Funding and remote location force shutdown
Bluebird Backcountry, the human-powered ski area, announced today that it is permanently closing. Following three winters of operations in Colorado, the company says it started proving demand for its “backcountry lite” concept but must close after running out of financial runway on its way to profitability.
Bluebird Backcountry was the first in the world to open a full-service alpine ski area without chairlifts. The company’s promise of avalanche-free backcountry skiing went viral in January 2020 when Bluebird’s founders announced they had secured a location and insurance to try the model. The company’s stated aim was to make a “dangerous and often exclusive sport” more welcoming and accessible, according to past press releases, by “reducing barriers to entry, improving gaps in education, and creating a soulful gathering place for the backcountry skiing community.”
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign and pilot seasons run mostly by volunteers, Bluebird moved its operation to Bear Mountain, unlocking access to 1,200 private acres on a ranch between Kremmling and Steamboat Springs. The mountain opened its gates to the public on December 31, 2020, making it the first new ski area in Colorado since Silverton Mountain in 2002. Bluebird sold access passes, rented equipment, taught lessons, and offered a number of other on-site amenities with a backcountry twist; the company educated thousands and became one of the largest avalanche education providers in the nation. More than 19,000 new and experienced backcountry skiers and snowboarders visited Bluebird Backcountry from all over the country and the world. Bluebird’s busiest day, in March of this year, crested 300 visitors.
“There is no question that countless people had life-changing experiences here. Our team helped inspire and educate the next generation of backcountry travelers, and we introduced a much-needed antidote to the overcrowded and overbuilt ski industry status quo.”
– Bluebird Backcountry Co-founder and CEO Jeff Woodward
Woodward says that Bluebird’s team and customers are as passionate as ever; however, the business cannot go on without a capital partner or central location. “It’s probably a surprise to no one that land is the biggest barrier to entry in the ski industry,” he says. “Bear Mountain has good snow and terrain and has been a beautiful home, but we’re not located near our core customer. More than 60% of our guests live in the Front Range, which means lots of folks are driving three-plus hours each way for the day or weekend.” Bluebird encouraged camping in the parking lot and experimented with rustic lodging this past winter to accommodate traveling guests. Woodward said the 41 beds were sold out every weekend they were available.
“The benefits that Bluebird Backcountry brings to the world are not unique to Colorado,” he says. “From the beginning, our vision has been to open a network of backcountry ski areas across the country. Land has been a challenge here in Colorado as well as every major market we’ve explored.” He says the company has developed detailed criteria for successful mountain properties and has been searching systematically across the Mountain West for four years.
The economy and a slowdown in start-up funding and financing are a factor in the company’s decision to close, Woodward says. While Bluebird’s financial model is more lightweight than a traditional resort that invests in chairlifts, permanent buildings, and real estate, any venture in the ski industry is cash-intensive, and he says Bluebird would need a multi-year capital partner to keep the business going.
“While it’s heartbreaking to close Bluebird, I’m proud of the experience we built. We listened and learned about what our community wants. We relentlessly improved our skiing, backcountry education, amenities, and the experience overall. We took a leave-no-trace approach. We hired great people, supported our volunteers, and achieved an excellent safety record. Myself and our leadership chose to invest in what we collectively agreed a human-powered ski area needed to be, not just what would extract the most profit. There are many things we would do differently if we started over, but a ‘done right’ communal approach is fundamentally part of the Bluebird Backcountry spirit.”
– Jeff Woodward
Citing decades of growth in backcountry skiing and education, Woodward believes that the backcountry-lite model can be successful. He encourages other entrepreneurs to carry the idea forward and continue innovating in the ski industry. “If there are readers out there with an immediate desire to start their own backcountry ski area, Bluebird is supportive,” he says. The company will be selling its base buildings, lodging domes, and equipment fleet, essentially a ski area in a box.
“Bluebird has been a project co-created by hundreds of people who want to shift the paradigm in a monolithic industry. Thank you to everyone who believes in Bluebird Backcountry — together, we’ll enjoy seeing the ski world continue to evolve.”
– Jeff Woodward
The Bluebird Backcountry team has established a community board to share photos and memories. You can contribute at http://bit.ly/bluebird-backcountry during the month of July.