By Devon O'Neil. Photos by Ryan Heffernan.
It’s one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon at Taos Ski Valley, in the crown of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I hop off the chair and prepare to hike, just as a dozen other Taoseños who like fall-line skiing and fresh snow are preparing to do. A few feet to my right, Terah Blake and Keith Stagg click out of their bindings, pick up their skis, fling them over their shoulders, and begin treading uphill, just like they’ve done thousands of times before.
Terah and Keith are two of the 13 grandchildren of Taos founder Ernie Blake—they’re first cousins and lifelong ski buddies. Blake drove up from Albuquerque for the weekend; Stagg drove down from Boulder. They, as well as a longtime Taos skier named Brett Hills, have been lapping the steeps since 9 a.m. and will continue to do so until last chair. Taos, suffering through another year of high-desert drought, had only 148 inches for the season as of March 7. No bueno. But the past two days have transformed the mountain with 10 inches of dense, dry snow. Every run has been soft and chargeable, an ode to the elevation (12,481 feet at the top of the resort) and the predominantly north-facing steeps.
Just as we start to hike, Alejandro “Hano” Blake, another of Ernie’s grandchildren, skis off the chair and spots Terah.
“T-Dawg!” he shouts. “What’s up?”
“Hano!” she exclaims, pleasantly surprised to see another member of the family.
The next two minutes are vintage Taos. Hano, Terah, and Keith pause their powder day to catch up on life. They don’t see each other often, but when they do, it is usually on the snow at their family’s ski area. Locals in duct-taped pants breeze past them, sometimes doling out a high-five or hello. The trio makes dinner plans for the following week in Albuquerque, where Hano lives too. When they part ways, off to different thrills in different stashes, they smile and wave like friends. Till next time.
It is hard not to feel good about skiing when you see such an exchange. Above all other factors at Taos—the steep terrain, high altitude, cold snow, and passionate locals—the ski area’s intimacy and charm have distinguished it since its founding in 1954. This vibe always came from the Blake family. From Ernie to his grandchildren, the Blakes promoted a no-reason-to-rush, there’s-plenty-of-powder-to-go-around attitude. They valued hiking and hop turns over half-mile-wide groomers. Rarest of all, they somehow made 600 employees feel like their last name was Blake too. The Taos song remained the same for generations, and a lot of souls grew richer because of it. The tune, however, is changing.
Suddenly, some of those same people who have devoted their ski lives to Taos are wondering about its future. Last December, four months before our chance meeting at the top of Chair 2, the Blakes announced they had sold the ski area to one of the richest men in America, billionaire conservationist Louis Bacon. Then, this past summer, following a long-in-the-works master development plan, the ski area built a chairlift on the north face of Kachina Peak, Taos’s crown jewel, access to which used to require hiking 45 minutes up a gusty ridge. Next spring, much of the existing base village will be torn down and rebuilt, with 40 new condominiums and more.
“This is not just a rebranding but a complete redefinition of the identity of the ski area,” says Darien Fernandez, 32, a Taos native who works as a lift operator at the Ski Valley and who ran unsuccessfully for town council in April.
Never mind that Ernie Blake himself conceived the Kachina lift some 50 years earlier. Combined with news of the sale and the impending redevelopment, the locals are in the midst of an uneasy debate that raises a question central to Taos’s future: Must economic progress come at the cost of a ski area’s soul?
THE EASY ANSWER IS YES, BUT THE REALITY is more complicated. When Mickey Blake, Ernie’s eldest son and Taos Ski Valley’s general manager since 1972, first approached Bacon last summer to gauge his interest in buying Taos, Blake did so because he felt Bacon would treat his father’s dream— and the family’s heritage—right. Bacon, who declined a phone interview for this story but did submit comments in writing, says he understands what is at stake with Taos and plans to honor the Blakes’ confidence. It is not dissimilar to his management strategy at his famous Trinchera Blanca ranch, just over the border in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley. He bought the 172,000-acre plot from the Forbes family for $175 million and later placed a conservation easement on it so it will never be developed.
“Above all, I don’t want to screw up the experience of a challenging and fun mountain that caters to ski enthusiasts as opposed to resortgoers,” Bacon says.
