I didn't come to Taos Ski Valley, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico, to relax on a slope-side deck drinking a Bavarian lager and savouring a buffalo bratwurst.
But here I am, actually enjoying a sit-down lunch even as I gaze longingly up at a mosaic of steep, snowy, tree-lined chutes. The delightful brew of those vaulting pitches, a Southwestern-meets-Old Europe culture, and light, unhurried crowds - even on a February powder day - captures Taos's unique place on the winter sports continuum.
I'm here, with my wife, Cathleen, and kids Kai, 10, and Christina, 7, for a four-day visit to reacquaint with this formidable mountain and its Southwestern-meets-Old Europe culture, and to see how resort chief executive David Norden is implementing the vision of his boss Louis Bacon - who bought Taos in 2014 - to "improve everything without changing anything."
Frankly, I didn't think Taos, which I last skied in 2004, needed much improvement: steeps, trees, groomers and more, all uncrowded, with an offbeat base area. And the mountain, because it rose from 2806 metres above sea level to 3804m, tended to hold on to its snow. But as the years crept by, Taos, which sits 30.5 kilometres up-valley from the eponymous town, earned a rep as a resort that time forgot - old lifts, older lodges, a hardy-but-greying clientele, and lacking the amenities, such as high-speed lifts, a modern hotel and a spa, that 21st-century visitors had come to expect.
After a 1.30am arrival on a brittle, snowy night, we awake to 25cm of fresh snow, sunshine and cold temperatures, and promptly commence enjoying those improvements I didn't think were needed. We're staying in the Blake, an 80-room boutique hotel named for Ernie Blake, the German immigrant who founded Taos Ski Valley in 1955.
The luxury hotel, which opened in 2017, makes up for a lack of weathered-ski-lodge charm with hundreds of original art pieces spanning Native American, Hispanic, European, local Taoseño and modern expression. Even the elevator doors showcase subtle etchings of Native American life.
After breakfast in the Blake's bright-wood-and-windowed restaurant, we stop at the in-house ski shop to pick up the kids' rentals. We suit up in a warm and well-staffed gear room - where we'll later leave boots, gloves, jackets and more overnight for drying - and walk out, past a warm doughnut stand and onto a gondola for a three-minute ride down to the children's ski school.
Minutes later, Cathleen and I are seated on Lift 1, the resort's lone high-speed chair, whisking over Taos's marquee slope, Al's Run, a mineshaft of moguls so daunting that staff in the 1960s posted a sign for Taos virgins: "DON'T PANIC! YOU'RE LOOKING AT ONLY 1/30 OF TAOS SKI VALLEY." (The redesigned base is less intimidating, but the sign remains, near the Snakedance condominiums.)
A short groomer leads us to Lift 2 and we skate off at 3364m at what used to be the top of Taos's lift-served terrain (more on that in a minute). There are other skiers and snowboarders here, but far fewer than I'd encounter at bigger-name resorts on a powder day. And, for my money, few feelings compare to standing high on a mountain, untracked snow laid out like a gourmet buffet, with scant competition for the goods.
We bomb a few runs through forested stashes - Lorelei Trees, Bob's, Walkyries Chute and Glade - before ducking into the mid-mountain Whistlestop Cafe, a humble cabin where an eclectic mix of old timers, young shredders, families and a school group from Albuquerque are warming up over coffee, hot chocolate and energy bars.
As elsewhere in the ski valley, there is nothing rushed, noisy or stressful about this place. Among the only lines we encounter all week is the short queue at the Whistlestop's water-bottle refilling tap, part of a resortwide sustainability push that earned Taos the ski industry's first B-Corporation certification - awarded to companies that prioritise social and environmental responsibility and transparency.
To earn the certification, Taos phased out single-use plastic cups and utensils at resort-owned establishments, installed a geothermal heating and cooling system at the Blake, improved snow-making efficiency by 15 per cent while boosting energy savings, and ramped up hiring of locals. The company says it is more than a quarter of the way toward its goal of running entirely on solar power and has cleaned up the Rio Hondo river, which flows from the resort, through the town of Taos and into the Rio Grande, to the point where native cutthroat trout have returned in force.
The ski valley is far from perfect, of course. Snowfall has become wildly inconsistent: Taos reports an annual average of 774cm, but it's been a while since it hit that mark; the 627cm that fell in 2018-2019 followed a bleak 198cm season the previous year. And while the resort has 14 lifts, most skiers will spend most of their time riding six main chairs spread across the mountain, each servicing distinct terrain and none climbing more than 499 vertical metres. People like me who prefer long, steep, sustained runs can find them, but then they must ride multiple chairs to get back to where they started.
On the plus side, this layout allows us to explore each part of the mountain independent of the others. One afternoon, Kai and I follow a set of ski tracks through the woods off Lift 4 and emerge into the grandeur of Hunziker Bowl, an untamed pitch framed by rock outcroppings on the lower flanks of Kachina Peak. We can't see or hear any sign of the resort from here, and we're alone save for a gray-haired woman in circa-1985 gear coaxing her husband down a tricky section.
And speaking of Kachina Peak: Immediately upon buying Taos, Bacon promptly broke his own directive with a major change - installing a triple chair up Kachina, which was formerly reachable only by a 30- to 45-minute hike from the top of Lift 2. The move left some locals aghast. Like most ski communities, Taos boasts a core of residents who pride themselves on their willingness to earn their powder and who groaned at the prospect of giving the masses easy access to Kachina's steep, exposed, above-tree-line terrain.
