Ski Magazine, November 2010
If it wasn’t broke, the folks at Taos Ski Valley wouldn’t fix it. For half a century, little here changed because little needed to. The resort’s pioneers and locals were content to let time pass them by and to revel in pure, unfettered skiing the way it used to be. But a new crop of skiers—and riders—is trying to give Taos’s old soul a youthful vibe.
Last New Year’s in Taos, I ran into a guy I used to know, who the locals call “Wild Bill.” Back when I lived here in the early 1990s, Bill was a ski instructor who was always getting in trouble for wearing his hair too long or skiing too fast in his uniform or passing cars on blind curves on the road to the ski area. Now, he tunes skis.
I’ve always marveled at Bill. I admire his persistence. Long after the rest of us fled for jobs that could sustain us through four seasons, Bill remains a true ski bum. I admire his enthusiasm for skiing. I admire his hedonistic flair—I’ll never forget watching him scratch his back on a log post in a local bar with a shot in one hand and a beer in the other. But most of all, I admire his hair. It is still thick and wild, like him. Even though it’s been almost 20 years since I lived in Taos, and he is probably 10 years older than I am, I can’t descry a speck of gray. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t aged a bit.
That’s why when I ran into him at the bottom of Chair One and asked how he was doing, I wasn’t surprised at his answer. I had just had my second child and was only able to get up on the mountain a couple of hours at a time. Wild Bill had been skiing all day. Riding, actually—he made the switch when the resort finally agreed to allow snowboards in 2008, and he was wearing a shiny silver getup that, rumor has it, changes color with the temperature.
“Hey Bill.” I said. “What are you up to these days?”
“Oh,” he said, “Well. About the same thing I’ve been up to since you lived here. Skiing powder. Drinking beer. Loving the ladies.”
And off he went, riding the bullwheel against gravity, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
The rest of the ski world spent the past 20 years snowboarding and building luxurious base villages. Taos, however, hardly changed a thing. In a lot of ways, Taos feels like Land of the Lost—as if sometime in the early 1990s, the entire resort was sucked into a black-hole-like vortex that froze the place in that decade. Bill’s not the only Taoseño who appears to live outside the laws of time and nature. There’s Marvin, my mom’s favorite ski instructor whose tonsured pate and signature greeting, “another beautiful day in paradise,” are exactly the same as when my mom first skied with him in the late 1980s. There’s Alain, the retired French pro racer who runs the ski team and has an eternally tanned face and a fabulous leonine mane—a seriously great head of hair, better than Bill’s, and definitely better than my husband’s. “He looks like Robert Redford,” my husband, who doesn’t typically effuse about men, once said to me. But he was referring to Robert Redford back in his Sundance Kid days, because Robert Redford looks older now. Alain doesn’t.
And then there’s Jean Mayer, another French racer who has since 1960 been welcoming guests (most of whom return year after year) at the hallowed and much-beloved St. Bernard Lodge. Mayer, a ruddy, sturdy and effortlessly genial man with a low center of gravity and a perfectly preserved accent, is also technical director of the ski school. It’s a rare day you don’t see him maching down the slopes bellowing “Allez allez!” to his lagging disciples. He’s well into his 70s, but you wouldn’t know it watching him: He skis faster and surer than any 20-something on the mountain. Perhaps those endearing crinkles around his eyes are a little deeper when he smiles, but besides that, he looks no older than the day I moved here.
Nor does the mountain look all that different. There is one new chairlift and two new slopes. But otherwise, it’s exactly the same. The mountain cascades outwards from twin spurs—the West Basin Ridge extends to the northwestern edge of the resort boundary, doling out hair-raising hike-to chutes at the top and relatively gentle (for Taos) cruising below. The Highline Ridge, where hiking is also required, stretches east, with limitless tree lines snaking down from its crest, groomers below, and Kachina Peak—the 45-minute high-alpine hike and spectacular off-piste descent that is a rite of belonging in Taos—looming skywards. Between those two ridges lie Taos’ lift-served bumps and steeps—iconic pitches like Al’s Run, which drops prominently down to the base, placing visitors on immediate notice that this is a place where they need to sharpen their edges and their skills. It’s not a big mountain, with only 1300 skiable acres, but for the expert skier, it packs a major wallop. I’ve skied Taos since I was three; my dad and grandfather were there the first season. But every year I find new lines I’ve never skied before, and rediscover old lines that I’d forgotten, and revisit familiar ones that I ski without fail, year after year, because the snow is always soft and I still elicit a whoop of delighted relief when I make it down in one piece.
