Backcountry Planning : How Bluebird’s Education Team Uses onX

I track my routes and monitor the elevation gain, time, and mileage so I can guesstimate how a group might handle that route based on their experience. I also love the offline use feature. ” – Karen R. 

“The ability to easily plan routes on onX Backcountry and have all the tools I need for finding avalanche forecasts, weather, established trails, and access points makes my job as an avalanche educator far more simple.” – Erika L. 

“The elevation profile and tracking option for distance traveled while in the backcountry is great with onX.” – Aidan G.

“Even as a professional, it’s easy to get lost. onX is a reliable tool to help me figure out where I am in the backcountry.” – Jeff W.

These are just a few of the reasons why Bluebird’s education team loves using onX Backcountry for both work and personal days in the mountains. We’ve broken down how this team of professionals uses onX to gather information and prepare for backcountry tours, both small and large. Plus, we discuss the important skills and how to gain them. Let’s dive in!

A Bluebird staff member uses onX to spot good terrain to ride off the top of Bear Mountain. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Initial Planning Steps

One of the best parts of onX Backcountry’s snow mode is that all the resources needed to plan a backcountry tour are integrated into the digital map — this simplifies the planning process and cuts out the need to dig through multiple tabs to find the right resources.

1. Avalanche forecast

The first step of planning a tour is reading the avalanche forecast. Through onX Backcountry we simply pick a general touring zone and click the colored overlay on the map to see what the avalanche forecast is for the day. Bluebird’s education team always makes sure to read the full forecast — including the general summary and detailed summary — by clicking the external link to the avalanche forecasting center’s website.

2. Weather forecast

onX Backcountry has an integrated weather forecast for wherever we’re planning an adventure. When the application is open, there’s a green dot in the top right corner; this takes us to the specific weather for our current GPS location. We can also get point-specific weather by clicking any trail head or established route on the map. Gathering weather data helps determine what location is best for a tour and the general conditions we’ll be managing when in the backcountry.

The ease of finding both the avalanche and weather forecasts through onX snow mode makes this step of planning much easier. Photo: Erika Lee

3. Choosing an area

There are many tools on this mapping software that help us decide the best backcountry touring location based on the avalanche danger, avalanche problem, and weather for the day. Here’s what Bluebird’s team likes to use.

Slope angle shading overlay — Perhaps our group decided that due to considerable avalanche danger, we’re avoiding all terrain above 30º in slope steepness — this is where the slope angle shading tool comes in handy. We can find areas that are below 30º or out of avalanche terrain and set an uphill and downhill route options based on the slope-angle shading. This tool is not a substitute for the observations made while in the field. It’s still critical to pay attention to surrounding terrain when following a set skin track or route. Bonus, there’s now a slope aspect overlay that helps us establish which aspects are facing what direction and what we’d like to ride based on the slopes aspect. 

3D map mode – We’re always looking for terrain traps and subtle topographic features that should be avoided when traveling in and around avalanche terrain. The 3D map mode is super helpful for spotting creeks, gullies, or benches, and identifying what type of terrain we may be traveling through — trees, open bowls, or a complex mixture of both.

Combining slope angle and 3D map mode allows us to investigate terrain and understand what our route options may be. Photo: Erika Lee

Pre-established trails – With information from Beacon Guide Routes and Powder Project pre-loaded onto the snow mode, onX Backcountry offers beta and pictures including where to start a tour, parking lots, established trails and common lines to ski or ride. Bluebird’s team loves this tool when exploring a new zone.

4. Mapping route options

Now it’s time to actually set a plan A, B, and C for the day. It’s always good to have multiple uptrack and downtrack options on a tour in case the snow or weather is different than expected. Using the route planning tool allows us to actually lay out a route on the map and add in waypoints as markers for locations to assess the snowpack, discuss options, and transition. We can calculate total distance and elevation profiles by creating a route, then average out travel time based on the elevation and distance profile. Using the slope angle shading and 3D modes are critical when planning our descent routes, as this helps us see what is skiable, what is within the acceptable slope angle, and what areas to avoid. Some experts like to mark the areas to avoid by using the shape drawing tool — this way we can visually see zones to stay out of when in the backcountry.

Easily build a route on a computer, while in service, or when offline in the backcountry. Photo: Erika Lee

Final Planning Steps

Once we’ve established a plan, it’s time to double check the weather, avalanche conditions, and snowpack in that zone. onX Backcountry enables us to do all of that directly from the phone or computer.

