Ski Diva Extraordinaire
Location: Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico (Sangre de Cristo Range, Southern Rocky Mountains)
Trip Length: December 14-19
Days Skied: December 14-19 (6 days)
Ski: Moment Sierra 162, with Look Pivot 15 bindings
This was the earliest season ski trip I have ever taken, and I was counting and marking off the days for the trip to begin. My husband and I both decided to claim Taos as our favorite "local" mountain, our favorite mountain of choice within a long day's driving distance from our home in Tulsa, Oklahoma at about 11-12 hours in good conditions (spoiler alert, we did NOT make the drive up in good conditions).
My husband, myself, and our dog, a Great Pyrenees named Moon who loves to come on ski trips, began the drive up on the afternoon of December 13, 2023. Our trip was unfortunately delayed due to needing to help my husband's elderly mother with sudden issues arising in her house before we left. We began our drive far later than we would have wished even though we had packed and prepared the day before, hearing reports of a winter storm in western Oklahoma and New Mexico.
My husband chose to try out the panhandle route as per Google's recommendations. For any of my fellow Oklahoman's or others making the drive through Oklahoma, I highly recommend to NEVER take this route. Google will tell you it is an efficient use of your time and a great route to take.
Google is lying.
The panhandle route is a route of misery and pain, with no bathrooms or gas stations in sight for hundreds of miles, leading to the possibility of getting stranded without gas in the middle of vast empty, abandoned farms and industrial plains with no other cars or civilization in site for hours. Not only this, but the roads are fairly small and uncared for, with low speed limits, greatly lengthening the drive.
Even worse, we entered the outer reaches of the winter storm right as we began to enter the small, deserted roads of the Oklahoma panhandle. Luckily, my husband as an Oklahoma native, knew the reputation of the panhandle and we had been through there once before, so we filled up on gas before entering this route. Luckily we did--we encountered a winter storm which was not that fierce or intense compared to those further north or in the mountains, but with very poorly cared for and no snow plows or salt on the roads, they soon became very slick. Visibility suffered, and we saw one of the only cars we passed on the road with its hazards on, pulled over waiting for visibility to clear.
We passed through dead towns which had once been tiny farming homesteads, industrialized, and now dead and silent. We had to creep through the slick roads, going slower and slower, until we were only going about 30 or 40 when the ice was particularly bad, to keep from sliding off the road completely or hitting the car in front of us which was also creeping along at a snail's pace.
This went on for hours, and our gas gradually depleted. We had to stop on the side of the road to use the bathroom in the middle of nowhere, because there were no bathrooms for many hours.
Then, suddenly, we crossed the border between Oklahoma and New Mexico, and though we couldn't see any change in the snow choked landscape around us through the flurries falling steadily around us, the road before us seemed sharply divided right on the state line; it was plowe, and iced. Our tires touched New Mexico roads, and we immediately stopped slipping as badly. A few moments later, we saw our first snow plow. A little while after that, finally, a gas station.
We stopped to take a break, took Moon out to stretch her legs, and then quickly got back on the road. The conditions steadily worsened, and soon counterbalanced the effects of the actively plowed and cared for roads. But at least we were passing towns and civilization around us, little villages and houses that were lived in by people, rather than being industrial farming wastelands, in which dwelt only corporations and seemingly no human beings. We lowered our speed as the storm built up upon the roads, making them slick once more.
It was early morning before we finally reached the start of the mountains through which we would wind our way up the familiar roads to our favorite ski mountain. My husband and I were both exhausted, but so close--my husband carefully steered up the empty mountain path. We got out several times to clear the snow which was clotting itself on the windshield wipers, sticking to them so that they became more and more ineffectual and needed to be cleared once more. We saw bear tracks ahead of us in the snow, deer tracks, winding back and forth over the roads, leaving their fresh prints before us.
The only vehicles we passed on that route were two snowplows, going about their endless work as the snow continued to fall, and build higher and higher.
I cheered myself and my husband by reminding us that we would have an excellent start to the early ski season with this snow. Though it made our trip there harrowing, there was a rich reward waiting for us in the higher mountains of Taos, where the snow fell even more thickly.
We arrived at our AirBnb, a wonderful little privately-owned ski lodge called the "Snow Mansion," that we knew well from our last trip, at about 7 in the morning.
Unfortunately, we entered our room, only to find that the water wasn't working. The only water coming out of the sink, toilet, and shower was a thin trickle of water, which would then sometimes become stronger, before going back to a trickle of pressure again. We contacted our host who immediately came to check on the issue, only to discover that the entire town was suffering from a water issue. A water team was called, and began work immediately on the well water source of the town of Arroyo Seco, a tiny, historic village cradled just outside the mountains of Taos. Everyone in the village hoped that the problem would be easy to fix, and cause only a short disruption of water.
