Taos: Skiing's Brigadoon

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I'm hiking the ridge to Kachina Peak in March sunshine at Taos Ski Valley. Up ahead, a ski school group kicks steps in the windblown snow. (A ski school class up here?!) Control work done, the patrol opened the Peak an hour ago. Maybe a dozen squiggly lines etch the face. Mine will soon join them. Skis on my shoulder, poles in my other hand, the 40-minute walk beyond the lifts settles into reverie. Left foot, right foot, left foot.

With each placing of my left boot I'm thinking of one new thing at Taos since I last visited 10 years ago. Things like the cadre of Russians staying at the Inn at Snakedance who do calisthenics out my window every morning at 7 am, led by a tiny, stocky woman who could have been a Soviet-era gymnast. The Russians have some acculturating to do: They walk the halls to the hot tub without a stitch of clothing. I wonder what Ernie would think.

I wonder what Ernie Blake would think about his ski mountain, founded on a shoestring in 1955, now with quad chairs, albeit fixed-grip quads, and snowmaking and half-million-dollar grooming machines.

I plant my right boot in a foot of powder and think of something that hasn't changed about Taos. Like this hike to a wild, bald summit at 12,481 feet, hundreds of feet above treeline, snow sculpted by wind and rock, like an Alp bolting incongruously out of the New Mexico desert. That's what Ernie saw from his Cessna in the early Fifties as he searched the Sangre de Cristos for a possible ski area. The north-facing bowls above the defunct mine camp at Twining reminded him of his childhood in the Engadine valley of Switzerland, and he and Rhoda decided that this was the place.

Those early winters, they lived with their three children in a 16-foot trailer. On weekends, employees slept sardined in the hallway. They had no power until 1963, no phone until 1964. The road up the canyon from the old Spanish and Indian town of Taos wasn't paved until 1973. That was the first year the Ski Valley made a profit.Friends in the ski business told Ernie he was crazy. The mountain was unskiable, it was too steep, too remote. Ernie wouldn't hear it. He told Rick Richards in the oral history, "Ski Pioneers": "I was of the idea that...the standard of American skiing was improving so rapidly...I was convinced we could teach people to ski our steep mountains."

In the end, Ernie was right. But it was never an easy sell, and the steepness and remoteness shaped a resort that would remain out of the mainstream, a place Ernie's son Mickey Blake, who runs the area now, describes as "a pure alpine experience¿skiing for skiing."It is also, for legions of Taos loyalists, a kind of skiing Brigadoon, a place that never seems to change, so that year after year, when they come back, they return to the same intimate lodges, to the same ski instructors, bootfitters and bartenders. With their families, they again sign on for Ski Better Weeks¿anachronisms where hills have been homogenized, but still vital here¿the better to make peace with Ernie's ever-demanding mountain. Unlike Brigadoon, Taos reappears out of the clouds every winter, but the separation from the "real world" is very nearly complete.

When I drove down last winter, south from Colorado along the Rio Grande valley, I couldn't help but notice the Earthships, fanciful solar and wind-powered homes sprouting out of the sage. New Age has definitely discovered old Taos. But once I reached the tiny, adobe village of Arroyo Seco and started up the canyon, timelessness reasserted itself. The big sign in the parking lot was gone, the one with Ernie's dry sense of humor all over it, the one that said: ACHTUNG! YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR. Most everything else looked as I remembered. There were the Euro-style chalet lodges¿the Thunderbird, the St. Bernard, the Edelweiss¿crowding a resort center so compact three or four handsprings would cross it. One of the new quads shot up Al's Run, ruler straight throu the trees and so steep it engendered another of Ernie's signs: DON'T PANIC! YOU'RE LOOKING AT ONLY 1/30TH OF TAOS SKI VALLEY. WE HAVE MANY EASY RUNS TOO!

My hotel, the Hondo, had vanished. Actually, it had been swallowed by the Inn at Snakedance. The Hondo was the original log lodge, built in the Forties, long after the last copper miner had fled and a few years before Ernie's first flyover. Skiing was not in the plan; the Texans who built it pictured getaways for gambling and fancy women, though for years they didn't even have an outhouse. When Ernie needed beds for his fledgling ski area, he bought the Hondo, which was just steps from the Poma lift on Al's. Now the Hondo had disappeared, though happily new owner Dan Ringeisen preserved much of the old post-and-beam work inside the new dining room and upstairs bar.

Ringeisen, like many of the lodge owners here, is a hands-on host, greeting guests at breakfast and dinner or from his perch at the bar après-ski, more often than not resplendent in his ski-school parka. He teaches every day, dashes in for lunch (sadly, the tradition of shutting down the lifts during the noon hour died before even my first visit to Taos) and, with his wife, Mary Madden, runs a 60-room hotel in his spare time.

