In the resort of Taos, a hard-core skier's preserve, the old world is giving way to the new
With the triple-chair Kachina Peak lift opening vast powder terrain, a long-delayed modernization will ensure the future.. But some call the changes a tragedy and say they'll never ski Taos again
Dadou and Jean Mayer operate the Hotel St. Bernard as they always have. Skiers arrive on the weekend, take lessons, share laughs each evening over a hot-chocolate mixture of rum, Kahlua and bourbon while watching videos of themselves on the slopes, dine on chef-prepared cuisine in the cozy, dark restaurant with the open copper-covered fireplace, hit the sack, do it over again next day.
"That's the way we've been doing it all our lives," says Dadou, the wrinkles on his face personifying a life of hard work and good times spent outdoors. "There's nothing different. It keeps us really alive, and in good shape. It's our passion and we wouldn't have it any other way."
Founded in 1960, the St. Bernard stands as a symbol of Taos Ski Valley's past as the resort village embarks on a long-delayed modernization to ensure its future. Billionaire Louis Bacon, founder of the hedge fund Moore Capital Management, purchased the ski resort in December, 2013, from the family of the original owner, Ernie Blake. While pledging to retain Taos's soul, he immediately opened vast powder terrain by installing the triple-chair Kachina Peak lift, and is now constructing a modern hotel/condominium at the base. Change comes slowly to Taos, one of the last holdouts against snowboards, and not everyone is thrilled.
There's a sense of timelessness in the area around the ski resort in northern New Mexico. Nearby, the Rio Grande River rumbles through a splendid gorge carved by thousands of years of erosion. Each Christmas Eve, the native Taos Pueblo tribe honours ancient rituals in ceremonies. The undisturbed, raw beauty of the high desert drew artists Georgia O'Keeffe, Ansel Adams, D.H. Lawrence and Martha Graham, among many others, and the landscape art they helped to inspire is today displayed in galleries on a street named after Kit Carson, a Wild West frontiersman born in 1809.
Even from the windows of the Taos Mesa Brewery – beside a boutique airport that bans jets – the view at sunset transfixes visitors today as it did when Lawrence resided on a local ranch in the late 1920s: cacti and junipers on red clay extending seemingly forever into the horizon. "The greatest compliment we've had," says Peter Kolshorn, sustainable builder and Montreal-born part-owner of the microbrewer, "is from an old-timer telling us we've recaptured the spirit of Taos. We're not trying to do something slick."
The ski area, a half-hour drive up the Rio Hondo Canyon from the town, clung proudly under Blake's ownership to a reputation as the hard-core skier's preserve. Its loyalists cherish the area with the same reverent spirit as do self-assigned protectors of Banff National Park. At the base of Lift 1, with the thigh-burning, mogul-packed Al's Run in the background, an infamous tattered wooden sign attempts, perhaps unsuccessfully, to persuade intermediate-level skiers of the joy ahead: "Don't panic! You're looking at only 1/30 of Taos Ski Valley. We have many easy runs too."
Rooted in the past, Taos paid a steep cost for stagnation. By banning snowboards to preserve the powder for skiers, Blake forced many customers to heed the wails of their offspring. They fell into the welcoming arms of resorts such as Vail, Aspen, Telluride and Snowbird, causing lodges in the village to deteriorate and ultimately shut down. Finally, on March 19, 2008, Blake relented to boarders in order to avoid bankruptcy. (Alta and Deer Valley in Utah and Mad River Glen in Vermont are the only resorts left in North America that still forbid snowboards.)
KATE RUSSELL/THE NEW YORK TIMES
"The day they opened the mountain to snowboarding, it was the most monumental, wild thing," says Tim Maez, an art dealer in downtown Taos who worked part-time in a ski shop back then. "That parking lot was packed with VW vans, little trucks with camping shells, all filled with young people who had spent the night, freezing, I'm sure. At 7:30, there was a huge line, all boarders, waiting for the lift. And when they opened at 9, the roar that went up was the most energetic and wild."
When it opened last season, the Kachina Peak (elevation: 3,804 metres) lift exposed 60 hectares of terrain previously exclusive to those with the energy and gumption to hike into virgin snow. Suddenly, Taos's legendary steeps, chutes, powder shots, cornices, bowls, glades and secret stashes could be reached by, well, anyone. In addition to the fleecy blanket of snow off the Kachina lift, skiers are treated to a spectacular view of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.