It may seem odd that a Wall Street baron (Bacon founded the hedge fund Moore Capital Management and, according to Forbes, was the 362nd richest man in America in 2013, with a net worth of $1.6 billion) would be so devoted to this high-desert nook, where the lifties hit you with snowballs and it sometimes feels like a kitchy faux-Bavaria. But having skied and owned property here since the mid-’90s, Bacon knew all he needed to know about Taos’s potential. He bought the ski area partly as a business investment and partly as a personal passion.
“At first I laughed at the idea of running a ski resort,” he says—and thus longtime Taos Ski Valley executive Gordon Briner is making the day-to-day decisions, with input from Bacon’s right-hand man, Peter Talty. Although Bacon, 56, has seven children, he does not plan to hand the reins to them the way Ernie Blake did. “I often find myself an opponent of developments. But Mickey was serious, the mountain definitely needed some new investment, and I felt very honored to be considered as a steward of his family’s long heritage here.”
The Blakes never put Taos up for sale. Instead, once Mickey had approached Bacon (and one other possible buyer whose identity remains a secret to everyone but Mickey), he gathered the six grandchildren who owned most of the stock and explained the situation. The resort was not in danger of collapse—the Blakes almost never took on debt—but given that it earned only a one or two percent profit each year, and given that their primary source of income was not real estate, like the big resorts’, but the fickle commodity of lift tickets, there was little chance they would be able to pay for any of the upgrades they had been planning. The Blakes had turned down unsolicited offers before, but if ever there were a time to sell—if ever the Ski Valley could have a chance to thrive—this was going to be it.
Mickey was in control of a majority of the stock, but he told the grandchildren the decision of whether to sell was up to them. Weeks passed. Doubt lingered.
Not everyone was on board with selling, at least not at first. For nearly a decade, two of Mickey’s four children, Adriana, 43, and Hano, 37, had essentially been training to take over management of the ski area. Mickey was nearing 70. He was tired and ready to retire. Hano and Adriana had worked every job at the Ski Valley to learn the operation. But in the end, all that really meant was they were less surprised when their father broached the subject of a sale.
After some debate, the grandchildren voted unanimously in the summer of 2013 to pursue a deal. Ernie had passed away in 1989, but Mickey consulted his mother Rhoda, now 96, to get her blessing. In many ways, the sale to Bacon was agonizing. In others, it was liberating (especially since every Blake descendant is guaranteed a lifetime ski pass). The bottom line? It was inevitable.
Family ski areas still exist in America—“not as many but still in the hundreds,” estimates Michael Berry, National Ski Areas Association president—but it’s become harder to make them work. Guest expectations have changed, says Benny Abruzzo, a longtime friend of the Blakes whose family owns and runs Ski Santa Fe. “The pressures to modernize and keep your facility up to your guests’ expectations are the biggest difference,” he says.
The Blakes simply couldn’t afford to do that.
“It wasn’t like the family farm where the kids aren’t interested in the farm,” says Keith Stagg, who, as a child, woke up to his father delivering the snow reports each morning. “In our heart of hearts, not one of us wanted to sell this. If we had the capital, the group of us grandchildren absolutely would’ve loved to run this place for another hundred years. But in the modern world, we just weren’t selling enough lift tickets.”
AMONG THE TREPIDATIONS EXPRESSED by locals, most relate to terrain and, specifically, the Kachina lift. The fixed-grip triple chair makes accessible about 150 acres of what had been hike-to-only steeps, but as Briner points out, more than 70 percent of Taos’s hike-to terrain remains—and it’s likely to see less traffic because of the Kachina lift and a soon-to-be-gladed expansion called the Wild West. There are murmurs that the lift up Kachina could spur an access gate to Lake Fork, a peak with serious big-mountain lines just south of Kachina, though Briner says no gate will open for at least two years. Still, plenty of locals question whether gaining a new crown jewel would be worth losing the current one.
“People who have been here a long time worry that the lift is going to bring a lot of people up there who shouldn’t be up there and weren’t up there before, because they were deterred by the hike,” says Taos liftie Fernandez.
