“When I heard Mickey sold the ski area,” Dave Hahn, a longtime member of the Taos Ski Valley ski patrol said, “I remember thinking, ‘That’s funny, a lot of us thought we owned it.’ ”
He was kidding, of course, but there was a poignancy to Mr. Hahn’s remark. Taos locals and longtime visitors to the New Mexico ski resort had the mountain to themselves for so long it’s almost as if some forgot their little jewel was a going concern, actually owned by the family of its longtime chief executive, Mickey Blake.
A crucible of native civilization, the town of Taos was a northern outpost of Spain’s colonial empire. The slopes at the ski mountain descend the dramatically named Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the “blood of Christ” range, named for the words used by a Spanish explorer at the sight of the blood-red snowy peaks at sunrise. From the ski area summit you can look out at peaks and land owned and inhabited by one of the oldest cultures in North America, the Taos Pueblo people.
The Ski Valley, founded in the 1950s by Mickey Blake’s parents, Ernie and Rhoda Blake, who came West with the dream of starting a resort, owes its unquestionable mystique to its remote location and stunning high-desert scenery, the area’s artsy sophistication, a low-key, Southwestern vibe and the Blake family’s commitment to both tough adventure-style skiing and family-friendly instructor-led weeks.
But the mountain’s heyday was back in the 1990s, when skier visits peaked at about 350,000 a year. As the facilities aged, skiers drifted away. By the 2005-2006 season, annual skier numbers plummeted to fewer than 160,000. (By comparison, an average season at Telluride, Colo., easily crests 400,000). Locals loved the empty lift lines and untracked powder, but the business was dying.
So, when the financier and conservationist Louis Bacon purchased Taos Ski Valley from the Blakes five years ago, he set out both to turn the business around with $300 million in on-mountain and base-area investments, and win over undecided, possessive locals. Or, as Taos chief executive David Norden put it, “make this a sustainable business without messing with the magic.”
As part of that plan, the company undertook the rigorous process to become a certified B-Corporation — a designation that requires an annual third-party certification of social and environmental performance and public good — the first and only ski resort in North America to do so, joining the progressive, eco-friendly ranks of Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation and Patagonia.
How common are ski area avalanches?
In the U.S., the vast majority of avalanche deaths occur in the backcountry, with more snowmobilers, hikers and climbers killed than skiers and snowboarders. In the 10 seasons ending last year, 259 avalanche fatalities were recorded; 103 of them were backcountry snowboarders or skiers.
But inbounds avalanches happen every season. Eight ski-area guests have perished in avalanches on open terrain within resorts in the U.S. in the last 11 years, according to statistics from the National Ski Areas Association and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Another two guests died on closed inbounds terrain in the same time period.
Recently, in addition to the deadly slide at Taos, a 150-foot-wide avalanche at the southern end of Jackson Hole’s Expert Chutes on Dec. 1 buried five guests. All were rescued without serious injury. Last March at Squaw Valley, five people were caught in a big slide near the Olympic Lady chairlift. Two of the victims were hospitalized for their injuries. The others were unharmed.
Hasn’t open terrain been cleared by the ski patrol?
When terrain is “open” by a ski area the assumption by the lift-riding public is that it is safe to ski or ride. But that’s not necessarily the case.
“‘Safety’ means there’s freedom from harm or danger,” said Dale Atkins, who advises resorts on avalanche protocols, “and we can’t guarantee that, not in that type of steep terrain.”
Avalanche risk is a complicated issue for resorts with slide-prone terrain. The powdery steeps are the goal for many skiers and riders, and resorts face immense pressure to open them, especially in the wake of big storms. Before deciding to open a slope, resort ski patrols use explosives to release loose snow and test the snowpack. They will frequently venture into hazardous zones to “cut” slopes on their skis, testing a slope’s stability, sometimes triggering slides. To determine the likelihood of an avalanche, patrols will study the snowpack’s layers by digging snow pits. And they will often rely on historical knowledge: when has a slope slid and under what types of snow and weather conditions?