"New Mexico," a local wit once wrote, "has plains so flat that the State Highway Department has to put up signs to show the water which way to run when it rains; yet the mountains are so steep that the bears...have all developed corkscrew tails so they can sit down once in a while without sliding off into Texas."
To the amazement of anyone whose idea of New Mexico was formed while crossing Route 66 with its SEE THE DEADLY DESERT RATTLESNAKES and LAST CHANCE FOR WATER signs, New Mexico also has some of the finest snow in the country. And even though most New Mexicans don't know it, the bears are not the only ones sliding down their landscape. Skiing has come to the land of adobe haciendas and roadrunners. The mountains that form the state's disjointed spine thrust up as high as 13,000 feet. With every 1,000 feet of altitude being climatically the equivalent of 300 miles in latitude, a trip from the base of one of them to the top is like traveling from Mexico to Alaska.
"Altitude is everything out here," says Kingsbury Pitcher, operator of the Santa Fe ski basin and one of the most knowledgeable ski-area architects in the country. Altitude and face, that is. For the southern sun shines on the mountains with the same constancy with which it bakes the brown earth along Route 66. In New Mexico a ski mountain facing north, out of the direct gaze of the sun, can produce the most salubrious skiing in the U.S.—light, dry snow and sweater-sleeve skiing.
Take Sierra Blanca. This great hulk of a mountain soars up in the Lincoln National Forest, 200 miles south of Albuquerque. At night, from its 12,003-foot peak, you can see the glow of El Paso and Juarez, 130 miles to the south, and of Roswell, 90 miles to the east. The vast flat expanses of the White Sands missile range and the Tularosa Valley lava flow lie below—an area so desolate that the first atomic bomb was exploded here. Almost nightly, missiles seem to join the endless expanse of stars.
February 20, 1967
Sierra Blanca was built in 1960 by Robert O. Anderson, board chairman of The Atlantic Refining Co. and quite possibly the largest single landowner in the country. At one time, Anderson owned three ski areas—Sierra Blanca, Santa Fe and Aspen's Buttermilk. He invested $2.5 million in Sierra Blanca on trail cutting, lifts—there is a gondola and one double chair—a 16-mile switchback road up from Ruidoso and the lodge and adjoining motel. Anderson sold Sierra Blanca for $1.5 million in 1963 to the Mescalero Apache Indians. Why the $1 million loss? Anderson says that New Mexico has been good to him and he wanted to return the favor. The Indians hired Roy Parker, a veteran ski instructor and manager, formerly at Loveland and Vail, to run their investment, and Parker employs 15 Mescaleros as lift operators and cafeteria workers. The tribe also makes other contributions to keep its ski area in the black—or the white. A few days before Christmas and the first heavy onslaught of customers, Sierra Blanca had only a light dusting of snow on its best trails. While Parker was wondering whether or not to start making snow on the lower slopes—a costly and disagreeable chores—the Mescaleros dispatched their prize dance troop, which, wearing nothing more warming than body paint, performed the Mountain God dance on top of Sierra Blanca. Parker made snow, but so did the gods, six days later.
Sierra Blanca draws 80% of its skiers from Texas. Many of the folks know Ruidoso for its quarter-horse racing—its All American Quarter Horse Futurity, held each Labor Day, is the world's richest horse race (SI, Sept. 26). They come back in winter to show the kids what a mountain looks like. Others get the pitch from Ski-school Director Jim Isham and his pretty instructresses, who put on their Bogners and take to the road each fall like the tent-show men of old, selling the elixir of skiing to the Texas Panhandle towns of Hereford and Muleshoe, Bronco and Whiteface. Half of the people who ski at Sierra Blanca have never seen snow before, and Parker thinks that he has the largest stock of rental skis in the West—700 pairs.
