By Steve Perez
Ever since founder Ernie Blake climbed a steep ridge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in 1947 in New Mexico and declared the area below the site of his ski area, Taos Ski Valley has been renown as a rare locale in the U.S., a magical place where Old Europe mixes it up with the Wild West.
Think traditions like those observed at Jean Mayer’s Hotel St. Bernard at the base of the Taos Ski Valley. Here host Jean Mayer, a native of France, and his staff treat everyone like family.
The rates remain reasonable, (by ski resort standards) every meal is served up “family style.” Staff members pride themselves on learning all they can about their guests — not just their names, but their personalities, preferences and special needs.
Any particular week’s stay at the Hotel St. Bernard might include a steel-string guitar set in the hotel’s Rathskeller by local artists such as Michael Hearne hawking his latest CD release, or talks and slideshows by noted mountain guide and Taos Ski Patroller Dave Hahn on his treacherous journeys to Mount Everest, Vinson, Denali and Mount Ranier.
Likewise, Taos Ski Valley Inc., owners and operators of the West’s most challenging slopes, remains founding family owned. It is managed by Blake’s children and grandchildren. Founder Ernie Blake died in 1989.
Snowboarders Excluded Until Now
One such tradition held during ski season at TSV was just that. It’s been strictly skiers only, snowboarders need not apply. While “boarders” continued to overtake resort after resort in the U.S., TSV remained one of the lone holdouts among U.S. winter resorts. Here, the snow skier continued to reign supreme.
So, traditionalists experienced a bit of a jolt when the ski valley’s owners decided that it was time to join the new millenium.
As of March 19, 2008, the Taos Ski Valley will become snowboarding country as well.
Oh yes, there’s grumbling from traditionalists who believe “boarders” will ruin the ski runs with their edging style of riding, cause more frequent accidents and overcrowd ski lifts and runs.
Witness some of the comments on the blog at the newly launched site at skitaos.org:
“I had hoped that 2007-2008 would be a good year,” a poster who identified himself as Jim Brainard says. “But upon reading that Taos Ski Valley is going to allow ‘boarders’ has started the year worse that I could have imagined, Mickey–Ernie would be so disappointed!”
“We have a choice where to spend our ski dollars and one of the few advantages of Taos to counter a bad location and few cultural opportunities, etc. is the fact that boarders were not permitted on the mountain. Please reconsider and don’t ruin this ski area.”
Not ‘If’ But ‘When’
But TSV’s marketing maven, Adriana Blake, says the decision to welcome snowboarders with open arms was not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’
“The biggest reason for the decision is we feel we’re turning away families who came here before,” Blake says. “We’ve known for a long time there were guests who could not come to Taos Ski Valley, such as clubs or groups of people from metropolitan areas.
“They could not come here because they had snowboarders in their groups. For the last two years, friends of mine, those who used to come and stay at the St. Bernard, couldn’t come to Taos because they had a 14-year-old snowboarder in the family.”
“That’s a sad thing, especially in a place like this that families really share. If you can’t pass that on to a family member because they are riding something different, that tells us the policy wasn’t working.”
Sharing Love for the Mountain
Mayer, whose own children ride snowboards and who often borrows some of their colorful gear, is also looking forward to more interesting times.
The former junior skiing champion of France marks the 50th anniversary of the “St. B”, as locals call it, this spring. As technical director of the highly regarded Ernie Blake Ski School, Mayer, in his 70s, is as traditional a snow skier as they come. Yet he too, as the father of children who snowboard, welcomes the change.
Listening to Mayer talk about his goals for training instructors, one comes away with the impression that his love for the mountain, its spectacular vistas and pristine powered snow, is genuine.
“It’s not like going to the state fair, buying a ticket and getting onto a ride,” he says. “There’s much more to it. You have to really like the mountain life, the mountain spirit. That’s what we try to share with guests at the St. Bernard.”
Mayer echoes the sentiment of Adriana Blake, saying that over the years, a number of his longtime guests told of having to schedule ski vacations elsewhere because of their snowboarding offspring.
