Meet the Team: Melissa Baker

We’re stoked to have Melissa as our Base Area Director this winter! Melissa is no stranger to the Bluebird team – previously, she was in charge of Group Sales, Partnerships, and Events. Melissa loves snowboarding, river rafting, and all things outdoors. She also used to own a bar! Read on to learn more about Melissa and don’t forget to say hi if you see her on the mountain this season!

Title:

Base Area Director

Social Media Handle:

@melraeb

How many seasons have you worked at Bluebird?

This will be my second.

Why did you want to work for Bluebird?

One day it dawned on me… I love the outdoor industry – I need to work in it! I love snowboarding and hate crowded resorts, it was meant to be.

What are you most excited for this season?

I’m super excited to be working onsite this year and living in an RV just down the road. I feel like I am going to be living out all my dirtbag dreams but winter RV living and I can’t wait. And of course – Boot Tan Fest!

Favorite skin track at Bluebird?

Lost in the Woodwards, so pretty!

Outside of Bluebird, where else do you like to ski/ride?

The trees at Steamboat on a bluebird powder day…or bombing groomers, also on a bluebird day. I’m very picky when resort riding 🙂

When not skiing/splitboarding, what do you love to do?

I live for rafting in the summer and squeezing in some peak bagging in between.

Aside from Bluebird, what’s your favorite type of bird?

The California Condor… I haven’t actually ever seen one, but I really want to.

Do you have an insider tip for guests visiting Bluebird for the first time?

Download the onX backcountry app, you get a free pro trial with your day pass and it works great, even when you lose cell service.

What is your favorite kind of burrito?

MMM breakfast burritos… smothered in hot sauce. I have a hot sauce addiction.

Melissa, Bluebird's Base Area Director

 

Meet the Team: Morgan Ash

Morgan Ash, our Rental Shop Manager, will be back for his third season with Bluebird. If you’ve ever rented gear from us, you’ve probably met Morgan. You might not know it, but Morgan has done some crazy stuff. For example, this fall Morgan ran Run Rabbit Run (a 100 mile race that starts and finishes in Steamboat) and he crushed it! So if you come to Bluebird this winter and you’re looking for some advice about running an ultra-marathon, Morgan might be able to give you a pointer or two in addition to setting you up with all the gear you need for a day of touring.

Title (Position):

Rental Shop Manager 

Social Media Handle:

@morgan_ashvi

How many seasons have you worked at Bluebird?

This will be my third winter with Bluebird.

Why did you want to work for Bluebird?

Two real reasons: First, to finally put my knowledge of skis and splitboards to some actual use. Second, to try and be a part of lowering the financial barrier to try out this sport. Survey after survey has shown that the cost of skiing in general, let alone backcountry skiing, keeps underrepresented groups from trying snow and backcountry sports. Allowing people to pay a small amount to try the sport with some really good gear that they can be comfortable in and trust is a great way to help them decide if it’s worth investing their time and money into in the future.

What are you most excited for this season?

Every year the whole Bluebird team comes together with ideas on how we can make this whole liftless ski area even better. I know I have a few things I’m looking forward to making better in the shop, but I’m really excited to see what other people are bringing to the table this year.

Favorite skin track at Bluebird?

Lost in the Woodwards is just such a pretty skin track, it’s really hard to beat. Plus, you can hop off of it at any point for some really nice mellow aspen skiing. It’s a great one to get a lot of quick laps on and has had untouched snow every time I’ve skied off of it.

Favorite run at Bluebird?

The Plume always has great snow and has such a great view at the start, with an honorable mention to Ursa Major for some steeper tree skiing.

Outside of Bluebird, where else do you like to ski/ride?

Howelson Hill in Steamboat is a great little ski area with a few lifts for those days when you just don’t feel like skinning uphill. I only skied there a little last year, but it really feels like a small town ski area without all the frills that the giant ski conglomerates throw at their resorts. It’s also the oldest running ski area in the US, so you can have a pretty cool weekend of skiing both the newest and oldest operating ski areas back-to-back!

