The Ridges of Taos

"Even in the '80s, we're an area still being discovered." Skiing the upper ridges and Kachina Peak at Taos. (Volume 12, Issue 3)

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in POWDER’s November 1983 issue (Volume 12, Issue 3).

Story by Daniel Gibson

Have I died and gone to heaven? This is a question you may very well ask yourself as you hike out on the spiny ridges radiating from the top of Number Two lift at Taos Ski Valley to sample you first out-of-bounds skiing at this well-known resort.

Indeed. You heart is probably in your mouth as you scan the steep chutes and bowls dropping off to either side, and the world has suddenly turned to shades of white on white. With no trees or human signs to judge distance or size, you seem to float out over the valleys with the clouds in a dimensionless nether world. If you’re still not sure you’re in heaven, and if you love powder skiing, as soon as you turn your tips downhill you’ll know nirvana.

“I love being up on the rides,” says one skier who should know, the assistant director of the Taos ski patrol and a veteran of six winters there, Andy Loving. “At least half the experience is just being out there. The view is spectacular, you’re away from the crowds, and you get in some excellent expert skiing as well. It’s the créme de las sport, and definitely above and beyond your normal day skiing at a ski area.”

“Even in the ’80s, we’re an area still being discovered,” says the owner-director of Taos, the bubbly, wry Ernie Blake. And that goes for area regulars as well as out-of-state skiers, he explains, due to the out-of-bounds skiing. Actually, the out-of-bounds challenge of Taos is within the area’s permit boundaries with the Forest Service, but for many years it was forbidden territory.

The Ridges of Taos 2

Ski patrol leader Sylvia Lamson explains, “People are more attuned now to the fact that powder skiing is where it’s at. It’s the ultimate today,” With this realization there is more and more pressure to open up the very best of Taos’ powder skiing, namely the ridges, bowls, and chutes of the higher slopes not serviced by lifts. And the area has responded over the past decade by promoting and encouraging this experience rather than backing away as most do. This has warmed the patrol’s heart, but added new worry lines to its already heavily-taxed nerves.

12_3

“The skiing up there is unique,” notes Lamson, “and it’s a great service to be able to provide this type of skiing to the public. And from the patrol’s point of view, the skiing there helps to stabilize the slopes. The problem though, is everything can’t be open at once, and so we have to specify where people can ski and where they cannot. And due to human nature, people very often ski the wrong thing. So, we end up having to police the ridges and that just becomes another problem we must deal with.”

Before anyone is allowed out on the rides, they must sign a release waiver which says they consider themselves an expert skier. So far this system has worked to keep novices out of the out-of-bounds area, and the patrol has yet to have to pull someone off the higher faces, but there have been some close calls. When the ridge first opened for the ’82–’83 season, a party of 12 charges off across the slopes en masse, a cardinal violation in avalanche-prone areas. Another group last year was assigned to a certain chute known to be stable. They decided to change plans on the ridge, ending up over a series of cliffs, and had to hike back up and out.

It’s enough to drive Chuck Rose, the director of the area’s snow safety program, nuts. “Many years,” he says, “we’re ranked among the top four areas in the central and southern Rockies in the number of reported avalanches, and last year we led as of March. People are always surprised at this. It can be 60 degrees down in Albuquerque, so no one believes we could have just received two feet of fresh snow. And there aren’t many avalanches in Lubbock,” he joke’s in all seriousness.

“Common mountain sense has left most of our customers,” he goes on, due to the unique qualities of Taos mention above, and also due to a “false sense of security” created by the heavy patrolling of areas today. Today’s skiing motto is, “The most mile of uncut powder per hour,” says Rose, and it’s a sentiment he endorses. “But, the minute you cross the rope, you’re looking for trouble. You must take responsibility for yourself, and I don’t always see the awareness. While it’s yet to happen at Taos, Rose ass, “I’ve dug a few dead ones out, and dead is dead, but when an avalanche does to a body is not a pretty sight.”

The Ridges of Taos 3

If all this has convinced you they’ll never, ever catch you skiing of Taos’ out-of-bounds/in-bounds ridges, take heart. Following the patrol’s directions, and your own common sense, Taos’ ridges could become your skiing thrill of a lifetime. Rose says, “I know of only one other area that is similar, Bridger Bowl in Montana, and compared to here, the terrain is limited. This is helicopter skiing without the helicopter!”

Says his assistant, Rey Deveaux, who began working on the patrol in 1971, “While there’s probably places that have longer stuff, or steeper, like Jackson Hole, no place has the variety we’ve got–bowls, couloirs, trees, or just mellow things like Corner Chute.” Elevator, however, is as steep as anything you’ll ski anywhere. Blake says of some of these turns, “They’re a little more than vertical. You hold on by magnetism.”