“When you hear that often enough then you think, ‘Well maybe now it’s time to do that.'”
The mountain is already home to those who ride on other types of skis, such as those used for Telemark and on short skis, he notes. To Mayer, it’s all good.
“It (snowboarding) is a gliding sport just the same. It’s just that maybe the snow boarders originally have gotten a little bit of a bad rap because the sport started in the big cities such as Los Angeles and they were a little wild.”
“But as far as I’m concerned, I’m totally happy about the decision because my children snowboard and ski as well so that will make it very nice for them.”
After a brief pause he adds with a laugh, “And I’ll do it.”
What to Expect March 19
That’s a question for traditional skiers such as Gabriel Olguin of Taos, who grew up on the mountain.
The real estate agent, in his 20s, wonders how founder Ernie Blake would feel about such a transition.
As Adriana Blake, his granddaughter, tells it, Blake would have done whatever he pleased and the heck with what other people said. It was his single-minded pursuit of a place of his own where he and his friends could ski that created the Taos Ski Valley to begin with.
“I think the snowboarders would be pretty pleased,” Olguin says. As he spoke, a steady, gentle fall of snowflakes appears to punctuate his words and powder the slopes behind him, improving upon skiing conditions that locals have described as the best in 30 years.
“I’m not a big snowboarder. I’ve tried it a few times, but it’s just constant falling for me. it’s going to open up a whole other business aspect to Taos for sure. There’s nothing like the steepness of Taos.”
Like it or not, the unknown impact of the snowboarders will be known come March 19. Incidentally, that date marks the beginning of a spring break period for college students in the state of Texas, TSV’s largest market.
“It’s going to be total madness,” Blake says, laughing. “It’s great. We love total madness.”
“It’s going to be such a new thing that we have to design a package for the snowboarders just as celebrated as the one we have for the skiers,” Mayer says. “We have the ‘Ski Better Week’ for the skiers, we should have something like this established for the snow boarders as well.”
The uncertainty of what to expect is one of the main reasons the shakeout period begins with just two-and-a-half weeks of the ski season remaining, Blake says.
Overseeing the Transition
The TSV general manager in Gordon Briner oversaw a similar transition at Keystone Ski Resort in Colorado.
“We need to see how we are going to structure the layouts and stuff like that,” Blake says. ” We figure, if we open and see how it goes, we can say, ‘Okay, we’re going to need to separate this completely or hook them together.'”
Perhaps seeking to assure snow skiers who might potentially shy away from the resort because of the decision, Blake insists Taos Ski Valley will not be overrun with snowboarders because of its great distance from big cities.
“That happens to those who are near big metropolitan areas because it is that age demographic,” she says. ” You have to travel to get here, so the ‘boarders’ that we’ll see are going to be part of families.”
In addition, the slopes of Taos Ski Valley are steep, rising from a base elevation of 9,207 feet, to its highest lift of 11,819 feet.
“It’s a very intense mountain,” she says. “So the transition will also be very interesting to see, with beginning snowboarders and skiers on the hills. It’s one of those mountains that kind of shakes you out, and you either love it here or you don’t.”
Even with the addition of snowboarding, Blake says the Taos Ski Valley experience will never be for everyone. “But it is the place that you can find something that’s perfect for you,” says. “Unless you want us to ‘valet’ your skis.”
“Other than that, it’s a place that is so special for each person and what makes it special for them can be a totally different thing for someone else. It will always be that way. We’re really ready for this new adventure, but also expect it to be what Taos is all about.”
On the Net:
Steve Perez is an award-winning writer and producer whose work has appeared online, in print, as well as on TV and radio for nearly three decades. He co-owns BayNewsVideo, a newsgathering and video production business in southern California. Visit his website, steve-perez.com.
See the Video by Mary Lynn Price.
Mary Lynn Price, who produced the video for this assignment, is a videographer, underwater and topside, and video podcaster. Her work has appeared in nationally broadcast documentaries, award-winning news and educational productions. Visit her websites divefilm.com and mlptravelvideo.com.
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