What’s your go-to après food or drink?

Burritos and a hot toddy from an insulated bottle are a perfect “welcome back” to me.

When not skiing/splitboarding, what do you love to do?

I tend to fully invest myself in my sports. I’ve always been an avid rock climber, and at one point was spending 20-30 hours per week training or working on my climbing projects. Over the past few years I’ve gotten really into ultra running and spend what feels like a similar amount of time training and racing in 30-100mi distances.

Aside from Bluebird, what’s your favorite type of bird?

Hot take, but I think magpies are pretty cool. They’re vocal, intelligent birds who look kind of like crows in formal wear. They have also occasionally exercised my dog by flying low laps over a field where we used to live so she’d chase them.

Do you have an insider tip for guests visiting Bluebird for the first time?

Don’t be intimidated by starting something new and asking questions! Nobody came into this sport knowing every little detail. We all picked things up little by little as we watched and talked to our partners, made mistakes, (a lot in my case) and figured out what works best for our own independent style.

If you could be any magical or supernatural creature, what would you be and why?

Maybe a Sphinx, since a good riddle and a good dad joke are like 1 degree of separation from each other.

What is your favorite kind of burrito?

Al Pastor is the true measure of a good burrito, in my mind. I’m a strong proponent of pineapple on everything.

What piece of gear can’t you live without?

While touring – A GPS device/watch/app since my sense of direction is generally a liability.
While transitioning – Those little wrist elastic things that connect to your gloves, so you can adjust your gear and get things from your pack without losing a warm glove.
After the tour – A hot drink in an insulated bottle.

What’s the best backcountry touring tip you’ve ever heard?

Be bold and start cold! You’ll be amazed how quickly you warm up once you start moving, and leaving the base area cozy usually means you’ll be sweating 5 minutes into the skintrack.

Meet the Team: Caleb Kessler

Caleb is new to the Bluebird team this year, but he’s no stranger to the world of backcountry skiing! Caleb hails from Fayston, Vermont and he is stoked to move out to Colorado this winter. You might know him as the voice behind Bluebird’s weekly emails! Outside of his job as Bluebird’s Marketing Coordinator, you can find Caleb running, mountain biking, taking pictures, and spending time outside. Read on to find out Caleb’s go-to après food and his #1 backcountry touring tip.

Title:

Marketing Coordinator

Social Media Handle: 

@ckess2

How many seasons have you worked at Bluebird?

This will be my first!

Why did you want to work for Bluebird?

Because backcountry skiing is my favorite and Bluebird is doing something in this space that is new and exciting and I wanted to be a part of it!

What are you most excited for this season?

I’ve never been to Bluebird before so I’m really excited to see the place come to life when we open for the winter.

Outside of Bluebird, where else do you like to ski/ride?

Northern Vermont!

What’s your go-to après food or drink?

Hard to choose one, so here are three: Authentic Japanese ramen from Miso Hungry at Jay Peak, anything with warm melted cheese, and a Vermont IPA.

Bluebird Backcountry

When not skiing/splitboarding, what do you love to do?

I love to run, mountain bike, take pictures, and be outside.

Aside from Bluebird, what’s your favorite type of bird?

Barred owls! I used to have a barred owl as a neighbor and we would go on walks together.

Do you have an insider tip for guests visiting Bluebird for the first time?

I’ll be visiting Bluebird for the first time this winter so I’m hoping the guests might have some tips for me.

If you could be any magical or supernatural creature, what would you be and why?

Bilbo Baggins because he lives in Hobbiton which seems like an idyllic place to live and he also gets to go on wild adventures with Gandalf

What is your favorite kind of burrito?

Anything with blue agave sriracha or green dragon hot sauce

What piece of gear can’t you live without?

