One of the things I remember from my first visit to Taos, New Mexico, in the mid-90s was the sign near the base that read: You’re looking at only 1/30th of Taos Ski Valley. The steep lift whisked me up as I scooted back in the seat and hooked my arm around the side. Though the sign was meant to ease intermediate skiers' minds (it goes on to state we have easy runs, too), it excited me.
More than 50 percent of the trails at Taos are considered expert runs, reflected on a sticker that read “Taos: A four letter word for steep” covering car bumpers back then. Some skiers reverently refer to Taos as having a soul and call it “a real skier’s mountain” (though TSV or Taos Ski Valley has since allowed snowboarding).
An East Coaster recently transplanted to the Colorado Rockies, I had only just discovered the pain and gain of hike-to terrain. On my first visit to Taos, I joined some local friends and skied the chutes off of West Basin Ridge, Highline Ridge and finally made the 45-minute hike up to the K Chutes cascading down from the ridge below Kachina Peak. I learned to cover my face from the wind, vent my jacket and rest in between steps on the bootpack trail up the ridge. I’d take a moment or two to admire the view of the Sangre de Cristos, then with leaden legs, I’d ski powder flanked by jagged rocks and feel a great amount of satisfaction at the bottom.
No-Pain Terrain Gain
Flash-forward to February, 2015: the New Kachina Peak Lift open to the public for the first time. It was touted as one of the biggest lift projects of the summer. SkyTrac, a company from Salt Lake City, installed the new fixed grip triple, which travels just shy of 12,481 feet to the summit of Kachina Peak. It’s the third highest lift in North America, behind Loveland and Breckenridge, and changes TSV vertical feet to an impressive 3,244.
TSV opened in 1955, and for almost 60 years, the way to access Kachina Peak was by hiking the long ridge. The new lift gets skiers there in less than 10 minutes. It may have happened under the watch of new owner, Louis Bacon, but it’s interesting to note that a lift up Kachina Peak has been in the works long before the trend of lift-served access to hike-to stashes. “We all skied Kachina peak, even in the early days,” says Chris Stagg, TSV Vice President. “In fact Ernie [Blake, the founder] cut a survey line probably around 1967 or ’68. Over the years, they’ve been investing in more intermediate terrain, but Ernie always liked the idea of Kachina because being above tree line makes it a very European style of skiing.”
When you get off the lift and hike a short distant to the summit of Kachina Peak, the view is spectacular: You can see Wheeler Peak (the highest peak in New Mexico), Taos Plateau and the Spanish Peaks in Colorado. Many folks pause for a picture at the prayer flags, and Taos photographers have found a new and probably lucrative station.
With the new Kachina Peak lift, photographers find a new scenic spot for Taos visitors.
Copyright: Krista Crabtree
Quantity & Quality of a Different Kind
I loaded the lift on a Saturday morning, the first full day of operation after a several-hour soft opening the day before. It was a surprise to see how quickly Main Street—the run down the gut of the bowl—was bumped up. The ski patrollers stationed at the top of Lift 4 have a great view of the bowl and all had looks of slight disbelief on their faces, like watching a Warren Miller segment of beginner skiers from the Midwest unload a lift. It had to be a shock to see this once pristine area turn mogul run so fast, not to mention multiple skiers way over their heads terrain wise, despite ample signage that states the area is for advanced skiers/riders only. Halfway down, I stopped near a guy who was shaking his head. He couldn’t stop himself from telling me that he fought the lift from the start. “I mean, look at all these bumps!”
For each negative comment, I heard three positive ones. “This mountain has lacked energy since the ‘80s. It’s about time we changed the vibe,” I overhead a skier say. The vibe definitely changed for me: In the time since I last visited Taos, I had a child and worked hard at raising her as a skier. This trip, I got to take my 9-year-old to the top of Kachina Peak and jump off cornices, hop turn through the chokes, surf the slough in between rocks—and finally ski big-mountain terrain together that she wouldn’t have been able to access yet without the lift. I noticed many parents and kids around us ripping it up together with huge Cheshire Cat grins.
