“When in doubt, go higher.” That’s my favorite cliché. And Taos Ski Valley’s about to crank up a new lift that definitely goes higher—up to 12,450’—just shy of the Kachina Peak summit. Otherwise, it’s a sublime hike, but strenuous. Few students are willing to take on the hour-long ski-toting trek over a rocky spine in order to experience the sweepingly open Kachina Bowl. TSV’s 96-year-old co-founder Rhoda Blake sums up just how it was: “It was an adventure.” It’s a life altering perspective and not just because you can gaze off across the Spanish Peaks.(My last client has set his sights on the Himalayas.)
For many, Taos Ski Valley itself is a life altering experience. Thirty instructors who taught for visionary founder Ernie Blake remain; he died in 1989. “It was such fun at first, when it was small,” says Rhoda. “It was just one big family. Ernest was too good at PR; then it got big.”
Trying to take a clue from Rhoda’s practical, adaptive philosophy, we too, remain, sucked in by the Ski Valley’s centrifugal force, molding the rest of our lives around that central core of high-altitude fun.
A few years after Ernie died, I was a newly arrived ex-ski instructor with three kids in tow myself. I went back to work; they went out to play. My six-year old skied Al’s by himself, which earned me the bad mothering award in some circles, but not Rhoda’s. She skied down it herself carrying a small child between her legs.
Each of my own sons has worked at TSV, making it a family business as it has for the Blakes for more than half a century—until now. Intimate and idiosyncratic TSV may have a reputation for its passionate skiers and finally, boarders who love the steeps, its highly touted instruction, and one other thing: An enormous cast of real characters.
This community celebrates diversity nonexistent in places like Vail, but they can boast about ten times our skier numbers. TSV aspires to be no one but itself. Even so, 20 years ago, there were about 30 percent more skier days than now, and that needs to change. Will possessing one of the highest lifts in North America (increasing our skiable lift-served terrain 50 percent) turn the tide?
The ridiculous, elitist, consumerist sport known as skiing does not have to be that way, nor was it, especially in our little pseudo-Tyrolean village. We had genuine European roots that harkened back to the likes of Swiss German Ernie Blake, Frenchman Jean Mayer (still our technical director) and so many others. Rhoda recalls living in a 16-foot trailer in the early years and carrying small kids to the outhouse. Once, a stuck door made her land outside on her head. Peter, the littlest, said, “Mommy, do that again.”
Together Ernie and Rhoda crafted the place with an absurdist vision to build a ski area out of nothing but thin air, altitude and plenty of attitude. Ernie got the fact that “geography is destiny.” Flying in his Cessna with Pete Totemoff, Ernie discovered the bones of a great ski area where everyone else saw sheer folly. Rhoda, who had grown up in New York City, loved this “relaxed” place.
Ernie made a good front man, his antics drawing true believers to a place anyone with a brain knew was too steep and too far from everything. All was not sweetness and light. There were fistfights and firings, oft-told tales chronicled in Rick Richard’s history The Ski Pioneers. By 1957 they installed a Poma lift up Al’s run. Rhoda, having worked at an airplane factory in the war, mounted leftover ski troop skis in a back room as rentals, which they bought for a buck a pair from Fort Hale. “Everyone did everything,” she said. She taught skiing, she raised kids, she fixed stuff, and she cooked for their many guests. “I’m a terrible cook,” she admits.
Now enter new owner Louis Bacon, with a reputation as a dedicated conservationist, true Taos aficionado (who already owned real estate in the ‘hood) and perhaps most importantly, very deep pockets. He is a media-avoidant expert skier who has said that his vision for TSV will be “a balancing act”—a pithy definition of skiing after all. But can he still ski under the radar while owning the whole damn mountain? (Actually, the Forest Service grants permits).
And what will he say the first time there’s a powder day and they crank up the iconic new lift on our old iconic mountain? I know what I’d say: “I get first tracks.” Actually, that falls to the ski patrol.
It’s a bittersweet brave new world. But Rhoda says, “I think it’ll be great. Everything changes.” She takes careful aim, lighting up another cigarette, and inhales. She tells me that she hasn’t skied since the eighties because she can’t see well enough to ski fast enough “and that’s not fun.” She won the only ski race she says she ever entered. Her love of speed is legendary, especially driving. She was known to beat Ernie’s Porsche with her Chevelle. A tough mom who carried kids up the Ski Valley road if they got stuck, she couldn’t let anything stop her. When she saw a driver in the road with both doors open putting on chains, she’d gun it. “You should see how fast they’d get out of the way,” she says with a little smile.
This year I’m psyched about taking clients to Kachina Bowl who otherwise might not get there, but whom I know can ski it. It’s quite easy—well, for a double black (expert run).
There are other changes afoot, too, like renovating the base area and planning for a lift up to the lovely Wild West, right now a hike-only and entirely danceable 60 acres. Plenty of other hiking-only terrain yet remains.
So…when in doubt, go higher. And now, oftener.
Longtime Taos Ski Valley ski instructor Dr. Michele Potter’s motto is “Skiing is life; the rest is waiting.” While waiting, she renovates houses, teaches at UNM Taos, and writes.