It’s all about the geography. Every ski area’s got it, but some more than others. A two day visit to Taos Ski Valley (TSV) in early winter 2012 left me in awe of the pioneering foresight of the late, legendary Ernie Blake who founded this skier’s nirvana in a huge snow basin just north of New Mexico’s highest mountain, 13,161’ Wheeler Peak. To heck with real estate development potential, to heck with instant access to an international airport, to heck with wall to wall low intermediate terrain for the masses, to heck with the limits of archaic skis and cable bindings; Ernie and his wife Rhoda established TSV way back in 1955 for one thing - unfreakingbelievable skiing on what is still some of the most challenging recreational snowriding geography in North America.
My 21-year old son Vince and I made the trek to this bastion of Southwestern skiing excellence on January 2 and 3, 2012. Taos was coming off a very snowy December and had some of the best conditions in the country at the time. Almost 100% of the lift served runs and about 50% of the steep, extensive hike-to ridge lines above the lifts were open during our visit with good coverage. We saw no new snow during our two days, but greatly enjoyed packed powder conditions under an intense New Mexican sun with no wind and daytime temperatures in the high 30s. We wore only light layers of ski clothing because it felt even warmer between the sunniest hours of 9 am - 2 pm, pleasantly atypical for January skiing.
Vince is getting better and better every day he skis, but I’m an over-the-hill has-been who-never-was and frankly was a bit tentative about immediately committing to some of the renowned steeps at Taos. Thus, we started our initial day in search of a few beautiful groomers. Virtually all guests at Taos take Lift 1 as their first ride up the hill. It serves a variety of terrain including circuitous green circle trails, but it rises straight up an intimidating slope called Al’s Run full of nonstop moguls for 1617 vertical feet. At the base of Lift 1 and clearly visible from the resort center is a famous old sign. “Don’t panic! You’re looking at only 1/30th of Taos Ski Valley. We have many easy runs too!” While the sign is not false, neither is that first neck craning impression of Taos.
From the top of Lift 1 we took a short connector trail past the mid-mountain Whistle Stop Café to Lift 2 (1093’ vertical) and rode it to TSV’s highest lift served summit at 11,819’. The upper half of Lift 2 ascends more double black diamond slopes with eye popping views of the extreme terrain of the West Basin Ridge off to the looker’s right and long, steep glades like Castor to the left. Al’s run was merely the first bauble in a trove of double diamonds at TSV! But no worries, in our search for some warm-up terrain we descended a long green circle run called Honeysuckle that connected with Upper Totemoff for a cruise of a mile or more eastward across the mountain to the nicely appointed on-hill Phoenix Grill where I dropped off a bag of supplies and extra gear. From there we rode Lift 4, a fixed-grip quad chair rising 1201 vertical feet, to access more beautiful intermediate runs like Shalako and Baby Bear. We graduated to single black diamond terrain off this lift including Staub Woods and Hunziker Bowl. The latter was particularly scenic while skiing among numerous rock outcroppings and reminded me of The Land of Giants rock garden at Arapahoe Basin, CO.
Eventually we took Lift 7A (281’ vertical), a fun, old center pole double chair and returned to the highest point on the mountain. Besides the high nostalgia factor, Lift 7A affords a commanding view of Highline Ridge, perhaps the most accessible of the spectacular hike-to terrain at Taos. Highline Ridge had some steep lines, but looked like something we could manage… maybe later. Instead, on one of the next lift rides we met a retiree named Charlie H. from Westchester County, NY. Charlie had a background in ski race coaching and at age 73 spends about six weeks each winter at Taos where his grown daughter lives nearby. He seemed characteristic of the mature, accomplished skier that has made Taos their personal Valhalla. Charlie effortlessly led us on a memorable run down the double black diamond Lorelei Trees, a steep, bumpy, but relatively open glade which drained into a runout back to the Phoenix Grill where Vince and I stopped for lunch.
Earlier in the day I had the opportunity for a quick hello with Adriana Blake, TSV Marketing Director. She and her brother Alejandro “Hano” are third generation Blakes who have vital roles in managing the ski area these days including hosting the Salomon Extreme Freeride Championships on March 1-3, 2012. The one thing I mentioned to Adriana was how impressed I was by the bold spirit of her grandfather and founder of TSV, Ernie Blake. Ernie’s portrait adorned the walls inside the Phoenix Grill near a diagram for TSV’s 2010 Master Development Plan. The diagram depicted a number of proposed lift upgrades including two new chairs serving the current hike-to terrain of Kachina Peak and West Basin Ridge. This would provide ready access to some truly extreme terrain and raise the lift served vertical to around 3300’. Yowza, bold vision is apparently intrinsic to the Blake family DNA code!
After the late snack at the Phoenix Grill Vince hit the bumps for several laps on Al’s Run while my old bones cruised nearby lower mountain blue square groomers like Porcupine and Powderhorn. We had a great first day on the hill and the lift served terrain alone clearly placed TSV as one of the premier expert mountains I’d ever seen. But Vince and I were both mesmerized all day by amazing views of “the Ridge” and knew we’d have to hang our heads in shame if we left this place without making the hike to check it out.
