Jump to content

Recommended Posts

interesting place...




March 5, 2006


In Taos Ski Valley, No Frills, Just Thrills



THE 20-mile drive from the town of Taos to Taos Ski Valley in northeastern New Mexico is a stunning geographical contradiction. The road travels through vast red desert, past adobe houses and prickly pear cactuses, upward through the dense evergreens of the Carson National Forest, finally reaching a Bavarianlike village with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains — blood-red at sunset — rising to 13,000 feet overhead. The road ends where the lift line to Al's Run begins, a harrowing-looking bump run that must, in part, account for Taos's reputation as one of skiing's most daunting challenges.


On this journey, the psychic distance is just as great as the physical one. In Taos, the spirituality is New Age; here in Taos Ski Valley village, it's all about the skiing.


I'm here for the famous Taos ridge, which offers some of the most difficult, unspoiled terrain in any ski area in the country. The ridge is double-black-diamond terrain accessible only by foot; to get there, skiers must take lift No. 2 to its highest point, take off their skis and hike up a steep trail to the top. Because of the hiking and the double black diamonds, skiing the ridge has a hard-core cachet.


Not that I'm all that great a skier. But Taos's "learn to ski better week" is about to change that, with a immersion program at its much-praised ski school. When you sign up for the "learn to ski better" program, you are assigned to a group at your level (there are many levels; "expert" alone has 10 different gradations, with the highest one being professional, and then ski every morning, Sunday to Friday. You're on your own in the afternoon to practice what you've learned.


I came here last January to learn to ski better, and to ski terrain that was fun and challenging for me. Here is what I was not here to do: ski tedious blue runs just to keep a friend company; squabble about whether to stop for lunch; spend two hours looking for my missing nephew. These things tend to happen when you ski with friends and family. Inevitably, people have different skill levels. Last time I was at Taos, I went with five friends and family members. We skied together the first hour of the first day and then broke apart. No two of us were at the same level.


And skiing solo is somehow missing the point. At its best, skiing is spiritual. The euphoria of being outside in uninhabitable terrain in the middle of winter, negotiating tough landscape, meditating on gravity, the third eye focused three turns down the run, testing your courage, trusting your instincts — this is liberating. You need someone else there, to effusively hash over the details.


Taos draws a slightly idiosyncratic crowd, one that seems to revel in its stuck-back-in-time personality. Taos doesn't coddle its skiers, even the kids. When I told a guide that I was surprised that there were no bars on Bunny Hill chairlift, even though it went 30 feet up in the air, she said, proudly "It's the Wild West out here." It was true. At many other American ski resorts, nervous parents are issued beepers when they drop their kids at ski school, so they can be immediately alerted if necessary.


At Taos, things are a little more low-tech. All communication is done via chalkboard at the base of the lift. It's the parents' job to keep their eyes open for messages.


The mountain's throwback quality may be a reflection of its ownership — it is one of a handful of family-owned ski resorts left. Ernie Blake, the patriarch, got the rights to the land in the 1950's and now his family runs it with him in mind. The Blake family makes controversial decisions (for example, the resort is one of a few major spas that do not allow snowboarding, costing it large amounts in family vacation revenue) and resists technology that coddles its skiers (people have suggested putting a chairlift up to the ridge; the Blakes declined).


Eventually, the Blakes might have to bend to the market. But for now, the family is preserving something about skiing that is old-fashioned and romantic; some sense of nature, adventure, and community. Other ski areas are full of bronzed ladies in fur-trimmed parkas and swaggering fat cats on cellphones, fist-pumping fraternity boys and the like. But at Taos — perhaps because it is known as a difficult mountain, or because it's hard to get to, with the closest major airport 130 miles away — people really come to ski, not to go to spas or go out dancing all night. It's a destination for the truly dedicated. "No safety bars and no Botox — unlike Colorado," as a fellow skier put it.


THE social nexus for Taos skiers is the Hotel St. Bernard, where most of us would meet for a drink or lunch or dinner. St. Bernard's, known affectionately as St. B's, is owned by Jean Mayer, a Frenchman who is the technical director of the Taos ski school. The hotel is delightfully rustic — no telephones or televisions in the rooms — and guests must stay for a week, getting the "learn to ski better" week of lessons as part of the package. It is also defiantly European — guests eat all their meals, planned and served by Mr. Mayer himself, together at the hotel's bar and restaurant, their seating reshuffled every night so that they mix with the other guests. One guest told me that it was like going to a great dinner party every night. There is a waiting list for yearly reservations, and when couples are divorced, I was told, the week at the hotel is often part of the settlement.


At 10 o'clock on Sunday morning, we gather at the top of chair lift No. 5 to be sorted into groups. Instructors are positioned at intervals down the hill. We wait in a group for an instructor to cue us to go. One of the skiers tells me that some people take lessons before the sorting to increase their chances of being put with a more skilled group. As each of us takes our turn skiing past the head instructor; he shouts a number at us, indicating the group and level we are to join. We are left wondering if we would have made a higher grade if we had negotiated a bump more cleanly. But one instructor later told me that they can all tell within two turns, or even less, how skilled someone is. Because the group element is so strong, skiers unhappy with their instructors or group situation are encouraged to switch. "All the instructors are great and can teach well. When people are unhappy, it's almost always about personality. That's important too. So we allow for that," an instructor tells me.