After several laps that Saturday, we skied down to the Bavarian Lodge and Restaurant for the Kachina Lift kick-off party. It was a stunningly sunny day, the deck packed and patrons spread out into the snow drinking golden lagers and listening to the band. The lead singer welcomed everyone and addressed the elephant in the room. “There might be some negativity about the new lift,” he said, “but I just lapped Kachina six times in two hours before this gig. I’ve never done that before.”
Locals may lament at the traffic and bumped up runs off of Kachina Peak, but more people can enjoy the steep and technical terrain than ever.
Copyright: Krista Crabtree
The End/Beginning of an Era
Mountain Guide and Ski Patroller, Dave Hahn has always used the hike along the ridge to Kachina Peak as training ground for mountains such as Denali and Everest. He even hiked the ridge the morning of opening day. I asked him what he thought of the new lift and he responded: “I see it as the end of one era and the beginning of another.” Many resorts known for backcountry access have plans to open up new terrain in their permit areas, whether with a lift or boundary expansion.
During this time of great interest in accessibility, the question many skiers ask is: What do we give up and what do we gain? Free and easy access to more terrain on one hand, but on the other, an infringement on the local’s stash plus increased impact on the mountain environment. Are resorts catering to legions of skiers, who like Ken Kesey, just want to go further… but faster and easier?
According to an SIA market research survey last season, when asked what skiers loved most about the sport, an overwhelming amount replied freedom. Trends in the market reflect this sentiment as more and more people buy gear designed to make snow travel easier. Backcountry touring can encompass everything from a quick lap out of the resort’s boundary to an all-day tour or a multi-day hut trip—but to some who spend their days inbounds, it’s the possibility that attracts them to the gear. Wherever new AT technologies and versatility-baked equipment takes those in search of freedom on skis, fact is: "the beauty of the resort is the amount of vertical you can ski and the community you can ski with," as Scarpa North America's Athlete and Event Coordinator, Kevin Luby puts it. "When resorts work to provide the best skiing possible it gets people excited about skiing.”
Trade-Offs Skew Positive
There has been a lot of excitement this season at Taos, to which El Niño has been kind mid-February through mid-March. Powder lovers who know the mountain's steeps, like myself, have been salivating at the snow reports. Reportedly, after a 48” dump, a giant slide with a 10-foot crown came down K3 and K4 Chutes. According to Stagg, however, boot-packing and avalanche control is easier now with the new lift. True, after the control work is done, the freshies get tracked out quicker, but there’s more of a chance to ski it. “The vibe has been really positive,” says Stagg. “Before when you hiked up, you took your time and enjoyed it. That was good and part of the experience. Now with the lift, you can try all kinds of variations that you never did when you hiked it. You get to appreciate the terrain a lot more.”
Many skiers dream of pushing further out once their favorite terrain has been discovered. I heard some locals comment about wanting new access gates off the top of Kachina. When I asked Stagg about this, he replied: “There’s a danger of being out there and snow you can’t control—and it’s also wilderness off the backside of Kachina.” Thinking about a giant slide with a 10-foot crown happening around you in the backcountry makes you really appreciate all the hard work, labor and explosives that resorts use to do avalanche safety for the public.
I didn’t hike as much at Taos this trip as I have in the past (though West Basin and Highline Ridge still require a trek), but I racked up the vertical on steep terrain. I also ate my fill of green chilies, watched some sunsets Georgia O’Keefe would have admired and drank some tasty local microbrews at the Martini Tree bar. I love the European flair that was Ernie Blake’s vision.
When it comes to change, resorts either get chastised for its implementation or lack thereof. But most skiers agree that we want sliding on snow to stick around, and excitement for the sport is good for business—for resorts, gear companies and us. Even if our stash locations are compromised, we can and will go further. But there’s something to be said for fast access to the goods and sharing it with your favorite ski buddy or enjoying multiple solo runs. After all, the feeling of freedom begins by strapping a ski or snowboard to your feet and breathing in the mountain air. Located in the northern Land of Enchantment, it might be changing, but Taos still has soul—and now some steep and technical terrain to lap up 'till your heart's content.