In 1984, Mark Mortier and a few friends crossed over the top of Santa Fe's Lake Peak in flimsy leather ski boots, with skinny, 7-foot-long telemark skis thrown over their shoulders. They clipped at the top of a sub-peak on the other side and dropped into a small piece of heaven.
It was a north-facing slope, roughly triangular in shape, sprawling about 1,800 vertical feet down at an even 25-degree pitch, covered with mature, widely spaced conifers. Through the eyes of a skier, it was dream terrain, and Mortier and his friends had it all to themselves. At first they referred to it as "The Far Side." Later, people started calling it Heaven Hill.
Word traveled slowly. It was still the early days of the resurgence in backcountry telemark skiing in the US, and the community in Santa Fe was not much larger than Mark's group of friends. Skiers showed the spot to other skiers. It was an open secret.
Twenty-five years later, it's no longer much of a secret at all. Heaven Hill is known to just about every serious backcountry skier in Santa Fe. Sangre de Cristo Mountain Works, the local gear shop, even has directions for how to get there on its website. In most mountain towns, say in Colorado or Utah, this would be a big no-no. Skiers already fight for first tracks on the best backcountry lines, and they don't need more competition. If you don't already know, you don't need to know. And you don't put directions to treasure on your website.
That's the nice thing about the backcountry ski scene in Santa Fe: It's not so uptight. Partly, that's because the community is small and we have a high percentage of telemarkers, who are slow to boil. There are only approximately 100 to 300 backcountry skiers in Santa Fe, depending on who's guessing and what level of dedication qualifies, and their impact is diluted by the vastness of the terrain. Even on the first clear day after a big storm, it can feel like you have exclusive rights to the entire Pecos Wilderness.
"Friends come down from the Wasatch [in Utah] and say, 'You've got this all to yourself?'" Bob Lee, a longtime local backcountry skier, says. "On a fresh powder day, I never cross anyone's tracks."
Another reason for the small community in Santa Fe is that there's a high barrier to entry. First you need the right equipment—either telemark or "alpine touring" ski bindings, climbing skins, (ideally) fat, but lightweight, skis and lightweight ski boots with rubber soles. You also need avalanche gear—a beacon, shovel and probe—and practice in using it properly. All that can run you more than $2,000. You also need to be a very advanced skier, with experienced friends for partners. You'd be foolish to do it without basic backcountry navigation and survival skills, as well as an astute eye for avalanche terrain and conditions. For most of the winter, much of the steeper terrain in Santa Fe's backcountry is highly prone to slides. There are no avalanche forecasting centers in the state, like those in Colorado or Utah. Ski patrol isn't responsible for helping you if you're in trouble, and volunteer search and rescue teams are too slow to be of much help if someone gets buried. In most ways, Santa Fe's backcountry skiers are on their own.
Which, of course, is part of the draw.
"For me, backcountry skiing is more of an adventure than resort skiing," Mortier, now 55 and an architect for the National Park Service, says. "I like being out there, figuring out my way. I like route finding, accessing new things, connecting things up. I like testing myself physically. And I love skiing powder."
The season starts, in earnest, in mid-December, and it ends in June—several weeks after the chairlifts have stopped running at the resort. The climbing is great exercise. The views above treeline are spectacular. And the runs range from slaloms through mellow aspen groves to jump-turns in 45-degree chimney slots. The best of the lines are now named, although the names differ depending on which group you ski with. There's Elbow Macaroni, Bits and Pieces, Karma and Dogma, Raven's Rib, Valhalla, Styx, Rubicon, Uncle Buckle's Trouble, Tootsie Roll, Red Rope, Jump Turn, Too Late, Blow Lunch. Many of these are Mortier's names for the lines. He's out there skiing once a week, putting his stamp on them. "I'm kind of a diehard from the first snow to the end of it," he says.
Three weeks ago, Mortier emailed me to see if I wanted to go skiing. It was Oct. 21. The first real snow had fallen the night before, though it was only a foot deep, underlain by dirt, saplings and rocks. No matter. Mortier was jonesing. The next morning before work, we climbed the fresh snow up Midland to the top of the quad lift. On the way down, the rocks sounded like grinding gears beneath our skis; near the bottom, we sashayed just enough to leave what looked like turns in the thin veneer of snow. But Mortier wasn't phased. It was the white dawn of another season and, over the ridge, Heaven Hill had its first coat. "Never a bad day when you're skiing," he says.
I was curious if, now that the word is out on Heaven Hill, he has another private nirvana, stashed away from all the rest of us. He laughed. "Good luck," he says. "There are still secret spots. I'd have to kill you."
Decoding the BC
About the only backcountry ski names the locals agree on are Heaven Hill, Big T and Lost Fork. From there, everyone seems to speak in tongues. Here are some of the translations:
Elbow Macaroni = Commando
Guph = Blow Lunch, N +8
Valhalla = Too Late, N +4
Nirvana = Main Chute, N
Styx = N-
Rubicon = Gladfelter’s Gelande, Boot Out Chute, N -1
Armageddon = N -2
Charon = Steve’s Slot, N -4
Acheron = Jump Turn
Gear up: Both Sangre de Cristo Mountain Works and REI have backcountry ski gear, and the staff at Sangre de Cristo includes some of the most experienced local backcountry skiers in town.
Get wise: Sign up for a backcountry skills course (Avy 1) to learn avalanche awareness, beacon technique and rescue skills. Call Taos Ski Valley (575-776-2291, ext. 1209) or Beverly Mountain Guides (505-264-8364) for info.
Know the rules: Yes, you can enter and exit the ski area boundaries as many times as you like. No, you can't ski in the Santa Fe Watershed (it's illegal, and also extremely dangerous), and you can't ski closed terrain inbounds. And yes, Ski Santa Fe tolerates uphill skiers, but it has the right to ban them all if anyone acts like a jerk.
Get connected: Read about local backcountry conditions at the Northern New Mexico Avalanche Exchange, and post your own observations.
Go: Find a partner, and start with morning laps at the Santa Fe Ski Basin. Be gone before the lifts open, and be extremely courteous. Skin up on the sides of runs, steer clear of snow machines and never skin or ski over a snowmaker's hose or electrical cable. Start asking around about "Big T."