Taos Forecast: Steep Upgrades

The most ambitious development project in the history of New Mexico’s most famous ski mountain is about to get under way. But can it grow the business without losing its soul?

At 12,481 feet, Kachina Peak is the highest point at Taos Ski Valley, and an impressive summit by any measure. The windswept pinnacle is marked by a large stone cairn and fluttering Tibetan prayer flags, and offers dazzling views as far north as Colorado. It’s not unusual to run into local celebrities on the peak, like 12-time Everest climber Dave Hahn (a Taos ski patroller), or former New Mexico governor and recent presidential candidate Gary Johnson (a ski fanatic and Taos resident). Standing atop Kachina inspires deep thoughts and dramatic gestures. A few years ago, a good friend of mine hiked to the summit with his girlfriend, produced a diamond ring from his pocket, and proposed. She replied with an enthusiastic yes.

For all of Kachina’s magic, however, the price of admission has always been high. Getting there requires a long, sometimes steep hike up a rocky ridge, all above 11,000 feet, skis perched on your shoulder. That arduous, crowd-thinning schlep is about to come to an end, however. If all goes according to Taos’s pending Master Development Plan, by fall 2014 a new quad chair will whisk skiers and snowboarders to the top. What used to take an hour on foot will require only a few minutes on a comfy seat.

The Main Street Lift, as it’s being called, is only one of several major projects slated for the mountain and expected to roll out over the next 10 years. Others include a new chair to the top of West Basin, new lifts to replace the current chairs 4 and 7, a dramatically overhauled base area, more lodging in the base village, some 150 acres of new runs, and new trails for summer mountain biking. It’s an upgrade that could cost as much as $20 million when it’s all done—the largest and most substantial investment since Taos Ski Valley opened for business, in the early 1950s. And it’s an effort to make Taos a major player among destination resorts in the western U.S.

“There’s not much debate internally about whether this needs to happen, but when,” says Chris Stagg, Taos Ski Valley’s vice president. “We have a great product, and we need to grow to stay competitive.”

Last March, I made the familiar drive north from Santa Fe, contouring the scenic Río Grande, to the Ski Valley for an up-close-and-personal preview of the Master Development Plan. Full disclosure: I am a longtime Taos regular and an unabashed fan. I’ve skied in every state west of Kansas, and I can say with confidence that Taos offers one of America’s unique and finest mountain experiences. Its runs rival the best big mountains, the snow’s drier than Utah’s, it’s sunnier than Colorado—and Taos makes better margaritas than Mexico. Taos has always been well known beyond state borders for its rustic European flair and abundance of challenging terrain—“taos: a four-letter word for steep,” goes a popular bumper sticker. And management hopes to build on that. I understood what the management at Taos has known for a long time: The hill has the goods to compete as a destination at the highest level, taking on the likes of Telluride, Crested Butte, even Jackson Hole.

On an overcast Friday morning I met up with Gordon Briner, TSV’s chief operating officer and a former ski-school instructor, to discuss the pending projects. In his office at the base of the mountain, Briner showed me some of the early drawings made by Taos founder Ernie Blake depicting what Blake envisioned the Ski Valley to look like. Sure enough, there was a crude sketch of the pending Main Street Lift, from a 1965 newspaper article.

“A chair on Kachina has always been part of the vision here,” Briner told me as we rode the lower lifts toward the Highline Ridge, the start of the trek to the top of Kachina. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until September 2012 that the Forest Service signed off on the Master Development Plan (the detailed proposal is available at skitaos.org), the last formal hurdle TSV needed to clear before they could lock down funding—a mix of loans and private investors—and break ground on the projects. When I visited late last season, it was still the same mountain I’d known for more than a decade—but momentum was gathering. Briner anticipated starting work on the Main Street Lift in summer 2014, and that the chair would be operational that fall.

“We were expecting a little pushback on the overall proposal,” he told me as we started up the ridge, “but the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.” He pointed out that the Ski Valley is one of the largest employers in Taos—some 700 locals work on the mountain—and that those opportunities would grow.

Climbing the ridge has long been a rite of passage at Taos, and locals tended to be protective about it. But Briner explained that the new lift would help the whole mountain function more efficiently. “After a big storm, we have to send five or six patrollers on a 60-minute walk with explosives on their back to do avalanche-control work. The new chair will whisk them up there in about five minutes.”

Improving control work on the upper slopes means the lower mountain would open more quickly as well, allowing crowds to disperse faster on fresh-snow days and alleviating some of the dreaded morning bottleneck—a problem locals jokingly chalked up to TSV’s charm but that visitors groused about. And in the fickle world of destination resorts, you simply can’t afford to alienate visitors; one bad experience and they might well book their next vacation in Aspen.

Late that morning, when we finally arrived, Briner and I had the peak to ourselves. He pointed out where the lift terminal would be located—not quite on the summit, but close. I was reminded just how much spectacular terrain exists here. Below us stretched a huge bowl, with trees to the right and some steeper, more extreme lines to our left. We schussed right down the middle, directly beneath where the new chair would run. Briner, a stellar skier, led the way, stopping occasionally to point out terrain features or the location of a future tower.

