Taos: Out of this world

The desert state of New Mexico - a favourite haunt of visiting aliens - is an unlikely location for a ski resort. But try the exciting slopes at Taos and you'll believe in the unexpected, says Stephen Wood
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The Independent Travel

Anybody flying into Albuquerque airport with ski boots in their luggage is bound to worry about having taken a wrong turning somewhere, probably back at Denver. Deep in the US state of New Mexico, this is clearly no gateway to the slopes. Driving north up the interstate highway provides no reassurance, with sultry, Tex-Mex tearjerkers playing on every local radio station and signposts indicating turn-offs to destinations such as Santa Fe, Cuba and Las Vegas. Things begin to look up – as I did – when the road starts to climb beyond Santa Fe. But approaching Taos, my destination, it all went flat: the town sits on a high plateau alongside the Rio Grande.

Anybody flying into Albuquerque airport with ski boots in their luggage is bound to worry about having taken a wrong turning somewhere, probably back at Denver. Deep in the US state of New Mexico, this is clearly no gateway to the slopes. Driving north up the interstate highway provides no reassurance, with sultry, Tex-Mex tearjerkers playing on every local radio station and signposts indicating turn-offs to destinations such as Santa Fe, Cuba and Las Vegas. Things begin to look up – as I did – when the road starts to climb beyond Santa Fe. But approaching Taos, my destination, it all went flat: the town sits on a high plateau alongside the Rio Grande.

New Mexico is, however, a place where the unexpected is only to be expected. With a town named Truth Or Consequences, the state looks peculiar even on a map; and the fact that two of its best-known sites are the birthplace of the atomic bomb (Los Alamos) and extra-terrestrials' favourite spot on earth (Roswell) adds substance to that tingle of anxiety.

Taos itself is weird in a warmer way, having become a colony for artists (DH Lawrence, Georgia O'Keeffe) early in the 20th century and, more recently, a hippie hangout. For the latter group, Dennis Hopper, who moved to Taos just after making Easy Rider in 1969, may have been part of the attraction; but so, too, were the strong Native American culture and the surviving adobe houses built by Spanish colonists a millennium ago. Among the adobe buildings, some are the longest-inhabited structures in the US; others are more recent and include an adobe-style drive-in bank, a Chrysler dealership and – of course – the local McDonald's.

That Taos has a ski area of some international renown is also pretty weird. Ernie Blake, the Swiss-born immigrant who founded Taos Ski Valley in 1956 (and ran it until his death 33 years later), admitted that a ski area in New Mexico was a pretty hard sell "because everybody knew that it was a desert state full of snakes but with no snow". One of the pioneers of the US ski business, Blake knew better, because in the early Fifties he worked at Santa Fe's small ski area. And it was while commuting by plane between there and his other job in Colorado that he spotted the snow-covered 12,481 Kachina Peak, the highest point in the Taos Ski Valley area.

Its lift base lies almost 20 miles north of Taos itself. The first part of the drive is across the plateau; then the road climbs up a canyon into the Carson Forest. But only in 1972 did the latter section become a road. Previously it had been a track – something which never deterred Blake. The fact that Taos was so hard to reach "was an asset to me", he told Rick Richards, the author of a book on the making of Taos Ski Valley, Ski Pioneers. "Because that made it like a destination, not a weekend or in-and-out resort – which I didn't want it to be."

Another asset of the area, from his point of view, was that the slopes were so steep – too steep for recreational skiers, so his friends in the ski business advised him. To this day there is a big sign at the main chair-lift announcing in capital letters: "Don't panic! You're looking at only 1/30th of Taos Ski Valley. We have many easy runs too!"

The sign remains; and so does Blake's influence. His son Mickey is now company president, and there are several other Blakes on the staff. Other formative figures survive: at lunchtime last Saturday I ate a veggie burger grilled and served on the Hotel St Bernard's terrace by the hotelier Jean Mayer, who arrived at Taos as a ski instructor in 1957. Blake's legendary charm was a great asset in those early days: his wife said that when he warned potential visitors that snow conditions were poor "he would do it in such a way that they would think they just had to come".

But he was also irascible and irrational – to the point where, as one ski instructor put it, "if you weren't threatened with the sack you weren't doing your job properly". Blake wasn't much more indulgent towards guests. Taos got its first chair-lift in 1962, rather against his wishes: he preferred the drag-lift, on the grounds that "it was much more difficult. It kept poor skiers off the mountain."

Taos is still no place for skiers who enjoy the fripperies of resorts such as Vail and Deer Valley, with their valet services and high-speed chair-lifts. True, the drag-lifts have gone, but only to be replaced by archaic two- and four-seaters which take their time going uphill. There is a base village with most mod cons; but it is an uninviting place of drab grey and beige buildings. There are pistes suitable for beginners and low intermediates, but grooming is limited.

Nevertheless the heavily wooded ski area is not as tough as the locals would have you believe. The warning sign at the bottom of the lifts is alarmist. The pistes immediately beyond it are a sea of moguls – not much fun for intermediates but no cause for panic. And elsewhere on the lift-served slopes average skiers would feel quite comfortable, provided they stay out of the trees. Many of the wooded pitches have gradients which do demand pause for thought. Last weekend's soft snow reduced the fear factor and I enjoyed myself immensely, mainly in the glades of Walkyries Bowl, which drops off the top lift junction.

Although the Kachina mountain was closed because of the danger of avalanches, I could have skied even steeper stuff, had I felt like hiking. But the top bowls were too open for my liking – and anyway jet lag was sapping my energy. (Taos remains hard to reach for Europeans: my journey there took 22 hours.) That I spent so long skiing, despite the loud ticking of my body clock, is a tribute to the area.

In common with other bastions of old-style skiing such as Mad River Glen in Vermont, Taos bans snowboarders from its slopes. But it does so with little grace. "No crowds. No snowboarders", proclaims a hoarding on the highway up from Albuquerque; and the ski area's brochure expands on the theme – of boarders as undesirables – by listing "never seeing a snowboarder" among the pleasures of Taos. But Taos has its undesirables: the braggers who bang on ad nauseam about how great the resort is, and the barrel-chested renegades who seem to spit and fart more than is strictly necessary. I saw one of the latter wearing a T-shirt announcing "I'm shy but I've got a big dick". Personally, I'd rather see a snowboarder, any day.

Ski Independence (0870 555 0555; www.ski-independence.co.uk) offers seven nights at Taos in ski-in/ski-out accommodation at the Inn at Snakedance, with Heathrow-Albuquerque flights on United Airlines (two stops en route) and car hire, from £1,237 per person based on two sharing. Rick Richards' 'Ski Pioneers' is published by Dry Gulch Publishing at $39.95

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