There’s something wonderfully reassuring about a place where no one ages and nothing changes, and to some degree, that’s by design. Resort founder Ernie Blake emigrated from Switzerland to the U.S. just before World War II, traveled west, saw the forbidding chutes and sheer ridges that lay next to New Mexico’s highest mountain, and decided to build a ski area there. He was told it was too remote; he envisioned comfortable, convivial, European-style lodging where his guests would want to stay for a while and wouldn’t mind the trek to get there. He was told it was too steep; he envisioned a seriously professional ski school that would elevate his guests’ skills to meet the demands of the mountain. Ernie was a force of nature, and he built a ski area so devoutly in his own image—warm, charming, dramatic, demanding—that the place seemed inseparable from the man. The thickly treed slopes and the European-style lodges at the mountain’s base would have been right at home in his native Switzerland (though the weather was a vast improvement); the near-vertical chutes of the West Basin Ridge loomed at the top of the upper lift almost like a taunt—this rugged terrain that few Americans at the time knew how to ski was like a rock-and-snow embodiment of Ernie’s exacting expectations.
But in 1989, Ernie died unexpectedly of pneumonia at the age of 75—and though the man was now gone, the place remained. It is said that on his deathbed, he declared that Taos would never allow snowboarders, but that wasn’t true. “My grandfather was a progressive guy,” says his grandson Alejandro (Hano) Blake, the resort’s special events coordinator, and most of the family agrees that Ernie probably would have warmed up to snowboards pretty quickly. What Ernie did say on his deathbed, according to his daughter Wendy Stagg, was how bad he felt that he had left his son Mickey—who took over after Ernie’s death—a $2 million debt for the construction of a new base-area building.
Debt was anathema to Ernie. And though his children paid off the building in only a couple of seasons, they took that ethos very much to heart. Ernie loved chairlifts; he loved restaurants less, believing everyone would be “perfectly happy with some black bread and cheese in a backpack,” Wendy recalls. After Ernie’s death, Mickey operated on a similar business model: he invested in a couple of new lifts, but everything else remained pretty much the same—the same utilitarian base lodge; the same cattle-car shuttles from the parking lot; the same late-’80s décor.
The rest of the world, meanwhile, was embarking on a real-estate-fueled development binge that transformed the ski industry from a scattered constellation of small family businesses to a concentrated handful of huge, publicly traded corporations running four-season resorts with golf courses and slate-and-river-rock spas and sushi bars and ever-more lavishly appointed luxury homes. For those places, skiing was simply one attraction among many. In Taos, skiing remained the main—really the only—attraction. That was how Ernie envisioned it; that was how his descendants kept it. It still has roughly the same skiable acreage it did when I moved here. But it’s really good acreage, the kind you’ll find in few other places in ski country. And the resort’s “anti-resort” reputation—its thrilling terrain and no-frills service; its green-chile-and-fondue charm—appealed to enough skiers that the lack of luxury accommodations and high speed chairs didn’t, for a time, seem to matter. But slowly, guests began to drift elsewhere. Taos’s biggest-ever season was in the winter of 1994–95; skier visits saw a steady decline in subsequent years.
By the time two of Ernie’s grandchildren began helping out in the management of the ski area, it was clear that the inherited business model was no longer sustainable. Adriana, 39, and Hano, 34, had both pursued business careers in the wider world but eventually returned to Taos. As their father Mickey, 65, began to think about stepping back from day-to-day management, they rotated through various jobs in the ski area—from lift op to janitor to bootfitter to children’s ski-school manager—before settling in their current roles. Both Hano and Adriana felt strongly that it was time to admit snowboards to Taos, and not just to bolster Taos’s bottom line, but also to bring back a spirit of youth to the place. Because although no one there seems to age, they also don’t get any younger.
Doony and Jamie Leeson moved to Taos around the same time I did. We were part of a vibrant assemblage of barely post-adolescent kids who staffed the ski school and the local restaurants, filled the bars and skied in huge, rowdy posses. But by the middle of the last decade, Doony told me, she was pushing 40 and “we were still the youngest ones there.” Because snowboards weren’t allowed, kids weren’t moving there; nor were parents bringing their snowboarding spawn to vacation there. Taos had taken on an ageless, but slightly geriatric, vibe. It made old people feel young. But it made young people feel weird.
