Breaking free of the crowds: Long lift lines in 2021-22 send riders into the backcountry, resort officials say |

Breaking free of the crowds: Long lift lines in 2021-22 send riders into the backcountry, resort officials say

Experts share tips on how to get into the backcountry, safely, and avoid the perils of off-piste terrain

A skier navigates a layer of fresh powder while skiing in the backcountry of Summit County. Colorado Adventure Guides in Silverthorne and Bluebird Backcountry in Kremmling have both seen a spike in visitation, citing long lift lines at popular ski resorts.
Colorado Adventure Guides/Courtesy photo

It is no secret that lift lines at ski resorts have been a source of contention over the last few seasons. Whether in or outside of Summit County, lengthy queues are one of the last things anyone wants to see when getting off the gondola or after returning back to the base of the mountain after a few breathtaking turns.

In order to bypass the long lines at many popular ski resorts, Colorado Adventure Guides in Silverthorne and Bluebird Backcountry in Kremmling say many Summit County locals and visitors have taken up backcountry skiing or splitboarding in order to avoid the major crowds. 

“Even before we started Bluebird, the No. 1 reason people wanted to get into backcountry skiing was to get away from the crowds.” co-founder and CEO of Bluebird Backcountry Jeff Woodward said. “We see a common thread when asking people why they are coming to Bluebird, and often it is because they want a break from the lift lines.”

“The increased interest in the backcountry has been enabled by greater access to equipment,” Colorado Adventure Guides owner, general manager and guide Abe Pacharz said.

Skiers and riders fill the lift lines to the Colorado Super Chair at the base of Breckenridge’s Peak 8.
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Parcharz recounts when he first started backcountry skiing that access to the necessary equipment was hard to come by, but now he feels like equipment is easier to get and that the activity is becoming more mainstream. 

Another reason Pacharz thinks backcountry skiing has seen an increase in popularity in the last few winter seasons is because of the immediate access to fresh powder and the ability for skiers to choose their own adventure —which is not always possible within the confines of a ski resort.

“For most people I know, it’s the ability to choose your own adventure,” Pacharz said of the draw of the backcountry. “Additionally it’s the access to untracked terrain, untracked snow, skiing powder — because I think everyone loves that.”

Although skiing through a blanket of fresh snow while crisscrossing through a group of trees sounds ideal to most people who enjoy exploring in the winter, Pacharz and Woodward recognize the dangers that come with embarking into the backcountry.

The most obvious concern for anyone looking to learn how to safely navigate the backcountry is the risk of avalanches and what to do if they encounter one.

Colorado Adventure Guides and Bluebird Backcountry both offer avalanche courses that instruct backcountry skiers how to navigate and avoid avalanches.

These classes are essential in ensuring safety throughout the duration of a backcountry skiing trip. 

“Avalanche risk is real,” Woodward said. “It kills people every year in Colorado. It is something you can manage but never eliminate. It’s this incredibly fulfilling sport that takes some education to do well and safely.”

Beyond taking a course, Pacharz recommends that people begin their first backcountry expedition with a good deal of patience.

“Patience is a huge thing,” Pacharz said. “There is an issue with that among folks who want to make the jump. They saw it on Instagram, and they just want it to happen.”

The reality is that backcountry skiing requires a fair amount of work. Skiers must be in good shape to get uphill on their own power while also being able to navigate variable terrain. 

“In the backcountry, when we are skiing on powder, we are not necessarily skiing on powder that was on a packed groomer that has a good base,” Pacharz said. “It can be hollow underneath, which is our persistent slab problem. You have to be a pretty good skier sometimes to navigate that type of condition. It is not always going to be perfect snow.” 

Several courses should be taken before deciding to explore the backcountry. Colorado Adventure Guides offers a series of courses — which include a mentorship program —while Bluebird Backcountry also offers a variety of lessons to ensure skier safety.

Skiers are pictured at Bluebird Backcountry, a backcountry ski area on Bear Mountain near Kremmling north of Summit County.
Castner Photography/Bluebird Backcountry Ski Area

“It’s really like a toolbox,” Pacharz said of the courses. “We are trying to provide new users, future backcountry enthusiasts with a tool kit to make decisions and stay safe.”

Once all the proper courses have been taken, Pacharz and Woodward recommend getting out in the backcountry with a knowledgeable friend or mentor before setting out on your own. 

“Let it be a journey. There is no destination,” Pacharz said. “If you want to be a backcountry skier, you want to do it for the rest of your life. But backcountry skiing can only be a lifelong endeavor if you manage the risks.”

Colorado Adventure Guides will start offering its clinics and classes in early December with several clinics taking place throughout the Summit County area during the winter season. Bluebird Backcountry is tentatively set to open for the season on Dec. 30.

To book a class with Colorado Adventure Guides, visit or call 970-893-8007. To book a trip to Bluebird Backcountry visit or call 303-332-6484.

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