1. Check past & present conditions

With built-in SnoTel data points, we can find the snow depth, windspeed, and new snow totals, temperature, and other information by clicking the black and white snowflake icon in a location close to the zone we’re planning to visit. By gathering these details, we build a history of the snowpack and correlate the avalanche forecast to the specific zone we’re planning to visit.

2. Add notes & waypoints for reference

It’s a good idea to highlight specific spots that we’ll stop at, gather information, or check in with the group. Bluebird’s team likes to add waypoints and name the point based on location and purpose — for example “transition point” or “option A descent”. onX provides pre-loaded titles for waypoints, like “camp spot” or “pit location”, making it quick and simple to add these waypoints when we’re scouting for future courses, winter camp locations, or good snow data collection points.

Don’t forget to label waypoints. onX makes this simple with built-in types of waypoints and the option to name each point. Photo: Erika Lee

3. Download maps

Once we’ve established a plan and built route options, we can easily download the routes, waypoints, and full map (including slope overlay and 3D mode) for offline use. If you’re interested in learning more about how to use digital maps for navigation, check out Bluebird’s Backcountry 3 lesson where you’ll learn all things maps and navigation.

4. Share routes

It is easy to share routes, waypoints, and any notes with a touring group through onX. We quickly send a shareable link from a computer or phone via a text or email, and our friends can open it on their onX Backcountry application. When a file is shared, it automatically saves on their account (but the user must still download the map for offline use). Don’t forget to always share your route and general tour plan with someone outside of your touring group in case of an emergency.

Continuing to assess the terrain and snowpack when in the backcountry is critical to having a successful and fun day in the mountains. Photo: Justin Wilhelm

Important Skills to Aquire

While GPS navigation tools and online resources make it relatively easy to plan a backcountry tour, there are critical skills that must be acquired before entering the backcountry. Here are the important things for you to know, and opportunities to learn these skills. 

1. Know how to recognize avalanche terrain

Take an AIARE avalanche course, then practice with a Backcountry 3 lesson to build an understanding for navigation and identifying avalanche terrain. In these courses, you’ll start to learn how to know what’s underneath the surface of the snow — developing a history of the snowpack helps you recognize the potential avalanche danger.

2. Practice with avalanche rescue techniques and gear

While avoiding avalanche terrain all together is a solid plan for backcountry travel, accidents happen. It’s necessary for any form of backcountry travel in the winter to both carry avalanche rescue gear and know how to use it. Taking an Avalanche Rescue course every season is a critical part of responsible backcountry travel.

3. Obtain basic emergency skills

Preparing for the unexpected is a critical step in responsible backcountry travel. Understanding what to do in case of a winter emergency and carrying the proper equipment are two more steps in building your backcountry tool kit. Check out Bluebird’s Winter Emergency Skills blog to learn all about these skills.

4. Know how to move through backcountry terrain

If you’re new to the sport of touring, consider taking an introduction to backcountry touring course, and building upon those skills with other lessons to understand how to use your gear and move through winter environments.

5. Learn group management and decision making skills

Touring alone is never a good idea. And when traveling with multiple people, group dynamics always pop up. Develop group management skills and understand how to move a group and yourself through terrain by taking an AIARE 1 or 2 avalanche course.

10,500 Feet Above Bear Mountain: How Three Bluebirds Trained for Denali

Last season, three of Bluebird’s employees made a plan on the skin track of Bear Mountain to summit Denali in the spring of 2021. John Beye, a passionate skier and Bluebird’s 2020/2021 base area manager, was a part of this team. In this blog, John tells an enticing story of their training at Bluebird and their adventure on Denali. The group’s training experience galvanized the development of a new advanced course at Bluebird Backcountry — Ski Mountaineering 1 — an incredible opportunity to learn from experts and get acquainted to the world of ski mountaineering in the best classroom around.

The following article was written by John Beye.

Bear Mountain, the highest peak at Bluebird Backcountry, tops out at 9,845 feet. While not the highest summit in North America, Bear — and the surrounding terrain at Bluebird — does provide an excellent training ground for those with their eyes set on big mountain objectives. From the novice stepping into tech bindings for the first time to the experienced shredder opting to avoid suspect avalanche forecasts, Bluebird Backcountry happily plays host to all backcountry skiers hoping to progress in the sport. For three Bluebird staff members this past spring, that very progression brought them to the summit of Denali — a peak 10,500 feet taller than the highpoint of our backyard Bear Mountain.

