by Marissa Lorenz
This past weekend saw the end of Bluebird Backcountry Ski Area’s inaugural season at Kremmling’s Peak Ranch, making new memories and recalling area residents to Kremmling’s ski history.
Bluebird Backcountry is the concept of Jeff Woodward and Erik Lambert, avid snow enthusiasts who wanted to “serve the growing curiosity and demand for alternative/backcountry experiences; provide a welcoming place for everyone, including families and more risk-averse skiers, create a safe space for people to try, learn, practice, and hone their backcountry skills; instill good habits and create a bridge into and out of traditional avalanche safety courses; and revive the soul of skiing, giving the backcountry community a place to gather.”
In 2019, after a few years of research, the duo prototyped six days of experience with 171 guests, skiing in-bounds in Winter Park and out-of-bounds on Mosquito Pass near Breckenridge. They had explored options of creating a “human-powered” resort on both public and private lands. And finally, through a connection to Dave and Karen Hammer, owners of Peak Ranch, they were able to propose a trial season, mapping out a functioning operation on Whiteley Peak, the prominent
“Grinch-looking” peak about 20 miles north of Kremmling proper. “I’ve been driving past here for 22 years, wanting to ski this mountain,” said PJ Collins of Winter Park one sunny Sunday. “I can’t wait to get out there this morning and finally do it.”
They would end up with a legitimate 1,500 acre ski area where guests could freely enjoy about 400 of “avalanche-evaluated terrain” on their own and an additional 1,100-ish acres with a guide. They are an affiliate member of the National Ski Areas Association, insured by a major ski-area-insurer, and partnered with Colorado Mountain School guide service and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. They would have a rental and warming hut, employ two professional ski-patrollers, offer lessons with professional instructors for various equipment and experience levels, and ensure every skier has an avalanche safety pack. All of which would attract over 1,000 adventurous spirits to experience backcountry skiing in a new way, a way much more similar to that of the early ski experience in Colorado and, especially, in Grand County.
Kremmling is not generally considered a ski community. Surrounded by major and ever-expanding “world-class” ski resorts, it is often seen only as a pass-throughon a skier’s way from one high-speed chairlift to another. But long-time locals have a different story. The descendents of Kremmling’s earliest pioneers remember “growing up on skis,” as described by Jim Yust whose family has ranched at the head of Gore Canyon since the 1880s, and that “we all skied and ice-skated,” as recounted by Therese McElroy, whose ancestors were among those to establish the Middle Park Rodeo, the Kremmling airport and other area milestones.
And it was Therese’s father Joe McElroy who, along with fellow rancher Willard Taussig, would establish Kremmling’s first area ski resort on Baker Mountain in 1950, just six miles farther up the Muddy Creek from today’s Bluebird Backcountry location. Therese remembers skiing at the Hot Sulphur ski hill, at the Winter Park Winter Carnival, and traveling to a new ski destination each year. And at some point, the two fathers decided it would be easier to “build their own ski area close to home, rather than to drive every weekend to Winter Park with a dozen kids and their equipment,” according to The History of Skiing at Steamboat Springs. So they gained permission from the Forest Service, plowed in a road, and set up two motorized ropes tow on Baker Mountain.
Therese recalls Baker Mountain being the first place her dad ever got on skis himself. “He just fell in love with it.” Joe would later go on to coin the term “champagne powder,” permission for which he would give to James Temple, Steamboat rancher and founder of what would become Steamboat Resort. The term is now trademarked by the resort.
Therese says they skied Baker Mountain every weekend with family and friends. She has a photo on the back of which someone has scrawled, Baker Mountain Ski Club. “Mrs. Smole, who owned a ranch lower on the pass had them build a hut with a stove. It was our ‘warming hut,’” she reminisces. “It had a little kitchen and she would sell hot dogs, hamburgers, and hot chocolate. There was a speaker rigged outside, so you could call for someone if they were needed.”
A lifetime pass to Baker Mountain cost under $100 and Therese and Jim Heeney of the Blue River ranchers both remember receiving a lifetime pass as a gift. “My dad bought it mostly to help them get started,” recalls Heeney. “I remember skiing in the spring and that it was hard to hang onto the rope tow.”
Therese remembers the rope tows as being sometimes dangerous, with mittens or jackets getting caught in the belted harness they would clip into.
“We would ruin our gloves on the rope, but it was cheap fun for years,” she says. “We would go every weekend.”
The resort officially closed in 1953 when it proved too difficult to keep the access road open, making it the only ski resort known to shutter operations due to too much snow. But Yust remembers continuing to ski on the Baker Mountain slopes until 1959 when he moved out of the area for a few years. The tow ropes were taken down and one was re-purposed by the the School ski club, resurrecting the longer tow rope on the Baumgartner Ranch for club practices.
As for Bluebird Backcountry,
“I’m so excited,” says Therese. “What a great thing it is! It is so beautiful
up there. My kids love snowshoeing and skiing. My brothers were both
ski instructors and would love the idea. I hope they’re successful.”
According to Woodward, the first season was a success, but it is still uncertain whether Bluebird will return to Kremmling for the 2021 ski season. He says that they’re still evaluating whether ski pack and conditions would permit for a longer season on the mountain than the 4 week period they trialed this year. To learn more and follow their upcoming plans, visit them at bluebirdbackcountry. com, on Facebook and Instagram.