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A Winter Of Joy For Powderhounds Falling In Love With Backcountry Skiing

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

After the pandemic ended skiing early last winter, resorts had to rethink nearly every aspect of their operations. But one ski area in northern Colorado hardly had to change because it already had no massive crowds or even any ski lifts. Colorado Public Radio's Stina Sieg takes us to the only ski area in the country that's dedicated entirely to the backcountry.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Good morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKIS TREADING SNOW)

STINA SIEG, BYLINE: A single skier glides down an ungroomed slope at Bluebird Backcountry, located close to nothing but the Continental Divide. It's in rugged mountains, covered in white and dotted with leafless huddles of aspen trees. At Bluebird's base, a few dozen skiers and boarders are warming themselves by fires. Many are recent backcountry converts, like Lukas Seelye.

LUKAS SEELYE: I've been skiing since I was 12, so over 20 years. But this year, I didn't want to deal with resorts anymore. They've been driving me crazy the last several years, honestly, and so this was just kind of the push I needed to get into backcountry.

SIEG: And that push is what's been changing our lives in so many ways.

SEELYE: COVID, yeah.

SIEG: Seelye's a nurse at a children's hospital and has already been fully vaccinated against the virus.

SEELYE: I'm still being cautious.

SIEG: Which means staying away from big crowds, the kind Seelye has seen gather in resort restaurants, pubs and shops, amenities that don't exist here.

SEELYE: The lack of massive ski lodges was a welcome subtraction.

SIEG: Bluebird's founders call this backcountry lite. There's still ski patrol and terrain that's been evaluated for avalanches, but every guest must carry safety equipment not required at typical resorts.

SARAH GROENWALD: So, Jess, you'll scan your pass...

KENTON DAWKINS: OK.

GROENWALD: ...And I'll check your pack here.

DAWKINS: OK, you bet.

SIEG: Bluebird's Sarah Groenwald looks into Kenton Dawkins' backpack for an avalanche beacon, shovel and snow probe - all rentable here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZIPPER)

GROENWALD: Sweet. You're good to go.

DAWKINS: All right. Thank you.

SIEG: One of Bluebird's biggest differences is its lack of ski lifts. Here, the only way to ski down is to power yourself up first. Justin Talbot calls it embracing the suck.

JUSTIN TALBOT: Oh, yeah, I'm going to be dying out there, for sure. That's the plan.

SIEG: And part of the appeal. Talbot's never done this, but he's spent plenty of time hiking and camping in the snow in his home state of Wisconsin.

TALBOT: You know, once you can get mentally over that I'm going to be cold, I'm going to be tired, it's going to be hard, then you get to, like, enjoy, you know, this, like, amazing landscape.

SIEG: Just beyond looms Bear Mountain, with its gray cliffs and evergreens that look coated in powdered sugar. Talbot and his friends are getting lessons for splitboarding, backcountry snowboarding, with the board split in two like a pair of skis.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Bang your snowboard while you're in uphill mode.

SIEG: They make sure the boards are secured to their feet. Then they're off - kind of hiking, kind of sliding up, with material on the bottoms of their boards allowing them to walk on top of the snow. Farther up, a small group is taking an avalanche course. Laura Geer says she first bought her equipment years ago but then got scared.

LAURA GEER: I didn't feel safe, like, going out and doing, like, the magical part of backcountry, where you are away from people and, like, the freedom part of it.

SIEG: The mom of three says she can feel that here but without the danger of being truly alone. Bluebird opened last year, before the pandemic, but has gotten new attention this year because of it. Many people, like Avery Stonich, bought season passes before seeing the ski area.

AVERY STONICH: Turn the COVID winter into a winter of excitement instead of a winter trepidation.

SIEG: And for Bill Vivian, it's now a winter of honing a new skill. He says he tried backcountry once last year and got hooked and now has brought his grown son Hutch to give it a shot.

BILL VIVIAN: Trying to get him addicted to it, as well.

HUTCH VIVIAN: First time for me, so - and I loved it. Yeah, it was awesome.

SIEG: So is the addiction going to take?

H VIVIAN: Yeah, that hit about five minutes in, so I think it's going to stick.

SIEG: Then they fist-bump as a fresh layer of powder falls. For NPR News, I'm Stina Sieg.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUPER SKIER")

BOB GIBSON: (Singing) They call him super skier as he sat around the sun deck, and he swore that he'd never spill. When they finally took him down, they had to use three toboggans to carry all the pieces down the hill. He was going down that slope, going 90 miles an hour, when he caught an edge of his ski. Well his clothes, they were fast... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.