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Taos Revisited - Ski Mag

Taos Revisited

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Can you ever go home again? The author heads to New Mexico's Sangre de Cristos to find out.

There was a time, not long ago, when my life revolved around skiing at Taos. I was living with my boyfriend in a rehabbed adobe barn in Santa Fe and my days went something like this: Monday through Friday, sunup to sundown, I sat at a desk, writing serviceable but unpoetic sidebars for a local magazine. I drove an aged Toyota Corolla and had no health insurance. I owned a really old pair of Atomics and a wardrobe that, like every stick of furniture we had, was 100 percent secondhand. I was 26, still in the larval stage of adulthood, and I was free.

To me, freedom meant getting up at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, shoving my skis into the Corolla, and driving with my boyfriend, Mike, almost two hours north to Taos Ski Valley. There was no time for coffee, nor for grooming of any sort. Conversation, even, was kept to a minimum as we followed the twisting banks of the Rio Grande, driving through groves of juniper, lit silver in the morning light.

And when we hit Taos Ski Valley, which rises from a remote alpine canyon deep in the national forest 19 miles north of the historic town of Taos, we practically sprinted to the chairlift. Maybe it was because we were young and maybe because our workweeks were long and dull, but we skied ferociously. We skied like we were being chased -- by demons, by the threat of our own adulthood, by the notion that there was always more skiing to be done, and we were too broke to come back on Sunday. So we wasted no time -- ate nothing but PowerBars on the lift, didn't much bother with bathroom trips, wouldn't stop to dally when we ran into friends, wouldn't ski with anyone who couldn't keep up. We were ruthless in our efficiency, and Taos -- an aggressive mountain ripped top to bottom with vertiginous steeps and boulder-sized bumps -- seemed custom-built for our purposes.

The terrain seemed inexhaustible. We hurled ourselves through the trees on a tucked-away pitch called Lorelei. We diced our way down Al's Run, the formidable mogul run that corrugates the mountain's front side. We hiked the undeveloped ridgelines that form a snowy crown around the ski valley to find, without fail, a smorgasbord of untouched chutes. There was something else, too: no riffraff. I say this not unkindly, but Taos skiers always seemed like real skiers. There were obvious reasons for this. You had to work to get to Taos -- it's three hours from the nearest major airport -- and once you arrived, there was little to do but ski. The base village more resembled a high-alpine camp than a resort. The bars closed at 11 each night and were often empty long before then. You came to Taos for the mountain, plain and simple. Saturday upon Saturday, we made the pilgrimage to Taos and returned home to our run-down barn at night, drained and elated.

That was seven years ago. Life has evolved. Mike is now my husband and we are no longer fledgling adults. We have a mortgage. We have health insurance. We have a kid. And we can afford to ski two days in a row now, though not much more.

And in seven years, skiing has changed, too. We've got megalith ski corporations and multipeak ski areas so sprawling we need two-sided trail maps. We've got shaped skis and slopeside massage booths, $12 hamburgers and lattes to go. We've got ski instructors carrying cell phones, hotels offering aromatherapy, and overdeveloped base villages selling as much fine art as they do Rossignols. And of course, we've got snowboarding.

But as skiing has changed, as my own life has changed, I've hung on to this admittedly naive idea that Taos hasn't. There was only one way to know for sure.

So Mike and I fly back to New Mexico, once again driving the crooks of the Rio Grande north, traversing the sage-dotted plateau that leads to the town of Taos -- an artsy hamlet set in the shadow of the 12,000-foot Sangre de Cristo mountains -and then beyond, up the snowy canyon to the ski valley.

"It's still here," says Mike, peering out the window of our rental car at the minimally developed jumble of buildings that make up the base village.

"Yup," I say noncommittally, staring at the three-tiered main lodge, which hasn't changed a whit since we last saw it. It's solid and plain and looks, frankly, like it was built by people who just wanted to hurry up and ski. Which may well have been the case, since it sits at the foot of a major distraction -- the ski valley's oldest and most fearsome trail, the in-your-face mogul staircase called Al's Run.

Mike and I waste no time. The main lift-serviced part of Taos is a shoulder-shaped ridgeline, with a gentle and broad slope called, fittingly, Bambi that serves as a jumping-off point into steeper terrain on both sides. Despite its reputation for challenging runs (51 percent of the area's 1,200 acres is marked expert on the trail map), Taos has plenty of cruisers, which Mike and I more or less ignore. We drop into our old favorite, Lorelei, a hidden tumble-down pitch sprinkled with spruce trees, and I immediately realize what seven years at sea level will do to a body. My head pounds, my lungs winch tight, and my legs feel weak in the spring snow. Lorelei serves as a steadfast and unforgiving mirror to my physical depreciation. Panting in the thin air, I have a moment to reckon with this fact -- Mike is long gone.

