The element of chance is something shared by snow sports enthusiasts and surfers - both are reliant on climatic variables wholly outside of our control. Whether by prayer, statistics, or otherwise we try to time our travel to increase the chances of having excellent conditions.
However; with “use it or lose it” vacation days set to expire before the end of the year and the Midwest baking, I decided to book a trip to Taos. Statistically this was a really stupid idea. Per Tony Crocker, Taos is much better in the spring when snow has accumulated through the season and the resort gets the boost of the moisture rich southern flow.
Sometimes you get lucky. Three of the six days were powder days and two I felt like I was surfing on whipped cream. It seems ironic that we had such wonderful conditions in mid-December at Taos when last year towards the end of January we had a total 3 inches of snow and temperatures of close to 50 degrees at Jackson Hole. I suppose that’s how the cards fall sometimes.
The draw for me and my SO was to do an early SnowSports week to get tuned up for our Jackson trip later in the year. $150 for 6 days of instruction coupled with the Mountain Collective and early season lodging deals made the trip really affordable. We used Southwest Airlines points for cheap travel to Albuquerque.
We took an early flight through Phoenix and then to Albuquerque. The Phoenix leg had an in-air emergency with an elderly gentleman – the first emergency I have ever seen (which is strange for all the years I have been traveling). Otherwise everything was easy and we picked up our rental in Albuquerque for the drive to Taos. A note on AWD rentals – I would not recommend Hotwire. I booked a secret rate RAV4 and then called Hertz to confirm it was AWD (which they did); however upon arriving at the rental counter we were told it was not guaranteed and the only AWD vehicle they had was a fancy Infiniti SUV which would cost us $200 extra. I managed to get a $100 voucher at the end of the trip, but felt so burned about this experience.
Otherwise, it was set to snow in Taos! The fancy car smoothly told us “Winter Storm Warning in your vicinity” every so often which was awesome to hear. The drive to Taos is beautiful as you climb into the hills.
We arrived around 5PM to El Pueblo Lodge on the north side of the town.
Day Two (Sunday – First Ski Day)
We zoomed up the road to 7 inches of new snow on top of 6 inches that had fallen on Saturday. At about 9:30 we waited at the top of lift 5 to be sorted into our SnowSports week. There was some confusion about whether they would offer snowboarding, but thankfully they did! Soon I was off. This trip was really important to me because I wanted to learn how to navigate steeper terrain with features. I also wanted a critical eye on my technique, having never taken a lesson before, and to learn where I needed to improve. I felt that I was advanced/low-expert, but would Taos verify that or refute the idea?
With no one else in my SnowSports week, and after watching me ride for a run, my instructor decided we would skip the drills and do some tests to see where I would shake out. The most memorable of which involved going into Walkyries Bowl, doing a couple of turns, and punching it through two trees at super high speed (explicitly with no turns). This was the first taste of more difficult skill building, and exactly what I was looking for.
We proceeded to hike the ridge after three runs and proceeded straight to the Kitchen Wall. Awesome powder in the trees – haven’t had that in many years and luckily it would portend more to come. Cruised some blues in the afternoon with the SO, snow was fantastic quality.
Day Three (Monday)
No one else showed up to either of our SnowSports weeks, so we both received one-on-one instruction for the whole week! In a way it was awesome, and I think really helped my SO (a level 5) progress; however I could see that having a group of people would be fun too.
There was still fresh snow in Lorelei and the afternoon was another great day to poke around lift 7.
Day Four (Tuesday)
More fresh snow, snow report said 7 inches, but near the top of the ridge it was more like 1ft. with some awesome big drifts. Snow was weirdly a little heavy, but improved during the day as more and more came and it stayed cold. Lift 1 stopped running around 12:30 - heard it was a mechanical or power issue.
Started off the day with an other-worldly run on Castor, huge deep powder. They opened the ridge after that and hiked that for Juarez - excellent big turns to the right. Then my SnowSports instructor and I took Ash Pond and I accidentally ended up on the lower part of Sir Arnold Lund. After that headed back up 7A and a patroller (I heard someone refer to him as the "grumpy" patroller (?)) opened up a ton of the West Basin runs. So we of course hiked up that and I was the 3rd or 4th person in to Stauffenberg! Unfortunately my goggles became completely iced over on the inside and after dropping in I had to fling them back. Tough tough to see, but really happy I did Stauffenberg (instructor did not tell me until we were down...this is one of those runs that made my palms sweat when watching it on Youtube).
SO was not feeling well with altitude, and my SO2 turned out not to be great either (although I was feeling so-so), so we left around 2:45. The snow seemed to be turning lighter, but it was time. My view is vacation is about having fun, so if someone is not feeling well it is best to remedy it. There are many powder days in the future that way, but definitely a difficult drive down! I know others have mentioned you don’t need AWD for this drive, and I agree when its relatively clear, but I really appreciated it driving down in the snow.
