Taos—Cold, Snow, Owning Hunziker

Taos is nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico. The town is 20 miles from the Taos Ski resort, but there are several resorts—Angel Fire, Red River and Sipapu—within an hour or so. My Ikon pass was good for seven days of Taos Ski, so that was my plan.

One of the Skijourn Sisters who had skied Steamboat, Cathy, was planning to join me for a few days, and my sister and her husband were driving in the same day as me. I pulled in, my truck caked with ice and fine red sand that the road crews used on the snow packed highway. The wheel wells were solid ice and snow, with only enough room for the tires to rotate. When I turned the wheels I could hear the rubbing, tire against ice.

When a person is on a ski trip, snow is a good thing. So while I was relieved to make it through the blizzard, I also knew snow on the roads meant snow on the mountains. Along with the snow was bitter cold weather—somewhat unexpected for the lower elevations. Often it will be cold on the mountain, but the towns will be warmer. Not so this week.

My sister and her husband drove in a few hours after I did, and while their car wasn’t as covered in ice and snow as my truck was, they were visibly shaken by the treacherous drive. They had come through a mountain pass, too. But unlike me they were unprepared for the cold snap. They had just driven 800 miles south from Hardin, Montana, and had expected warm weather. Oh, oh, not so.

I fixed them a cool gin and tonic to soothe their frazzled nerves (and to soothe mine, too) and we began to chat. One thing I will say about my siblings is that I love their company! It seems we can’t run out of topics to cover. It was great fun to have them join me on my sojourn, even for a short time.

I skied the next day while Bernice and Gayl explored Taos. It was good to get back to the mountain and reacquaint myself with the lifts and runs. I notice things now that I didn’t notice before—like how many high speed lifts a mountain has, how many people the chairs will seat (in the olden days the chairs would hold one or two people, nowadays there are chairs that take eight, and there are gondolas and trams that take anywhere from 6 to 100!). The high-speed chairs are credited for eliminating the lift lines that I grew up with in the 70s and 80s. And while I don’t exactly understand how these chairs work–most of them have detachable chairs that slow down when you get on and off, and attach so they go faster up the mountain. Someone smarter than me figured it out. I still wonder why they don’t get all bunched up along the way…

With the inception of the Epic and Ikon passes that are good at 30-40 mountains, lift lines are beginning to reappear and haunt us skiers. I was at Winter Park during President’s Day weekend and a ten-minute lift line on Pioneer felt like an hour. The Vail Epic pass gets lots of grief for drawing too many skiers to resorts. Maybe a bad thing for skiers, but definitely a good thing for the resorts. I have often wondered, as I have traveled these three months and nearly 10,000 miles, How do people afford to ski? It’s so expensive! And yet, here we are, complaining about the crowds, the lift lines, and the price of gasoline. When I was raising kids, I was a ski patroller and later a ski and snowboard instructor so that my kids and husband could get the complimentary ski pass to my little Hyland Hills in Minneapolis. They all can ski better than I, but I am the one on the Sojourn. Probably because I am the only one who can afford it. Their time will come.

But for now, I was enjoying my sister’s company. We ate at Aji, a restaurant we thought was going to be Japanese based on the name, but turned out to be a fusion of French, Latin and Japanese. It was fabulous! Turns out the chef was Peruvian Japanese! We asked to meet him, but the waitress explained he was extremely shy, and he never did make an appearance. But I would certainly go back if given the chance.

Bernice and Gayl, expecting a spring break and then ending up in the depths of winter, decided to leave early and try to avoid the pass, so headed south to Albuquerque to catch I-25 north back to Montana. By then Cathy arrived, and our days of skiing resumed. Cathy is a PSIA level 2 instructor and has practically perfect parallel turns. She had rented a large Ford SUV, but I saw right away that it had all weather radials, not snow tires. The next day I insisted on driving my truck and it was a good thing I did.

Cathy in the deep and steep.

We were blessed the first day with about four inches of snow that tweaked our appetites. The next day it snowed and snowed and snowed. Cathy and I skied fresh powder all day. Taos’ upper mountain, Kachina, is prone to avalanche, and was closed. In addition, there are a couple ridges that hard core skiers hike to get to some chutes and bowls, and Taos keeps the upper chair closed to give the hikers one day on their own. I think it’s pretty cool that they do that. We had a blast thanking the gods that be for the snow, and late in the day we decided to ski Hunziker Bowl, a short hike from Chair 4 on the backside. We hadn’t been back there, and it was just Cathy and me. Hunziker is a black diamond run, usually filled with moguls. I had skied it a couple days earlier and found it challenging enough. We traversed to the far side of the bowl, and I saw a guy up top waiting for us. I waved him over and it turned out to be a ski patroller. I asked him the best way down, he said, “Go around that big boulder, between a couple trees, and the rest will just happen. We get the best powder around.”

So we did just that. As I rounded the big boulder, I hit waist deep powder that poofed up just like in the videos. I have skied a lot of years, and I have never caught a pow day like that day. When we got down out of the steep, another patroller came up to us. We were giddy. He asked us to move along—they were closing the run due to unstable snow conditions, and we were the last out. WE CLOSED DOWN HUNZIKER.

Happiness is…

We skied ‘til the lifts closed, and then found out that while most of the cars were gone, there were plenty of cars having trouble getting out. A foot of snow had fallen on the parking lot, and small cars and SUVs were struggling, especially if they didn’t have a shovel to dig or winter snow tires. Cathy and I helped people out by pushing them out of the deep snow. We were a little worried about ourselves, since so many around us were stuck. We did a little digging with my emergency shovel, and I shifted to 4X4 Deep Snow mode, and The Little Blue Truck didn’t even slip. Cathy was convinced then and there that she needed a Ford F-150.

Cathy’s husband David joined us the next day, and he hiked to the ridge to ski the chutes. David is a PSIA level 3 and gave me some good tips to continue my pursuit of a clean carved turn. The day after the deep powder day hordes of people descended on the mountain. Rumors were that people drove overnight from Texas to catch the deep. The runs got chopped up pretty quickly, and it was clear our epic day was the day before.

Cathy, David, me.

Cathy and David moved on to Utah and I had two more days at Taos. My SkiTracks reported 455,000 vertical feet to date. I began assessing the likelihood of hitting a goal of 500,000 vertical. My daily target was 10K, and I was easily hitting that number. But that would mean about five more days of skiing, and I didn’t have much more time on my Sojourn.

I considered my alternatives. I could extend my Sojourn a few days. I checked on room rates in Summit County, Colorado, an area I had skipped earlier. During mid-season, an inexpensive hotel room around Frisco was running over $250/night. Now the rates were reasonable—it was the end of the season, past spring break, and rooms were available all over for around $100/night. I considered how many vertical I could capture at Ski Santa Fe, where I was going to be in ten days. I was so close to half a million vertical.

Could I do it?

One thought on “Taos—Cold, Snow, Owning Hunziker

  1. Richelle says:

    Congratulations, Elaine!! We all have goals….and this one is amazing….. and not on my bucket list. I am living vicariously through you!! A fun story to read and great pics!


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