Unfortunately, the hours went by, and the water trickled off to nothing in many homes, and only a few slow streams in others. The water crews continued work, the town was shut down due to the storm and due to the lack of water, leading to me not being able to get us food after us only eating a single early lunch the day before. My husband and I were too tired at this point to care, and we immediately rested for a few hours before getting up and heading out to the mountain.
When we got up after a few hours nap, the snow was heavenly--an early winter wonderland of white. Moon bounded through the snow, doing flips and turns, biting it and tossing it into the air with a look of great joy on her gentle, fluffy face. Will and I took our skis to the mountain, hoping to get some skiing in, but found that the lifts had closed early due to the early season, and the quick onset of night in the mountains. We took the opportunity to take our skis to Bootdoctors, an excellent little shop that has been in Taos Ski Valley for many years, and where I was fitted for my own boots and had our skis mounted. I left my Moment Sierra's to be waxed, as I had removed the wax from them during the summer to repair some scratches and gouges in the bases where I hit some rocks hidden under moguls. Then we let Moon run around in the closed ski slope with some other dogs, before heading back.
The water had yet to return to the town of Arroyo Seco, but everyone was hopeful that it would be back on by the morning. We rested, hoping for this, filling up a small trash can with the trickle of water still coming from our tub in order to flush our toilets, but unable to shower in anything more than a damp wash cloth.
The next morning, water had not returned. We used to trickle of water from our sinks to wash our faces and brush our teeth, and went out to the ski resort, where water was still very much operational, the toilets worked, and we could ski in the gorgeous fresh snow.
The snow conditions were excellent that first day of December 14 that we were able to ski. My husband has been learning how to ski, taking lessons with ski instructors at every ski mountain we visit, and then practicing the techniques and tips they give him. One reason among many that Taos is our favorite mountain, is because of the setup they have for beginner skiers, with many entry level packages, including the "Novice Ticket" which is $50 dollars for a full day of skiing on the green easy slope of Taos, allowing skiers to ride the beginner chairlift. There was also a magic carpet in the same area, which I had never seen be checked for tickets despite its many attendants, and which seemed to be free for new skiers to test out skiing in an even safer, more beginner friendly way. Despite Taos' notorious difficulty and steepness to its terrain once entering the other chairlifts, the Pioneer area and low prices around skiing there have always felt truly welcoming to beginners, something that drew my husband to Taos once we compared it to Steamboat, where beginners need to pay a full lesson price of hundreds of dollars to use the magic carpet learning area along with a ticket, and need to pay for a full price ticket to use the single green chairlift in the learning area that they have access to, making it extremely expensive to learn how to ski, as a beginner pays the same price or more to get access to the easy slopes and magic carpet that is accessible to them.
My husband and I spent the day at Taos skiing together, riding up the chairlifts and enjoying the snow. I used the green slopes to practice my drills and techniques to warm up, while admiring how much better my husband's skiing had gotten over the holidays. I could see that he immediately was skiing far more confidently and was going faster down the Pioneer green slope that I'd ever seen him do even last season. I broke off from him to take the main lift up and meet up with him once more at Pioneer, and found the fresh snow to still be holding on the upper slopes.
The only terrain that was open at that time was the main chair, and chairlift #2, which led even higher up to the Ski Patrol headquarters at the top of the mountain. The terrain at the backside of the mountain, my favorite place to ski when it snowed heavily, as it got the most powder, the best snow, and the least skiers on it, was still closed. Taos was making snow steadily each night alongside the winter storm they had just received, and was hoping to have it open soon. Still, there was plenty of terrain for early season skiing to enjoy and explore, and I spent my time going down Powderhorn, White Feather, and the green and blue trails leading down the mountain to check the snow conditions.
They were groomed and the snow was still powdery and soft under my skis. I was so happy to be skiing again, and truly enjoying myself.
Towards the end of the day, it became bitterly cold, and even with my very warm ski gear my hands and face became chilled at the higher parts of the mountain. The soft snow, warmed slightly by the sun, became a bit crunchier on my skis, but not icy or hard, as it was still easy to grip and cut through effortlessly. I met up with my husband who was having his skis begin sticking to the snow due to the conditions, and we decided to take his skis for a new waxing as well after taking runs until the lifts stopped moving. I amused myself finding jumps in the new, currently empty easy terrain park that was added by Taos alongside the beginner slope, going as fast as I could, and getting some air, practicing my takeoffs and landings.