Taos' best-known innkeeper/ski teacher is Jean Meyer, who came over in 1957, fresh from the French national team, to help Ernie with the school. Jean built the Hotel Saint Bernard, served as the ski school's technical director and served dinner family-style every night. He still does. Jean never changes, though he is in his 60s now and his diamond earring doesn't seem so shocking.

I had breakfast one morning at the St. Bernard and there was Jean crooning Edith Piaf's "La Vie En Rose" to a tall blonde in line for an omelette and croissants. "Mon coeur qui bat..." he sang, his guest all atwitter, "my beating heart." Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

On the hill Jean is all new angles and shapes. "It's given me wings, this new equipment, the modern skiing!" Jean dives falcon-like down Lower Stauffenberg on super-shapely slalom skis, leaving talon-sharp gouges in the snow. "With the new skis, I am looking more for the emotions in the body."

Truth be told, Jean has always talked and skied this way. Always pushed the technical/romantic envelope so hard that his brethren in the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) have long cast him in the role of maverick genius. Jean cannot stop teaching. After testing me with his high-speed-carving fire, he begins: "You must keep your hips square and to the inside. No, no. You are rotating your hips. Square and to the inside.

"Angulate with the knees and ankles. No up-and-down movements, just side-to-side. That's it! Touch your inside hand to the snow. Yes! You want to leave two tracks in the snow, like this, not one. That is modern skiing! Come down to the Saint Bernard later," he crows, "I'm cooking burgers on the deck!"

And with that, he is gone. Jean's energy and Ernie's ghost together insist that the Taos school be innovative and omnipresent. Where most resorts sell lessons to less than 10 percent of their ticket buyers, Taos claims almost 25 percent in ski school. It is tradition born of necessity. "We do have aggressive terrain," says Jean, winking up at West Basin Ridge and beyond to Highline Ridge and the route to Kachina. "Ernie wanted it to be rugged. He wanted to share the mountain he loved, what he built for his pleasure. I hate this word 'user-friendly.' Ski school is not babysitting. We push. We prod. We extend people, show them their possibilities." I interrupt to tell him about the instructor I saw leading his class up Kachina the day before.

"Yes," he says, face scrunched up in concurrence, "what other ski school would take students for an hour's hike?"

One thing that's changed at the ski school now is the Martini Tree. The Martini Tree came into being in 1959 when a student of Ernie's froze up in flat light on the Snakedance trail. Ernie couldn't get her to move. So he instructed Mickey, who happened by, "to race down to Mommy and have her mix a batch of martinis and bring them up; and don't spill any. And it was like a miracle. One sip and she skied like a goddess." Thenceforth, Ernie would hide a pouron, a blown glass goblet, of gin somewhere on the hill every day. The lucky skier to find it...well, that was before the era of people suing ski areas for allowing them to tip over.

Happily, the Martini Tree still exists, in a toned-down, lawyer-friendly fashion. Once a week now, on Thursday afternoons, a ski instructor (last March it was Dan Ringeisen) buries the pouron in a prescribed spot and then leads his or her ski weekers into the woods for a nip on Friday. It's another tradition, one more way Taos includes its regulars into the family. And honors Ernie.

You hear it all the time: Ernie would approve...Ernie believed...Ernie's spirit...and so on. The man is still revered, his spirit resonates. When Ernie died in January 1989, New Mexico air national guard jets spread his ashes over the mountain, and then it snowed 93 inches in three days. There were 16-foot fracture lines on Highline Ridge. His were huge shoes to fill. But, thankfully, nobody in the Blake family is trying, alone, to fill them. They share the job.

Mickey is general manager. Sister Wendy teaches and runs the ski shop and is married to longtime ski-school supervisor and marketing VP Chris Stagg. And now Mickey's daughter¿Adriana, the third generation¿is working in sales, and teaching, natch.

No one confuses Mickey with his father, though there is the same puckish beard and the same mischievous, hot-tempered cant to the eyes. Mickey once punched his father in an argument. Ernie punched back. He would never serve hot chocolate in the liftline on a cold morning as his father sometimes did. Nor would he answer the telephone, "This is the janitor speaking." Ernie had the charm, the public relations gift. Mickey's forte is machinery, lifts and snowcats. And Mickey has brought Taos into the modern era, upgrading lifts, adding a few key ones to improve the network for intermediates, developing the Resort Center and building snowmaking to the point where last year, for the first time, they were able to open on 100 percent man-made snow.

In a meeting in Mickey's office one afternoon, assistant general manger Gordon Briner did most of the talking while Mickey stared out at the mountain. "I was telling Mickey we should do a dinner for 20-year employees. How many do we have, Mickey?"

"Thirty-three," he answers.

"At Breckenridge," Gordon says, "I believe we had eight. And that's with a staff four times as large."

