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Transcending Time at Taos

The mountain where past and present happily coexist still has a license to thrill

December 05, 1999|GRACE LICHTENSTEIN | Grace Lichtenstein, who formerly covered the Rocky Mountain West for the New York Times, lives in Corrales, N.M., and New York City

TAOS, N.M. — If any ski resort could be called spiritual, surely it is Taos. Now more than 40 years old, Taos radiates its own gestalt, a blend of European ambience, American efficiency, small-town friendliness, Southwest magic realism. Call it burrito meets bratwurst. Call it mellow--as long as your definition of "mellow" includes enough double-diamond trails to make even demonic experts linguine-kneed before making that first turn. Or simply call it the most unusual big ski resort in the American West.

What is missing from Taos Ski Valley? High-speed quad lifts, snowboarders, employees with attitude, fashion plates and celebrity-hunting paparazzi, for starters. In an era of conglomerate resort ownership and condo empires, New Mexico's largest ski area is still run by the family of its founder, Ernie Blake, and it is his idea, not an accountant's bottom line, that rules.

Taos Ski Valley takes its name from a storied village and a legendary pueblo. As my friend Susan and I drove toward the valley one bright day last January, we paused at Taos Pueblo. We wandered through the silver-jewelry shops and felt the power of the pueblo's timeless splendor in the cold light of a winter afternoon.

The winding 19-mile drive from the town to Taos Ski Valley was uneventful, until suddenly we were staring uphill not only at the legendary moguls of Al's Run but also at the freshly painted four-story facade of the Inn at Snakedance, the newest and most ambitious lodge at the resort base.

The hotel will shock Taos veterans who have not been there in some time because it has replaced the Hondo Lodge, a hovel of a hostel that had squatted in that spot for 45 years. As a welcoming bellman took our bags, our shock turned to relief. Certain improvements do live up to that description, and the Snakedance, with its modern rooms and professional service, clearly was one of them.

Few new hostelries in ski country offer such a combination of convenience and unpretentious comfort. The rooms were not large, but unlike those at the older valley hotels, they had up-to-date accouterments, including televisions, phones and humidifiers. The service was both friendly and efficient, and the complimentary breakfasts offered hearty fare such as waffles and omelets as well as cereals, bagels and muffins.

The entrance to Taos Ski Valley has been updated in other ways as well. The sign that greeted skiers in the old parking lot: "Don't panic: You are only looking at 1/16 of the mountain. We have easy runs too!" is still there, but you have to search for it.

The entire parking area has been plumped up (it was paved in advance of this season's mid-December opening), and although the trusty old-time St. Bernard, Edelweiss and Thunderbird hotels are still there, you need to look carefully to pick them out among the newer structures, which include an updated shopping area, ski rental station and cafeteria.

Our first morning was typically northern New Mexico; the sun soon took some of the chill out of the January air. The sky is a blue so extravagantly deep that not even Crayola can match it. There was no wait to climb aboard the slow chairlifts taking us up, up, way up into the Sangre de Cristo mountains, beyond Al's Run, above the invitingly wide intermediate slope called Powderhorn, beyond the twin expert-only plunges called Castor and Pollux.

Once you get to the very top after two lifts, you have three choices: a warmup run back to the base down the same face you just rode above, beginning with an invitingly mild slope called Bambi; a curvaceous glide around the corner to the intermediate playgrounds of the Kachina bowl; or a heart-thumping hike up to the Highline or West Basin ridges, from which snow-filled expert chutes cascade down into the main ski areas.

It had been an uncharacteristically low snowfall season thus far. Both Susan and I are advanced-level skiers, but neither of us had skied much in the short season before this trip, so we opted for Kachina's mild-mannered, sun-filled descents.

After we had carved our way past the ever-present ski classes along the easiest route, Honeysuckle, and through the swoops and crests of intermediate lanes like Shalako and Lone Star, we almost felt we were on as gentle a big mountain as Snowmass in Colorado or Deer Valley in Utah, minus all the people. But then we detoured to tough, short pistes like Psychopath and Inferno, and the comparisons vanished. Taos terrain is most memorable for its bumps and steeps, so if you scare easily, it's best to tackle the tough stuff with an instructor.

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