We turned my husband's skis in to Bootdoctors to also get them waxed, picked up some supplies from them, and headed back to the AirBnB. Unfortunately, the water had still not come on, and this was now another full day that I didn't get to take a shower after skiing. My husband and I took another washcloth bath in the trickle of water, and decided to try to find a better alternative tomorrow if the water still hadn't returned. Our AirBnB host kept us updated and helped us by letting us use the bathroom in one of the other, empty AirBnB's, which had slightly more pressure for our "baths" that night as the work on restoring water to the town continued.
The next day, we skied again, and it was warmer in the afternoon but grew once again far colder in the evening. This resulted in the afternoon conditions higher up on the mountain slopes being soft and silky underfoot, while by the evening, there was a thin layer of crunchy ice forming on the top of the melted, fresh snow, and in the places where skies and boards had scraped the mountain flat, or where the wind had blasted it the night before. I enjoyed the skiing greatly, spending all day at the slopes with my husband, and then departing from him to ski the main chair again.
While doing laps on chairlift #2, which serviced several open steep and long blue runs, I rode a chair up with an older local as the conditions grew colder and talked about how nice and empty the runs were. He said that many of the locals at Taos tended to head in when the snow got the slightly icy or crunchy, knowing they had the luxury to wait for nice powder conditions when they came. However, he'd grown up skiing the midwest, so he was used to far worse ice, and enjoyed making laps on the empty slopes. I likewise enjoyed carving down the crunchy groomers, balancing as I skidded or cut across sheets of ice and turned in the generous patches of soft snow remaining. I kept going up until the lifts stopped for the day, and then I skied down and met with my husband as dusk fell in the mountains.
On the third day, still no water, but the issue had been discovered--a broken water pump. A new pump was en route from Albuquerque, but would likely take quite a while to arrive, and then to install. My husband and I found a gym in the town of Taos (not the village at Taos Ski Valley, but the larger town of Taos at the base of the mountains. This can be confusing to those who haven't visited this mountain yet, so I wanted to clarify. Taos also has a small airport that people can fly into, many lodges, shops, and restaurants, but is still very rural, small, and most things close early at night. A quiet, peaceful, and beautiful town with historical buildings.) Luckily, Taos also still had water, so we had the promise of finally being able to take a hot shower at this gym, the "Taos Spa and Tennis Club." My husband was also looking forward to getting to do some weightlifting at their gym as well, after skiing.
The top of the mountain was soft at the start of the day, with corduroy lines from being groomed. I had a blast making laps on these, and when the end of the day came and the cold and shade returned to the mountain, hardening the patches of icy crunch which had been skied out by other skiers, I stayed again until closing.
At the end of each day, when the ski lift lines closed and everyone began to leave the mountain, a group of dogs would begin to play around the base of the mountain, frolicking in the snow. This was the highlight of Moon's day, as she raced around the mountain with the other dogs, playing and chasing, and then flopped over in the snow and rolled down the slope on her back, trying to make herself into a sled.
We returned to town to find the water beginning to slowly improve, as the pump had finally been installed! We went to bed looking forward to enough water pressure to have functional water once more, and we weren't disappointed.
The fourth day, my husband purchased a full ticket pass instead of a Novice pass, so that he could explore more of the mountain. We spent that day exploring White Feather, a very long, rather steep, but still the easiest main beginner run on the mountain after the nearly flat Pioneer Slope and the separate lift used by the Ski School's Rio Grande Learning Center.
White Feather is a rather long voyage for most beginner skiers, and on most mountains it would be easily ranked as a Blue Square for its steep sections. However, it is a fun and exciting, winding run as well, with large wide sections that are steep and many branching paths which lead to other slopes, other chairlifts, and a Cafe called the Whistlestop which served delicious home baked cookies and stews they cooked there. We stopped at my husband's first mountain ski lodge to rest, and my husband was awestruck by the beauty of the mountains around him, so much higher than the Pioneer run where he had spent the last several days.
We continued slowly back down the White Feather route, my husband keeping control carefully as we reached the steep sections of the run. We made it down just as the mountain was closing, and my husband and I both decided to take lessons the next day to improve on our skills and and practice fundamentals.
The day of our afternoon lessons, we got out early to ski in the morning, enjoying the fresh corduroy on our respective runs. As was the case on most of the days getting more and more distant from the winter snowstorm on the day of our arrival, the mornings were beautiful and warm, sometimes so warm that we had to shed almost all of our layers beneath our shells. This led to the groomed trails becoming soft beneath our skis, but not enough to be slushy or sticky. The groomer trails in the mornings and afternoons were enjoyable to carve at high speeds, and easy for beginners and intermediates like my husband to learn to turn and stop on.