) have been ski patrollers and best friends for 32 years.

 

Over the years the two grew up, got married, had kids, and switched jobs, slowly moving up the ranks in the world of avalanche safety and big-mountain patrolling. But they stayed in touch, vacationing with their families, and skiing together whenever they could.

“We’ve really helped each other out during some hard times,” says Ahern. “When I was brand new at Silverton Mountain, it was really scary and there were lots of obstacles because we were a small patrol tackling a big mountain. Bob gave me a lot of advice and support during that time.” 

By the time Bluebird Backcountry founders Jeff Woodward and Erik Lambert started looking for their first head patrollers, Tierney and Ahern came as kind of a package deal.

“When the opportunity came up, Bob was the first person I called to see if he was interested,” says Ahern, who Woodward and Lambert had contacted through a friend. “I got lucky to get someone with so much experience, enthusiasm, and strength.”

As Tierney tells it, Ahern got lucky for other reasons, too. 

“We live together for the season in Kremmling. He’ll make me breakfast, I’ll make him lunch. And then I usually make dinner because I’m a better cook than he is,” Tierney laughs.

 

a ski patroller evaluates a snow slope for avalanche safety

Bob Tierney evaluates a slope for avalanche risk while planning out Bluebird Backcountry’s snow safety strategy. Photo: Jeff Woodward 

Working at Bluebird has given Ahern and Tierney a chance to reunite as coworkers after all these years. It’s also given Bluebird a top-notch team of seasoned patrollers who work seamlessly together.

“We really don’t have to communicate what we’re going to do as much because we know each other’s patterns and strengths and weaknesses,” Tierney explains. “We are able to work really well together. There’s not a lot of ego between us.”

The job has also provided the two lifelong skiers a way to give back to the backcountry community in a new way.

“Backcountry skiing can provide a lot of peacefulness,” says Tierney. “It gives people a break in their lives. It helps them see more beauty.”

Bluebird, he explains, provides a unique opportunity to share that beauty.

“The way Bluebird is set up, the main goal is to educate and enable people to get out into the backcountry in a safer manner. And it is exciting to be a part of it, not just because it’s new but because it’s different from any other ski area,” says Ahern. “Hopefully with Bob and I’s experience over the years, we can add to that.” 

two ski patrollers at Bluebird Backcountry

With over 60 years of combined snow safety and ski patrolling experience, Bluebird Backcountry guests can rest easy knowing Pat and Bob are on the job. Photo: Justin Wilhelm