Taos is not a mountain for the lazy skier. A remarkable 30 percent of the terrain requires some sort of hiking or traversing -- a run down the face of 12,481-foot Kachina Peak, the ski area's highest point, first requires a full hour or more of uphill trudging -- but in almost every instance, the payoff is rich. In our Saturday expeditions, we'd found the lowest ratio of work-to-powder in a cache of trails requiring only a short skate uphill from Chair #4, directly beneath Kachina Peak. And today -- thank heaven -- it's still here, still reasonably untrammeled. We coast down the outer reaches of the wide-open Hunziker Bowl and then funnel through the woods to a narrow, bumped-up ravine called High Noon. Finally, warmed up and hitting full speed, we thump down another glorious stretch of spine-hammering moguls called El Funko.

Has Taos changed? In a nonstop morning of skiing under a wide blue sky, I spot plenty of new-model Völkls and hordes of daredevil tele skiers, but the pink-parka ladies and hungover party boys you see at other resorts are conspicuously absent. This feels good. I may be skiing in mismatched clothing and 10-year-old boots, but hey, I'm skiing hard, and at Taos, this matters most. And I mean that literally: Taos bears the dubious distinction of being one of just four ski areas -- along with Alta, Mad River Glen, and Deer Valley -- to still forbid snowboarding. In today's more-is-better resort universe, skier-only mountains like Taos enjoy a certain low key folk-hero status, catering to a subculture of ski purists. But can a resort survive on purists alone?

Despite mounting pressure, Taos management remains obstinate, insisting that a snowboard-free environment is an attraction rather than a deterrent. Spring break weekends aside, Taos remains blessedly uncrowded all season long. Lifting the snowboard ban would inevitably add more bodies to the landscape, and this would make skiers ski with more temerity in order to get the goods. It would make Taos seem less...well, less ours.

Since I was last here, there's been one notable change -- a whiff of controversy in an otherwise laissez-faire community. Disgruntled Taos-area snowboarders have kept up an admirably dogged lobbying campaign over the past several years, going so far as to suggest that the U.S. Forest Service -- from whom Taos leases its land -- is practicing discrimination. (The Forest Service response went something like this: "Yeah, right.") Meanwhile, Free Taos bumper stickers are plastered about town; a group of rogue snowboarders are reported to conduct midnight stealth raids on Taos when the moon is full; and last season when the sun rose over Kachina Peak, it revealed the words Free the Snow carved into a snowfield on an opposing mountainside.

"We see our skiers-only policy as an asset," says the company's VP of marketing, Chris Stagg, when I drop in on him at his base-lodge office. He runs through an oft-repeated list of why snowboarders don't belong at Taos, including its trails being too narrow and the preponderance of moguls, but turns the conversation back to the purists. "Seventy percent of people who ski here say that our snowboard policy was part of their decision to come," he says. "We're not going to risk losing them."

Stagg has racked up 28 years working for the ski area -- which is still owned and operated by the family of its legendary founder, Ernie Blake, who died in 1989 -- and he serves as mayor of the less than 100 people who actually live in the valley. Stagg, who is married to Blake's daughter Wendy, is part of a large cadre of Blake loyalists. He is quick to mention that Taos is content with its folk-hero status -- happily uncorporate and relatively unconcerned with the bottom line. "Ernie never was driven to make a lot of money. It's just not a major goal of ours," he says. As for the Free Taos people, who collect donations to advertise their cause in ski magazines and local papers, Stagg grins. "I love 'em," he says. "Every time they run an ad, we get 50 reservations."

Over the next few days, I test out Stagg's theory that as other mountains go Disney, sacrificing character in favor of profit, Taos is surviving -- even thriving -- on its personality. Indeed, there's an intimacy to the place, particularly in the late season, when the crowd at the slopeside Martini Tree Bar comprises mostly locals and ski-area employees, shooting pool and swapping ski stories over fresh drafts of Eske's, the local microbrew. There's a low-key camaraderie here, a tangible sense of shared purpose. For a while I'm thinking this stems from the fact that we're all skiers, but then I start talking to people.

On the lift I meet a couple from Denver. They've spent the morning hiking the ridge and exploring off-piste routes. They are red-cheeked and giddy, pointing out a fresh line they'd skied between two gnarly-looking crags.

"So, do you like skiing without snowboarders around?" I ask.

The man, wearing an acid-green pile vest and a perfectly unkempt goatee, turns to me. "We are snowboarders," he says, sounding somewhat offended. "We only put on our skis when we're here."

But it's not just snowboarders turned skiers. Turns out, even the purists like to snowboard. Over burritos at the on-mountain Whistlestop Cafe, I meet a woman named Kim who works part-time for the ski valley and packs in 50 or more days of skiing a year. "But on staff day," she says, referring to the day in April after Taos closes for the season, "I bring my board. Everyone does." She waves a hand at the open slopes outside the cafe's window. "There are snowboarders all over this place."

