Normally, the last thing I’d want to do after a 45-hour work week is spend my weekend cutting brush and trimming trees on the side of a mountain in the summer heat. But this weekend wasn’t normal, it was Gladefest and I was more than happy to drive up to Rabbit Ears pass near Steamboat Springs to cut some ski trails, make some friends and lend a hand in helping a novel idea succeed at Bluebird Backcountry.
I’d been stoked for a couple weeks to get up out of the city and to the mountains for Gladefest. It was going to be my introduction to Bluebird Backcountry, a small, burgeoning ski area on Bear Mountain, in the bosom of some of the best backcountry skiing in the state. Bluebird is all natural so to speak, a ski area sans chair lifts that offers a backcountry experience with some of the infrastructure, land management and community a traditional ski mountain can provide.
It’s a new concept to try and manage a backcountry ski area this way but the company is hoping to capitalize on a slowly growing migration of skiers and boarders from the resorts to the backcountry and create a vibe that welcomes and encourages the development of this new wave of skiers and splitboarders. Gladefest was an all call for volunteers to come up to the mountain and camp out and help cut new runs, in exchange for a free future day pass. I was jazzed by the idea of having the rare opportunity to create my own line to ski later in the season. Count me in.
The thick traffic out of Denver Friday evening gave me time to appreciate the thousands of trees that I could see from the car, the immensity of it all amusing. I was looking for my mind to be blown on this car ride and it kept popping off during my three hour trek north, from Tyler, the Creator’s artful bombast on Call Me if You Get Lost to the golden hour wonderment of watching the sunset along with Hiatus Kaiyote’s chaotic beauty through the Blue River Valley, running north of Silverthorne into the night. I found some dispersing camping off Route 40 and welcomed the open night sky away from the city, though the passing cars offered a weird white noise comfort as I fell into a hard sleep in my tent.
According to its website, Bluebird “is so much more than Colorado’s newest ski area—it’s a vibe.” Saturday morning that vibe was first day of camp, with all the fresh-faced jitters a new group brings and “only at Bluebird” colloquialisms that go with it. For instance, only at Bluebird do cattle cause a traffic jam and litter your parking lot with cow pies before guests arrive (you are definitely not getting that red carpet welcome at Vail). But it was a sunny reminder that any ski area is part of a larger ecosystem that extends into all seasons and it was comforting to see the place without its wintery makeup on and the splash lighting turned off, lounging in its summer rhythm (you are definitely not getting that down-to-earth vibe at Vail).
A group of 20 or so of us fanned around the Bluebird crew that included General Manager Soraya McMahon and co-founder Erik Lambert. Like the magi to the manger, we had all come from different parts of the Colorado’s Front Range guided by the promise of Bluebird’s grassroots ski model, eager to get our hands dirty and see what this new perspective on skiing was all about. Hopefully, we’d be a part of something transformative.
There were people there who regularly spend their weekends cutting trails, people who volunteered at ultra marathons, long-distance bikers, old timers who’ve been skiing for 40 years and even some new arrivals from Florida. The common denominator between all these disparate people was Bluebird. What did that say about our weekend community or about this mountain or this company? I didn’t know yet.
The mission for the weekend was to continue to improve and expand the skiable terrain on Bear Mountain. Saw crews had done a lot of the heavy cutting and it was up to us volunteers to “polish” it up (there was a first group of volunteers that came out the previous weekend and worked the West Bowl areas of “Slumpy Ridge” and “The Shire”). We’d be moving deadfall, limbing trees and glading on Bear Mountain proper on “Nosedive,” “Ursa Minor,” “Cinder Cone,” and “Plumage.” With our collection of saws at our hips and trimmers pointed to the sky like lances, we looked like a column of peasant militia ready to defend our homeland in battle with whatever weapons we could muster. What we lacked in training and professionalism we’d make up for in passion and determination. Our blades shined in the sun and our spirits were high as we set upon the mountain.
I chose the group that would hike to the top of the mountain with McMahon and come down its northern face to cut trail that didn’t yet exist. We heard the buzz of chainsaws as we hiked up into the mash of trees before us, signaling the unseen reality our day possessed like artillery on the front lines alerts green troops they are no longer in the reserves. It was a an hour-and-a-half hike straight up through dense foliage that was all the more tiresome considering our feet were constantly trying to grip a steep angle without a trail (it really made me appreciate all the work trail crews do to create level paths). By the time we got to the top we broke for lunch, surveying the expansive valley below us and Bluebird’s first home at Mt. Whitley four miles across the way.