Some even saw the lift as an affront to the mountain spirits and were not shocked when an inbounds avalanche slid to the bottom of Cabin Chute last January, killing two skiers who were descending from the Kachina lift.
I, too, love the meditative challenge of a high-altitude hike and the payoff it brings. But because of frequent high winds and blowing snow on Kachina, the chair can close for days at a time, so those willing to hoof it still have ample opportunity to sweat for their powder and solitude.
When we arrived, the lift had been closed since the avalanche - 20 days and running - in large part because ski patrollers who would otherwise be assessing conditions were busy helping with the accident investigation. On Saturday, after ferreting out every shard of lift-accessible powder I can find, I shoulder my skis at the top of Lift 2 and follow a steep snaking trail that rises to tree line. On my right the precipitous chutes of West Basin Ridge are roped off for a junior extreme skiing competition, so I trudge onward, past a palate of tempting shots - Hidalgo, Juarez, Niños Heroes - before committing to the lung-busting assault on Kachina.
The wind is hissing and the sky smeared with thin clouds as I kick-step up the scoured ridge, but I'm happy. Hiking to ski helps me appreciate where I am - the severity of altitude, the true size of a mountain and its indifference toward interlopers. I pass the top of the dormant lift and walk up another 30 metres to where a wooden post with tattered prayer flags marks the summit. The view is dazzling: pyramid peaks rising from dense stands of spruce and, to the east, Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest mountain at more than 3,962 metres.
I retreat, click in and dive into 50-turn sequence through feathery powder. Five minutes later I'm back amid the bustle, at the top of Lift 4 and mere yards from the spot where two wreaths memorialise the avalanche victims.
I meet up with Cathleen, and we descend to one of Taos's most enduring landmarks, the Hotel St. Bernard. The European-style inn, restaurant and bar was founded in 1960 by Jean Mayer, a Frenchman and former ski patroller with the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division whom Blake had invited to Taos to start a ski school. We enter to the warm aroma of comfort foods and, as we settle in to bowls of chilli and a shared beer, can see why many guests have returned yearly for decades to experience the St. Bernard's signature ski week: six days of skiing, lessons and all meals served family style. Sock-footed skiers lounge around a circular fireplace beneath dark-timber beams adorned with a weird array of copper pots, beer steins, African carvings, and old mining and ski gear. A baby grand piano foreshadows the evening's entertainment and already, at 2pm, the bar is starting to hum.
The St. Bernard is one of the few places in the ski valley with excellent food, and it's hard (but possible) to get a seat for dinner if you aren't staying here. We miss out but score a top-shelf meal at another Eurocentric gem, the Blonde Bear Tavern in the Edelweiss Lodge and Spa, where the refined veneer is tempered by a quartet of ski bums in well-worn outerwear toasting each other at the bar, and an adjacent game room to which our kids abscond while we await our entrees.
The rest of the base area is a delightful hodgepodge - a Tex-Mex joint here, latte stand there, a handful of small ski shops and a clothing-jewellery-folk art shop where Cathleen can't say no to a silver-and-turquoise pendant crafted by a Taos Pueblo artist.
Improvements are planned here, too, but I hope Bacon lets this whimsical, intercontinental aura ride and resists turning the base area into a prefab village, a la Whistler or Vail. Holding steady, for what it's worth, seems to be playing well.
"So far so good," Dennis, a longtime Taos skier from Tucson, says as we share a lift ride. "But they could add bathrooms on the far side of the mountain. And make Lift 2 and Lift 8 high speed." I hear similar comments from others, including a 30ish snowboarder from Albuquerque who loves the "hippie mellow vibe" and says the owner "seems to be keeping it real."
On our last day, Christina implores us to send her back to ski school so she can hang with a new friend. This frees up Kai to show off his burgeoning black-diamond skills - remarkable, given that he clocks fewer than 10 days a season. Cutting over to Lift 4, we see the Kachina Peak chair spinning and, although I already know the answer, I ask Kai if he's ready for the big time. We shuffle through the lift line and take a seat, a mom, dad and their once-little boy, grateful for a ride to the top of a mountain.
Where to stay
This 80-room guesthouse is rich with amenities - outdoor hot tubs and heated pool, top-tier spa, excellent restaurant, ski shop, including rentals and repairs, ski valet and a changing/gear-drying room so you can leave all your outerwear mere steps from the lift. The hotel also features native and local photos and art, including drawings by Georgia O'Keeffe.
Where to eat
St. Bernard Hotel and Condominiums
Old-school European inn and gourmet French-inspired restaurant at the base of the mountain featuring soups, sandwiches, chilli, salads, hot cider, bar with live music or movies, and a slope-side burger deck/coffee bar. Reservations needed for the renowned family-style dinner. Open daily for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and one dinner seating at 6:30 p.m.
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Blonde Bear Tavern
Excellent Euro-Alpine cuisine - standouts include chicken pot pie and a sage-brined pork chop - in a refined-but-still-ski-town-casual ambiance. Reservations advised but waiting at the firelit bar is cosy also. Open daily in winter 3 to 9 p.m.
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German dishes from goulash and spaetzle to Wiener schnitzel and a variety of bratwurst, along with steins of authentic lagers and a worthy apfelstrudel; the outdoor deck offers a commanding view of the ski mountain. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
What to do
Taos Ski Valley
Beautiful resort with 14 lifts serving 1,294 acres of varied terrain and 997 vertical metres of skiing. Note: The base area is 2806 metres above sea level, high even for a ski resort. Taos is on the Ikon and Mountain Collective passes.