OnTheSnow Editor Donny O'Neill headed to Taos Ski Valley, NM in late March 2013. His quest? To discover first hand why there's so much hype about Taos' famed hike-to terrain. He joined Taos Ski Patrol on their end of the day sweep of Kachina Peak.
It’s a wonder that a place like Taos Ski Valley even exists. When Ernie Blake spotted the snowy basin in 1954 from his single-engine Cessna 170 airplane, the mountain was remote, rugged and raw. A lot of it still is.
“I’d call our area a wild chunk of mountains that have been chiseled out by pure will-power of the Blake family to be a skiable resort,” Veteran Taos Ski Patroller Ricus Ginn said.
Ernie and his wife Rhoda began to “chisel” out the New Mexico ski area into the surrounding landscape while living in an eleven-foot camper at its base. Truly humble beginnings for a truly humble place, the resort remains one of the few family-owned and operated ski areas in North America. While it’s one of the premier ski resorts in the West, the Blake family has managed to transform the area into a polished, destination ski resort and still preserve its rough, raw character.
“We’ve got this chiseled out little chunk,” Ginn explained. “It’s been polished up to be a pretty good gem over all these years, but it’s still just a little bit more rough.”
Not all of Taos is extreme, but the parts that are sure live up to the billing. Photo: Liam Doran
However, you don’t have to be an expert skier to visit Taos; 49 percent of the mountain is categorized as beginner or intermediate terrain. Serviced by chairs 4, 7 and 7a, the backside of the ski area is made up of a variety of terrain—from gentle rolling slopes to steep mogul fields—making it a huge draw of the ski area. It also sits below the Highline Ridge hike-to terrain, an area that needs extensive control work following a large snow event. Highline also happens to be the route used to access the crown jewel of the ski area—12,481-foot Kachina Peak.
“We’ve got a little more of that, hot-rod, yo-yo skiing here,” Ginn described. “A lot of skiing that falls in that nice 35 to 45 degree starting zones.”
Those are slope pitches that appeal to expert skiers, but are prone to slides and indicative of avalanche terrain. Highline is littered with steep chutes and tree runs, perfect for funneling snow and debris into the high trafficked areas at the tops of chairs 4 and 7.
“Before we open the backside, we’ve got to do our Highline route,” Ginn said. “We have a lot of blues and greens that are sitting below, so we’ve got to alleviate that, even if it doesn’t open for skiing above the catwalks.”
As intimidating as it may sound, Taos is dedicated to making its unique terrain, including the hike-to runs, accessible to all ages and ability levels. Many North American ski areas have adopted open gate policies, where experienced and properly-equipped skiers can exit the resort into the backcountry in search of adventure and virgin powder. Others, like Taos, utilize in-bounds gate systems to control the opening of at-risk terrain.
Kachina Peak, the crown jewel of Taos Ski Valley. Photo: Liam Doran
These gates allow skiers with varying ability to build up confidence before heading into any extreme terrain. It makes it possible for all skiers and riders to access the best skiing that Taos has to offer.
Ski patrol uses the gates to open the terrain in stages, ensuring that the snow is stable and safe for traffic. Once the patrol has skied it, it’s open for anyone willing to make the trek. The process of sweeping the ridge at the end of the day is similar, closing the terrain in stages to ensure that there are no injured parties hidden in the area.
Before making the sweep, Ginn and I sit inside the patrol shack at the top of Chair 2 so he can finish eating a slice of cold pizza. Ozlo, one of five patrol dogs, struts over to me looking for a scratch behind the ears. It’s the least I could do, considering it was Oz’s owner Adriana Blake, who is also Ernie’s granddaughter and Taos’ Administrative Manager, who set me up on the sweep with Ginn.
A fellow patrolman airs his grievances when Ginn informs him he’s sweeping the Peak this afternoon.
“Part-timer!” Ginn shoots back in jest.
At 1:30 p.m. we stand up, grab our packs and skis and head to the bottom of the Highline boot pack. Ginn switches the trail sign from open to closed before heading up.