Bluebird Backcountry boasts a small, passionate staff who are all motivated by maximizing their time in the mountains while helping others do the same. If you visited last winter, you surely met some of them on the skin track. What you may not have noticed, though, is the discrete training being done by a select few in preparation for skiing off the top of North America’s highest peak.

You may have taken a backcountry ski lesson with Menno. What he probably didn’t tell you was that his backpack was weighted down with climbing ropes for a little bit of extra uphill weight. Perhaps you stopped to visit Sam and snag some midday bacon at The Perch. Did you happen to notice him setting up snow anchors and running crevasse rescue drills outside? Maybe you were lucky enough to catch one of the on-mountain popup barbecue events in the spring. If so, you can thank John for multitasking by hauling sleds full of Denali training weight… err… propane tanks and all of the grilling necessities deep into The Hundred Acre Woods.

John Beye training for his expeditions at Bear Mountain. Photo courtesy of John Beye.

Strangers before the Bluebird season, Menno, Sam, and John became quick friends at Bear Mountain. Menno and John were roommates in Kremmling at a house more full of ski mountaineers than ski bums (read: a case of PBR lasted over two months), and it wasn’t long before discussions of skiing Denali percolated into the evening conversations. A climbing permit for late May was secured by early March for two teams; John and Menno with a few other friends, and Sam accompanied by other climbing partners.  

For Sam, Covid-19 had shut down the entire 2020 Denali climbing season and pushed his previously planned expedition to spring 2021 instead. With a little bit of luck, both teams landed climbing permits within one day of each other and would become serendipitous neighbors for nearly three weeks on the glaciers leading up to North America’s tallest peak.  

Of course, “one does not simply walk onto Denali,” and the final months of the Bluebird operating season were filled with physical training, skills practice, and gear talk. Menno, Sam, and John spent hours touring uphill with unnecessarily heavy backpacks, perfecting their rigging systems for hauling sleds, sharing food and gear strategies, and ensuring that systems were dialed should anyone take the plunge into one of the many man-eating crevasses of the Alaska Range. When it comes to big objectives, planning is all part of the fun and watching the pieces come together can be nearly as rewarding as the climb itself.

As winter drew to a close in Colorado and the end-of-season staff party came and went, all eyes were focused on The Last Frontier. Sam returned to The Front Range to log some vertical on a few famed 14ers, while Menno and John headed to the Pacific Northwest for an abbreviated volcano tour that would allow for more glacier practice and big single day ski descents on some classic lines.  

Everything was slowly coming into focus, and before long these three members of the Bluebird flock would be reunited on the Talkeetna airstrip — patiently waiting for weather to clear and for their chance to land on the Kahiltna Glacier en route to the roof of North America.

With a classic Alaska Range storm brewing high in the mountains, one day bled into the next while Sam, Menno, John and their respective teams sat patiently — biding their time in quintessential small town Alaska. Finally, after a few unplanned days in Talkeetna, Sam’s team got word that their pilot was going to shoot a weather window and get them onto the Kahiltna. Menno and John enviously waved from the airstrip, knowing they would reconnect somewhere up high when the weather would allow for their safe passage in a smaller aircraft.

Menno, Sam, and John wait at the airstrip for a weather window. Photo: John Beye

Thankfully they didn’t have to wait long. By 1:00pm the following afternoon, their team was hastily unpacking the plane, rigging sleds, roping up, and eagerly starting the long push across the Lower Kahiltna Glacier — each with 125 lbs of gear in tow. 

The lower mountain proved uneventful in all the best ways. Blue skies, reflective solar heat, and solid snow bridges paved the way from the icy airstrip all the way to 11,000 feet — a destination reached by both teams in a couple full days of glacier travel. From there on, the climb gets a bit more technical and consequential as expeditions navigate Windy Corner — the crux separating the lower elevations from the majesty of the Upper Mountain.  

At this point, Sam’s and John/Menno’s teams had reunited and were back on the same program, advancing to 14 Camp in less than a week from first landing on the glacier. The average summit bid on Denali is 18 days, and our Bluebird representatives were well on their way to bringing that number down. The move to 14,000 feet, though grueling, went smoothly and both teams now had a solid high elevation base camp to acclimatize, strategize, and — duh — ski.

Though still largely a minority, each year an increasing amount of climbers on Denali are opting to attempt to ski at least some of the mountain in hopes of increasing their efficiency — and in some regards safety — when traveling over the highly glaciated terrain. This, in conjunction with attempting a summit straight from 14,000 feet (skipping the more common overnight camp at 17,000 feet) are what the National Park Service would consider disturbing plans. With skis and splitboards underfoot and ambitions to summit in one long push from 14 Camp, the Bluebird teams followed both of these plans. 

