Destination: Taos Ski Valley, a true skiing treasure in the desert

Destination: Taos Ski Valley, a true skiing treasure in the desert

There’s a certain mystique associated with Taos Ski Valley—an allure it shares with its home state of New Mexico, itself dubbed “The Land of Enchantment.” The charm emanates its location, a dead-end canyon in the Sangre de Cristo range. A Rocky Mountain subrange, the Sangres jut 5,000 feet straight from the high desert floor below, yielding some of the steepest and most unique terrain you’ll find in the lower 48.

While the hair-raising terrain attracts skiers from all walks of life, it’s Taos’ esoteric and eccentric culture that has caused many a day-tripper to put down roots in northern New Mexico. For visitors, shacking up in one of the many accommodations at the base of the ski area is your best bet based on proximity to the hill, but the town of Taos is certainly worth a look during any trip to the area. Adobe houses line the streets, and the Native American and Spanish heritage is certainly evident in the form of various craft shops, art galleries and culinary establishments. The tranquil vibe and natural beauty of the land—the high desert, Rio Grande River and Sangre De Cristos—cause an almost spiritual connection with anyone who visits.

KatchinaPeak_LiamDoran_TaosNM_InTheCloudsPatrol tracks on Kachina Peak. Photo by Liam Doran

The resort is a 30-minute trek from Taos Regional Airport, a three-hour drive from Albuquerque International Airport or, in my case, a five-and-a-half- hour commute from the city of Denver, CO. When I arrive in February 2014, I’m fortunate enough to pull into Taos at sunset, as a blood-red hue glows on the peaks outside of town; the Grateful Dead’s Fire on the Mountain echoes through my head. A winding 15-mile drive takes me up a steep box canyon, delivering me at the Columbine Inn, my accommodation for the next two nights.

Beat from my lengthy drive, I head up the road to the Pizza Shack and grab a delicious pepperoni pie and ice-cold Happy Camper IPA—the elixir of life around these parts. Although I contemplate another frothy brew, it’s closing time, and I’m the last patron left, so I head back to my digs, eager to get after it in the morning.

The dawn greets me with bluebird skies and 35-degree weather. Stoked! I grab the hotel shuttle and hightail it to the resort base. The area is quiet, and among the scattered employees, I notice that rather than the resort-branded technical outerwear I’m used to seeing in Colorado, Taos’ lifties are sporting Carhartt, adding to the rugged charm of the ski area. After a short ride up Lift 1, I head over to Lift 2, which accesses Taos’ famed hike-to terrain. A ten-minute scramble deposits me above the tree line where I’m quickly entranced by the 360-degree view. Lobo Peak and Flag Mountain loom to the northwest, the 13,167-foot pinnacle of New Mexico—Wheeler Peak—rises to the southeast, while I can see all the way into Colorado to the north.

To the skier’s left sits the West Basin, while Highline Ridge stands skier’s right. Chock full of steep lines and big drops, the two zones play host to the Salomon Extreme Championships each year—a four-star Freeride World Tour qualifier event that has seen entrants such as Todd Ligare and Angel Collinson. When the snow is right along these ridges, spines will build up with huge cliffs that are reminiscent of mini golf lines you’d find in British Columbia. Not a bad option for those looking to test their mettle.

Skier Kevin "Bert" Flores in Donkey/Hidalgo zoneKevin Flores sends one at Taos. Photo by Liam Doran

After spinning hot laps along the ridges, I embark on the Kachina Peak hike. The crown jewel of the ski area, the peak tops out at 12,481 feet and offers steep, wide-open bowls littered with cornices and natural hits alike.

The 2014-15 season will mark the first year of lift-accessed skiing on Kachina Peak, increasing Taos’ lift-served, expert terrain by 50 percent. In 2013, the family-owned ski area was purchased by billionaire Louis Bacon, who immediately began pumping money into resort renovations such as this one. The upgrades aim to modernize the ski area without sacrificing its simple charm. Other planned updates include the replacement of Lift 5 with a high-speed lift and a facelift to the base area. For now, the current go-to for après at the base area is the Martini Tree Bar, where I enjoy a few beers before retiring to my hotel for the evening.

When my alarm sounds at 7 o’clock the next morning, a fresh ten inches of light, dry snow blankets the ground. The lifts start churning at 8:30, and I’m first in line. It’s surprisingly calm and quiet for a powder day—bluebird at that. I’m meeting local skier Robbie Forbes at the bottom of Chair 2 for a tour around his home mountain.

After some introductory chitchat, we head up the lift and hike to Forbes’ secret stashes. We start on the West Basin, atop Stauffenberg. Surveying the terrain below, I see a multitude of routes. I can rip straight through the chute or descend the rocks on either side with multiple cliffs to send. Before I can choose, Forbes takes off, a flash of red through the snow. I drop in second, slashing turns through the narrow chute, snow billowing over my head and primal screams echoing from my mouth.

Unknown_LiamDoran_TaosNM_HikingMuch of the expert terrain at Taos is hike accessed. Photo by Liam Doran

I dish a high five to Forbes at the bottom, and we saddle up for round two. He drops in to Two Bucks off the Highline Ridge, slashes a pow turn and throws a big ol’ three off a pristine pillow. The man’s skills are indicative of his 24-year upbringing in Taos. Then, we hike a bit farther out to the K Chutes, lines located skier’s left of Kachina Peak. From the top of the chutes, an immaculate landscape of sparkling fresh snow situated between jagged rocks awaits us. We exchange nods before launching off the cornice into dreamy, light and dry southwestern snow. We finish the day with a couple steins of Spaten beer at The Bavarian, the German- inspired lodge at the base of Chair 4, complete with lederhosen-clad barkeeps and oompah music.

Most would balk at the idea of finding a ski bum’s paradise in the desert of New Mexico, but an eclectic town nestled at the base of a rugged box canyon, and a one-of-a-kind ski area combine to create this Southwestern gem. For those looking to check off another location on their list of steep skiing locales, Taos Ski Valley is more than worthy of consideration. As Forbes told me before I departed, “If you can ride Taos, you can ride any mountain in the world.” A bit biased perhaps, but a valid sentiment nonetheless.

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