The visitor to Sierra Blanca who wonders out loud what one does after the lift shuts down is in danger of becoming a victim of a brand of wide-open-spaces hospitality that can be more crippling than the anoxia of the heights. Ruidosans pride themselves on their hospitality at Futurity time, and the open-house spirit reawakens when the skiers arrive. "Fix your own" is the easy invitation, and Styrofoam cups with the host's name printed on them are filled for the road, so that a hand is never empty on the way to dinner. Dinner with Ruidosans is likely to be 30 miles away at the Silver Dollar in Tinnie, N. Mex., an 1880s building that has been restored by New Mexico philanthropist Bob Anderson. On the wide veranda stand three life-size saddle-store wooden horses. The interior glows with stained glass from Nob Hill. Dinner is at a long communal table, and the steaks-and-chops menu is painted on a Lancer's Crackling Rosé wine bottle. Everybody starts with an ironstone platter of serve-yourself salad and slice-yourself homemade bread, and the favorite entreé is steak and lobster tail and baked potatoes stuffed with everything but a simple dollop of butter. The Crackling Rosé flows, and the topper is a Pregnant Canary, Galliano and cream on the rocks. The journey back across the plains, through Lincoln, of Billy the Kid renown, is broken at the Inn Credible (sic), a skiers' watering place at the mountain's base.
If Sierra Blanca is one of the most isolated ski resorts in the country, Albuquerque's Sandia Peak is one of the most accessible. Albuquerque's mountain, unlike the ancient volcanoes that make up most of New Mexico's mountain landscape, is a great granite-and-limestone loaf that rose up in some primordial earth-shifting. The side toward Albuquerque to the southwest has a precipitous craggy face. But the opposite side, to the northeast, is a spruce-and-pine-covered slope that has been used for skiing since 1936. Until this season it was a long journey around the mountain to the skiing, but last summer Robert Nordhaus and his partner, Ben Abruzzo, opened the Sandia Peak Tram, two 60-passenger Bell cable cars, with a base only five miles from one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. New Mexico's small ski population cannot as yet support a $2 million tram, and Nordhaus and Abruzzo are after the summer tourist dollar as well—112,000 sightseers rode to the top last summer. To put grandma at ease, all of the machinery, the controls and the operator's console are exposed behind glass—the great drivewheel and brakes painted orange, blue, yellow and green. The hexagonal restaurant at the top has a sunset view of twinkling Albuquerque and an endless panorama of mesas and volcanic cones silhouetted against a Frederic Remington sky.
Albuquerque does not have a bad case of the ski bug as yet. For one thing, most of its expanding population has come in from the flatlands to work in the missile and nuclear industries, and they can play tennis and golf all year in that climate. Bob Nordhaus stages a combination all-in-one-day tennis tournament and ski race each spring. The skiing is on the gentle side, but what a place to learn! Ski school begins at the top of the mountain, and a double chair lift brings you back up.
The view to the north from Sandia Peak to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains ought to inspire any flatland beginner to perfect his stem Christy and get up there where the real mountains are, in Santa Fe and Taos. But the flatlanders are not the only ones New Mexico has to show. The state legislators in Santa Fe share the general disbelief that skiing is here to stay—or that New Mexico has got some of the best of it.
In Santa Fe it is easy not to believe in skiing. The landscape in winter is all brown adobe beneath the bare cottonwood trees and wisps of pi√±on smoke. The drugstores around the old Spanish colonial plaza do a big business in hearing aids and walking sticks for the retired who have come here for the mild winters. However, the winding road up to the ski mountain climbs 3,000 feet and it soon reaches the snow. It is un-paved, and the admonition, "Chains suggested," is not to be taken lightly, for it is a road of treacherous grades and blind curves, sometimes dotted with abandoned cars. The legislators, when they vote money for new roads, vote money for roads to ranches and gas wells, and the ski areas go hang.
Until the 16-mile road is improved, Kingsbury Pitcher, who once managed Sierra Blanca for Bob Anderson and now owns Santa Fe, feels that Santa Fe skiing will remain virtually undeveloped. "We are at least 10 years behind Colorado," Pitcher says, "and, sitting here with our fine mountains, we are watching the serious investment money pour into such places as Vail and Aspen. In addition to the road problem, we have no private land at the ski area, and no one can get money to build a lodge on national forest land." Meanwhile, Santa Fe, with its Spanish colonial charm, fine inexpensive hotels and restaurants, lies half empty in winter, when it could be filled with skiers. They would find a mountain reached by two double chairs and a Poma, with great fields of powder, no waiting lines and a vista across the Rio Grande gorge to Los Alamos, the atomic capital of the country.
