Taos Ski Valley Turns 60
By Andy Dennison
History attaches to place.
And nowhere is this truer than at Taos Ski Valley (TSV). The reminders of its past are constant, and each is linked to a spot in and around this mountain that so many love to return to each winter.
So, as you glide around Taos Ski Valley, know that you are joining in a long parade of people whose love of the area runs as deep as the powder stashes in the cirques of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
The Mine Slide
Before you even get out of the car, a wide-open slag slash up the valley comes into view. It’s a reminder of days gone by when this valley was first settled in the 1800s around the Twining gold and copper deposits. Envision miners’ tents, cabins and even a grocery store. Copper eventually dominated, and New Jersey banker Albert Twining financed a smelting mill. The copper lode petered out in the early 1900s. Fortune-seekers moved on.
Lift No. 1
Taos Ski Valley began right here. Ernie and Rhoda Blake founded the resort in 1955. The original lift line on the hill, a J-bar and then a Poma lift, carried skiers up to what is now the Snakedance run. In 1957, a Poma went all the way to the top, and Al’s Run officially opened — tighter than today with glades of trees. The Poma also gave skiers access to newly cut Porcupine and Longhorn. Four years later, crews used the Poma to haul concrete to pour tower foundations for the mountain’s first chair. Today’s Lift No. 1 gives skiers and ‘boarders a close look at the early days of skiing at Taos Ski Valley.
Hotel St. Bernard
Frenchman Jean Mayer came at Blake’s invitation to start the TSV Ski School and ended up building the first real hotel in the valley (supplanting Hondo Lodge where wealthy Texans brought their concubines and drank their whiskey). Named after the patron saint of skiing, the hotel began as a restaurant and bar in 1958. Quite rapidly, a second floor with eight rooms went up in, then the A-frames and the Alpenhof — all completed by 1962. The view of Al’s and Sundance from the sundeck is the same as it was then. Order the cheese fondue downstairs and embrace the French haute-cuisine that has been a key part of “Saint B’s” appeal for nearly six decades.
Ernie Blake Ski School
“The best instructor at Taos was the mountain itself.” This quote confirms Blake’s belief that a top ski school was essential to help people enjoy the steep, challenging terrain at TSV. The ski school at Taos Ski Valley has always bragged that they can get you on the main mountain quicker than any. Jean and his brother, Dadou Mayer, started it. They advocated a composite skiing style of both the controversial parallel “Austrian” technique and the snowplow-and-stem turn Alberg teaching style. Learn-to-Ski Weeks started right from the start, providing the very same intensive, get-you-on-the-hill instruction that can be had today.
With Al’s Run and Sundance, Longhorn is among the iconic trails off the front side of TSV. Reached either by a short hike from the top of Lift No. 1 or through a gate at the top of Zagava, Longhorn rivals Al’s for a thigh-burning vertical and closely resembles a New England trail with its heavy forests, winding route and periodic steep pitches. Mother Nature took care of clearing the trail as Longhorn sits on an avalanche slide area. Crews mostly had to clear avalanche debris to get it open before 1960.
‘Round the world
Once lifts ran to the top of the front side in the mid-1960s, a whole new world opened up. Wheeler Peak Ridge, Kachina Peak and the upper La Cal Basin spread out to the south and east. What Ernie Blake saw was a chance to replicate the European skiing experience right here in New Mexico. When you stop at the Phoenix Restaurant or The Bavarian Lodge and Restaurant, imagine a full mountain village. That’s what Blake saw and named it Taos Meadows (later changed to Kachina Village) — complete with 300 beds, restaurants and bars, and a new chairlift up to the base of Kachina Bowl. Moreover, Blake envisioned that skiers could swoosh from one village to the next like in the Alps. Alas, the Forest Service nixed the idea, but Lift No. 4 went up anyway in 1971.
Highline Ridge/Kachina Peak
Early photos of Blake often show him with skis resting on his shoulder on “The Ridge.” Many see the 4,000-foot hike from the top of Chair No. 2 to the 12,481-foot summit of Kachina Peak as the reason why Taos Ski Valley is different. From Juarez Bowl to Trescow and Twin Trees, then on up above the treeline to the K Chutes and on to the top, the vastness of Alpine terrain is impressive. In the 1960s, there’s evidence that Blake was talking about putting a lift up to Kachina — not only for the skiing but, equally as important, to give his guests a scenic eye-full of the mountain he so loved. In 2014, some 25 years after his death, the bullwheel began turning for a chairlift up the face of Kachina Bowl.
Timeline: Lifts at Taos Ski Valley
Over the past 60 years, more than a dozen lifts have gone in at Taos Ski Valley, each providing easier access to the mountain’s terrain. Some have since been replaced with more modern versions. Here’s a look at what went in and when:
1955-56: A J-bar surface like, called a Ski-Kuli, services 300 vertical feet up Al’s Run to serve Snakedance run.
1956: T-bar replaces J-bar and extends to a 1,000 vertical.
1957: Poma goes to top of Al’s Run — reportedly steepest Poma lift in the world. Second Poma installed on beginner’s hill.
1961: First chairlift replaces main Poma
1965: Chair 5 goes in on lower front side.
1970: Chair 3 starts up on Strawberry Hill beginner slope.
1971: What is now Chair 4 is installed on back side.
1976: Chair 6 goes in to the top.
1984: Chair 7 adds lift-access terrain on back side.
1989: First chair gets upgrade with current Lift No. 1.
1990: Chair 7A transports skiers from back to front.
1991: Rueggli beginner lift installed.
1995: Chair 2 goes in alongside Chair 5.
2014: Kachina Lift rises up Kachina Bowl.
Season Dates: Nov. 24-April 2, lifts operate 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily
Average Annual Snowfall: 305 in.
Average Days of Sunshine: 300+
Number of Runs: 110
24 percent beginner
25 percent intermediate
51 percent expert
Number of Lifts: 15
4 quad chairs
3 triple chairs
5 double chairs
3 surface lifts
Terrain Parks: 1
Base Elevation: 9,207 ft.
Vertical Drop: 3,274 ft.
Snowmaking: Yes, 100 percent of beginner and intermediate runs.
Information: (866) 968-7386; skitaos.org