Have snow, will travel: When conditions are lining up at Taos Ski Valley, you better find a way to make the trip

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Have snow, will travel: When conditions are lining up at Taos Ski Valley, you better find a way to make the trip

WORDS — Devon O’Neil
PHOTOS — Liam Doran

The forecast was promising but vague. Last March, a gargantuan low-pressure system twirled toward the eastern slopes of the Rockies. The bullseye, experts said, was likely to pass a few miles from my home in Summit County, Colorado, dumping up to three feet. But my friend Johnny’s birthday party was scheduled for Taos the same weekend, four hours south. Taos Ski Valley is one of my favorite resorts on earth, and Johnny, a longtime local, sounded optimistic about the storm—even if early estimates only mentioned six-to-10 inches. Spring storms in the Sange de Cristo mountains have a habit of, ahem, over-delivering when conditions line up. Yet, despite skiing there for more than a decade, I still had never hit it on a deep day. The simple possibility of doing so with Johnny and a handful of friends was enough for me to leave the predicted epicenter and start driving south the day before the twirl arrived.

Part of the magic of storm chasing is the mystery that comes with it. The masses almost always follow the highest forecast total, for good reason. Sometimes I do too, even locally, often to my detriment. In this case, my decision had more to do with terrain and pitch. Skiing above then below then above really deep powder is my favorite feeling in the sport, and the steeper the angle the more often you get to feel it. Hence: Taos. 

I pulled into the Bavarian parking lot early Saturday afternoon, a few hours before the storm was to arrive. Johnny’s kids were playing in their snow cave; he was putting on his boots. The wind was blowing hard on Kachina Peak, Taos’ 12,481-foot high point, but the snow was buffed and cold, with cream in the concavities. We skied eight runs off the top then headed to the West Basin and stayed until it closed, frolicking among the rocks and tubes that make that place next-to-untouchable. Seeing the obstacles that were about to be buried made me feel better about the next day’s powder.

It started snowing around 4:30 in the afternoon and intensified almost immediately. Within the hour, our friend, photographer Liam Doran, had two inches piled up on the brim of his hat. We stood around a fire as the sky pummeled and glowed. There are not many things in a skier’s life more enticing than a furious overnight storm, and this was one step up from my usual, borderline-unhealthy anticipation. When we went to bed back in town that night, I had a hard time falling asleep. 

SKIER: Amie Engerbretson
PHOTO: Liam Doran

The morning report ended up being 15 inches, I think. I honestly can’t remember. Five cars with out-of-state plates spun out while heading up the canyon, but Johnny weaved around them in his pickup. Once on the mountain, we took a run down Al’s then promptly made our way to the top of Lift 2, where we waited for the hike to the Highline Ridge to open. I ended up near the front of the frothing pack and skied a fresh line down Hidalgo, astonished at how deep and light it was. I imagined the West Basin would be even better. 

Another quick hike and I stood at the rope. Johnny and I had been separated on Highline. I knew I’d find him soon enough but, for the moment, all I could think about was the gaping barrel of deepness that would be Stauffenberg. The rope dropped. I ducked under a rock band and into Stauffy. The powder was ridiculous. I felt like a submarine. At the bottom, I glanced to my right and saw another friend, Brett, being spit out of Fabian like a surfer at Backdoor. “Devon!” he screamed. I emitted a sound kind of like Chewbacca, half-choking on the snow. I will never forget that run. 

I eventually met back up with Johnny, and it started puking again. At 2:30 p.m. we saw our other buddy, Brett, skiing away from Lift 2. Brett had just received a tip that North American, one of the longest runs at Taos, was about to open for the first time that day. We followed him down the frontside to the entrance, arriving just as a patroller dropped the rope. 

The storm would deliver another 14 inches that night, for a total of 32. It was hard to drive away, but I had to get home—where, it turned out, the storm skunked.

This story originally appeared in FREESKIER Volume 25, Issue 02.
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