So why not live and work in a place where it's okay to snowboard? Why stay true to a resort that refuses to change with the times? For me, the answer's easy. I don't ride. For the crossover sliders, it's the allure of the terrain here -- the woolly steeps, the white-knuckle chutes, the glades and the bowls and even the groomers. Combine that with a laid-back, groovy atmosphere, and Taos has the power to convert outlawed snowboarders into enthusiastic, if temporary, skiers.

After four days on the mountain, Mike and I are -- I swear it -- feeling more buoyant, like approximations of our more youthful selves. Don't get me wrong, my knees are killing me. By three o'clock every afternoon, my body's so drubbed that I start to fall regularly -- and these are show-stopping, lose-the-equipment falls. By four o'clock, I'm down at the Martini Tree wiroup of rogue snowboarders are reported to conduct midnight stealth raids on Taos when the moon is full; and last season when the sun rose over Kachina Peak, it revealed the words Free the Snow carved into a snowfield on an opposing mountainside.

"We see our skiers-only policy as an asset," says the company's VP of marketing, Chris Stagg, when I drop in on him at his base-lodge office. He runs through an oft-repeated list of why snowboarders don't belong at Taos, including its trails being too narrow and the preponderance of moguls, but turns the conversation back to the purists. "Seventy percent of people who ski here say that our snowboard policy was part of their decision to come," he says. "We're not going to risk losing them."

Stagg has racked up 28 years working for the ski area -- which is still owned and operated by the family of its legendary founder, Ernie Blake, who died in 1989 -- and he serves as mayor of the less than 100 people who actually live in the valley. Stagg, who is married to Blake's daughter Wendy, is part of a large cadre of Blake loyalists. He is quick to mention that Taos is content with its folk-hero status -- happily uncorporate and relatively unconcerned with the bottom line. "Ernie never was driven to make a lot of money. It's just not a major goal of ours," he says. As for the Free Taos people, who collect donations to advertise their cause in ski magazines and local papers, Stagg grins. "I love 'em," he says. "Every time they run an ad, we get 50 reservations."

Over the next few days, I test out Stagg's theory that as other mountains go Disney, sacrificing character in favor of profit, Taos is surviving -- even thriving -- on its personality. Indeed, there's an intimacy to the place, particularly in the late season, when the crowd at the slopeside Martini Tree Bar comprises mostly locals and ski-area employees, shooting pool and swapping ski stories over fresh drafts of Eske's, the local microbrew. There's a low-key camaraderie here, a tangible sense of shared purpose. For a while I'm thinking this stems from the fact that we're all skiers, but then I start talking to people.

On the lift I meet a couple from Denver. They've spent the morning hiking the ridge and exploring off-piste routes. They are red-cheeked and giddy, pointing out a fresh line they'd skied between two gnarly-looking crags.

"So, do you like skiing without snowboarders around?" I ask.

The man, wearing an acid-green pile vest and a perfectly unkempt goatee, turns to me. "We are snowboarders," he says, sounding somewhat offended. "We only put on our skis when we're here."

But it's not just snowboarders turned skiers. Turns out, even the purists like to snowboard. Over burritos at the on-mountain Whistlestop Cafe, I meet a woman named Kim who works part-time for the ski valley and packs in 50 or more days of skiing a year. "But on staff day," she says, referring to the day in April after Taos closes for the season, "I bring my board. Everyone does." She waves a hand at the open slopes outside the cafe's window. "There are snowboarders all over this place."

So why not live and work in a place where it's okay to snowboard? Why stay true to a resort that refuses to change with the times? For me, the answer's easy. I don't ride. For the crossover sliders, it's the allure of the terrain here -- the woolly steeps, the white-knuckle chutes, the glades and the bowls and even the groomers. Combine that with a laid-back, groovy atmosphere, and Taos has the power to convert outlawed snowboarders into enthusiastic, if temporary, skiers.

After four days on the mountain, Mike and I are -- I swear it -- feeling more buoyant, like approximations of our more youthful selves. Don't get me wrong, my knees are killing me. By three o'clock every afternoon, my body's so drubbed that I start to fall regularly -- and these are show-stopping, lose-the-equipment falls. By four o'clock, I'm down at the Martini Tree with an Eske's in hand.

At the bar, I meet Beth Bubernak, a waitress and one-time kindergarten teacher who moved to Taos from Squaw Valley two years ago purely, she says, for the technical terrain. Or as she describes it, with the obsessive awe a kindergartner might use to describe a really excellent Tonka Truck, "the steep chutes with rocks and obstacles." At home, in the small house she rents with her boyfriend not far from the base, sits Beth's snowboard, collecting dust.