I am in Kyle Remiger's group. Because Kyle is covered up with a hat, goggles, and neck gaiter, all I know of her — and will know of her until the last day, when our group will have a farewell drink at St. B's and we can see each other's faces — is her voice. It is musical. She has a way of accenting syllables that makes something emphatic, really makes you think about what she is saying, yet conveys that fun is about to be had. I felt immediately I was in good hands. There were five others — Margie, Linda, Bill and a married couple named Theresa and Karl — in the group. I was immediately intimidated because they were all wearing helmets. They must be better skiers. Or maybe they knew something I didn't about the terrain we'd be skiing. My head ached with imagined tree-trauma. They all were similarly begoggled and begaitered; it was like a masked ball.


At first, it wasn't too bad. Kyle wanted us to focus on turns, and paired us up to critique each other and shout "stop" at each of our partners. This was to teach us what Kyle called "catlike readiness." Then things got a bit more challenging. We took the lift to the top and skied down, fast, focusing on one element of the turn, following one another down wide-open bowls, through the trees, down bump runs, trying to keep the same line as the person in front of us. It was thrilling, but these people were really good; I was in over my head. Not too much, but enough that I had to really work.


I got to know the others in the group that first day by their skiing — by their speed, style and daring — before I ever even saw what their faces looked like. On the ride up the chair, we would try to critique each other as to how well we executed the drill. We paid attention to each other and tried to help each other, and this seemed to build up a kind of trust among us.


We paused at the lift line and gathered around Kyle. "Do you guys want to ski the ridge today?" she asked us. We looked at each other excitedly. "You're not really ready," she said. "But the snow is great today and if we wait until tomorrow it might turn to glue." Sensing our fear, she added, "Don't worry, you'll be fine," accenting the "fine," just enough to be almost believable.


The ridge, from where we stood looking at it, was heart-stoppingly steep. We watched a few skiers drop expertly over the cornice of snow and make tight, controlled turns down the steepest part near the top of the ridge. It looked like extreme skiing: one fall and it's over. Hence the warning at the entrance to the trail: "Expert only. If you fall you must know how to self-arrest." We allowed ourselves to be convinced by Kyle that we could handle it, and felt nervous but, for the time, capable. We took our skis off and began the steep hike up, skis balanced on one shoulder, poles in one hand. At 12,000 feet, the air was thin and every step was an effort.


After about 20 minutes, the hike ends in a clearing; you emerge from the steep trail and trees to see a vast open expanse of craggy, snow-covered peaks. From here, you can ski along the ridgeline, either off to the right and along the forest boundary, or to the left and on to Kachina Peak, a two-hour slog. We put our skis back on and followed Kyle along the ridgeline. We could hardly hear each other in the wind. The ridge had an otherworldly quality, as if we had hiked to Pluto.


One by one, the others in the group dropped over the edge, following Kyle down a run. I got to the edge and peered over. Kyle was cheering Theresa on, shouting, "You're doing awesome!" She and the others had just dropped over the edge — a 10-foot, seemingly vertical wall of snow, and then made several turns in the knee-deep powder to check their speed.


Now they were all looking up at me, waiting. It was confirmed; I was in over my head. What if I wiped out? How did one self-arrest exactly? The group below cheered me on, shouting encouragement. Emboldened, I did it. I dropped over, experiencing the thrill of controlled free fall for an instant before I made a few lumbering turns. The group cheered me on, yelling "You ripped it," excitedly at me.


I loved them all for it.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I'm a New Mexico native & Taos is beautiful the bowls there rock & they get lots of snow some of the dryest powder you'll ever find. Since they don't allow boards we usually don't go there though. Santa Fe on the other hand is just as good & you can snow board there. I learned to ski in Santa Fe & Taos as a kid & have fond memories of there. we used to there every winter until my dad died. the vistas are unreal. The elevation is really high though

& it can be hard to breath sometimes. fattwins you should go sometime for sure

Link to post
Share on other sites

I read a few years back that some financially backed boarders were trying to buy property in the Taos area and make it for both boarders and skiers and put it in the face of the smug @#%$! who think they are the only ones on the earth who should be allowed on Mts.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Sounds real neat.


Yeah, beginner boarders sitting in the middle of the course are annoying, but so are beginner skiers who are slow and clog up the runs (and yes, we were all one and/or the other too at one time). Why do some resorts not allow boarders?

Link to post
Share on other sites

I guess the biggest gripe I have is with people who insist on sitting just pass a rise. You cant see them till your on top of them. At least if your standing you have a bettter chance of avoiding them. From this point I can see there point in making it skier only. But really i could care less we all should be able to use the slopes.

Link to post
Share on other sites

I've been to Taos twice and it is indeed breath taking, in more ways than one.


A friend ski-bummed there for a few seasons and said they closed off the mountain once a year(?) for a staff only day (restaurant employees, patrol, etc). A good percentage of the staff would bring boards on the mountain.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Taos looks amazing

The free skiing comp last year was also really cool to watch. Look on biglines for a clip.

The Japanese dude did a 110-foot front flip winning the sick bird award. Everybody else had amazing runs.

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • Create New...