“What we’re going to do is flip signage that says what’s open and what’s closed,” Ginn explained. “We’re going to hike to the high point of this Niños Ridge and close the gate there. It’ll take two sweeps to take care of this ridge.”
Veteran patroller Ricus Ginn switches signage at Taos Ski Valley. Photo: Donny O'Neill
The 45-minute voyage from the top of Chair 2 to the peak is a rite of passage for Taos skiers. For Ginn and his patrolmen, it’s an essential trip. If anyone were to get injured in the area, the process of extricating him or her isn’t easy.
“It’s not truly remote but it’s far enough away from here that it’s a longer response time,” Ginn said. “We can get anywhere down below this chairlift in less than five minutes, but it takes a lot longer to get up there.”
A short boot pack from the top of Chair 2 brings us to the ridgeline. Skiers can head right to access the steep chutes and glades of West Basin, or head left for Highline Ridge and Kachina Peak access. We head left, a spectacular view of the backside of Taos and the peak in front of us. Ginn takes time to point out each line as we pass, from Corner Chute to Tresckow Ridge, home to his favorite skiing on the mountain.
“I spend a lot of time looping out there,” Ginn said. “To me it feels like the heart of the ski area. It’s dead in the middle of the whole thing.”
Indeed it is. The following day I participate in a patrol-guided tour of the Tresckow Ridge. The guided tour allows direct access into terrain that remains closed for the majority of the season. It’s an idea spearheaded by Ginn that would allow everyone to share in the Tresckow experience.
“When you come down, you get incredible views to the peak, incredible views back to these East Steeps,” he said. “Tresckow is my favorite on the mountain for sure. Anybody that wants to hike it can get a little bit better conditions off the ridge.”
We continue forward, past the patrol shack hidden in the trees, the glades and chutes whose names pay it tribute, and the sleds stashed in case of a rescue, before coming to the base of our final ascent.
The final leg of the hike, still a long way to go. Photo: Donny O'Neill
Earlier, Ginn indicated that we would get up to the top of the Peak around 3 p.m., depending on how smoothly the hike went.
“Sometimes we have to help people carry their skis up,” he said. “Just to get them going, get it done.”
Taos ski patrollers have been known to double as prophets.
Two skiers, beginners as they would soon inform us, are struggling up the steep pitch ahead. We stop and chat with them; a father and his son-in-law visiting from Mexico City. It’s getting late, the wind is picking up and the clouds are beginning to roll in. Ginn takes charge, hoisting the stranger’s skis onto his shoulder, his own still strapped to his pack.
We march on, our troop expanded by two, arriving at the peak a short time later. Tibetan prayer flags fly from a wooden stake at the top. Each of us taps the stake for good luck, thrilled and relieved to have finally reached the summit.
Prayer flags await anyone willing to make the trek to the top of Kachina Peak. Photo: Donny O'Neill
Our friends from south of the border descend down Main Street, finding the terrain to be more manageable than they first thought and well worth the effort.
“As soon as you get used to the nature of the ski area here, you don’t want that super polished finish anymore,” Ginn said. “You like the way that at our area, you’ve got to read the conditions, you’ve got to be a little smart about finding adventures.”
Ginn will make one last sweep to the skier’s far right and back, after I’m down safely. I drop in, take three soft, springy turns and head left towards a rock outcropping.
I maneuver through a narrow chute, bookended by sharp, toothy rocks, before gunning it towards the apron. I pop out at the top of Chair 4 and give a quick glance back at my line. The peak and surrounding ridgeline looms above me, my mind racing, imagining exploring all of those different lines on a Highline powder day.
I’ll loop back up with Ginn in the patrol locker room later for a beer. Finally off the clock, he is enjoying the latest victory in the battle to maintain the terrain. I ask him more questions about the ridge. He cocks his head, laughs and takes a slug of his Happy Camper IPA.
“It’s our own little nook back here and there’s a lot to explore,” Ginn said. “You’ll go years between skiing lines, there’s just so many.”