Me and Ms. D1 at Taos.
At 2:00 am, racing along a lonely desert road in a rental car that reeks of pungent orange chemicals, the mind can play frightful tricks on a weary pilot. As can the dusty, desert black, punctuated by neon explosions of roadside, hallucinogenic casino massifs. Like a living, breathing Tarantino scene, piercing the dark, arid curtain in a car with a bumper sticker that cautions “This car does not brake for ghouls,” much to the chagrin of the undead strewn along the red dirt roadside like tortured tumbleweeds. And on that forlorn highway in a strange place so many miles from the Maine coast where I make my home is where I found myself two weeks ago.
Roughly 20 hours before, Ms. D1, and I left that home for New Mexico, a place some 2000 miles away and two miles higher. A three hour arrival delay into Albuquerque, courtesy of Southwest, transformed a simply weary last leg to the mountain town of Taos into a post-fatigue, two hour magic carpet ride.
I have never been to Taos, or New Mexico or even the southwest, save for a brief business trip 20 years ago to Phoenix. As a downeast Mainer, the closest I had ever come this strange and wondrous culture were random strolls down the salsa isle at our local supermarket and the occasional box burrito. As I savored armchair on-line forays to this elemental place, my appetite to taste this land so different than my own sharpened. And the fact that it cradled one of the great ski hills on our continent did not escape my attention. It was with heady anticipation that I fell, already fast asleep, onto the agreeable bosom of a soft bed at the Historic Taos Inn at 3:30am - nearly 24 hours after my alarm roused me from my own bed a world away.
I like to ski. A lot. Other than breathing, eating and other bodily necessitates, it is one of the most identifiable things I still share, 50 years later, with that 7 year old who made his first turns on a pair of pretty wood skis on Mt David, on the campus of Bates College, in my home town. While the night before a day on the slopes brought no shut eye for that excited little boy, the man knew that turns at elevation with flat-lander lungs would require all the recharging four hours could provide.
Truth be told, the attraction to Taos was more than mere recreation and epicurean. Ms. D1 and I have reached that “stage” when moving from a lifetime of work may begin to give way to other pursuits. But where to spend such time. As a little boy I answered without hesitation when grownups would ask what I wanted to do when I grew up. “I want to be a lawyer in the summer and a ski bum I the winter.” I got halfway there. Time to finish the task. Could a Mainer be a happy ski bum in New Mexico. The next week would begin to address that question.
The Taos Ski Valley is well-known for many temptations, not the least of which is its renowned ski school. And that was a prime attraction for me. I find first class instruction on a world class hill irresistible. And for $120 for six half days of instruction – done deal.
After too few hours of sleepy unconsciousness I rose, fueled by a little boy’s anticipation that still makes me bright-eyed on ski days. The 25 mile ride to the hill bisects high desert terrain that gives way to a ribbon of man’s highway strung at the mercy of the Almighty’s tumultuous topography. Late March parking along the access road is thin and close to the lodge area. Even so, there are “cattle cars” hauled by stout trucks that transport you unceremoniously to the lower level where you give the hill your money - $120 for the lessons and $77 for the day’s ticket. Over the next four days the ticket price dropped precipitously. The window price is $55 for the season’s last week. And for me, even lower through the generosity of strangers who gave me coupons of various denominations that slashed the price to as little as $20 per day.
I will admit that the bottom of the hill is a bit scary at first glance. In Maine, there is an order of things. The steeps are at the top with the bunny slopes at the bottom. Not so here. And the hill knows it:
A “ski off” placed me in the top group with three others. Miles, our instructor, is one of the hill’s veteran staff. Taos was his childhood hill and is where he has taught for more than 30 years. I feel fortunate to have been assigned to such a coach.
