TAOS, N.M. — The dateline could just as well read Mecca . That's what this place is for skiers, or at least those who know anything about skiing.
"Yes, I would say that Taos Ski Valley was created for serious skiers," said Ernie Blake, "and for serious eaters."
Blake, one of American skiing's entrepreneurial pioneers, is founder and board chairman of this resort about three hours north of the Albuquerque airport. But his present title is misleading. He's really the emperor. Not much happens here unless Ernie says OK.
It is also a bit misleading to call Taos Ski Valley, which is located 16 miles outside the town of Taos at a dead end in the Sangre de Cristo range, a resort. The term generally carries connotations of people lolling about and overindulging in assorted vices.
Not here. Here, almost everyone skis--and skis hard--for at least a week. And at the end of that week, everyone is a better skier than when he or she arrived.
"We have the highest percentage of guests, relative to any ski resort in the world, who take the full week of lessons," Blake said. "More than Sun Valley, more than St. Anton. And we have the highest percentage of experts who return to ski school."
Experts, of course, revel in Taos Ski Valley's steepness, the angle of which is quite obvious from the little village tucked into the base of the surrounding mountains. But Blake long ago learned that he had to allay the fears of visitors who, as he put it, "drove over from Texas or Oklahoma, took one look straight up in the moonlight, did a U-turn in horror and got the hell out."
Now, there is a sign near the day lodge that reads: "Don't panic, this is only 1/30th of Taos Ski Valley. There are plenty of easy runs."
Still, 51% of the runs here are rated for expert skiers, and about 99% of the dining rooms are rated for expert eaters. The meals in the Thunderbird Lodge, Hotel St. Bernard and Innsbruck Hotel are prepared by European chefs and provide gastronomical rewards for hard days of skiing.
There's also life after dinner, but the bars usually empty out well before midnight so that everyone can be up early the next morning to attend to the task at hand--skiing and learning to do it better.
Also up early is Blake, who will be 72 in May and whose beard now matches the powder on the slopes. He has retained his title as director of the ski school and greets students every morning in an appropriate German accent before turning them over to their instructors. It is a ritual that he has followed since carving his little empire out of this niche 9,200 feet high in the Southern Rockies 30 years ago.
"There was just the shell of the uncompleted Hondo Lodge here then," said Blake, who still lives with his wife, Rhoda, in an apartment above the ski shop. "Now, we can sleep a thousand skiers and we have six double chairlifts and one triple chairlift. But we are close to the end of our growth. Taos Ski Valley is 90% complete."
Blake foresees two or possibly three more chairlifts in the future plus a poma lift at the top to extend the vertical from 2,600 to 3,000 feet, and he said, "There is a dream of building a luxury hotel--but it won't be a high-rise."
Blake has turned over the day-to-day details of operating the ski area to his son Mickey, 41. A son-in-law, Chris Stagg, is marketing director and a supervisor in the ski school. But Ernie is still the boss.
The boss has one overriding idea on how skiers should be treated. Born in Germany and educated in Switzerland, Blake skied throughout the Alps before World War II (which he fought as a U.S. Army intelligence officer). "But European skiing is crowded," he said. "That's one thing I wanted to change over here. I hate waiting in lines, and I hate to impose it on my guests. That is why we have kept our growth under control. The valley would lose its charm if the scale was too large."
To discourage lift lines, Blake limits ticket sales to about 4,000, but that total has been reached only on a couple of occasions when there was a heavy influx of day skiers from Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Of course, a skiing trip to this corner of New Mexico can also be a cultural experience, if it includes stopovers in Santa Fe and the pueblo of Taos. D.H. Lawrence wrote here. Georgia O'Keeffe, R.C. Gorman and several hundred other artists have painted here. And if you believe in TV, Marshal Sam McCloud once enforced law and order here.
Now, in Taos Ski Valley, at least, it's Ernie Blake who rides shotgun, and he shows no signs of laying down his arms. "I never plan to retire," he said. "I'll die in this spot."