In the two seasons since the chairs were opened to snowboarders, that’s changed. Visitor numbers have risen, and young people have come back. Nowadays, it’s not a freakish site to see a gaggle of shaggy, baggy dudes and perky girls with their pigtails tucked under their goggle-straps at the top of the mountain or in the bars. Nor is snowboarding the only change the younger Blakes are working with their elders to usher in. The ski area recently submitted a long-range vision statement to the Forest Service detailing potential changes to the resort’s permit area. It includes innocuous things like a tubing hill at the base of the mountain, and more controversial measures like a chairlift up Kachina Peak (listen carefully and you will hear a collective gasp). The Blake kids aren’t necessarily fans of all the proposed changes (the chairlift up the Peak, for instance, is more popular with the older generation), but they do support the general concept that Taos can change.
There have been a few changes over the years. In 1996, German entrepreneur Thomas Shulze built the Bavarian Lodge—a charming inn and restaurant at the base of the Kachina Lift replete with dirndls and lederhosen and rustic painted furniture. In 2005, a group of investors built the Edelweiss Lodge and Spa, a tall, bright and modern slate-and-stucco condo and hotel structure. Both of these were private ventures. Now, the Blakes are planning their own changes. Along with a new beginner area and the adjacent “Pioneers Glade” ski-in-ski-out housing development, the Blakes are considering designs for a pedestrian-oriented “hamlet” at the base that evokes the resort’s original structures and is slated to break ground in 2011. “The goal,” says Hano, “is to capture the feel of a European mountain village without turning it into Disney.”
And to do so without making Ernie do a dinner-roll in his grave. The Blakes’ first priority is to ensure that they keep the place in the family, and avoid getting overextended trying to keep up with their deeper-pocketed competition. That means finding investors who will leave the Blakes alone to do what they do best: running a ski area. “We’re so not real estate people up here,” says Adriana Blake. Adds Hano: “This is a skier’s—and now snowboarder’s—mountain, and the mountain will always be the focus.”
And that is why I love the place. Last Easter, I went back to Taos for the final weekend of the season, eager for that fin de siècle feel, for slush bumps and burgers and beers on the St. Bernard deck and the last Kachina-Peak hike of the year, for the smell of melting snow and the bittersweet feeling that all the fun is ending and it will never be the same, even though—and this is the best part—it is Taos, so in fact it will. But the weekend didn’t quite go as planned. It had been in the 60s the day I got there, and the next day it froze hard, solidifying the slush into raspy piles of ice, and then it snowed 4 inches and blew 40 miles per hour. Even Wild Bill was complaining.
But on the third day, the wind ceased, and the sun peeked out from the clouds. I put the kids in daycare and headed straight to Highline Ridge, where I knew, from decades of experience, that the wind would have deposited enough snow in the trees to make it worth the hike. I headed toward a spot I had just discovered earlier in the winter, but I got lost, as I usually do, and ended up finding a line I had never skied before—which offered powder to the top of my boots. I enjoyed it so much I did it again. It was like I was 22 again: The sun was out, the sky a breathtaking dark blue, and Ernie Blake’s mountain was the same as ever—unrelenting, undeviating, reassuringly the same. Down at the St. Bernard, they were eating burgers and drinking beer, and the nostalgia was so thick you could drink that too. It was as if all the intervening years had never happened.
Getting There The ski area is a two and a half-hour drive from the Albuquerque airport.
Lodging Old-school: the Hotel St. Bernard offers all-inclusive rooms, ski tickets, and meals, plus an infinite supply of Euro-Southwestern hospitality. New School: the Edelweiss Lodge and Spa features tricked-out slopeside condos and ski valet service.
Dining: Don’t miss the bratwurst and weizenbier at the Bavarian Lodge; green chile at Tim’s Stray Dog Cantina; and on the St. Bernard deck, the hands-down best burger (green chile and blue cheese are condiment-bar fixtures) in ski country.
Mountain Stats: 1,294 acres, 2,612 lift-served vertical drop (3,274 with Kachina Peak hike), 110 trails, 13 lifts, 305 annual inches of snowfall; tickets $TK.