For these three and their accompanying teammates, having skis at 14,000 feet was nothing short of a necessity. While Denali may have had one of its worst snow years in some time in 2021, the aesthetics of skiing out of camp at 14,000 feet cannot be beat. Big sweeping views and Goliath seracs abound, and navigating boot-top powder in this high altitude playground can be a far more enjoyable way to acclimatize than jumping jacks or hiking up and down the fixed lines of The Headwall.

Evenings at 14 Camp were largely spent cooking good food, playing games, and eagerly gathering weather forecasts to plan for the encroaching summit day ahead. Remarkably fair weather blessed the beginning of June in the Alaska Range, and when surrounding expeditions started to move to 17,000 feet, the Bluebird crew knew it was go-time. Weather moved in on Sam’s expedition during their first attempt and forced an early retreat back to camp from 17,000 feet. While their expedition regrouped the following day, John and Menno’s team saw another weather window and made a run for it.

One of the team’s three camps on Denali. Photo: John Beye

The blessing of Alaska in the summertime is that alpine starts are rarely a necessity, given the amount of daylight available to climbers. As such, summit day started around 7:30am and before long the crew had ascended The Headwall on the fixed lines, navigated the breathtaking ridgeline at 16,000 feet, and cruised through 17 Camp by 11am.  From there, the high consequence terrain of The Audubon and Denali Pass at 18,200 feet awaited — but even that leg passed quickly. The push across the high elevation plateau leading to the summit can be a slog, but with good weather this section proved more mental than anything. As evening approached, the team waited at the base of the summit ridge for expeditions ahead of them to finish their descent. Not only did this offer an increased margin of safety but, by the time they reached the top, Menno and John’s team had the roof of North America entirely to themselves. Tears, laughter, and summit selfies followed, and the calm Alaskan evening meant that the Hawaiian shirts could happily come out — even at 20,310 feet above sea level.

John & Menno’s team on the summit of Denali. Photo: John Beye

With any mountain, climbing is only half the battle and success is truly marked by returning home. It was time to click into skis and begin the descent back to 14 Camp. Dropping off of the summit of Denali was almost everything this crew could have hoped for, but the real ski objectives begin right around 19,000 feet. Given the atrocious conditions visible from 14 Camp, the Messner Couloir was very clearly not going to be an option. That left the Orient Express (OE) as the next best classic descent. After nosing into this couloir’s entrance, and debating for what seemed like an eternity, the four retreated for a more mellow return down Denali’s West Buttress. Though discouraged, this decision was vindicated by a roped up expedition climbing up the OE by placing ice screws and swinging tools on their summit attempt later that same evening. 

As if the mountain chose to reward this conservative decision, the ski back to and down Denali Pass was fast and fun. At no point would one assume that the highlight of a ski expedition on Denali would be walking downhill. However, against all odds, retracing their steps down 16 Ridge with skis firmly attached to packs and the sun dipping below the horizon was pure magic. The Alaska Range was aflame in alpenglow and the entire reality of a successful expedition finally set in as midnight neared at 16,000 feet in a true alpine kingdom.

Exhausted, the team of four rolled into 14 Camp and straight into their tents for a night of fatigued and fitful sleep. The bliss and relief when waking up the morning following a successful summit bid of this magnitude is indescribable. John and Menno’s team reached, and skied off, the summit of Denali on the 13th day of their expedition — many days ahead of the mountain average. Of the just over 1,000 climbers on Denali this season, 53% reached the top. Sam’s team would have an equally rewarding, emotional, and successful summit bid two days later, bringing the summit percentage for Bluebird employees in 2021 to 100%.  

The descent from 14,000 feet provided the final reward of two and half weeks on the mountain, offering a contemplative 7,000-foot descent past Windy Corner, through the previous camp at 11,000 feet, and across the Lower Kahiltna Glacier back to the airstrip. The final night on the mountain was spent in revelry by enjoying the beer and junk food cached at the airstrip weeks ago, before laying out insulating pads on the snow and catching some shuteye under The Midnight Sun.

Menno descending Ridge 16 on Denali. Photo: John Beye

It takes years of skill development and mountain acumen, the right partners, months of preparation… and sometimes even a little bit of luck… for expedition dreams to transform into reality. 

