For a long time Taos Ski Valley has suffered from its version of Yogi Berra’s Paradox: Everybody claims to love the place, yet nobody goes there anymore. I was one of those nonvisitors. I’d long meant to visit the northern New Mexico resort, with its remarkable steeps. But how often do you lug your skis south of Colorado? Today Taos sees about 60 percent of the skiers that it did 20 years ago.
But change is afoot. Louis Bacon, a hedge fund billionaire and longtime Taos skier, bought the ski resort from the Blake family in late 2013 and has embarked on a yearslong plan to give the tired property a face-lift. When you tinker with a place that’s held by some skiers with a reverence that Red Sox fans hold for Fenway Park, however, change isn’t always embraced. The most visible and controversial change opened last winter: a new chairlift to within a few feet of the top of 12,481-foot Kachina Peak, the resort’s central peak and a summit that hard-core skiers had hiked for years in search of solitude and steep powder skiing.
Clearly it was time to visit this ski area that invokes such dedication that, the joke goes, even the resort’s lifties don’t quit; they retire. My question was simple one: Is everything really better with Bacon?
At Tim’s Stray Dog Cantina, I met my guide to the slopes over huevos rancheros smothered in red and green chili: Matt Gorman, 46, who had a startling resemblance to a Dude-era Jeff Bridges. Matt arrived in Taos in 1991. He’s been there almost ever since, teaching skiing and massaging sore skiers.
The story of Taos’ founding, and the story of its visionary, Ernie Blake, are one of the most colorful strands in the fabric of America’s ski history: how a deft-skiing Swiss immigrant tried to join the 10th Mountain Division in World War II but was denied because of suspicions he was a spy; how the Army instead changed his surname from the Jewish “Bloch” to “Blake” and enlisted him as a translator, during which he interrogated some of the biggest names in the Third Reich; and how, after war’s end, he went looking for a place to start a ski resort. People said his choice, near the end of a lonesome valley in the shadow of 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak, the state’s roof, was too steep, too remote and too challenging. But Blake pursued his vision. With the help of a young wife and a mule named Lightning, he hacked Taos Ski Valley into existence. (The mule soon quit; the wife stayed.)
Blake was by all accounts a force of nature, by turns charming (he worked while wearing a knit cap that read “Janitor”) and explosive (everyone had a story of being fired by him, then rehired soon after). When Blake died in 1989, the ski patrol threw 21 hand charges from Highline Ridge in salute.
Back on the chairlift, Matt explained how Blake’s dream today unfolds like an origami. You never see much of the ski resort at once. The lower front side has bump runs. The upper has steep glades and chutes. Chairs 7 and 8 hold most of the cruisers.
Those chairlifts were another eye opener: Taos still doesn’t possess a single high-speed lift. People had told me the mountain didn’t need it. I was skeptical. But now I saw they were right – for the moment, anyway. This mountain is steep and compact, and even a slower lift doesn’t take long to reach its destination. It helped, too, that there was almost no one here. On the Sunday of Presidents Day weekend last year the lift line was perhaps three minutes long. The next afternoon, still a holiday, the day lodge was so empty I had to hunt for five minutes to find a cashier to pay for my lunch.
Terrain may be one reason the crowds aren’t here. Taos doesn’t boast an incredible amount to entertain beginners and intermediates for more than a few days. Just a quarter of the skiing is devoted to each. The rest of the trail map – more than half – is covered in black (expert) runs. That’s not ideal for a ski resort. Intermediate skiers are the bread-and-butter of the ski industry.
And when Taos says “expert,” it means it. As we rode up Chair 2, the upper front side of the mountain reared up in a steep wall of spruce and fir, with tilted rock gardens. The only thing missing was the mannequin named Slim Slidell, which the ski patrol places facedown near the top of the lift, beside a sign that reminds skiers that they should know how to stop their own uncontrolled falls on the tilted slopes.
“Want to take a hike?” Matt said. We’d barely warmed up when Matt tossed skis over shoulders. I learned quickly that to experience the best Taos skiing, you need to be willing to hoof it. A three-minute hike left us atop West Ridge, one of Taos’ marquee zones. Gullies spilled below: Stauffenberg, Oster, Fabian. Blake named them for the heroes who tried to kill Hitler. (Later I would see a run named for Patton.)
21st century upgrade
While some of Blake’s contrarian impulses made this place special, others didn’t necessarily serve the resort well in the 21st century. Blake, and his family, who took over after his death, were debt averse. Their primary investment was in the mountain, not the base area. The family never built lodging.
Bringing a beloved throwback hill into the 21st century, carefully, is Bacon’s goal. To that end, several upgrades, both on and off the hill, are underway. Last winter Taos opened the Wild West, 60 acres of gladed terrain that’s accessible via a short hike and then a traverse around the western side of the resort.
The most obvious changes are happening in the valley. There’s no coherent base village at Taos now because the place was originally populated by self-contained ski lodges that each fed, housed and entertained its own guests. Walking around at night after skiing, the place felt like a train derailment, with lodges like scattered rail cars around the foot of the mountain. “The base area experience doesn’t match the mountain ski experience,” said Gordon Briner, the chief executive. “We have fewer beds today in Taos Ski Valley than we had 20 years ago,” he added.
Things are starting to change. An 80-room slopeside hotel, with suites and condos, will open for the 2016-17 season. The resort also will upgrade ticket counters and a rental shop that’s more than 30 years old. The new owner plans a completely reimagined base village, with a plaza, condos, a “streetscape” and other changes. No timetable has been set on this second stage, Briner said. There’s no interest in making this feel like those cookie-cutter base villages developed by Intrawest in the 1990s at places like Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia and Copper Mountain in Colorado. “We’re trying to get ambience and feeling that is in some of the classic ski villages in the world, some lodging, some shopping, some fine dining” that creates a place that people want to linger, Briner said.
On the last afternoon we headed down for beers on the deck of the Bavarian Lodge, one of the best-known après-ski spots in North America. Folks drank Hefeweizens from tall glasses, served by waitresses in dirndls. Big peaks scratched the blue sky overhead. For all its challenging skiing, this was the Taos I’d remember months later, warm and comfortable, like that Southwest sun slanting down.
If You Go
Taos Ski Valley is 156 miles northeast of Albuquerque International Sunport. In winter there is a daily shuttle from the ski area to the airport ($67 one way) as well as to smaller ones in Taos and Santa Fe (skitaos.org/page/shuttle).
An adult, one-day lift ticket this winter is $86. For more information: skitaos.com.
Where to stay: The Edelweiss Lodge and Spa (edelweisslodgeandspa.com), a condo complex, including some hotel-type rooms, that also has a few spa rooms, probably represents the most modern lodging. Winter rates from $150.
Snakedance Condominiums (snakedancecondos.com) has a great slopeside location, its 33 condo units comfortable if a bit generic-feeling. The complex’s public areas are rather beaten up by time and ski boots, however. Winter rates from $165.
Looking for the full Taos experience? Come for a seven-night “ski and snowboard week” at the slopeside St. Bernard (stbernardtaos.com). Packages at the 55-year-old lodge include full room, clinics with instructors, entertainment, board and all meals (with a five-course dinner each night). Winter rates from $2,350.