Skiing the grand legend – Taos, New Mexico
There are many mountain resorts around the world that achieve almost legendary status as the “best” there is in skiing. Kitzbuehl in Austria, Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany, Shiga Kogen in Japan are examples, along with one-time Olympic host Squaw Valley in the Sierra Nevada.
But Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico at the south end of the Rockies is unique. It’s south of most U.S. ski resorts, in a state hardly noted for snow. It’s in a state noted more for its hundreds of art galleries than for skiing. Its season is short, ending in March or the first week of April. It’s in a desert.
But there it is. Taos (not to be confused with nearby city of Taos) is basically one man’s vision – Ernie Blake, a German Jew who fled to Switzerland in 1938 and continued on to the United States, where he served in military intelligence during World War II. Now 51 years old, the resort continues in Blake’s old-world tradition – including its skiers only rule -no snowboarders allowed.
The ski valley opened in 1955 with old mining machinery adapted as a surface ski lift on Al’s Run. Back then they used long wooden skis with bear-trap bindings and bamboo ski poles, wore heavy woolen clothes and were happy to hike the mountain. “Back then it was us, six employees and a donkey that wouldn’t go up the mountain,” notes Ernie’s widow Rhoda Blake.
Today there’s a mixture of new and old. The original two-seater fixed-lift on Al’s Run is still cranked up on busy weekends, but it parallels a modern four-seater. The village around the base is crammed with restaurants and condos and chalets. A giant hotel-condo sits just off the base village. A German-run Bavarian Restaurant serves wienerschnitzel (with real veal!) and Riesling wine at the base of the Kachina lift. Ski shops join the resort’s facilities offering upscale ski gear. Yes, detachable quads aren’t the norm here; fixed chairlifts carry riders to near the top of the mountain. From there it’s a hike to some of the most challenging ski runs in the USA. These are double-black diamonds, reflecting the true challenge on each of these super steeps.
There’s not a lot of gliz and fashionable crowds here. Lift lines are short or nonexistent and the real thrust is to get up on those steep and less steep trails.
There are long blue cruiser runs and even a beginner run and hill. And it’s all on one very big pair of mountains, topping off at 12,481 feet. Base area is 9,400 feet, where Heavenly tops out. It pays to rest a day or so to become accustomed to the altitude.
Expert skiers return year after year to hike and run those steeps. Many come back to enjoy the “ski weeks,” Sunday through Friday, often skiing with the same Ernie Blake Ski School coach year after year. Ski valley skiers come back to hone skills, live life to the fullest, renew old acquaintances. Families return year after year, loving the resort because while it is up to date, it doesn’t really change.
“We’d turn the kids loose on the mountain every weekend and knew they’d be fine. Now you’ll find us skiing Totally Wiard or Hunziker Bowl (runs) and our grandkids zipping right by,” says Dr. Charles and Edy Anderson, Taos community volunteers.
The resort is owned by a corporation now, following Blake’s death in 1989. Most of the privately held stock is owned by Blake family members, many of whom work regularly there.
“I’ve done everything there is to do on the mountain,” says Adriana Blake, now marketing chief. “I’ve groomed trails, sold lift tickets, driven trucks and mopped floors. It’s kind of a Blake tradition.”
While there’s skiing for all levels, it’s the steeps that lure advanced skiers back again and again. Most of those steeps can only be reached by hiking up to the ridges from the end of the lifts. Three lifts take one up to hiking distance of the ridges, but once up there more than a dozen 35-degree-plus trials beckon experts.
Yep, Taos is a skier legend. In the future snowboarders will probably be welcomed, perhaps in two to five years. Right now the crowd tends on the adult side, but with plenty of kids around. That’ll change.
But Taos Ski Valley, with its funky lodges a few miles down the hill from the base, won’t change, or at least not so much. It will remain a challenge to the expert, a home to skiing families and always the vision that Ernie Blake had.
And, oh yes, if you’re driving you can stop at Aryo Seco and pick up the day’s New York Times and a latte.
Taos Ski Valley
Season: November to early April
Average annual snowfall: 305 inches
Average annual sunshine: 300-plus days
Number of ski trails: 110, 24 percent beginner, 25 percent intermediate, 51 percent expert
Number of lifts: 12, four quads, one triple, five double and two surface
Base elevation: 9,400 feet
Kachina Peak: 12,481 feet
Top of highest lift: 11,819 feet
Vertical drop: 2,612 lift served; 3,274 feet with Kachina Peak hike
Information: (505) 776-2291
Reservations: (505) 751-9171
Location: Off I-25 on Highway to I-285 to Highway 64 to Highway 150 in northern New Mexico