If the trouble at Santa Fe is all mountain and no real estate, the trouble at the newest ski area in New Mexico may turn out to be the reverse. Just 90 miles to the north of Santa Fe, around the bend from Taos, Roy H. LeBus, a Wichita Falls, Texas oil man, is turning a 25,000-acre chunk of the old Lucien Maxwell land grant into Angel Fire, a golf, ski, tennis, archery, riding, fishing, shooting resort that sounds on paper like a sportsman's Nirvana—and bring the kids. As you drive into Angel Fire you enter a beautiful, wide valley where Shane would feel at home. This is high mountain-meadow land, with no desert in sight. Wheeler Peak, New Mexico's highest, is off on the horizon. The newly cut trails of Angel Fire are etched along the sides of the western face of a high sloping mountain that is diminished by the immensity of the landscape around it. Western face? In the New Mexican sun? Whatever are they thinking of? A tour with Jim Woods, development manager for Roy LeBus, quickly tells you. The western face overlooks the real estate. Up it will rise next year a Pohlig gondola, and a network of double chairs—15 are projected, more than in all of Aspen—will be noteworthy for lack of vertical rise. "We're building for the beginner," says Woods. In an enormous acreage zoned for commercial development, Woods conjures up visions of shops, discotheques, restaurants and hotels "as soon as the tight money eases up." Down the road is the Country Club, a brick-and-stone structure, its left half complete, its right protected from the weather by sheets of plastic billowing in the breeze. There is wall-to-wall carpeting inside, and a bar boy is waiting to mix your drink. A plan of the lots around the clubhouse and golf course shows 250 lots sold. The prices are gradually being phased up—"next week they go up to $5,600 the half acre." The streets are to be called Sugarbush Lane, Aspen Street and Vail Avenue.
Happily for anyone with intentions of serious skiing, there is another side to this mountain, facing north. There are two chairs operating here (mysteriously numbered 6 and 5, since as yet there is no 3 or 4), and skiers have to be bussed around on a mountain road to get to them. If they try to ski back home on the other side of the mountain, they may find that the major route home, a run called Sunset Strip, has been stripped by the sun.
A half hour's drive from Angel Fire up Route 38, past Eagle Nest and the Road to Cimarron, is Red River, another world of New Mexican skiing. Red River has for years been a summer fishing-camp town, a mountain refuge for Texans and Kansans and Oklahomans fleeing the fierce heat of July. Its one street is a honky-tonk stretch of false-front buildings covered with bark siding, a sort of Catskills West. Every afternoon in the summer there is a High Noon shooting for the tourists. Now the fishermen come back to Red River for the skiing. The flags of Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma fly over the snow-plow hill, and a ski instructor encourages his class with exclamations like "Y'all just tickle me!"
Erich Windisch, the blue-eyed Bavarian, formerly of Arapahoe, who runs the area, keeps interest high with evening ski-school parades down the mountain by torchlight and with ski-club races—Amarillo currently holds the Red River trophy, which is a gigantic brass model of Texas. Those who get bored with falling down can always go ice fishing on the other side of the parking lot: CATCH GUARANTEED, WE FURNISH THE TACKLE. TROUT 12¢ AN INCH.
Windisch has a pretty substantial mountain above those beginners' slopes, offering such demanding trails as Massacre, but he still talks wistfully of developing the really high terrain of Gold Hill, still farther back. However, in the fall, when he visits the ski clubs on his promotion tour, the first question is never about new supertrails. It is always, "Do you still have the Whirlybird?" The Whirlybird is a sled run for inner tubes.
Eight miles across the mountain from Red River is Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico's finest ski area. The handful of people who are real Taos aficionados think it is the finest ski area in the U.S. They really are a handful, when you consider that more people ski at Stowe on two good weekends than at Taos in an entire season.
On a day in Taos when the powder is fresh and the sun is shining—not an untypical day, either—their claim would be hard to deny. Here is what such a day can be like. Say you are staying at the comfortable little Edelweiss. There are only eight rooms, and you join the rest of the guests at long tables for breakfast in front of a big stone fireplace. Breakfast is at 8: fruit juice, pancakes with blueberry syrup, eggs, bacon, coffee, prepared by Dadou Mayer of Sallanches, Haute-Savoie, France. Dadou is not only your host—he and his brother, Jean, teach a kind of skiing they call "advanced experimental," which has a way of turning advanced duffers into graceful stylists.
