Taos – A Family Ski Adventure
The most intriguing developments in the downhill winter resort business has been the decline in the number of skier-only venues and the ease with which ski technology has improved the finesse of somewhat mediocre skiers.
There are only three resorts in America that bar snowboarders: Deer Valley, Alta and Taos. By March 19, 2008, Taos will not be in that group.
We took a family trip to Taos to see what the introduction of boarders will do to the tradition-rich Taos Ski Valley resort. And we were able to experience first hand the wonderful developments in ski technology.
Taos is a rugged mountain, and during your first visit you understand the warning sign posted at the base. As you look up the narrow, steep and mogul-ridden lift ride, the sign essentially says ‘Don’t Panic – you are only looking at a fraction of the mountain available to you.’
Indeed, a several day exploration of TSV revealed that there are myriad delightful runs, and there is certainly no ‘grade inflation’ when it comes to classifying the runs at Taos. In other words, the blue runs at Taos could be blacks in other places.
While not a place that seems like the logical first stop for a ski beginner, much like playing against a better tennis player, each skier at Taos comes away challenged and thereby a better a skier.
Taos is a destination that requires a degree of commitment. Most folks will fly into Albuquerque, and rent a car for the three hour drive north to Taos. We chose Hertz, partly for the NeverLost navigation system and mostly for the Nick on the Go feature, about which our daughters dutifully and delightedly informed us. The feature consists of a tablet size touchscreen, preloaded with shows like “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Rugrats.” Our daughters have grown through “Dora the Explorer” and “Blue’s Clues,” so they opted for “The Fairly OddParents” and “Zoey 101.” Nick on the Go indeed made the roadtrip to and from Taos more expedient as our daughters were satiated with the myriad Nickelodeon episodes on offer. But like parents everywhere, we found ourselves in competition with the unit when coming across a glorious vista unfolding through the car windows. The perennial balance of screen time (which of course comes with all sizes of screens) has migrated to include the home, the car and everywhere in between. The unit provided a sharp picture, with easy navigability and decent sound. Although fully portable, we decided not to bring it into our lodge.
One of more delightful and recurring images at Taos is the family-centric nature of the resort. To amplify this aspect, we curtailed Nick on the Go in favor of poker games and hot chocolate contests après ski.
Taos was founded by Ernie Blake, a Swiss-German bon vivant and dashing Swiss fighter pilot. Blake’s obit will not soon be duplicated. Indeed, he was quoted as saying he hoped there is no reincarnation, because regardless of what his next life brought, it would be boring. As a young man Blake escaped the horrors of creeping European Nazism, and came to the USA in 1938 with $600. The US Army Intelligence enlisted him as a World War II interrogator of German rocket scientists, Himmler and Goering. Blake then leveraged his early prowess as a sportsman by organizing ski trips for NYC’s upper crust, first to New England and eventually into the west.
It was during those latter trips that he began fomenting plans for a ski destination in New Mexico. Blake flew and hiked and prospected with Pete Totemoff, an Aleut Indian from Alaska, until Blake decided on the outpost of a dusty town called Taos. The rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains provided just right mix of isolation and challenging ski terrain. At first, it was only Blake and a hardy group of friends willing to hike, climb and lurch their way to the top of the mountains in exchange for a run of virgin powder snow. Soon, however, an unstoppable force of American westward expansion deposited a helpful invention. Averell Harriman, the chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, sought to expand the reach of his iron rails by encouraging folks to reach ski resorts by train. The challenge of getting skiers then up the mountain after arriving was solved, according to Blake, by converting a mechanism originally used for unloading bananas from ships. The introduction of the chairlift opened the doors to slightly less hardy skiers, and the modern ski industry was born.
Taos offers a different experience than the wide open, corporately owned and managed resorts found elsewhere in the western US. Expansion around the Taos base has been kept to a minimum, and as a result it is easier for the resort to cap the number of skiers on the hill.
We barely waited in a lift line at Taos. Old timers describe how Blake would send his family members out to lift lines with hot chocolate to console folks perturbed at spending more than a few minutes waiting for lifts on a busy weekend. Three generations of Blakes remain involved in the management of Taos, and the family-centric feeling permeates the operation. For folks accustomed to a large, spit and polish ski resort with every last comfort and amenity, Taos may represent a too-rustic setting.
Our family, however, relished the intimacy and the warmth that permeated our Taos experience. The lift operators were friendly and helpful, and my quizzical visage outside the rental shop was met with a gentle inquiry from a passing staff member. The ski school, always a key factor in a happy family ski trip, was a hit with our kids. The classes were small and sufficiently challenging but with enough time for snack stops. No wonder the Taos ski school is top rated in the country. In other words, none of the supposedly Teutonic rigor of Blake’s ancestral demeanor was discerned!
The ratio of beginner to intermediate slopes is about 1:1, even if most runs from the ski lifts look like the backside of egg cartons. For those eschewing moguls, we found many glorious runs. The vistas were suitably amazing, and we were blessed with gorgeous weather. (The refrain of Pete Townshend’s lyrics ran through my head like a loop: “I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles”).
Most skiers by now have discovered that ski technology has improved the experience at every level of competence. Our rental equipment at Taos lived up to the promise; comfortable warm boots and parabolic skis are a far cry from my early days skiing. I am not old enough to recall wooden skis, but apparently Ernie Blake once scoffed at early fiberglass skis saying “People would never be willing to put on skis without the smell and feel of real hickory and tar.” One of his few missteps, apparently.
We saw one lone snowboarder during our mid February trip, it turns out he was hired to help ease the transition for snowboarders arriving in March. Taos will be spending about $35,000,000 over the next seven years to facilitate the transition. The decision to allow snowboarders at Taos is a direct result of the family-centric nature that makes the mountain so pleasant. More families were being turned away from Taos as a result of the snowboard ban. In keeping with Ernie Blake’s original goal of establishing a friendly place for families, his children and grandchildren decided to move forward with snowboarders to continue the tradition.
Our daughters are clamoring to move from skis to snowboarding, so I’ll report next year on how Taos has made the transition. No telling yet if I’ll venture then to the moguls.