But not everyone agrees. “Anyone who’s thinking clearly about it can only think that it’s going to be good,” counters Jamie Leeson, owner of the Taos Cow deli in nearby Arroyo Seco. “Kachina can’t be an exclusive club. If someone is willing to spend money on the ski area to improve the infrastructure, that has to be a benefit. Even if it’s just making sure the toilets flush better. It’s going to be better.”
“I don’t think the soul is endangered,” adds former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who skis 100 days a year at Taos, often hiking Kachina five times a day. “I think this is really going to be good.”
Terrain and charisma are not enough to guarantee business, however. Taos, which finally allowed snowboarding in 2008, has hovered around 240,000 skier visits in recent seasons, relying primarily on guests who come from within a 150-mile radius. Five years from now, Briner hopes to see that number increase to 300,000 and include a more geographically diverse clientele. Even 300,000 wouldn’t match Taos’s heyday of the early 1990s, when Taos peaked at 360,000 skier visits and New Mexico at 1.375 million, nearly double the state’s 2013–14 total of 733,041.
Sometimes the question arises of which resorts Taos wants to compete with. New Mexico’s neighbor to the north, Colorado, is an obvious albeit tough target. It’s the top ski destination in the country and totaled an all-time high of 12.6 million skier visits last winter (up eight percent from the five-year average). Crested Butte, a similar area with an authentic town and legendary steeps, makes for a good comparison to Taos—it rang up 370,000 skier visits last year.
Still, Briner, who ran Breckenridge Ski Resort in the mid-’90s, insists that Taos competes with no resort in particular, generally coveting “adventurous skiers” who appreciate a place where turns come first.
Others are more direct in expressing what is an underlying sentiment in this corner of the Sangres. “We’re trying to upgrade,” says Bob “Willy” Willette, a 26-year Taos patroller, “but I don’t think we want to be Colorado. I think we’re better than Colorado.”
AS IT TURNS OUT, THE BLAKES’ BUSINESS influence on Taos did not end with the sale. Bacon, who grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and learned to ski at Middlebury College in Vermont, is paying Mickey to sit on the Ski Valley’s board of directors and advise him and Peter Talty while they get up to speed on ski-area ownership. Because of Bacon’s relative seclusion as owner—he swooped in for just a few powder days last season—and because in that seclusion he’s so different from the Blake clan, who were there every day for 60 years, some locals worry that Bacon is simply spiffing up Taos to sell it for a healthy profit a few years from now. He promises that is not the case.
“As for a short-term real-estate speculation—it is not my line of work and this [process] is definitely going to take my involvement,” Bacon says. “I look at this as a fun project in a place I love. Plus, I get to open runs with patrol—how do you put a price on that?”
You don’t, of course, because you own the ski area so you don’t have to. But you do put a price on the cost of change, both short-term and long. Bacon did not buy Taos to lose money, no matter how much fun it is to score first tracks. Given his hefty investment up front, turning a profit won’t be easy, especially if the drought continues. But he, like thousands of other Taos devotees, believes in something that nobody seems able to put into words—the Taos mystique.
It’s about the skiing, yes. And the people who can never get enough of that skiing. And the duct tape they wear. And the Blakes, who still figure to be everywhere. But mostly it’s about the mountain.
“At the end of the day,” says Brett Hills, who will be skiing the mountain religiously again this season, “Kachina Peak’s always going to be 12,481 feet. No one’s going to change that. And when you’re sitting up there looking at the cirque, it’s still going to be a magical place.”
You just might have to wait in a liftline for it.
Devon O’Neil is a staff writer at ESPN and frequent contributor to Skiing. He lives in Breckenridge.
CORRECTION: The printed version of this story, which appears in Skiing's December 2014 issue, states that Louis Bacon, Taos Ski Valley's new owner, paid $175 million for the Trinchera Blanca Ranch in Colorado. This is true. The story then goes on to say that Bacon invested $175 million in Taos Ski Valley. This is untrue, and is the result of an editing mistake. Neither Bacon nor the Blake family, the previous owners of TSV, disclosed any financial information regarding the sale, either to Skiing or to the story's writer, Devon O'Neil. Skiing regrets the error.