KATE RUSSELL/the New York Times
"A good friend, 70, 71 years old from Seattle, always wanted to ski Kachina but didn't have it in her to make the hike," Maez says. "She was so afraid they wouldn't open the lift in time, and the look in her eyes that day, she was just beaming."
Bacon, the new owner, keeps a winter home in Taos, and has pledged to renew the village without tainting its reputation as a terrific place to ski, as opposed to a destination for dining, drinking, shopping and maybe some time on the slopes. "Above all," he wrote to Skiing Magazine, "I don't want to screw up the experience of a challenging and fun mountain that caters to skiing enthusiasts as opposed to resort-goers."
Yet last spring, after a late dumping of snow and several frustrating days waiting for ski patrol to blast against avalanches before the Kachina lift could get moving, so many skiers packed the run beside the new lift that it looked like a busy Saturday at Blue Mountain in Collingwood, Ont. "A lift to Kachina – why?" someone wrote in a ski chat room. "Say bye-bye to peace."
Taos has attempted to appease the dedicated powderhounds by installing a gate in the traverse from Kachina Peak, warning anyone but experts from entering the challenging chutes. It's also improved the Wild West Glade, 30 hectares of quiet, secluded tree runs accessible by hike from Chair 2.
Whether hiking, using Kachina or staying true to the original runs blazed by Blake in the 1950s, Taos is a spectacular place to ski, offering a yearly average of 7.6 metres of dry snow and 300 days of turquoise sky and moderate temperatures. Of the nearly 526 in-bound hectares, 51 per cent of the trails are dedicated to experts. Fair warning: You should be in good aerobic shape. Even at the base elevation, 2,805 metres, oxygen is precious.
"There are holdouts against Kachina, people who say it's a tragedy and [they] will never ski Taos again," Kolshorn, the brewer, says. "But it's definitely created an energy. People are excited to go to the peak and access those trails. They had to do something to encourage people to come here."
D.H. Lawrence, a two-year resident of Taos in the 1920s, wrote of the area: "In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico, one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly and the old world gave way to the new."
Lawrence wrote from the perspective of an Old World Englishman. In Taos, the new embraces the old. In town on the Plaza, D.H. Lawrence's Forbidden Art (paintings confiscated by London police in 1929) remains on display in the Hotel La Fonda. Also remaining: the stained-glass windows Lawrence painted in the restored Los Gallos estate of Mabel Dodge Sterne Luhan, an arts patron who moved from New York and married a Taos Pueblo man. And the Los Gallos bedroom used by Dennis Hopper when filming the 1969 classic, Easy Rider, is preserved.
At St. Bernard ski lodge, the quaint slice of Austrian architecture in an area otherwise dotted with adobe buildings, owner Dadou says: "We are still keeping the atmosphere the way it was in the beginning – no TV in the rooms."
But at the new condo being built immediately beside the St. Bernard, it's safe to say rooms will come equipped with WiFi and televisions.
"This luxury-type hotel is going to change the clientele," Dadou acknowledged. "We have the real down-to-earth skier families; grandchildren and great-grandchildren of actual first guests still coming to ski and taking lessons. But progress comes, whether you want it or not. Mr. Bacon loves nature and this is almost a hobby for him. He's got the money to do the things that need doing here. The proof of it is Kachina."
The name of that hotel-condo? The Blake.
IF YOU GO
There are no direct flights to Albuquerque or Santa Fe from Canada; connections are ordinarily made through Denver and Dallas.
Shuttle service to Taos Ski Valley is $125 (U.S.) round trip a person from Albuquerque and $100 from Santa Fe.
The 2016 season ends on April 3.
Where to stay
Much of the accommodation is located along the road to Taos, a walk or short drive away. Four-day lift tickets are offered on the website, skitaos.org, at fluctuating prices, depending on advance purchase and travel dates, ranging upwards from $195.
Ski-and-stay packages are offered at skitaos.org, ranging from $193 a person a night; the popular Kandahar condominiums ($362/night) are ski-in ski-out. The family-friendly Edelweiss condominiums ($230-$770/night, before lift fee) are also ski-in ski-out.
The town of Taos presents a wide range of accommodation options and the luxurious El Monte Segrado ( elmontesegrado.com) is now offering ski-and-stay and ski-and-spa packages.
What to eat
Food is predominantly Tex-Mex, and when wait staff ask, "Red or green?" they want to know which type of chili you would like to flavour the meal.