When the inevitable topic of snowboarding came up, Mickey came alive. "Ernie felt strongly that Taos remain a pure alpine area. He said, 'That will not happen as long as I'm around.' Ten years ago the pressure to change wasn't there. Snowboarding, high-speed lifts, marble bathrooms. Now there is pressure. But we think we can make it as we are, in our niche." Ernie liked it when someone came up with a better way to do something. But he didn't like change for change sake, or when somebody told him he should.

I recalled Dan Ringeisen's comment on snowboarding: "Ask me how much we love that Nike founder Phil Knight is funding 'Free The Snow' and identifying Taos as a snowboard-free area. Every time the media publishes that, our phones start ringing with people who want to come here because of it."

Gordon summed it up, with Mickey nodding approval: "Taos Ski Valley is a gem. It's been cut. And it works great.

We don't want to risk forcing anything."

After that we went skiing, Gordie, Chris Stagg and me. They all ski, every day.

Later, I went to see Ernie's widow, Rhoda. She still lives in the apartment over Taos Ski & Boot with the view of Al's and Lift No. 1. The one-time New York socialite (before she met Ernie in flat light on the Snakedance trail. Ernie couldn't get her to move. So he instructed Mickey, who happened by, "to race down to Mommy and have her mix a batch of martinis and bring them up; and don't spill any. And it was like a miracle. One sip and she skied like a goddess." Thenceforth, Ernie would hide a pouron, a blown glass goblet, of gin somewhere on the hill every day. The lucky skier to find it...well, that was before the era of people suing ski areas for allowing them to tip over.

Happily, the Martini Tree still exists, in a toned-down, lawyer-friendly fashion. Once a week now, on Thursday afternoons, a ski instructor (last March it was Dan Ringeisen) buries the pouron in a prescribed spot and then leads his or her ski weekers into the woods for a nip on Friday. It's another tradition, one more way Taos includes its regulars into the family. And honors Ernie.

You hear it all the time: Ernie would approve...Ernie believed...Ernie's spirit...and so on. The man is still revered, his spirit resonates. When Ernie died in January 1989, New Mexico air national guard jets spread his ashes over the mountain, and then it snowed 93 inches in three days. There were 16-foot fracture lines on Highline Ridge. His were huge shoes to fill. But, thankfully, nobody in the Blake family is trying, alone, to fill them. They share the job.

Mickey is general manager. Sister Wendy teaches and runs the ski shop and is married to longtime ski-school supervisor and marketing VP Chris Stagg. And now Mickey's daughter¿Adriana, the third generation¿is working in sales, and teaching, natch.

No one confuses Mickey with his father, though there is the same puckish beard and the same mischievous, hot-tempered cant to the eyes. Mickey once punched his father in an argument. Ernie punched back. He would never serve hot chocolate in the liftline on a cold morning as his father sometimes did. Nor would he answer the telephone, "This is the janitor speaking." Ernie had the charm, the public relations gift. Mickey's forte is machinery, lifts and snowcats. And Mickey has brought Taos into the modern era, upgrading lifts, adding a few key ones to improve the network for intermediates, developing the Resort Center and building snowmaking to the point where last year, for the first time, they were able to open on 100 percent man-made snow.

In a meeting in Mickey's office one afternoon, assistant general manger Gordon Briner did most of the talking while Mickey stared out at the mountain. "I was telling Mickey we should do a dinner for 20-year employees. How many do we have, Mickey?"

"Thirty-three," he answers.

"At Breckenridge," Gordon says, "I believe we had eight. And that's with a staff four times as large."

When the inevitable topic of snowboarding came up, Mickey came alive. "Ernie felt strongly that Taos remain a pure alpine area. He said, 'That will not happen as long as I'm around.' Ten years ago the pressure to change wasn't there. Snowboarding, high-speed lifts, marble bathrooms. Now there is pressure. But we think we can make it as we are, in our niche." Ernie liked it when someone came up with a better way to do something. But he didn't like change for change sake, or when somebody told him he should.

I recalled Dan Ringeisen's comment on snowboarding: "Ask me how much we love that Nike founder Phil Knight is funding 'Free The Snow' and identifying Taos as a snowboard-free area. Every time the media publishes that, our phones start ringing with people who want to come here because of it."

Gordon summed it up, with Mickey nodding approval: "Taos Ski Valley is a gem. It's been cut. And it works great.

We don't want to risk forcing anything."

After that we went skiing, Gordie, Chris Stagg and me. They all ski, every day.

Later, I went to see Ernie's widow, Rhoda. She still lives in the apartment over Taos Ski & Boot with the view of Al's and Lift No. 1. The one-time New York socialite (before she met Ernie in 1940) greeted me at the door in a Ski Valley T-shirt. On the kitchen counter, a two-way radio buzzed with the chat of cat drivers and patrolmen. "What can I get you?" she asked in her gravelly, lifelong smoker's voice. "Coffee? Tea? Booze?"

