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