The ski lifts start at 9, but there is no real hurry, for there is never a wait. No. 1 goes right up over Al's Run, the steepest mall in the West and one of the 10 best ski runs in the country (SI, Nov. 14). You pass it up for now, wondering as you do how anyone managed to ski it 58 times in seven hours—as did 16-year-old Paco Santiestuvan, Taos' top racer, in last year's annual Taos marathon. At the top you ski across to the new chair lift, which gives the area a vertical drop of 2,900 feet and opens up vast acreages of bowls, chutes and trails. Your first run is over the backside to R√ºbezahl, a seven-mile tour of powder fields that narrows to a winding trail, then opens up again to more small bowls, with Wheeler Peak towering above you. The last three miles take you into a long, winding downhill promenade through deep spruce forest, ending back at the base of No. 1.
You still have time to run the front side of the mountain a couple of times—once down Powderhorn, then the steeper Snake Dance, right to lunch at 12:15 at the St. Bernard, Jean Mayer's warmly rustic hotel and restaurant at trail's end. The sun streams in the windows through pots of geraniums, and lunch is a steaming choucroute garnie with a pewter tankard of draft beer. The meals are prepared by Felix Veirun of Notre Dame des Neiges, France, who leaves in April to be the chef at the Belgian Pavilion at Montreal's Expo '67. Meanwhile he sends one miracle after another from his tiny kitchen—and has been known to break down and weep when the platters on which the lobster Albert was served came back with the sauce of cream and cognac untouched.
After lunch you take a lesson with Dadou, who changes your whole idea about skiing in one hour. You find yourself planting your pole out to the side instead of ahead and diving farther out over your skis. "Look, look, look with your eyes—way ahead and then follow them." Suddenly your feet seem to come together and your stem vanishes and you're gliding down the sunlit face of Porcupine the way the Mayers do.
Later that day you meet Ernie Blake, the German-Swiss-American who owns Taos, for a drink at his home by the No. 1 lift. There's a sign outside that reads ACHTUNG, ACHTUNG, YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR, which is Ernie Blake's kind of humor. Taos does have the air of a small European ski village lost somewhere in the American West. There are only six lodges, a ski shop, a cafe and a tiny house covered with wooden candy canes, where Ski Instructor Roberto Garcia sells tamales and gingerbread. Ernie owns about 90 acres of what was once old mining land at the base of his steep mountain, and this has made it possible for him to develop a ski village right in the heart of the Carson National Forest. He has plans for other lifts on Kachina Peak: "We've only developed 50 acres and have Forest Service permission to develop 5,000 in all." Every lodge owner at Taos is an instructor in the ski school—one of Ernie's stipulations—and everybody who skis at Taos is on a first-name basis in 24 hours.
"We've done away with all the catwalks and widened the trails so that we'll soon be full of Texans and bunnies," Ernie says. It is true. The front face of Taos, the one you see as you arrive, the one that makes you consider turning right around and driving out of the valley, is still the realm of the super-expert. But winding back and forth around this mountain are such smooth, well-graded trails as Firlefanz, Intermezzo and Camino Sinuoso that anyone can get down, and Taos, once known as a playground for experts only, has a goodly share of beginners who find themselves joyously stemming down White Feather their fifth day on skis.
For dinner that night you drive a few miles down the hill to the little Spanish-American settlement of Arroyo Seco. Here in the Casa Cordova, an old adobe hacienda—arrowheads are still embedded in the walls—Taos Ski Instructor Godie Schuetz, formerly of Basel, Switzerland, and his French chef contribute further to the Taos reputation for having the best food of any ski area in America. A pi√±on-log fire burns in the corner fireplace, throwing ruby highlights through the Pommard bottles. Tomorrow you'll try Al's Run—after that lesson today—but meanwhile you raise a glass to your unfortunate pals who went to St. Moritz and Zermatt.
White Sands National Monument