The last time I'd sat down with the two of them Ernie poured each of us a schnapps, without asking. "I always said we had a very backward marriage," Rhoda told a reporter once. "I did the mechanics and Ernest (Rhoda is the only person on earth who calls him Ernest) wrote the letters. He wasn't good with his hands, but he made everybody who came here feel they were his long-lost friend." While Ernie schmoozed, Rhoda tuned rental skis, taught in the ski school, knocked the tops off moguls with an infantry spade, designed new trails, raised the kids and fed everybody in the Valley.

She's earned her peace, I thought, when, suddenly, the kitchen door flew open and several grandchildren marched in, covered with snow from a scavenger hunt, part of Ernie's birthday celebration this weekend.

"I feel sorry for our kids," she mused in saying goodbye. "They have all the headaches of running a big resort. We got to have all the fun."

I'm having too much fun on Kachina Peak. Having reached its broad forehead of a summit, I turn to the four directions: west to the black slit of the Rio Grande Canyon, south toward Los Alamos, east to Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest point at 13,161 feet, north to my descent down Main Street, and then skier's right into Hunziker Main chute. This is the Taos I remember: tough, wild and so steep I have to plan my pole plants in advance from a place of gathered calm.

Halfway down Hunziker I come upon a struggling couple, he pleading, helpless, she clutching the snow with every fiber of her being. I wonder if, in this case, gin would help. They'll be OK. Maybe next time they'll sign up with ski school.

And so I continue, following the couloir's winding shape to where it opens like a fan above Hunziker Bowl. The new snow here runs in wind-whipped vertical strips, like bacon in the package. Some strips are lean and hard pressed, proverbial "death cookies." Others are soft as cream. If I read the snow right, I can stay in cream all the way down.

This reminds me of yet one more new/old Taos dichotomy, the rock band "New Tricks." They are actually three old dogs¿a photographer, a ski tuner and a bartender¿who together have more than 60 years and 6,000 ski days in the Valley. They played at the St. Bernard for Ernie's birthday. They covered the Beatles, Eagles and Cream. And they did a wonderful, bluesy original song called "Vinyl Cookies" with the very modern lyric: "Honey, check your PC. You've got a letter from me..."

Love in the 21st century. Skiing as it always was. I believe Ernie would approve.rnie in 1940) greeted me at the door in a Ski Valley T-shirt. On the kitchen counter, a two-way radio buzzed with the chat of cat drivers and patrolmen. "What can I get you?" she asked in her gravelly, lifelong smoker's voice. "Coffee? Tea? Booze?"

The last time I'd sat down with the two of them Ernie poured each of us a schnapps, without asking. "I always said we had a very backward marriage," Rhoda told a reporter once. "I did the mechanics and Ernest (Rhoda is the only person on earth who calls him Ernest) wrote the letters. He wasn't good with his hands, but he made everybody who came here feel they were his long-lost friend." While Ernie schmoozed, Rhoda tuned rental skis, taught in the ski school, knocked the tops off moguls with an infantry spade, designed new trails, raised the kids and fed everybody in the Valley.

She's earned her peace, I thought, when, suddenly, the kitchen door flew open and several grandchildren marched in, covered with snow from a scavenger hunt, part of Ernie's birthday celebration this weekend.

"I feel sorry for our kids," she mused in saying goodbye. "They have all the headaches of running a big resort. We got to have all the fun."

I'm having too much fun on Kachina Peak. Having reached its broad foreheead of a summit, I turn to the four directions: west to the black slit of the Rio Grande Canyon, south toward Los Alamos, east to Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest point at 13,161 feet, north to my descent down Main Street, and then skier's right into Hunziker Main chute. This is the Taos I remember: tough, wild and so steep I have to plan my pole plants in advance from a place of gathered calm.

Halfway down Hunziker I come upon a struggling couple, he pleading, helpless, she clutching the snow with every fiber of her being. I wonder if, in this case, gin would help. They'll be OK. Maybe next time they'll sign up with ski school.

And so I continue, following the couloir's winding shape to where it opens like a fan above Hunziker Bowl. The new snow here runs in wind-whipped vertical strips, like bacon in the package. Some strips are lean and hard pressed, proverbial "death cookies." Others are soft as cream. If I read the snow right, I can stay in cream all the way down.

This reminds me of yet one more new/old Taos dichotomy, the rock band "New Tricks." They are actually three old dogs¿a photographer, a ski tuner and a bartender¿who together have more than 60 years and 6,000 ski days in the Valley. They played at the St. Bernard for Ernie's birthday. They covered the Beatles, Eagles and Cream. And they did a wonderful, bluesy original song called "Vinyl Cookies" with the very modern lyric: "Honey, check your PC. You've got a letter from me..."

Love in the 21st century. Skiing as it always was. I believe Ernie would approve.