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“That’s the cliff Benny skied off of when he first started running the place 25 years ago,” says Bill Gould (shown here), Ski Santa Fe ski school director, as he points to the nose of a 60-foot cliff. It’s a big cliff. And it has a small landing. As Benny, now 51, tells the story, “Yeah, growing up my philosophy was that speed is your friend. If you thought you needed to go 30 miles an hour to huck a cliff, you should go 40. So I jumped off the top of that thing and 30 feet past the landing knew I was in trouble.” He landed in a flat, rocky patch of snow and managed to only break a rib, puncture a lung and fracture his scapula. He was skiing two days later. That’s whose been developing the resort. Cliffs, steeps, and trees manage to blend with comfortable groomers, a solid ski school, and a youth race program.
Plans are in place to expand the La Casa Mall, Ski Santa Fe’s base area, starting in 2011. For now, this woefully inadequate facility is crammed by 11:30 to the point where most people eat on the floor or in a corner. Another option? Just eat some almonds on the lift and keep riding.
How to ski a powder day: Ski Santa Fe’s summit elevation is 12,075 feet, but the tree line reaches about seven feet above that. Bring skis that can handle tight trees and hucking cliffs—there will be a lot of both. At the start of the day, take the Millennium Lift to Big Rocks glade. Here, you can find lines from 35 degrees to upwards of 50 degrees, with the steeper pitches riddled with 10-foot cliffs. Later in the day, head to a run called Cornice above the Big Burn. This area is exposed to winds that whip up the face and load the trees with powder. Chilies glade holds some of the steepest lines on the mountain, including a couple of hard to find chutes. Drop in from Wizard and traverse skier’s left. Two chutes will open up in the trees below, but go with caution: These lines can end in optional 30- to 60-foot cliffs.
What to do three days later: Ski Santa Fe started as a burn area following a forest fire in the Santa Fe National Forest. You’lll still see charred remnants of trees and trails with names like ‘South Burn’. A few days after a storm, head out the boundary above North Burn to access the Big Tesuque, a naturally gladed area left over from the forest fire. Follow the traverse lines out of the ski area and don’t worry about sucker tracks; nothing cliffs out and every line takes you back to the road. From there, either plan road laps with a buddy or thumb it back to the resort.
The entire drive up the canyon from Santa Fe is filled with well-spaced aspens just above National Forest campgrounds. This means you have free parking and unrestricted access to as much tree skiing as you want. For some other options, head east out the ski area boundary at the top of the Millennium Lift. Hike the ridge that goes up to the 12,409-foot Lake Peak. Anything you see is yours to ski as it’s all National Forest. There’s two exceptions: the land off the top of Lake Peak, while technically open to the public, is claimed by Native Americans as sacred ground so ski it at the risk of serious offense to certain locals. Additionally, there are numerous steep couloirs off the back of the ski area, but a handful of them lead to the Santa Fe watershed and are off limits. To be safe, hire a knowledge guide like John Kear of Suntoucher Mountain Guides, an AMGA and IFMGA certified guide who offers day tours in the Santa Fe and Taos area. Tours are available for beginners and experts alike and Kear will tailor the days’ adventures to your ability level [suntoucher.com].
If you are up for braving La Casa Mall at the base of the ski hill, go to the pasta line and get ravioli, meat balls, and garlic bread. Perfect lunch food for under six bucks. At the end of the day hit up Totemoffs Bar and Grill next to the Millennium and Tesuque Peak lifts. Get the burger and choose from their selection of beer before heading back to Santa Fe. In Santa Fe, go to Maria’s Mexican Kitchen [marias-santafe.com] for great authentic New Mexican food. If the waiter asks if you want your burrito Christmas style, say yes and get your order smothered in both green and red chili.
Where to stay: Ski Santa Fe doesn’t have any lodging unless you count the campgrounds down the road. The closest option is Santa Fe. Most hotels won’t advertise package deals for lift tickets and transportation, but they will offer one if you ask. Generally, winter rates are between $100 and $200 per night. Save Cash: The Santa Fe International Hostel is the antithesis of luxury, but it’s cheap with rooms starting at $25 per night. Be sure to read their website carefully so you know what your 25 bucks won’t get [hostelsantafe.com]. Splurge: The La Fonda hotel has been around in one form or another for almost 400 years. Right on the Santa Fe Plaza, it’s considered the finest hotel in town and offers one of the better dining experiences in the area. Rates start at $229 per night, which also represents one of the better values for what you get. [lafondasantafe.com]