A beacon and a friend with a shovel and probe.

What’s the best backcountry touring tip you’ve ever heard?

If it’s a cold morning and you’ve got a long drive to the trailhead, put your ski boots in the foot space on the passenger side and blast the heat on your feet so all the hot air flows directly into your liners. This will make putting your boots on in the parking lot more like sliding into a cozy, warm pair of slippers and less like jamming your feet into a rock solid, ice cold, burial chamber, where your toes will instantly go numb.

Meet the Team: Aaron Peterson

The past two seasons Aaron has taught AIARE Courses with us and we’re super excited that this season he’ll be returning as our Avalanche Program Lead! Aaron grew up in Minnesota and currently resides in Crested Butte with his wife and toddler. You may recognize his name from our Spooky Snowpack Blog, in which we chatted with him about snow science and avalanche inspired halloween costumes. He is more than just an avalanche expert and costume connoisseur though. He is a man of many talents. When there isn’t snow on the ground, he is a chiropractor for performance horses. Continue reading to learn what piece of gear Aaron can’t live without, and more!

Title (Position):

Avalanche Program Lead

Social Media Handle:

@Double_Eh_

How many seasons have you worked at Bluebird?

This will be my third.

Why did you want to work for Bluebird?

I love Bluebird’s approach to creating a safe, accessible, and welcoming place for folks to get out backcountry skiing. Plus it’s a really fun crew to work with.

What are you most excited for this season?

I’m a bit of a snow nerd, so watching the individual snow crystals and the snowpack they create morph and change throughout the season is always fascinating. And skiing… and bacon.

Favorite skin track at Bluebird?

Wapiti Way for the endless aspen groves.

Favorite run at Bluebird?

Cow Call / Krem de la Krem for the same aspen surfing.

Outside of Bluebird, where else do you like to ski/ride?

I’m based in Crested Butte and love seeking out new places around my home valley.

What’s your go-to après food or drink?

It’s probably an unpopular choice, but Dogfish Head actually makes a really good Pumpkin Ale. That and chocolate chip cookies.

When not skiing/splitboarding, what do you love to do?

Ride around the neighborhood with my toddler on his strider bike.

Aside from Bluebird, what’s your favorite type of bird?

The loon- I grew up listening to them in Minnesota

If you could be any magical or supernatural creature, what would you be and why?

I’ve always liked elves for their forest knowledge. Particularly the JRR Tolkien type, but North Pole and Keebler elves are cool too.

What is your favorite kind of burrito?

Anything that includes avocados or guacamole and cheese.

What piece of gear can’t you live without?

A thermos in the winter and sunglasses year round

What’s the best backcountry touring tip you’ve ever heard?

It’s supposed to be fun.

Meet the Team: Scott Leigh

At the beginning of August we hired Scott Leigh, our new General Manager and Chief Operating Officer. Perhaps you learned a bit about Scott and his extensive experience in the industry if you saw the announcement in Ski Area Management or Snow Industry News this summer. But there’s a lot more to Scott than what they say about him in these articles. For example, you probably didn’t know that Scott’s après beverage of choice is an old fashioned. Continue reading to learn about the best backcountry tip Scott has ever heard, and more!

Name:

Scott Leigh

Title/Position:

GM & COO

How many seasons have you worked at Bluebird?

This will be my first!

Why did you want to work for Bluebird?

Passion for the backcountry and disrupting the ski industry

What are you most excited for this season?

Inviting our guests and employees out to Bluebird to enjoy the mountain

Outside of Bluebird, where else do you like to ski/ride?

Telluride

What’s your go-to après food or drink?

Old fashioned

When not skiing/splitboarding, what do you love to do?

Spend time with family, enjoy coffee and classic vehicles

Do you have an insider tip for guests visiting Bluebird for the first time?

Have fun!

What’s the best backcountry touring tip you’ve ever heard?

Stop for bacon at the Perch

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.