America's Favorite Secret Stash
Story by Rob Story / Photographs by Lee Cohen
Just about every writer, blogger, and Instagrammer who visits Taos Ski Valley notes the famous “DON’T PANIC!” sign at the base area.
- December 17, 2013
- Taos, New Mexico
- Acres: 1,294
- Verical: 3,274
- Snowfall: 305"
- Info: skitaos.org
It is indeed a fine notice, a retro reassurance to timid flatlanders gobsmacked by the imposing steepness of New Mexico’s Sangre de Christos. An arrow points at the face of Al’s Run on a map and the sign instructs, “DON’T PANIC! YOU’RE LOOKING AT ONLY 1/30 OF TAOS SKI VALLEY. WE HAVE MANY EASY RUNS TOO!”
Thing is, the DON’T PANIC! sign isn’t even the cheekiest notice erected by management. No, that honor goes to Slim Slidell. Positioned directly below Lift 2, Slim is a dummy complete with skiwear, boots, and a helmet. Next to Slim’s prone, frostbitten lifelessness is a red plywood board with white letters advising, SLIM SLIDELL SAYS: “KNOW HOW TO SELF ARREST!”
SLIM SLIDELL SAYS:
"KNOW HOW TO SELF ARREST!"
- 1. Feet Downhill
- 2. Dig in with hands & feet
- 3. Stop Yourself Before You Can't!
It’s day four of a recent trip to Taos. Though Lift 2 has ferried my Gore-Texed caboose a dozen times by now, I always scope the late, great Slim Slidell. You gotta love a resort like Taos: Killing a customer in effigy is something the MBAs at Vail would never, ever do.
Besides, the dummy’s wisdom is not only sound but also necessary in these parts. His faux corpse resides near the top of the ski area’s lift-served terrain—just beneath Taos’s legendary steeps that cause helpless, rag-dolling yard sales.
With Slim’s words fresh between our ears, James Seymour and I push off the upper terminal of the lift and skate toward the lung-compressing bootpack to Highline Ridge and West Basin Ridge. A waiter at Tim’s Stray Dog Cantina, Seymour has lived in Taos since 1989. Like Taos, he seems like something out of a hot tub time machine. “I moved here with a girl in 1989 to come down off a Grateful Dead tour,” he says. “I had no intention to stay, but shit happens and…”
We click out of our bindings, shoulder our skis, and start huffing up the bootpack (which, given its start at 11,819 feet, would tweak various blood and capillary functions even if it was flat, which it most certainly is not). Taos had hike-to terrain before hike-to terrain was an amenity. From the top of the bootpack, we can head up, up, and up to 12,481 feet (the apex of landmark Kachina Peak). Or we can wrap around West Basin to some of the tightest, most precipitous chutes in the Rockies. After four days in Taos, I should be accustomed to hiking at this altitude, but it still makes me feel like I’m sucking oxygen-deficient air through a very thin straw.
Seymour—fit, with long-striding legs—takes pity and waits at the junction of the ridges. As I attempt to breathe more evenly (like, say, a ski mountaineer instead of a pervert), Seymour talks of local legend Jean Mayer. A native Frenchman who built the resort’s iconic St. Bernard Hotel in 1960, Mayer has directed the ski school for decades. He’s renowned for urging skiers to plant both poles at the same time. Sure, double pole-plants look wrong in most settings, but they almost make sense on the steeps of Taos, where it’s important to stay forward, over your tips, and where every appendage may be utilized for self-arrest.
“Jean,” says Seymour, “is like lots of 70-year-olds around here: He looks way better skiing than walking.” Instead of idling away his golden years, Mayer thrives in the Sangres by embracing a Taos-worthy mantra. “Jean always tells people, ‘Amplify your relaxation!’”
I like that. It sounds a little new agey, but appropriate all the same. Like the Third Commandment of Taos. Perhaps you can master this place if you simply DON’T PANIC!, KNOW HOW TO SELF ARREST!, and AMPLIFY YOUR RELAXATION!
A whopping 51 percent of its trails are rated expert. One might be tempted to call Taos macho—but, no, macho doesn’t fit. Not in a place where Anglo, Hispanic, and Native cultures harmoniously blend. Not in a place where famous Navajo artist R.C. Gorman painted bright portraits of Native American women. And not in a place where spirituality is celebrated everywhere from the 1,000-year-old Taos Pueblo to Kachina Peak, where Tibetan prayer flags guide hiking skiers in howling whiteouts.
According to some, Taos is a sacred repository of earth power. Between yesterday’s Indian shamans and today’s crystal-clutchers, there’s been an almost continuous train of lofty consciousness here (despite the best attempts of the Manifest Destiny-charged U.S. Army to mow it down). To ski Taos is to accept the whole ball of aromatherapy candle wax: the bumper stickers urging “Random Acts of Kindness” and “Love Your Mother (Earth)”; the practice of giving infants names like “Creek”, “Sky”, or “Chandra Rain”; the Rastafarian coffee baristas who move and speak with the half-beat delay of claymation figures. Taos must be the only resort to mention “mysticism” in its marketing materials.
At one point, during the Age of Aquarius influx of white hippie chicks, six rambling communes sprang up in the Taos Valley. But the practice of occupying a rad building with dozens of friends goes back a long way here. The Taos Pueblo was built around 1000 A.D. It’s the oldest continuously inhabited town in the U.S. The Spanish conquistadors wasted no time joining the party, overthrowing Pueblo Indian villages and establishing Fernandez de Taos in 1615—a full half-decade before the Mayflower arrived.
