Alpine Charm in the Rockies
By Henry Shukman, February 8, 2013 7:35 pm The Financial Times
On a recent visit to Taos, staying at the Bavarian Lodge, a hotel and inn all on its own, high up the valley beyond the resort’s base area, I took myself on a quiet walk late one night. The Bavarian stands amid pine forest at 10,200ft, and the snow at that height didn’t so much creak as squeal as I walked. The moon turned the ski-runs further up the mountainside an aquamarine blue, and the sky itself glittered, the cold was so fierce. The thermometer was well below zero Fahrenheit.
Behind me I could just hear the faint strains of Tyrolean oompah music coming from the Bavarian’s bar, where the guests would have been lifting their steins of dark Spaten beer from Munich and ruminating over the day’s excitement on these same slopes. But out here, walking through the shadows of a deserted, motionless chairlift, each chair casting a distinct darkness on the snow, I felt in the presence of something a bit menacing, inhuman. We try to tame the mountains with gondolas, chairs and pistes but they have, nevertheless, a life of their own. In a way, they still have nothing to do with us. You can feel it at night.
I walked past a stand of fir trees, black in the moonlight, beyond the reach of the music, until the piste began to steepen, and the shadows of a bump run became visible not far above, like a cascade of waves. High up, a red light was glinting: a snowcat working, the sound of its engine carrying faintly down the valley. Two hundred yards behind and below me, the broad chalet of the Bavarian spread in a golden glow of timber and lights, a vision from the Alps among the trees of New Mexico. It could have been a scene from the early days of skiing, decades ago.
Ernie Blake, a western ski pioneer who set up Taos Ski Valley, was born Ernst Bloch in Frankfurt, a German Jew. His family moved to Switzerland when he was young, and he grew up skiing. Then in 1938, with the war looming and Nazism spreading, they fled to New York. Three years later Bloch changed his name to Blake and joined the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army. It wasn’t long before he was back in Europe, working on General George Patton’s staff, interrogating Nazi officers.
Blake had a life-long love of mountains that New York City couldn’t fulfill. Back in America after the war, he moved west with his family and when he spotted the valley behind Taos Mountain, he resolved to set up his own ski area, buying up the lease on an old mining claim. In 1955 he hauled in a defunct mining lift, converted it, and opened Taos Ski Valley for business. Today, his grandchildren are still running the operation, and it’s one of the last family-owned ski businesses in the US.
In spite of his Jewish origins, Blake made a point of hiring Swiss-Germans at his resort. They were the people he knew who knew the mountains, whom he could trust with the finer points of establishing a ski resort. They also gave Taos Ski Valley a European feel it has to this day. A Frenchman, Jean Mayer, headed the ski school for many years, and established one of its landmark hotels, the St Bernard. Various Germans and Frenchmen followed. Then in 1996 another Bavarian, Thomas Schulze, decided to build a traditional Alpine inn, high above the resort. He imported old boards from Bavarian castles, filled the lodge with stuffed animals, old sleds, antique four-posters from the old country, beer steins and other Bavarian bric-à-brac, and opened for business.
The Bavarian is a genuine hideaway. A snow-packed road winds up the mountainside behind the main village of Taos Ski Valley, into dark pine forest. High above, sheets and crests of snow shine in the moonlight, and then the lodge comes into view, glowing amid its lights. Part bar, part restaurant, it’s like a wooden womb – just about everything is made of wood here. It feels like real mountain architecture, which isn’t so easy to find in US ski resorts, especially not so near a ski lift.
Staff whirl through the crowds in dirndls and lederhosen. Up above, the ceiling boards are painted with a trompe-l’oeil in faded colors; the walls are hung with antlers. A big ceramic stove occupies one wall, the kind people used to sleep on in winter in central Europe. Upstairs, three suites continue the decorative theme. The whole project has been to recreate Europe right here, in a cleft lost in the southern Rockies. It might almost seem a bit of a folly, like mad King Ludwig’s famous castle, were it not so convincing, and so welcoming. It feels like it’s been here a hundred years.
A collection of steins gleam on shelves above the bar – painted porcelain, engraved glass, pewter, each with its own hinged lid. The large space is both a beer cellar and a restaurant, and both parts benefit from the other. The restaurant’s schnitzels, fondues and goulash are just the ticket after a cold, hard day on the slopes, while the bar has the restful yet invigorating feel of a classic drinking establishment, somewhere you can’t help feeling exonerated, relieved of responsibility. Meanwhile, a deep tuba bops out a German bass line on the stereo, while zithers and lutes plink away over it. It’s old-country drinking music, to help the elbow up and the stein down.
The lodge may be gemütlich and Black Foresty as anything, but the chalet where we’re staying (a few steps away and one of three partnered with the Bavarian) is more modern European, with a stainless-steel steam room, contemporary furniture, and a gleaming high-tech kitchen that wouldn’t be out of place in some high-flyer’s apartment in Zurich. The beds are so wide they could comfortably fit a family, and have traditional continental bolsters.
None of this would be here were it not for Taos’s challenging and revered ski runs. Its appalling “steeps” are a byword for thrills among America’s expert skiers. The jewel of Taos skiing is its infamous Ridge, a high crest with precipitous snowy steeps on one side, and a vast view over the desert 5,000ft below to the other. It’s a sweaty hike to get up it but the rewards are immense – long empty runs where gravity helps you float through pillowy powder. It feels a bit like being a kid and leaping between hotel beds, landing on piles of duvets and blankets. (At least until I lose it and fill my goggles with bitingly cold snow.)
If you prefer groomed runs or bump runs, Taos has plenty of those too, falling from 12,000ft at the top to 9,000ft at the base. It’s a special kind of resort, remote-feeling, adventurous and sequestered, perhaps by virtue of being on the back side of sacred Taos Mountain, or perhaps because it’s still family-owned, and employs so many Europeans. Not only are the Bloch family still involved, they rotate through every job on the mountain – scanning lift tickets, cleaning toilets, serving drinks.
We found no lift queues here. They just don’t seem to happen, even on the busiest days. Even so, there’s nothing quite like being the first up the mountain in the morning, waiting at the start of the lift before it has even begun to roll – especially on a bright morning after a night’s snowfall, with the whole mountain dazzling like a spumey ocean wave. Then to be first at the top, up on the Ridge, with the bluish slopes deserted. You might almost be skiing in the 1950s, when mountaineering and skiing were still joined at the hip.
And they almost are, if you take on the Kachina Peak, Taos’s most strenuous run. The peak is at the far end of the Ridge, and you can only get to it with a grueling hour or two of climbing, with your skis or snowboard on your back. I had over 50lb to schlep, what with various kids’ equipment as well as my own, and by the end of the long grind up the narrow path to the top at close to 13,000ft, I could do nothing but lie down on the snow.
I wasn’t the only one. The summit has a little shrine festooned in tattered prayer flags, and around it a huddle of skiers lounged, waiting to get their breath back, before heading down Main Street, a long run that sweeps down to the ski area. When we were all ready, and tipped over the edge into the new snow, with the Rockies of Colorado visible 200 miles north of us, and the desert reaching to Arizona in the west, there was nothing in the landscape to tell us this wasn’t 1955, and we were among Ernie Blake’s first customers. But it was good to know an Alpine welcome was waiting for us somewhere far, far below.