Serious skiers are rumored to approach Taos Ski Valley almost like pilgrims headed for Mecca. It's just a three-hour drive north from the Albuquerque airport to this legendary ski resort. And it was just a year ago that I pointed my rental car in the direction of the sleepy little hamlet of Taos in northeastern New Mexico and found skiing that I can only describe as the thrill of a lifetime.
Two ski bums from Wisconsin had promised to look me up if they made it all the way to Taos too, and, as luck would have it, they did. I could feel it already. I was in for one heckuva time.
After breakfast the first morning, my compadres and I stopped by Taos Valley Sports to check out the ski gear. After 20 minutes of nonstop ski jokes and bantering, Julie Anne, one of the clerks, volunteered to show us around the mountain. And that she did.
We started out with some Taos-style "cruisin'." That consisted of hellbent-for-leather mogul skiing down Rhoda's Revenge, Inferno and Snakedance. By the time we'd completed our first run, my two certified ski instructor friends were puffing like the little engine that couldn't. I, of course, was barely winded due to the fact that I'd spent much of the preceding half-hour flat on my back.
From there, we skied a few intermediate runs, then stopped at the Phoenix for a refreshing mountainside lunch of cheese and wine before proceeding up Kachina lift. This is when the real thrills began.
"You guys wanna ski a bowl?" Julie Anne asked. Before I could open my mouth, we had taken our skis off and started the long trek up, interminably up, through the few remaining scraggly pines below tree line. Finally, we slipped out into the wide-open Mediterranean-blue skies surrounding Kachina Ridge. From there we hiked another 20 minutes -- for the better part of an hour in all -- until, finally, our guide stopped at the edge of a 20-foot drop overlooking Kachina Bowl and Taos Ski Valley -- way, way below, somewhere off in the general direction of Kilimanjaro.
"All right," she said, "this looks good. Who's going first?"
As the three of us edged our ski tips over the lip of the ridge and peered down with bulging eyes, I heard what sounded like a helicopter's rotors pounding rhythmically in the distance. Only later, after grabbing air and free-falling to a heart-stopping thud in 10 feet of sawdust-dry powder, did I realize the sound had been my heart.
Once we'd all made the Great Leap and come to a stop just above tree line, we looked up at where we'd been, gave thanks to the God we knew must have existed and vanished into a glade of trees and more waist-deep virgin powder. Both my friends were chewing up snow and spitting it out from their tails like a pair of custom-matched inboards on a rough-and-tumble sea. All the while, they whooped and hollered while shearing off the tops of occasional hapless spruces and pines.
Once we finally came to a stop, we realized we'd just skied 20 minutes of the driest, lightest powder in the world and were still at the top of Kachina lift, with the whole "regular" mountain ahead of us.
That was the first and the last time we skied with Julie Anne, thanks to conflicting schedules. But we soon realized that Julie Anne's friendliness is a common denominator at Taos. Ernie Blake, the founder/operator of Taos Ski Valley, sees to that.
Everyone who works Taos works all of Taos -- from lift operator to litter detail. "It keeps people from getting bored," said Blake.
How does Taos, which has so prestigious a reputation, manage to keep its warm, personal, family-run aura?
"That's our goal," responded the Swiss-born Blake, 70. "When I founded this area 30 years ago, I had a plan. Unlike other ski-area operators who set out to expand as quickly as possible, I did everything in my power to keep Taos small and intimate. We have seven lifts and runs to appeal to just about anyone of any skiing ability, and that's enough."
Over the years Taos has acquired a reputation for attracting some of the best talent on skis. The Taos Ski School, headed by former French Olympic slalom racer Jean Mayer, is universally acclaimed.
"It's all in keeping with the devious Swiss mentality," Blake continued, tapping a playful finger against the side of his head. "If you give people the best you possibly can, they'll keep coming back. We have people skiing Taos who were here the week we opened back in 1955."
Part of the reason for Taos' success is Blake's continuing dedication to qualitative growth -- improvement, not expansion. This season marks the debut of a new run, an upper-intermediate named Leonardo (after da Vinci), which is served off chairs 6 and 2. It promises to hold plenty of snow and even some powder, which makes everyone at Taos happy.
Then, too, there are the obligatory boulder blastings and trail-widenings in a continuing effort to make better what is already a good thing.
Of course, Blake can't take all the credit for TSV's success. Part of the joy of skiing Taos is the area's all-around beauty.
Taos Ski Valley lies in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain range. Although TSV is Swiss in style and ambiance (Blake once posted a sign at the end of the 18-mile access road from town proclaiming, "Achtung! You are now leaving the American Sector!"), the town of Taos itself is tricultural. Founded by pueblo-dwelling Indians centuries ago, it was discovered by the Spanish in 1615, five years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Later still, English-speaking trappers and adventurers from the United States and Canada arrived and stayed on.
Today, the town of Taos boasts a well-deserved reputation as a cosmopolitan community that appeals to well-heeled professionals, sports-minded intellectuals and artisans. More than 50 art galleries, two professional orchestras and several museums call Taos home. Add to that a 700-year-old, four-story Indian pueblo (the oldest continually inhabited "condominium" in North America), several 18th-century Spanish churches, and numerous tennis and racquetball courts, and you have the makings of a very versatile community.
And food! Taos prides itself on authentic Old World cuisine served to perfection at such restaurants as Casa Cordova, a four-star delight only 10 minutes' drive from the mountain. Casa Cordova is owned and operated by ski instructor Godie Schuez, who, at 60-plus, is one of Blake's oldest (and most colorful) friends. Afterward, stop off at nearby Ski Valley Junction, the area's newest nightclub.
Don't overlook the Spanish cuisine at such establishments as La Cocina de Taos and Casa de Valdez, which features a hickory pit barbecue New Mexico-style. For more conventional fare, check out the Mainstreet Bakery, with its continental breakfasts, lunches to go, and early dinners, as well as Doc Martin's, famed for fresh seafood and a warm, informal ambiance with moderate prices. The Edelweiss Hotel and the Thunderbird Lodge, nestled in the shadow of the mountain, both employ top chefs serving European-style gastronomic delights morning, noon and night.
Lodging, too, is both abundant and affordable. You can stay right at the mountain, just a few minutes' walk from the slopes, in any of five lodges or condos for as little as $45 a night per person (double occupancy), including breakfast.
Or enroll in Taos' popular "Learn to Ski Better Week," which includes seven days' accommodations; three gourmet meals daily prepared by French, Swiss and Austrian chefs; six days of lifts; six mornings of personalized instruction; and a complimentary entry in Wednesday's NASTAR amateur race, all for $540 to $745 per person (double occupancy), depending upon accommodations.
Blake long ago decided that the people who ski Taos should be able to ski all of Taos -- including the most demanding expert runs -- by the end of their stay. Even novices skiing Bambi start out at the very top of the mountain so they can enjoy the breathtaking view of the neighboring summits stretching nearly out of sight.
That's a pretty good thrill, too.