The next morning, Mike and I follow behind as Beth scrambles up a hill and past a sign that reads, Caution -- If You Fall You Must Self-Arrest. She then heads through a set of gates marking the beginning of the ungroomed, hike-to territory of West Basin Ridge. If Taos is shaped like a shoulder, then West Basin is its clavicle -- a sharp wall of snow with 11 marked trails, each one tight and studded with trees and exposed rock. We follow a packed-down footpath uphill for about five minutes, skis slung over our shoulders, as Beth explains that she'll hike Highline Ridge -- 30 to 45 minutes of straight uphill -- up to six times a day when the snow is good. "Most locals don't think twice about hiking," she says, waiting for us to catch our breath. "It's just part of the mountain."

We're standing at the top of a narrow run called Stauffenberg -- named by Ernie Blake after a German colonel who plotted to assassinate Hitler -- or "Stauffie's," as it's known to the locals. We're five minutes from the high-traffic confluence of lifts at the top of Bambi, yet we could be deep in the backcountry. Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest mountain at 13,161 feet, glitters in the distance. Around us, the snow lies in unsullied piles, pillowed between juniper and spruce. Beth, who is lean and bright-eyed with tendrils of blonde hair poking from beneath her hat, looks down the 37 degree, powder-cloaked bluff and smiles back at us before disappearing over the cornice, lost in a puff of snow. I flash a me-first smile at Mike and then, sayonara, I drop into Stauffie's.

Beth has to be at the Martini Tree in three hours so we don't dally. We chat only on the lifts and we stick mainly to the West Basin runs, where we either hike or skate through the woods, sampling one chute after another, most of them hair-raisingly steep, some no more than ten feet wide. Only once -- once! -- do we see another skier, a guy Beth knows from town. We rip down a near-vertical line called Zdarsky. We slice through a grove of perfectly spaced trees as the midday sun lights everything gold. We ski madly, ferociously. We ski as if we're being chased -- by demons, by the specter of our poorer, freer, younger selves, by the notion that there will always be more skiing to be done.

Click on the related link below (Destination: Taos Ski Valley) for travel information on Taos.e with an Eske's in hand.

At the bar, I meet Beth Bubernak, a waitress and one-time kindergarten teacher who moved to Taos from Squaw Valley two years ago purely, she says, for the technical terrain. Or as she describes it, with the obsessive awe a kindergartner might use to describe a really excellent Tonka Truck, "the steep chutes with rocks and obstacles." At home, in the small house she rents with her boyfriend not far from the base, sits Beth's snowboard, collecting dust.

The next morning, Mike and I follow behind as Beth scrambles up a hill and past a sign that reads, Caution -- If You Fall You Must Self-Arrest. She then heads through a set of gates marking the beginning of the ungroomed, hike-to territory of West Basin Ridge. If Taos is shaped like a shoulder, then West Basin is its clavicle -- a sharp wall of snow with 11 marked trails, each one tight and studded with trees and exposed rock. We follow a packed-down footpath uphill for about five minutes, skis slung over our shoulders, as Beth explains that she'll hike Highline Ridge -- 30 to 45 minutes of straight uphill -- up to six timees a day when the snow is good. "Most locals don't think twice about hiking," she says, waiting for us to catch our breath. "It's just part of the mountain."

We're standing at the top of a narrow run called Stauffenberg -- named by Ernie Blake after a German colonel who plotted to assassinate Hitler -- or "Stauffie's," as it's known to the locals. We're five minutes from the high-traffic confluence of lifts at the top of Bambi, yet we could be deep in the backcountry. Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest mountain at 13,161 feet, glitters in the distance. Around us, the snow lies in unsullied piles, pillowed between juniper and spruce. Beth, who is lean and bright-eyed with tendrils of blonde hair poking from beneath her hat, looks down the 37 degree, powder-cloaked bluff and smiles back at us before disappearing over the cornice, lost in a puff of snow. I flash a me-first smile at Mike and then, sayonara, I drop into Stauffie's.

Beth has to be at the Martini Tree in three hours so we don't dally. We chat only on the lifts and we stick mainly to the West Basin runs, where we either hike or skate through the woods, sampling one chute after another, most of them hair-raisingly steep, some no more than ten feet wide. Only once -- once! -- do we see another skier, a guy Beth knows from town. We rip down a near-vertical line called Zdarsky. We slice through a grove of perfectly spaced trees as the midday sun lights everything gold. We ski madly, ferociously. We ski as if we're being chased -- by demons, by the specter of our poorer, freer, younger selves, by the notion that there will always be more skiing to be done.

Click on the related link below (Destination: Taos Ski Valley) for travel information on Taos.

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The Day Taos Opened to Boarders

On March 19, a.k.a. T-Day, Taos Ski Valley officially opened its slopes to snowboarding. Skiing Magazine sent one skier, dressed him as a knuckle dragger, and waited for the punches to fly.