Now came the fun stuff: cutting shit up. McMahon had flagged a trail down the mountain that we used as the future run’s center point, downing saplings and moving deadfall as best we could 20 feet to either side of the flags. We went at our work like termites, trying to keep downed limbs and trees below our knees and reaching up as high we could to cut branches, trying to account for the fact that a clear path in the summer might still have you smacking pine when you added three to five feet of snow to the ground. It dawned on me multiple times that I don’t know of any other ski mountains that calls on their guests to help glade their mountain and cut lines they can ski the next season. It’s a unique opportunity for Type II fun Bluebird can provide for its community in this infant stage and it was a real dirty treat to experience.
It also dawned on me about halfway through our day that we were doing a lot of work slicing and dicing a stretch of land that would take about four turns to get down in the winter. The sweat equity was substantial for only a couple hundred feet of terrain, but so it goes. By the end of our four hour slash and dash the soles of my feet were stinging from being at angle for hours and my thighs and hips burning from the gymnastics of walking on unstable, shoddy ground. But the amount of pride I had for the work our team had done far outweighed the cost. We hiked down to the parking lot to meet with the other crew who had been on the eastern slope, trying to come up with names that might suit the new partial run we had just cut. Maybe whoever finished it would come up with a good one.
Our mission stretched until the next day so a caravan of 10 or so cars bivouacked to a dispersed campground near Bear. The air was light and the mood lighter as everyone quickly set up camp. Bluebird employees passed around buffs and stickers as “thank you’s” and cooked up a satisfying dinner of burgers, brats and beer. Nothing tastes better than a shitty frozen burger cooked with a smile after a long day of being on the mountain. It was Apres Ski Summer Bluebird edition and the management came correct in showing their appreciation to us diehards willing to put in the work to help their business succeed, to see our collective dreams of a different kind of ski mountain come true.
In our larger group we fell back into those summer camp vibes. Bluebird management were the counselors, the stewards who had just led us ruffians on a day of activities. We were the kids, trying to forge quick friendships with people we hoped we’d like, bonding over our shared day of being outside together. Thankfully, there was enough beer to go around the day faded easily into night as our chuckles echoed through the pines. Under another bright night I slept hard.
I wasn’t as sore as I thought I’d be waking up in the morning dew. That was good news because it was going to be another bruising day of glading. We were back on the mountain by 9 A.M. and the crew I was a part of the day before tackled the lower, eastern terrain of “Ursa Minor,” this time led by Lambert. This run was an undervalued favorite of the Bluebird team and they were hoping to really shine this area up real nice for the upcoming winter. We got to the work quickly and efficiently, greased by our past day of working together and getting used to each other’s flow and utility.
Where the previous day had been much about attacking a large swath of wild timber, Sunday was about slicing and dicing with precision to put the icing on the cake. I really got the chance to envision my future lines, superimposing myself making turns in the snow through the glades to inform what branch I should saw or deadfall I should redistribute. It was thrilling knowing that I’d be able to come back to these exact spots to find stashes of powder I had helped create with my cuts. I’ve never told my future self “Don’t worry, I got you bro” with more excitement in my voice.
We called it a day a couple hours earlier than I had expected. That was fine by me, my feet were killing me and I still had a three hour drive home. We met up at our cars for some beers and reflection. I barely knew these people but we were promising to come back to ski the lines we had all worked so hard for. We definitely earned our turns this season at Bluebird and it wasn’t even snowing yet. Driving away through the cow fields and dust I kept turning around to see the dull corner of Bear Mountain jutting out of the pine. Never had I wished it to be winter so bad in all my 25 years of skiing.
All told, the two groups of volunteers and saw crew cleared and improved 40 acres of skiable terrain on Bear Mountain, with about 1/3 of that from the volunteers. Everyone who comes to Bluebird next season will have the opportunity to ski terrain not available to them last year, adding nuance and variety to a mountain that’s already been fun to ride. It’s all thanks to the volunteers and management who’d given up a weekend of fun in the summer for a season of fun in the winter.
So what did Gladefest say about Bluebird Backcountry and the community that is beginning to form its core? It said that these people are willing to put in a lot of work to have fun, to think outside the box to see the potential of a mountain, to approach backcountry skiing with an accessible and inviting attitude. Its true that Bluebird is so much more than Colorado’s newest ski area — it’s the most exciting one too.