Taos. On these trails even experts can benefit from a few lessons

TAOS is a town of three identities. For skiers, it is the sequestered, legendary resort known for its challenging steeps set in a European-style ski village of Swiss architecture. For lovers of the Southwest, it is a town of artists and craftspeople. For Indians of Taos Pueblo, it is a homeland reaching deep into the past, pulsing with the rhythms of sacred dances. Of Taos, Zane Grey wrote, ``You must see, feel, hear and taste this wonderful country, and, once having done so, you will never be the same again.''

First, for the skier. Because of its high altitude (a summit of 11,819 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Range), its location in America's Sunbelt, and the protection offered by a tree line twice as high as the Alps', Taos possesses the perfect contradiction - fresh snow and sunshine. Although Ernie Blake, the resort's German-Swiss owner and developer, was cautioned against developing Taos because of its steep terrain (a plunge of 2,600 feet), he pursued anyway. ``I thought the skill of American skiers was advancing so fast that they'd want challenging terrain. In part that was an error, because they also want flats where they can look like heroes.''

So, after developing the gut-churning plunges, Mr. Blake carved out intermediate and beginner trails and bowls. To counteract the intimidation felt by many first-time Taos skiers ready to hightail it home without so much as buckling their bindings, he put up a sign at the base of the lifts that reads: ``Don't panic. You're looking at only 1/30th of Taos Ski Valley. We have many easy runs, too!''

Now, among its 71 runs, there is terrain suitable for every skier available from each lift. Still, 24 percent of the runs are beginner, 25 percent intermediate, and 51 percent advanced.

The awesome topography is neutralized by two factors: a caring staff eager to help the newcomer, and an outstanding instructional program. Every morning, a crew of ski ``hosts'' is stationed at the ticket area and the base and upper terminals of all lifts to answer questions about lift lines and newly groomed runs and to direct skiers to routes appropriate for their ability levels. They're there for a purpose. An intermediate run like Lower Stauffenberg or Porcupine might be considered advanced at smaller resorts. At Taos it's not a disgrace for a first-timer to take the easy Honeysuckle run down from the summit to warm up on the first morning.

Smooth intermediate bowls can be found off the Kachina chairlift. The least crowded is Hunziker. The short climb to its entrance ``keeps out the lazy,'' says Blake, who remembers the early days of skiing when every downhill slope was earned by climbing with sealskins. ``The run entices you with a mild concave slope, but just when you feel confident and relaxed, it drops off with the steepness of a waterfall and narrows down to force you into precision skiing in short turns.''

The double black diamond (expert only) chutes plunging from the ``high traverse'' off Chairs 2 and 6 also encourage frequent turning. And Rubezahl, the beginner return route from the east side of the mountain, can even be a fast screamer.

Some say the exceptional instruction at Taos is necessarily so - the terrain demands it. But the reason goes deeper. Blake, who is in his 71st winter of skiing, says, ``The art of skiing is a question of turning, not of becoming fearless and crashing down the slopes. Many advanced skiers are willing to take lessons here at Taos which they'd refuse with a sneer anywhere else.''

He is referring to the Learn-to-Ski-Better-Week, the core of the Taos ski experience: six mornings of intensive, fast-moving lessons focusing precisely on the needs of only seven carefully matched skiers, who ski with the same instructor all week. Sixty-five percent of skiers taking instruction are already expert. ``Oh, it's possible to learn to ski, or learn to ski Taos, without instruction,'' Blake says with a gentle, knowing smile. ``The Wright brothers learned to fly without instruction.'' After a reflective pause, he adds, ``The thing to consider is that the survival rate is low.'' The visitor experiencing the Learn-to-Ski-Better-Week leaves Taos a different skier than when he came, the staff here feel.

Many choose to stay right at the resort, distinguished from the town below by its unofficial label as the ``Village.'' In fact, it does resemble an Alpine hamlet. Nevertheless, within those Swiss chalets, evening entertainment is still Southwestern, consisting of Tewa Indian dances executed with full costume to pounding rhythms.

Twenty miles down-valley is the town of Taos, where nearly 70 galleries and craft shops keep alive ancient artistic traditions while being in the forefront of contemporary American art. Southwestern cuisine, that flavorful blend of Spanish, Mexican, and Indian dishes, contributes to Taos culture. During the winter holidays, the plaza, roofs of adobe buildings, and walkways to private homes are all decorated with farolitos, festive lights made from candles secured in paper bags filled with sand.

Between the town of Taos and Taos Ski Village lies Taos Pueblo (7,000 feet). The roots of Southwestern culture dig deep, for here, in adobe dwellings whose style is emulated throughout New Mexico, the Tewa Indians have lived for 700 years. The mission church of St. Francis of Assisi remains from the Spanish colonial era. In no other ski area in the United States can visiting skiers be treated to such longstanding cultural riches as the Matachines Dance performed on Christmas Day.

If you go

The town of Taos is 147 miles from the major airport in Albuquerque. Bus shuttles from Albuquerque operate twice daily, three times on Saturday. In addition, the resort operates free evening shuttles to Taos on Tuesdays and Fridays.

For more information, write the resort at PO Box BB, Taos Ski Valley, NM, 87571, or telephone (505) 776-2291. Lodging reservations in the town of Taos as well as in the mountain village are available from Taos Valley Resort Association, 800-992-SNOW.

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