David Norden believes that his area should be on every skier’s bucket list.
That is no surprise. The veteran ski industry executive, whose resume includes the Spruce Peak development at Stowe, has for the past three years been the CEO of the legendary Taos Ski Valley resort in New Mexico. You would expect him to be a little biased in his outlook.
Turns out, he is right.
Every winter, for more seasons than I can remember, there has been a ski getaway to someplace beyond driving distance. This time, it was to northern New Mexico, a place I had never been in winter. Bottom line: I want to go back.
Taos, which was profiled in the Gazette Travel section last weekend, is every bit as inviting a ski resort as the story suggests. The appeal begins with the trip to the area, a 20-mile ride from the engaging village of Taos up the narrow Hondo Valley to the ski resort in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. To my mind, the access road to the ski area is unmatched for natural beauty. The steep canyon walls of the Kit Carson National Forest serve as a funnel for traffic, with the ski area at the end. It was here that Swiss emigre Ernie Blake and his wife Rhoda founded Taos Ski Valley in 1955.
Over the years, the area has earned a reputation as the ski place to be, if challenge was the reason for the trip. Hiking Kachina Peak for a ride down through the trees and chutes earns respect from anyone who has ever been here. But these days, Taos is a split personality. Mellow skiers have a place here, too.
The area was bought from the Blake family by Louis Bacon in 2013, with the promise to “improve everything without changing anything.” Purists will argue that he broke that pledge immediately by building a triple chair up to the top of Kachina Peak, spoiling the “earn your turns” mystique of the area. But the black diamond challenge is still there (and for most skiers, that is plenty), and Taos has expanded another feature: groomed runs, plenty of them, to please even the most hardcore cruisers.
How about those beginners? Taos was one of the first areas to offer the full ski-week program, where guests meet up with an instructor the first day and remain with that person all week, including for meals. Want to bring the kids along? The new Children’s Center is as good as any in the country.
Lodging? There is a strong case to be made for staying 20 miles away in the village of Taos, a small southwestern community with plenty of regional charm. But if you want to be slopeside, the elegant new hotel, The Blake, not only expands the once small ski area bed base, but will satisfy even the most fussy guest.
And eats? Like most European resorts no matter where they are, there is good food to be found at the mountain. Of special note is The Bavarian at mid-mountain. The German-style menu and wide dining deck make it a great midday stopping place — save room for the strudel — and there are even four rooms upstairs for those with the foresight to book far ahead.
The base elevation at Taos is just over 9,000 feet, and the peak over 12,000 feet, so guests, especially Easterners coming from near sea level, will need to acclimate. But by drinking plenty of water, the adjustment comes quickly for most. Being at that altitude above the high desert countryside, the snow is very dry, so morning conditions usually stay favorable all day, and the north-facing profile of the slopes means it keeps good cover throughout the season.
For people from our area, the most common route to skiing here is by air through Albuquerque. It is an easy one-stop flight leaving a two-hour drive to Taos. If you are feeling flush, the area sponsors charter flights direct to Taos from Texas and California.
To make this a really appealing auto safari, add two other northern New Mexico ski areas to the trip: Ski Santa Fe near the state Capitol, and Angel Fire outside Taos on private land inside the Carson National Forest. While smaller than Taos Ski Valley, both are appealing and worth a visit.
Ski Santa Fe is 16 miles from Santa Fe, which is an hour north of Albuquerque. If you are flying in from the East Coast, you are looking at an afternoon arrival, so plan on staying the night in town. You won’t be disappointed with the southwestern ambiance, regional architecture, and expansive arts presence.
The ski area base at 10,350 feet is higher than Taos and features a wide variety of intermediate and advanced terrain, much of it groomed. There are also a significant number of glade runs along the top half of this 1,725-foot vertical layout that tops off right at the tree line.
The origins of the area date to the mid-1930s when local officials who had recently skied on a trip to New England convinced the Chamber of Commerce that the sport could be imported to New Mexico. Ernie Blake, who would go on to develop Taos first came to the area to manage Ski Santa Fe. While there is plenty of skiing at the area, there is no lodging, which means a ride back to town at day’s end.
Angel Fire is in Taos, up the Moreno Valley from the village. The area has a vertical of almost 2,100 feet, much of it open to the sun all day. The layout is a blue square delight with a wide array of well-groomed intermediate trails, some that are wide open boulevards while others meander through the woods with dips and rollers. The main quad chair Chile Express from the base area to the top is just over two miles, the longest vertical lift in the country.
With private ownership and a club-like operating approach, Angel Fire has development plans that are not confined by National Forest restrictions. It is the only area in New Mexico with night skiing, and there is lodging at the base of the mountain.
New Mexico is long on ski mystique, but not on crowds of people, especially skiers from the East. If a western ski trip is on the agenda, consider New Mexico. Taos is a place not to miss, and neighboring Ski Santa Fe and Angel Fire make such a trip a great package.
John Fry died last week. You may not recognize the name, but if you have read ski magazines in the past, or followed the World Cup, or learned the sport via the Graduated Length teaching method, or raced NASTAR, you have been in his realm.
The Canadian-born Fry was a thoughtful and insightful contributor to the ski scene in North America for more than 50 years. He was a long-term editor of Ski, the founding editor of Snow Country and his 2006 book “The Story of Modern Skiing” remains a must-read for anyone interested in the development and history of the sport. He was 90 years old.
SKI COUNCIL RACES
Longtime Albany Ski Club racer Alfie Merchant and Chris Phillips of the OC Ski Club swept the New York Capital District Ski Council competition this winter, each winning all three races in the open division of the annual series.
Merchant won the Dick Walsh Memorial Trophy, while Phillips earned the Valerie Hammond Memorial Trophy. Other category winners were Mark Pavlus of the OCs in the men’s Veterans Class, Tim Jansen of the Albany Ski Club in the Men’s Super Vets and Deb Scuderi of the Albany Ski Club in the Women’s Super Vets competition.
SECTION II CHAMPIONSHIPS
The Section II ski championships are set for next week. The boys’ and girls’ Alpine events will be Tuesday at West Mountain, while the Nordic championships will be the following day at Gore’s North Creek Ski Bowl.
Mayfield’s Madison Relyea is an overwhelming favorite to win the girls’ cross country title, while Nick Logan and Lucas Jenkin, both from Queensbury, should battle for honors in the boys’ race. Queensbury’s Hunter Montgomery and Schuylerville’s Hannah Klingebiel are the ones to beat in the Alpine competition.
The top finishers will qualify to represent Section II at the state championships at Bristol Mountain outside Rochester Feb 24-25.
Reach Phil Johnson at [email protected].