Day Five (Wednesday)
As mentioned here on EpicSki, there was a slide on Stauffenberg that must have happened relatively soon after we did the run on Tuesday. It shook me up. I was really glad to hear that the guy that was half-buried was fine, but also a bit more hesitant. Intellectually, part of the reason I love snowboarding is that you begin to walk the line of mortality and sport, which I think perfects the sport as art (as it does in skiing, as well, of course). However; practically coming face-to-face with this gave me new perspective.
Nonetheless, I had the best powder day of my life. The snow must have continued for a while through the night and become significantly lighter. We practiced jumping off the cornice above Juarez and doing grabs (which is similar to cliff drops according to my instructor). In this endless powder I had plenty of time to practice the gentle toe turns that are proper in these conditions. It is such a minute movement for such huge turns. The feeling of light snow washing over your body in the sun feels downright divine. I am sure I will remember this day forever.
Day Six (Thursday)
The low point – there had to be one day right? I didn’t sleep well and just wasn’t feeling it. My instructor was kind and we worked on moguls rather than big steeps.
(This picture was taken sometime around noon I think, just to demonstrate how empty it was...felt like a private resort).
It became really cold in the afternoon with the wind. Despite the excellent snow conditions I found myself wondering if six days of skiing was too much…
Day Seven (Friday)
It’s not! A blissful, beautiful day to close out the SnowSports week. Somehow Juarez and the Kitchen Wall still had powder to be found and we continued to Ruby Gully for a few endless powder turns even though we were two days out from the snow. I guess because lift 4 was not spinning this was still relatively untouched. It was amazing. We ended up hiking the ridge three times. We were planning to repeat Stauffenberg first thing, but upon inspection it had become more of a shark-fest than expected, so we headed to the ridge. Later, the SO and I then spent the rest of the day, until lifts closed, doing a big circuit through Lower Stauffenberg which had excellent, almost untouched groomers and I got to see her big progress.
I think the SnowSports week is so ideal for a level 5 because it will help ease the transition into lower advanced.
Day Eight and Summation (Saturday)
We had a beautiful drive down from Taos. I poorly planned our flights and an unsuccessful attempt to fly standby led to a seven hour layover in the Albuquerque airport. Nice airport, but not interesting for that length of time.
Taos has a different vibe than some other resorts I have been too. The most notable is that Taos proper is a real town with an interesting Southwestern influence throughout. I really appreciated that this was a community, with all the benefits and issues, and not some sanitized Disney experience.
On Taos Ski Valley – I am sure the really excellent snow conditions skewed my perception of the resort. Having 50% powder days in mid-December at Taos seems to border on ludicrously lucky. I love Taos for the powder days and sunshine alone. However; this resort is also a supreme example of how slope direction can have an outsized effect on ski-snow quality. I think a couple of days warmed up past freezing, but the shadowed snow stayed magnificent. It changed how I think about average snowfall – perhaps lower, high quality, snow that preserves great is a sufficient tradeoff to higher annual snowfall with poor preservation. The other great thing about the early season was the complete lack of liftlines, even on powder days. The longest we waited was about 2 minutes on Friday when only lift 5 was running on the front side.
Taos is also laid out in a fun and interesting way. It is bizarre that they only have 1,294 acres of terrain because it feels much bigger. This big feeling did not even include lift 4, 8, or Kachina. I am totally baffled about this subjective measure, because IMHO a resort like Grand Targhee with more than double the terrain, felt so much smaller.
I have also become a convert to hike-to-terrain. I never had tried this until I came to Taos, but after experiencing the great snow it engenders for multiple days, even days after it snowed, I love the benefits of “earning your turns”.
The SnowSports week is the steal of a century at $150 for 6 days of 2 hour lessons. They really can cater to every level of skier/snowboarder. I asked about proper group placement – I get the sense that you will not be placed in a group of upper-intermediates if you are advanced.
My SO was really pleased with her progress, and I saw great improvement. She went from timid, careful, slow zig-zag turns to more confident and well-formed carving. For me, it was a hugely important lesson to truly start to learn about steeper terrain and real mountain riding. I was so pleased that I was ready to do a run like Stauffenberg, and the ridge multiple times, and am really excited to learn more about expert terrain. It turns out that steep, big mountain, riding is what I truly love.
So there it is – Taos is an unexpected, organic place. If you hit it when it snows it will be hard not to fall in love with it and even if it doesn’t, you probably will anyways. The SnowSports week is sure to help you improve at any level. Highly recommended.
(This turned out not to be our rental car...but it looked similar and had a lot of snow on it!)