You can’t write a story about Taos Ski Valley without using the word funk. There, I’ve used it twice and we’ve hardly even started.
Taos is, in many ways a time capsule, a skiing Wayback Machine. Just wandering into the village — and I use the word advisedly — evokes memories of a simpler time, a time before big corporate ski monoliths, cookie cutter retail “experiences”, ersatz Euro strolls, condomania and high-speed lifts.
Part of the magic stems from the fact it was a pioneering ski resort. Part from the fact it still bears the indelible impression of Ernie Blake who lives on in myth though he left the slopes of Taos for the slopes of heaven in 1989. I don’t believe there is another ski resort on Earth that is so capable of channeling its creator as Taos is in keeping Ernie alive.
A couple of years ago, in mid March when the resort celebrates Ernie’s birthday, I attended a fireworks extravaganza. Part way through the pyrotechnics, during a lull when everybody assumed the explosions were over, the crowd, numbering perhaps a few hundred, began softly and spontaneously chanting. ernie… ernie… ernie… Ernie… ERNIE… ERNIE .
It was moving. Truth be told, it was downright spooky. The man, the myth, the legacy lives on in another part of Taos’ magic. It’s still a family affair. Ernie’s son, Mickey, is president. Granddaughter Adriana is marketing director. Grandson Alejandro is events coordinator. Son-in-law, Chris Stagg, seems to have his hand in everything, marketing, PR, ski school. Ernie’s wife, Rhoda, is still very much a presence.
And while he’s not a family member, Jean Mayer, proprietor of the Hotel St. Bernard and technical director of the ski school has left an indelible imprint on the resort. Though Taos is Ernie’s resort, Jean was his close confidant and advisor. At age 72 he still teaches skiing, still schmoozes the guests at breakfast, lunch and dinner and can still be found, often as not, in the lounge evenings, grooving to the live music.
Skiing Taos is a delight but can be a daunting affair. Close friend Pete Totemoff told Ernie he was crazy trying to build a ski resort in La Cal Basin. Too steep for people and equipment back in 1955. Just looking at a trail map of Taos may lead you to believe Pete had a better grasp of reality than Ernie. 51% of today’s trails are expert. And those are the named runs. A huge amount of Taos’ terrain consists of unnamed lines off two walk-to ridges: West Basin Ridge and the daunting Highline Ridge leading from the top of #2 to Kachina Peak, which tops out at 12,481 feet.
The terrain off the ridges is self-policing. The unskilled and out-of-shape simply don’t go. Warning signs and a stuffed dummy near the top of Lift #2 remind skiers that they’d better be skilled at self-arrest if they’re going to ski off the ridges. Self-arrest, for those of you short of mountaineering skills, has nothing to do with the law. It has everything to do with knowing how to stop yourself after you fall and start to slide uncontrollably down steep, snowy faces — faces that, lacking self-arrest skills, you aren’t likely to stop sliding down until you reach the bottom, at which point your state of consciousness is likely to be un.
Most people have a marvelous time at Taos without ever setting foot on a ridge. Virtually all the blue and green runs are groomed daily. There’s something to challenge everyone from the most timid to jaded experts.
And there’s lunch at Tomas Schultz’s Bavarian Restaurant. Located at the bottom of Kachina Lift in the back, sunny bowl, the Bavarian is part of the Wayback Machine. Though built in 1995, it looks as though it stepped out of Hansel and Gretel and was transplanted from the Black Forest about a century ago. Serving hearty Teutonic fare, it transports diners to somewhere in the alps where skiing and dining vie for the day’s top prize. If you want to eat and run, do it someplace else.
Like heliskiing, Taos is one of those life-affirming experiences skiers owe it to themselves to try at least once in their lives. And like heliskiing, once will most definitely not be enough.
Check it out
Stay : The Hotel St. Bernard. Jean doesn’t do anything but all-inclusive ski weeks: lodging, meals, lifts and morning lessons where he’ll teach you to make love to the mountain. Jean knows best. www.stbernardtaos.com/intro.php
Eat : The Bavarian www.thebavarian.net/
Après : Tim’s Stray Dog Cantina
Dine : Rhoda’s
Lunch at The Bavarian: The Lord Alps those who Alp themselves.
What'd you find under the tree this year?