For a long time Taos Ski Valley has suffered from its version of Yogi Berra’s Paradox: Everybody claims to love the place, yet nobody goes there anymore. I was one of those nonvisitors. I’d long meant to visit the northern New Mexico resort, with its remarkable steeps. But how often do you lug your skis south of Colorado? Today Taos sees about 60 percent of the skiers that it did 20 years ago. Even the management concedes that a sort of stagnation had set in.
But change is afoot. Louis Bacon, a hedge fund billionaire and longtime Taos skier, bought the ski resort from the Blake family in late 2013 and has embarked on a yearslong plan to give the tired property a facelift. When you tinker with a place that’s held by some skiers with a reverence that Red Sox fans hold Fenway Park, however, change isn’t always embraced. The most visible and controversial change opened last winter: a new chairlift to within a few feet of the top of 12,481-foot Kachina Peak, the resort’s central peak and a summit that hard-core skiers had hiked for years in search of solitude and steep powder skiing.
Clearly it was time to visit this ski area that invokes such dedication that, the joke goes, even the resort’s lifties don’t quit; they retire. My question was simple one: Is everything really better with Bacon?
John Humphries adores Taos Ski Valley. John, a friend of mine in his mid-40s, taught skiing there for seven winters. Even after moving to Telluride, Colo., more than a decade ago, he still used to drive six hours to ski its slopes, taking the same route we were on now.
For John, Taos’ friendliness topped his list. “It’s like ‘Cheers,’” he said as we barreled there last February; spend a little time at Taos and everyone knows your name. Skiing ran a close second. People think it doesn’t snow much at Taos. It snows plenty, he said, and Taos’ mostly north- and northeast-facing geography holds that snow well. The resort’s steep slopes are heavily gladed, which helps preserve it still more.
At Tim’s Stray Dog Cantina, I met my second guide to the slopes over huevos rancheros smothered in red and green chili: Matt Gorman, 46, one of John’s oldest friends and a startling likeness of a Dude-era Jeff Bridges — long hair, goatee, gentle manner. Matt arrived in Taos in 1991. He’s been there almost ever since, teaching skiing and massaging sore skiers. One winter he went on a walkabout, he told me, “looking for a ski area I liked better than this.”
“Didn’t find it.”
We headed up the mountain.
To warm up, we raced down a front-side groomed run or two. Although it hadn’t snowed in days and the Southwest sun had been bright, the snow was surprisingly good. I couldn’t keep pace with John, who arced over the swales and zoomed past the slow skiers. At the lift his smile was big; he was home again.
Terrain may be one reason the crowds aren’t here. Taos doesn’t boast an incredible amount to entertain beginners and intermediates for more than a few days. Just a quarter of the skiing is devoted to each. The rest of the trail map — more than half — is covered in black (expert) runs. That’s not ideal for a ski resort. Intermediate skiers are the bread-and-butter of the ski industry. Taos has always been a mountain for experts, however, or at least for those who are willing to get off the groomed runs and push themselves.
And when Taos says “expert,” it means it. As we rode up Chair 2, the upper front side of the mountain reared up in a steep wall of spruce and fir, with tilted rock gardens. The only thing missing was the mannequin named Slim Slidell, which the ski patrol places facedown near the top of the lift, beside a sign that reminds skiers that they should know how to stop their own uncontrolled falls on the tilted slopes.
“Want to take a hike?” Matt said. We’d barely warmed up when Matt tossed skis over shoulders. I learned quickly that to experience the best Taos skiing, you need to be willing to hoof it, at least briefly.We dropped in one at a time. Despite the lack of new snow, our edges gripped well, like knives in Styrofoam. Then I heard a sound. It was the rare sight of expert-skier Matt, sliding past on his belly “Self-arrest!” I yelled. But this was Taos; Matt just kept going.
He dusted himself off and we headed to Kachina Peak. Bacon isn’t on the hook for the idea of the chairlift; the idea was approved by the Forest Service and set in motion before he bought the ski area. Still, it’s brought both attention and controversy. Hiking Kachina Peak to ski fresh snow had long been a Taos rite of passage. So for many reasons, many people didn’t want the lift. They called it sacrilege.
John was one of them. Before we succumbed to progress he demanded that we hike the peak one last time: “I don’t want to ride that lift without first honoring the gods!” We grudgingly trudged up the ridgeline with him. “Kachina Peak, it’s a truth-teller,” he said of the hike. “It tells you how you’re doing. Whether you’re young, or you’re old, you’re hung over. It doesn’t always let you go to the top.” He called to Matt, “Remember the last time I was here — a guy I’d never met was hugging me and crying in my arms? The hiking brings out something in people.”
For 20 minutes we walked higher. Kachina is shaped like a downward-facing palm, with its radiating fingerlike chutes. Still 10 minutes from the summit, John peered over the edge of one of the first couloirs. “Well, this looks good,” he said. “Shall we do it?”
“What about going to the top!”
“I’m no zealot,” he replied. We laughed at him, then stepped into our skis and dove into a couloir called K2. The run was firm and chalky — and busy. Snowboarders stranded in the hourglass couloirs plugged the tight spots like corks. The new summit lift had opened a few days previously and was already such a hit that the peak’s mogul-covered face looked as though it had the mumps. Matt and John sighed but seemed resigned. John tried to see the bright side. Now there was even more terrain for experts like him, he said.
If you go
Taos Ski Valley is 156 miles northeast of Albuquerque International Sunport. In winter, a daily shuttle takes passengers from the ski area to airports in Albuquerque, Taos and Santa Fe (skitaos.org/page/shuttle). An adult, one-day lift ticket this winter is $86, with discounts for multiple days. For more information: skitaos.com.
Where to stay
The Edelweiss Lodge and Spa (106 Sutton Place; edelweisslodgeandspa.com) represents the most modern lodging. Winter rates from $150.
The Snakedance Condominiums (110 Sutton Place; snakedancecondos.com) has a great slopeside location, its 33 condo units comfortable if a bit generic-feeling. Winter rates from $165.
Packages at the 55-year-old slopeside St. Bernard (112 Sutton Place; stbernardtaos.com) include full room, clinics with instructors, entertainment, board and all meals. Winter rates from $2,350.
Where to eat
Start your day at Black Diamond Espresso (122 Sutton Place; 575-770-8070). For breakfast, go to Café Naranja in the Edelweiss, which serves entrees like pancakes made from organic Hopi heirloom blue corn and whole piñon ($7).
Lunch has to be a green chili burger on the deck of the St. Bernard.
Dining options are limited at the ski resort. Perhaps the best food is at the Blonde Bear Tavern in the Edelweiss, with entrees like whole rainbow trout with red grapes and balsamic sauce ($25) or flat iron steak with Italian salsa verde ($28). The dining room of the St. Bernard is still reserved primarily for its guests, but if you can snag a reservation, it’s worth going.
A drive down to the valley to the town of Taos opens up many more options. The Love Apple, housed in a former Catholic church built in the 1800s, emphasizes organic home cooking. (803 Paseo del Pueblo Norte; theloveapple.net.)