No doubt about it, Kachina is steep, advanced terrain, and the easiest line off the top, Main Street, is labeled black diamond—but it skis more like an advanced blue. The new lift will also allow for grooming Main Street using something called a winch-cat (a groomer tethered to a lift tower, for use on steep slopes). It was all going to give Taos a much bigger and more expansive feeling. I told Briner I was already salivating over future powder days. He just smiled, nodded, and pointed his skis toward the bottom.

We made a few more runs before I knocked off that afternoon and headed to the Blonde Bear Tavern, in the lobby of the Edelweiss Lodge and Spa, for an après beer. What the Ski Valley has in abundant untapped terrain it has long lacked in base-area amenities—at least compared to other A-list resorts in the region. But that’s changing, too, and the Edelweiss offered a glimpse of the future. The Blonde Bear Tavern has a more upscale and cosmopolitan vibe than the other watering holes in the base-area village, with a polished stone bar, leather stools, and a discriminating wine list.

“We want people to come and enjoy a meal in a warm atmosphere that has some sophistication, but that is still casual,” said John Mudder, Blonde Bear’s executive chef and a New York City transplant. “The Ski Valley is always going to have a laid-back attitude, and we don’t want to lose that.”

I stuck around for dinner at the Blonde Bear, where I was joined by Chris Stagg. I’d gotten to know him back in 2008, when Taos removed its infamous, long-standing ban on snowboarders—a move years in the making, and another indication that Taos was serious about embracing a broader clientele. There had been more uproar about the end of the skier-only rule than any pushback I’d yet heard about the Master Development Plan. That, too, seemed in keeping with Taos’s quirky character.

As I gorged myself on Mudder’s signature Boeuf Bourguignon and one too many glasses of pinot noir, Chris explained why Taos felt so much pressure to up its game. In a nutshell, while “skier days” (the metric used to measure business) remain flat nationwide, winter resorts continue to grow and expand, thus presenting many more options to the same number of skiers. Last season, Taos saw some 225,000 skier days—about half of the total of 500,000 for Jackson Hole, a main competitor in the “core skier” market, and less than regional rival Crested Butte’s 300,000.

“When I first started skiing at Jackson Hole, they did the same number of skier days as Taos,” Chris said. “Now they have an Aman resort [the ultra-luxurious and pricey Amangani]. You’re seeing this all over. There used to be only a few places to have a true resort experience around the West. Now there are 50.”

Stagg continued: “The question at Taos is whether no action is an alternative. We don’t feel that it is. We don’t have the amenities. We don’t have the beds. Last year, we lost the Thunderbird Hotel. We have to find a way to make it all work.”

After dinner, I walked the few hundred feet back to my room. It had started snowing earlier that afternoon, and now it was coming down with purpose. Several light inches were already on the ground, and I left a solitary track. I stopped for a few minutes to soak in the glorious muffled quiet you get only in the evening, when surrounded by a downy blanket of fresh snow. Back at the slopeside Hotel St. Bernard, I lay in bed and watched the snow fall even harder outside the window. The room had no TV, just a few quaint furnishings that evoked the Old World charm of a cozy auberge in the French Alps. It was one of the most peaceful moments I’ve had in recent memory, perfect in a way that seems more and more rare these days.

In the morning, I woke to nearly 18 inches of new snow. The guests at breakfast were in an effervescent mood, as was the owner and host of the St. Bernard, Jean Mayer, a local legend. A French expat, he was one of the original Taos skiers, and a close friend of the late Ernie Blake. Now over 70, he does double duty as an ebullient innkeeper and as the ski school’s technical director—the instructors’ instructor.

Mayer opened the St. B in 1963, and has been hosting full-featured “ski weeks” ever since. The packages include lodging, three gourmet meals a day, and daily lessons from Mayer and his expert staff. Meals are held family style, in the St. B’s dining room, where it’s not hard to imagine yourself in a mountain house on the Haute Route, or tucked into a cozy lodge at Val-d’Isèr. With prices starting around $2,000 per person, Mayer’s ski weeks aren’t cheap, but considering what you get, they are, without a doubt, one of best deals in the country. It’s a place where it’s not uncommon to meet families who’ve been coming nearly every winter for 40 years, adding generations as time goes by.

On our powder morning, Mayer himself circulated with a trayfull of crêpes.

“They’re French burritos!” he joked with the guests.

Before everyone stampeded out the door and over to the lift, just a few hundred feet away, Mayer and I sat by the crackling fireplace with coffee.

“Taos has always been about this kind of family experience,” he said. “Will it grow? Will it change? Of course. But this experience will remain. It’s special. It’s spiritual.”

Though the St. Bernard won’t be directly impacted by the MDP, much of the base area around it will be. The plan calls for a reengineered drop-off zone that would reroute parking-lot shuttles and deposit guests closer to Chair 1, the main access point to the hill. This would improve the presentation of the mountain, with an easy walk along a new promenade and views of the impressive Al’s Run.