The next five days of coaching proved a revelation fueled by large doses of frustration. It is one thing to learn new skills. It is quite another to first unlearn obstructive habits seared into muscle memory. And that proved to be our common task. There we were, all level 7-9 skiers, doing Christie turns and other elemental drills to re-establish building block skills that were lost or perverted over time. Two among us were husband and wife who were using the week to practice for their L2 exam at Vail the following week. It gave Miles the perfect format to strip us down to basics – stance, balance, turn shape, non-sequential movements, etc. We spent much time on sparsely populated groomers on pure form movements that bought a greater sense of efficiency and control to each of us. For me, the key is stance. My posture stinks – on and off skis. But on skis, and especially in the bumps, bending at the waist in a defensive posture inhibits the kind of mobility necessary to absorb and extend. I learned that you cannot release the tips to make effective edge transitions, especially in the bumps, if your COM is perched north of your toe piece. Addressing that became my focus, whether on the groomers or in bumps, whether doing pivot slips, or falling leaf or any other drill. And when I got it, it was good. And when I didn’t, particularly in steep, bullet-proof, dust encrusted bumps, ugly and bad things happened. Let us just say that I have homework. But, like learning a new language, honing such skills takes practice, and I acquired the vocabulary.
No one can predict what will happen in life, or on the hill. Sometimes. On Tuesday, video was shot, with an MA the following day. On my way to the hill Wednesday I stopped at this groovy deli in Arroyo Seco to buy some danish for the MA session. I figured (incorrectly) that MA people are likely to shit less on the guy who brings the numnums. So I showed up at the bottom of Lift 1 and met the group with Styrofoam box in hand. Perhaps some of you would agree that food just smells and tastes better out of doors. And the essence of fresh pastries dancing in thin air makes one’s eyes roll back in the head. Perhaps as penance, as no good deed goes unpunished, Miles instructed me to do a series of pivot slips – while holding the pastry box level, in front of me. I am pleased to report that no numnums were injured in the execution of this drill.
Equipment failures, mechanical, anatomic or cognitive, are an inevitable part of the skiing experience. And I suffered one at elevation. I have a lovely new pair of Lange 130 RX boots that fit me flawlessly, right out of the box, and with my Aline footbeds. But on the third day, I experienced significant pain on the bottom of both feet, in the same place, on the outside of the foot. Most peculiar, I thought, and attributed it to the previous day’s work, or the altitude, or whatever. As the morning progressed, the discomfort intensified, equally so, the mystery. Despite the pain, I skied well and completed all the drills. But as I rode the #4 lift mid-morning, it occurred to me that - oh, yes, it all made sense now. You see, at the end of every ski day I remove the liners from my boots to let them dry. And I reload them back in the morning….
This epiphany could not have come at a more inopportune time. We offloaded the #4 and made our way over to the top of the Hunziker Bowl. So a choice. Suffer a videotaped bump run with mismatched liners and footbeds, or end the private pain and embarrassment with public ignominy. At the end of the day, Miles told me that in his 34 years of coaching he has never had a client, at the top of Hunziker, remove his skis, and then boots, and then liners and reverse them, and then reverse the disrobing. It was worth it, though I cannot say that my run was dramatically better with foot and boot properly matched. So much for all that alignment hoopla.
No video, but here is a photo of the site of the deed. Note the semi-circle, smiley sitzmark center right of the deepest ski mark.
Miles was exceedingly generous with his time. Lessons were scheduled to run from 10:00 to 12:00. Typically, he finished with us at 1:30 or a bit after. He is a career instructor dedicated to his craft. Timepieces for such professionals are dispensable.
Every afternoon, I skied with Gary, one of my classmates, and his brother, Doug. As we became better chums, they unceremoniously made me an honorary family member, and called me Cheryl, in honor of their absent sister. And I told them I was telling mom when we got home that they were mean to me again. I could have not hoped for two better companions on a strange hill. Gary knows the layout very well and dragged me all over. Much of the time we worked on the day’s drills, and most of that was in the bumps. And I learned that five days of bump skiing is rugged on knees well into their second century. But wan't the rest of me loving it. As with many big hills, the key to a good day is knowing where to go. We made calculated guesses, some which paid off, and other not so much. Hunzinker always skied well. But we hit steel encased bumps on Al’s and Lower Inferno that were humbling. I never did get into the real steeps of West Basin where falling is not an option. I did, however peer longingly up into the bowl on Katchina Peak.