Day two at Taos dawned as another blue ski beauty. I had spoken to a veteran ski patroller when we arrived at the base area and got a few tips about the most manageable hike-to terrain. After a couple of perfunctory warm-up runs we began the climb to The Ridge from the 11,819’ summit of the highest lifts at Taos. It’s only about 300 yards and maybe 150 vertical feet and was a relatively easy hike for 21 year old Vince. On the other hand, Mr. Flatlander/office worker on his third ski day of the season took about 15 minutes of heavy breathing to get to the goods.
The hike to get to The Ridge was totally worth it! The 100 mile views are fantastic. On the patroller’s advice we were headed to the east end of Highline Ridge (Kachina Peak was not open), but just for fun we walked over and took a glimpse down a run called Oster on the more difficult West Basin Ridge. It looked like a mandatory no fall zone to me in boney early season conditions and was panic-attack steep. Perfect for the extreme freeride competitions Taos is known to host:-)
Vince and I then commenced a half mile skate/glide past the top of Hidalgo slope and across the crest of Highline Ridge, stopping frequently for photos and awesome scenery gaping. Eventually we dropped into the fall line at an area marked Corner Chute that was not super steep and held good snow among beautifully spaced fir trees. It felt great to complete a trip down The Ridge. It was a definite highlight in my 45 years of ski travel and if I wasn’t such a tourist I would have gone back again. Surely Vince could have handled more and he made an interesting remark about his young friends who claim bragging rights after skiing an advanced trail in the mid-Atlantic. “If they only knew what rates as a black diamond run at a place like Taos!”
Resuming our survey of the lift served terrain we took a pass through the mid-mountain Out To Launch terrain park and spent some quality time on Totally Wiard (sic) and other single black diamond runs in the Hunziker Bowl area off Lift 4. Taos is loaded with big time black diamond discoveries, including lengthy mogul fields, sudden steeps, and secluded glades around every corner, more than you could shake a stick at in a single visit. For example, late on our second day we stumbled across possibly our steepest run of the two days, a 600’ vertical glade called Castor back near the lift served summit of TSV. It had a nondescript entrance off the skier’s left side of a benign groomer called Bambi. Castor had a sustained steep pitch that thumped my tail, but Vince skied it well and patiently waited for me at the bottom.
We recuperated on long intermediate groomers (Lower Stauffenberg and Firlefanz) on the western edge of the layout served by Lift 8 (1230’ vertical). As the four o’clock hour approached I finally skied part of the bumps of Al’s Run with Vince so I could at least claim survival rights. Then we took a long, nonstop combination of greens and blues from the summit to the base for the full 2612 TSV vertical foot descent. It was two minutes before they shut down the lifts when we made it to the base. I was cooked and headed for the water cooler inside the lodge. Vince, however, gave me a nod and quickly jumped on Lift 1 for one last lap on Al’s Run. Oh to be young again.
Something fortuitous and to use New Mexico’s favorite word - enchanting - has occurred at TSV to preserve a timeless ski experience. It’s a bit different from benign neglect. The base lodge, associated shops, and restaurants are well kept facilities, as is the spiffy on-hill Phoenix Grill. Management made a forward leaning decision to lift the ban on snowboarders in 2008 and seems to have a very 21st Century policy towards opening hike-to extreme terrain. Yet, the resort village is smallish with a look of yesteryear. There are no high speed chairs (and be glad for it if you continually attempt to slay this mountain’s best stuff). To the point, for decades TSV has embraced the model of a fiscally conservative family-run business. This discipline has saved the mountain from overdevelopment and the contagion of homogenization. What it now represents is the best of “the old days” with a compact, quirky base area, perennially moderate skier visit numbers, an eclectic ski town (Taos, NM) 15 miles down the road, and amazingly audacious ski terrain. If you are a scholar of great snowriding geography in its purest form, Taos Ski Valley merits your close examination.
Taos is sort of a mom and pop ski area on steroids. It has old buildings and not much of a corporate feeling, but it had more of a hardcore skier feeling. It is defiantly a place to visit to test your skiing skills and to see how brave you really are.
If you are willing to do the drive from the town of Taos to the ski area, you can do that pretty economically. Taos is a famous mountain you can do cheaply because of the low priced motels in town and the lower cost lift tickets (around $75 single day window price). The town of Taos provides interesting shopping, dining and cultural opportunities. It is not the typical t-shirt shop and commercial strip development type of tourist town.
We defiantly got some of that famous New Mexican sun while at Taos. Taos is pretty high elevation (~9 - 12K feet) with a southern latitude so the sun can be more intense. The best skiing at Taos, at least in January, is from opening to noon because that is when the sun is on the slopes and visibility is good. It lies in a steep walled canyon with north facing trails and gets shady and tougher to ski in the afternoon. That’s good for snow preservation, but it’s the kind of place you want to hit hard early.
Total acreage: 1294 acres
Number of trails: 110 total, 24% beginner, 25% intermediate, 51% expert
Number of lifts: 13 total; 4 quad chairs, 1 triple, 5 doubles, 3 surface lifts
Summit (lift served): 11819’
Summit (hike to): 12481’ (Kachina Peak)
Vertical drop: 2612’ lift served, 3274’ hike to.
Taos Ski Valley website: http://www.skitaos.org/
Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.