The morning had the jittery excitement of a pending powder day, with a large crowd lined up at Lift 1 before it opened. Since I was staying so close, I had the good fortune of being near the front of the line, and zipped quickly over to Chair 2, which accesses the upper mountain and some of the classic runs: Reformer, Stauffenberg, and all the shots off Highline Ridge. But Chair 2 wasn’t running yet—ski patrol was doing avalanche control above—so I waited. And waited. And waited.

I couldn’t help but think that this was exactly the kind of experience Taos needs to improve if it’s going to become a viable alternative to places like Copper (Colorado) and Big Sky (Montana). Much of TSV’s old-world charm was an asset, a part of its character. But waiting in line is never fun, especially when the conditions are so prime.

When I finally got up the hill, I followed a patroller friend, Win, up Highline Ridge to an old favorite called Niños. We stood at the top grinning and looking down at the untracked snow. He jumped in and I followed right behind, skiing straight down in a whooping rush, the snow piling up and spilling over our shoulders. I collapsed at the bottom in an exhausted heap. Whatever annoyance I’d felt waiting at the chair had just vanished in billowing clouds of white crystal.

The day turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever had at any mountain. That night, with fitting serendipity, Taos Ski Valley was hosting its annual torchlight parade and fireworks show in honor of Ernie Blake. Employees invited me to ski in the parade, snaking down the face of the mountain in the dark, holding emergency flares. The snow was still soft and silky, turning orange in the firelight. We descended Showdown, on the front of the mountain, in a glowing line, weaving across the slope to a cheering crowd assembled at the base area below.

It felt like a homecoming, with my big, happy Taos family waiting for me at the bottom. A raucous party ensued at the Martini Tree Bar, the lounge on the top floor of the base lodge, spilling over later that night to the St. Bernard, which had a band playing. I lingered for a while. With all the shaggy hair, bushy mustaches, and worn flannel, it could have been 1977. Or 2007. The selfish side of me considered the Ski Valley perfect as it was—without pretense or flash or overpriced craft beers. But I knew, too, that it was silly and impractical to believe it wasn’t going to evolve. And that seemed fine, too.

“We know what makes Taos Taos,” Gordon Briner, the COO, had said to me the day before. “And we know we can grow in a way that preserves the family feeling and the character that’s always been here. We’re not going to become Vail. We’re going to become a better, more sustainable Taos.”

NEED TO KNOW

WHERE TO STAY

The Bavarian Lodge
Themed rooms like the King Ludwig and Lola Montez suites offer heavily stylized and luxuriously comfy rooms, with marble-accented baths, plush canopied beds, antiques, and historic paintings. Located at the base of the Hunziger Chair, about a mile from the mountain village. Breakfast included. (888) 205-8020; thebavarian.net

Edelweiss Lodge and Spa
Upscale, contemporary, ski-in, ski-out lodge in the heart of the mountain village. The Edelweiss also offers dining at its Blonde Bear Tavern and Café Naranja, plus underground parking, concierge service, and a ski shop. The spa offers massage, a fitness center, and yoga classes. (800) 458-8754; edelweisslodgeandspa.com

Hotel St. Bernard
This French Alps–themed inn is a Taos institution known for outstanding conviviality, cuisine, and convenience, and it’s family-friendly in the extreme. Bookings are mostly by the week, and there are condos, too. Lively host Jean Mayer serves crêpes, bisque, filet mignon, and other Continental delights family-style, on an inclusive meal plan for guests. Non-guests can have dinner in the dining room, and all comers are welcome to have green-chile cheeseburgers on the sunny slopeside deck at lunchtime. (575) 776-2251; stbernardtaos.com

Snakedance Condominiums
In the heart of the base village and only a short walk from Lift 1, Snakedance offers smartly appointed condos with all the modern amenities: spa, restaurant, ski valet, full concierge service, and a convenience store. (800) 322-9815; snakedancecondos.com

WHERE TO EAT
Blonde Bear Tavern/Café Naranja
Big city comes to the big mountains. Executive chef John Mudder left his West Village bistro, Bellavitæ, to come to Taos and whip up good grub for worn-out skiers. Blonde Bear serves ultrafresh “alpine comfort food”—including hearty entrées such as Mudder’s signature Boeuf Bourguignon, New York strip, and chicken pot pie—in an upscale dining room. Enjoy fresh, tasty burritos, pastries, espresso, and more at Café Naranja. (800) 458-8754; edelweisslodgeandspa.com/dining.

The Bavarian RestaurantArguably better known for its food than for its lodging, the Bavarian serves up middle-European staples like goulash beef stew and fresh German spätzle (pasta). The front deck is a favorite midday hangout for a refreshing pint to go with home-made wiener schnitzel or a warm basket of fish and chips.(888) 205-8020; thebavarian.net

Tim’s Stray Dog Cantina
Tim’s is the place for hearty, tasty New Mexican classics like burritos and enchiladas. Or share one of their huge nacho plates, washed down with the best margaritas (by the pitcher!) in the village. (575) 776-2894; straydogtsv.com