Spring 2002
breakthroughonskis.com   
skitravel

   

Taos:
powder with a
southwestern accent
   
Taos offers the finest skiing in northern New Mexico, but I confess, only for advanced and expert skiers. Taos is no mountain for wimps, nor is it very attractive to beginners, novices or psychologically timid intermediate skiers. And in this sense Taos is an old-time ski area. Modern commercial logic would rule out developing an area that caters to experts rather than modest intermediates.

No, Taos isn't totally an experts-only mountain, although the trail map admits unabashedly that 51% of the runs are black diamond or harder. Yes, there are intermediate trails and even beginner slopes here. But Taos can intimidate the daylights out of you if you aren't a strong skier. It is relentless. Some green runs here would be blues in Colorado, some blues blacks. And no matter where you are on this dense, high-energy mountain - even skiing the gentlest slopes Taos has to offer - you will be next to, or just below, or just above really fierce runs, slopes that are so steep and demanding that there are only two possible reactions. You can feel oppressed and lose heart, or else be totally inspired by so much challenging skiing all around you.

“Challenging” tells you something but not much. You’re probably asking: what kind of a mountain is Taos really? (I do hope locals will forgive my calling a ‘mountain’ what they refer to as a ‘ski valley.’ Indeed all over New Mexico ski areas are referred to as ‘ski valleys.’ Taoseños are always saying things like “Let’s go up to the Valley.” And this strange locution that insists on referring to mountains as valleys wasn’t coined yesterday; the Spanish name for the big snowpeak that dominates the Taos skyline is Vallecito or “little valley.”)

Taos has received so much good press over the years, that I don’t think I need to describe it blow by blow. Instead, let me describe my Taos. For me Taos is a secret mountain, one that reveals itself to patient suitors layer by layer, run by run. The discovery quotient is particularly high here. Driving up a dark and narrow canyon to the Ski Valley one can’t imagine where the skiing is. In fact, from the ski area base most people still can’t imagine where the skiing is, since only one major slope is visible, Al’s Run, a steep mogul-mined brute, stretching straight up and out of sight. Out of sight is where you’ll find a lot of Taos skiing, literally and figuratively.

Take the “High Traverse” right (west) from the top of chair 6 and have an adventure before you even turn downhill. This traverse is narrow snaking path, festooned in small loops across a mountain face cut by gullies, strengthened by steep ribs. Every forty or fifty feet a new view opens (straight up, straight down) and the run behind you disappears from sight. Keep going, past the forested chutes of Reforma, Blitz and Oster and out into the open. The high traverse only gets steeper, the focus narrower: you hold your breath sidestepping around corners above cliffs into Fabian, Stauffenberg or Zdarsky. Here you see, ski and live one chute at a time. A simplified universe with one commandment: Don’t fall! Which can also be translated as: Don’t blow your first turn. Taos is not all a test, but a lot of it is, was for me. I think I passed.

   
After a couple of days acclimating to this level of commitment and intensity two wonderful things happened. Caution began to evaporate into pure pleasure; and great black storm clouds rumbled across the high Rio Grande plateau. Lightning and snow began at the same time. Powder day tomorrow, we told ourselves, and powder day it was. The steep secret nature of Taos terrain lets you make new tracks run after run, if you don’t mind trees; and by now I didn’t mind anything. Sector by sector the patrol opened the mountain and we followed; but we kept looking up at the Ridge, a ten-minute hike above the top lifts, and a world away. (This high ridge drops down from Kachina Peak and snakes along above the entire Taos ski area, defining the area’s upper boundary. On the trail map it is divided in two: Highline Ridge on the Kachina Peak side, and West Basin Ridge to the west—but to locals it’s just the Ridge.) In-bounds off-piste I’d call it…when it’s open.

And finally, there I was, stomping up the hill toward the Ridge behind patroller Ed Jaramillo, an invitation you can’t turn down. On top of Upper Spitfire (a steep slab of drifted velvet) local hispanic courtesy prevails and Jaramillo offers me first tracks. Another invitation one can’t refuse…although one might suffocate in this powder, drifted in waist deep but still feather light. After a couple of surprise braille turns I come to the surface and breathe, realize that all systems are still working, still skiing, and S my way down toward the High Traverse below. Ecstatic. I look up, and honestly, I think the watching was as great as the skiing. My friends coming down carry great clouds of backlit powder behind them, twice as tall as they are, like Renaissance angels falling off a Michelangelo ceiling. Ed looks like he lives in this stuff, which he does. Graceful Dana Brienza, ski shop owner and ski-tuner extraordinaire, improvises a ballet without choreography. Tall, skinny and cool, Ken Gallard, Mr. Taos ski photo, skis it casual and intense at the same time. This is it, I think, this is the slow-mo powder fantasy come to life, as good as it gets. And that’s only one half of my Taos. Because the other half is down below the canyon - the adobe hospitality of a remarkable town.

But that's another story for another day. The rest is all memories. Viva Taos! Viva Nuevo Mexico!

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 Spring 2002
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© Linde Waidhofer
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© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.