If you decide to get into the steeps, you’d best have the skills to self-arrest. Miles made this plain as does Slidewell.
The boot up to Kachina peak takes 45-60 minutes – probably more for a flat-lander like me. Frankly, with the thin cover and thin air only my eyes would touch this impressive terrain. Gary and I were going to hit one of the closer chutes off the boot trail on the #4 chair, but as we headed up, a ski patrol called us back - lightning on the ridge. Next year a lift will whisk skiers up into that terrain¸ much to the chagrin of those who to prefer to earn their turns. I see their point, but will gladly load the lift for the ride up to this extraordinary terrain.
Miles kindly offered to schlep up the boot path with me on Friday to sample the goods. But I would not be on the hill that day, as our itinerary put us in Santa Fe. As it was, I stretched the skiing portion of the trip from four to five days. And a good choice that was.
Snow conditions on the first four days were similar to Maine this time of year. Warm temps and a high sun soften surfaces stiffened by dark, night cold. But as the week progressed, word of a late season storm began to percolate and gain traction. As it was expected to arrive on Thursday, one day after my intended departure, clearly a change in plans was in order. Giddy with expectation Wednesday afternoon, I said to the liftie on chair 7A, “Smells like snow to me.” To which he replied stone-faced, “I dunno, I am all stuffed up.” Fair enough. Either he did not grasp my literary conjuring, or I his.
As I drove the two hour from Santa Fe to the hill Thursday morning, the clouds lowered and grew grey and pregnant with the expectation of snow. Barometric pressure and the alchemy of liquid to frozen moisture came alive before my grateful eyes. In New Mexico, the skies are alive.
By the time I reached the hill, it was a veritable powder puke fest. The class spent the morning working on powder technique, and just having fun. In the afternoon, Gary and Doug and I hit different parts of the mountain in search of untracked goodness. Because of the lightening warning, we made our way back to Hunziker Bowl, and then traversed over to the top of Totally Wiard for the best skiing of the week. It is a relatively low angle chute with tight turns I reasonably made in a pant-load of powder.
But powder also brings the the risk of avalanche and I had a small taste of that - things that make you go hmmmm...It was on a short steep pitch called Psycho Path, right off the main highway traverse from Lift 1 to Lift 2. After dropping in, I traversed to find my line. As I did, I observed about five feet up hill from me, and paralleling my course and speed, a large crack in the snow surface open, like the scribed fault of an earthquake upon the land. The slab separated just a few inches and went no further much to my relief. And I thought, as I quickly made my way down, welcome to the big leagues.
I skied my Kastle FX84” (2012-13 model) in this 8-10” dump with the same kind of pleasure and affection that I had in very different conditions the previous four days. It was the perfect Swiss army ski for the week.
Hunziker- looking up from the #4 traverse
Hunziker - looking up from below
Totally Wiard - bear left at the island
As I understand it, the martini is also the perfect tool at Taos as well. Gary related this ski school tradition to me, much as recited by On the Snow:
Yes, the legendary Pouron at the Martini Tree still exists. On the last day of class, your instructor will escort you into the woods to a lockbox protecting a blown glass goblet filled with martinis. There, you will toast to an incredible week of friends, fun, and ski improvement. This tradition isn't quite the same as it was when it first began, but no one's complaining.
The legend goes that, in1959, a student of Ernie Blake's (Taos founder) refused to move. The flat light on the Snakedance Trail scared her stiff. Ernie sent his son Mickey "down to Mommy" to get a batch of martinis. When the boy came back, Ernie handed his student the pouron and told her, "You will drink or you will die here." One sip and she skied like a goddess.
While I, regrettably, did not share a martini with Miles and my excellent classmates on the broad shoulders of an epic mountain snuggling under a fresh blanket of cold, white feathers in anticipation of a summer hibernation, I did toast my compatriots, the hill and a simply splendid week with a tart and sweet tequila drink in a Santa Fe eatery. And while the server did not admonish me to drink or die, I took no chances….
Approach with extreme caution:
Also explosive - consume with extreme caution
Edited by deliberate1 - 4/13/14 at 9:09am