To tackle something as ambitious as a ski descent from the tallest peak in North America, everything needs to work out perfectly. Large multi-day expeditions require an incredible amount of planning and foresight, a willingness to intentionally exist in uncomfortable situations, and an insatiable desire to push oneself in the mountains. While over 10,000 feet lower than Denali, Bear Mountain provides the perfect venue to learn and practice some of these skills while building the necessary awareness and fitness to start dreaming of mountains the world over. At Bluebird Backcountry the final critical piece of the puzzle — strong partners and mentors, a supportive community, and lasting friendships — are also readily available.

There are many incredible places to visit and memories to be made as you continue to push yourself in the mountains. This winter, whether you are stepping into backcountry skis for the first time or have a big expedition already on the calendar, Bear Mountain and the surrounding terrain is there to support your personal progression in backcountry learning — whatever that may be. And if you happen to run into Sam, Menno, or John at Bluebird this year, don’t be afraid to ask if their packs are yet again full of training weight, in preparation for their next grand adventure.

If this story inspired you to explore high mountains on your skis or splitboard, Bluebird’s Ski Mountaineering 1 course is the perfect introduction to what the world of ski mountaineering is all about! Instructed by the second woman to ski all of Colorado’s 14ers and all-around highly accomplished Brittany Konsella, you’re in for a knowledgeable and fun-filled day course.

Zen and the Art of Plow Driving

The Bluebird Backcountry team is full of hard-working people, but there’s one man who you’re guaranteed to see arriving early, leaving late, and sticking around all day long in any weather: plow driver extraordinaire, bonafide mountain cowboy, and fountain of wisdom Eric Guess.  

Guess was born and raised in Leadville, Colorado, where his dad worked as a miner and then the president of local ski hill Ski Cooper. While Guess lived most of his life in Leadville, he and his dad would drive every other weekend to La Junta, Colorado, where Guess’s grandparents had a cattle ranch. 

“We would cram two weeks of ranch work into two days,” Guess says. “My grandmother had a schedule in that ranch house. Breakfast at seven, dinner at noon, supper at five. Get your work done and you’ll get fed. That was her mentality.” 

Eric Guess and his father doing some irrigation work on the ranch.

As a teenager, Guess didn’t always love the heavy labor. But looking back, he says that’s where he learned to work hard—something that’s served him well as a football player and ski racer in high school and later as an employee on Ski Cooper’s cat crew. It’s also a lesson he’s tried to impart to hundreds of kids during the decade or so he spent as a local football coach.

“Coaching isn’t about teaching the sport to me. It’s about teaching the life lessons. I think that comes from my dad—he was always about trying to teach good lessons, not necessarily teaching you how to win the game or the race,” Guess muses. His work with the kids, he says, has been enormously fulfilling. “To this day, those boys still call me coach.” 

Guess ski racing his senior year of high school.

In 2006, Guess and his wife Karen moved to Rabbit Ears Pass (just on the other side of Bluebird Backcountry) with their two young sons. The mandatory snowmobile commute to their new home didn’t deter them—at least, at first. After a few years, though, Guess decided to take matters into his own hands and buy his own plow truck. He’s been plowing his neighborhood’s roads and serving on the neighborhood board of directors ever since. 

That’s how Guess caught the attention of Erik Lambert and Jeff Woodward, Bluebird’s founders. When they approached him about doing a little plow work for the base area, he was all for it. 

“My dad ran a ski area for a long time, so I knew what they were up against,” Guess says. “And I think I learned from my dad that there are so many moving parts to an operation, but the most important part is getting your customers in and making them feel comfortable from jump.” 

All season long, from dawn to dusk, that’s exactly what Guess has been doing: Greeting people with a smile, helping guests get cars in and out, and being a friendly face to welcome skiers and riders to the base with joy—no matter how bitter the weather. 

Guess operating a Cat 924 loader. “It’s a good piece of equipment, but it was definitely brought to its limits this year,” he says.

When asked how he stays so energetic and kind in high winds and deep snow, Guess says it’s simple: 

“My wife and I are bereaved parents. We lost our youngest son six years ago in October.” J.D. Guess was in a car accident just down the road from the house. He was sixteen. 

“Since that day, I’ve decided every day is a gift,” Guess says. “So I just try to project a positive attitude and be smiling and happy even when it’s vicious out.”

And if you’ve met Guess, you know that positive attitude is contagious. So next time you see a grinning plow driver at Bluebird, give him a wave and a smile. He also responds to his radio handle, which couldn’t be more fitting: Snowman. 

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) 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