In terms of history, Taos blows away every other North American ski town—even those precious New England hamlets that think they’re so quaint. Still, my traveling partner, photographer Lee Cohen, insists on likening Taos to his home mountain of Alta. “This place is chill,” he notes, then compares the ski valley’s tight canyon, small access road, and old buildings to the grand dame of the Wasatch. Of course I point out to Lee that Taos doesn’t have 1.1 million people sideswiping each other at the bottom of the access road. Instead, just 5,700 souls occupy the valley. Until recently, the 40 percent non-Hispanic whites included such divergent personalities as Donald Rumsfeld and Dennis Hopper (who lived in the New Buffalo commune and is now buried here). Five percent of Taoseños (the absurdly pretty name for the town’s inhabitants) are Native American, far outnumbered by Hispanics, who make up 51 percent of the populace.
The newest, most controversial demographic? Snowboarders. Taos Ski Valley infamously banned single-plankers long before founder Ernie Blake’s death in 1989, through snowboarding’s ludicrous cash-cow boom in the 90s, all the way till 2008. Tensions grew.
Oppressed snowboarders printed great numbers of FREE TAOS stickers. Sarcastic skiers altered them to FREE TACOS.
When marketing manager Adriana Blake (Ernie’s granddaughter) announced the knuckle-dragging armistice, she got 941 emails, most of them negative. Patrons screamed that Ernie was rolling over in his grave.
Four years in, snowboarders account for only 18 percent of visitors. But they’ve invigorated the customer base: “The median age of people hanging out in Taos Valley has fallen 15 years,” Adriana estimates.
The mountain’s emancipation proclamation has been unquestionably good for business. For one thing, the old SNOWBOARDING IST VERBOTEN ethos did nothing to sell tickets. Unlike the skiers-only resorts Alta and Deer Valley, Taos simply couldn’t afford to ignore snowboarders. Adriana notes that Dallas alone supplies 15 percent of TSV customers. “They drive here with their kids and their kids snowboard—and we absolutely have to keep that audience.”
It looks nothing like an alpine village, or even a Colorado resort pretending to be an alpine village. Sage and, yes, red willows dominate Taos proper, which is built around a traditional Spanish plaza. Downtown, venerable hotels and cramped watering holes date from the 1900s development of the Taos artist colony. (Check out Doc Martin’s bar in the Taos Inn: Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper once stumbled out of here and got into a scrap that ended in gunplay.)
Blake founded Taos Ski Valley in 1954-55, after a stint with the fabled 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army. He chose the basin after seeing how well this fold of the Sangre de Cristos held snow.
The tidy base village contains a few classics like the St. Bernard, with its big sunny deck and delectable green chile burgers. Alongside sits Nixon-era architecture that should have long hence attracted aesthetic arsonists. The family-owned ski area has considered plans to spiff up the base, but don’t expect big changes anytime soon. As Alejandro Blake (Adriana’s brother and special events coordinator) puts it, “New Mexico is not so much the Land of Enchantment as the Land of Mañana.”
That enchantment schtick has lots to do with the ethereal light of the Southern Rockies. In the scattered alpenglow and long shadows of winter, it’s easy to see how the local interplay of atmosphere and landscape inspired an artists colony, and why Robert Redford insisted on filming The Milagro Beanfield War here. Lakes and rivers make up only .002 percent of New Mexico’s total surface area—the lowest water-to-land ratio of all 50 states. This stat tells us the Land of Enchantment is a lousy place to own a speedboat. Also, that the concept of “humidity” barely exists here. The skies above Taos appear indigo blue. The sun shines uncommonly bright, so much so that skiers squint behind even the darkest goggles.
The day I hoof the Ridge with Seymour begins with a fat, spring storm. Eight inches of fresh blankets the base. Out-of-state SUVs spin into the ditches. It’s the biggest weekend of the year: the start of spring break for most schools in Texas.
While the students engage in a massive scavenger hunt, the locals kick steps up to double-diamond stashes. As Seymour discusses the “amplify your relaxation” mantra, storm clouds abruptly sprint away. A melodramatic late-season sun douses the entire ski area in light.
Because we’ve already railed it, we ski past Stauffenberg, one of the best known chutes, which Ernie Blake named after the doomed Nazi officer who plotted the death of Hitler and was later played in the movie Valkyrie by the unconvincingly German Tom Cruise.
We traverse through an alley of arched conifers toward an unofficial but well-known chute with an old Mexico name: Cuervo. The chute plunges down a sheer face of West Basin. If it’s not the steepest pitch at Taos, it must be close. It’s hardly wider than a coffin at its crux. Seymour goes first. He executes a series of tight, perfect hop turns, as if he’s been doing this since…well, 1989, when he came off that Dead tour with that girl. I’m disappointed that he doesn’t double pole-plant.
Seymour jerks downward, out of sight, inhaled by gravity and enchanting light. I slink up to the couloir’s lip. No doubt it’s the steepest pitch I’ve attempted all year. I’m quite sure I’ll bash a tip into a rock. As usual in steep chutes, I clench up, and over-turn—leaving me way too perpendicular to the fall line. Still, I’m relatively calm. I do KNOW HOW TO SELF ARREST!, after all, so I DON’T PANIC! Instead, I release my edges, drop in, and AMPLIFY THE BEJESUS OUT OF MY RELAXATION.