And at the other end of the spectrum, there are ridge runs best typified, perhaps by the long, relatively simple drop through 1,300 feet of immense snow fields on Kachina Peak. This run is reached by an hour and a half hike (the longest of any ridge slopes) and begins at an elevation of 12,480 feet. On a good year it opens in December, and is skiable into July.

Other favorites off the ridge include Treskow, Twin Tree Chute, Meatball, Ninos Heroes, Juarez Hidalgo, and in West Basin, Fabian Stauffenberg, St. Bernard, and Thunderbird—the names reflecting Taos’ blend of European and Southwestern influences.

Other Western areas also have a reputation of this type of skiing, but Ken Gallard, the area’s resident photographer, calls Taos the great equalizer. Taos is similar to Alta, except here we have more chutes and basic avalanche runs, and it is all much more accessible. It’s true, to sample this type of skiing takes some effort, and specific taste for it, but an advantage here is that you always end up at the base.” Another nice aspect of Taos’ out-of-bounds skiing is that most of it can be observed from below, giving intermediates something to aspire to, and experts contemplating it the opportunity to make mental notes.

Should it be snowing, mixed weather, or the period just following a storm, you won’t find anyone skiing off the upper ridges, though. It is simply too dangerous. And even on good days, says Deveaux, “It’s not skied from nine to two. It’s open from nine until we feel it’s been skied enough. Crud skiing (when it’s cut up) becomes more difficult, and we might quickly move to close it down even if the weather holds.” In spite of the necessary limitations place on Taos’ ridge skiing, as many as 300 people have signed out of this experience on a single day.

As for that hike now needed to reach Taos’ out-of-this-world out-of-bounds skiing, Blake says of plans to one day erect a lift to service it, “I’ll leave that to future generations. I’m very happy with my area as it is now. It’s a dream come true, much more really than I ever expected. That lift is in the master plan, but in a way it would be a shame to build it. Most Americans don’t get enough exercise anyway.”

This places a tremendous burden, who has worked at Taos for eight years, notes that much of this out-of-bounds skiing is located above heavily-skied intermediate slopes, and so skiing these areas without permission is considered “a very grave infraction,” she says. The danger is an errant skier might kick off a slide into the more populated slopes below, and so if one is caught skiing illegally, their ticket is pulled and their name put on a restricted list. The patrol’s job of overseeing 1000 acres of territory with a crew of 22 is tough enough without policing out-of-bounds area as well, she notes.

“Judging the probability of slides and smaller avalanches called sluffs is particularly hard to do at Taos, which in turn complicates the whole out-of-bounds ski situation,” says snow safety director Rose. “Areas in the Wasatch (Utah) and Sierra have the problem of too damn much snow. But, that makes the danger easier to see. Generally, such heavy snowfalls can’t hold their weight, and come out. Here it’s different. Because Taos gets less snow, there is never the compaction found in California or Utah. We have, then, a problem with deep snow instability, rather than new, surface snow. We end up with snow with a really weak underlayer. The result? Fracture lines often are found measuring 12 to 14 feet in depth.”

If once again you feel perhaps this out-of-bounds skiing at Taos is a little too much, hang on. Taos also has miles and miles of lesser bowls and trails. Hunziker Bowl and Patton off the Kachina lift give you a taste of the ridge skiing without the hike or quite the same adrenaline rush, as does West Basin. Long horn, Lorelei, and Walkyries Chute are also skied right off the lift and are very challenging without intimidation. If you simply desire a more “traditional” run, varying from tough to intermediate, there’s the slopes off the front mountain, including famed Al’s Run, the twisting and tilted Snakedance, and Inferno, or off Number Two—Reforma, Castor, and Pollux, none of which are ever packed out.

The Ridges of Taos 4

Taos makes it a policy of letting even the intermediates in on the powder as well, always leaving portions of the runs free from the cat tracks. And with last year’s end of the season record accumulation over 160 inches of snow, powder at Taos on even a normal year is not a luxury. Rather, it’s a condition that’s almost impossible to avoid!

As for that hike now needed to reach Taos’ out-of-this-world out-of-bounds skiing, Blake says of plans to one day erect a lift to service it, “I’ll leave that to future generations. I’m very happy with my area as it is now. It’s a dream come true, much more really than I ever expected. That lift is in the master plan, but in a way it would be a shame to build it. Most Americans don’t get enough exercise anyway.”

He might also have added that most people don’t get enough exposure to pristine, unadulterated, and ultimately uncaring wilderness anymore, even skiers who seek these very objectives. Skiing Taos out-of-bounds, however, puts you face to face with a timeless environment and elemental skiing: a person, a pair of skis, the sky, and snow. Deep, soft snow, and the challenge of flying over its face.