Taos Ski Valley bustles on opening weekend. A cold, late fall and several rounds of storms brought enough snow coverage for many New Mexico resorts to open on Thanksgiving. The holiday weekend is the first big moneymaker of the season, but this far south, it's never a sure thing.
There's one lift spinning and only about half a dozen runs open. Temperatures hit the teens and a wind announces itself with a bitter sting where the lift crests the first ridge—but the sun is shining and the snow is dry, soft and pliable.
David Norden looks like a happy man.
Sipping tea by the fireplace in the restaurant of the resort's new slopeside hotel, The Blake, the 59-year-old CEO of Taos Ski Valley says he's "a good halfway" through a transformation of Taos that promises to take at least a decade and sport a price tag of $300 million or more. Once a low-key warren of shops, smallish condo projects and coffee carts at the base of epically steep terrain, Taos has started to look more like a resort. It's a cautious transformation that seeks to balance new lifts, new hotels and new restaurants with an old vibe.
"Taos is a classic," Norden tells SFR. The Long Island native has just enough accent left to perk up one's ears, and while he gained his US Coast Guard captain's license early on, he's spent a lifetime in the mountains. He's a development guy, good enough to be called upon to shepherd projects in Japan, South Korea, Argentina, Colorado and Vermont. When the founding Blake family sold Taos Ski Valley to financier Louis Bacon in 2013, Norden started the explosive revamp.
The skiing has always been the thing here. Founded in 1955, the resort's salad days of the 1960s and '70s fostered a reputation for steep-and-deep powder tracked only by locals and those willing to endure a long road trip into mysterious New Mexico or a flight to Albuquerque and a three-hour trek north. Those brave enough—and skilled enough—to peel off their skis and kick their way to the ridges above the highest lift were rewarded by truly remarkable runs that attained legendary status.
But the kind of people who can ski—and, since 2008, snowboard—that terrain can't sustain a resort. Taos has always had enough tame territory to accommodate novices, and the ski school was so good that locals from Santa Fe were known to sign up to hone their skills. The mountain saw skier days dwindle, though, from a high of more than 300,000 in the mid-1990s to around 200,000 in an average year.
The massive project under Norden's purview has the stated goal to "grow better, not bigger." He'd like to see Taos hit that high again. Last year's season drew 265,000 visits, even with a midseason avalanche tragedy (a US Forest Service review said the resort's safety work was in line with industry best practices, and Taos installed a remote detonation system this year on part of the mountain to further enhance its avalanche-control measures).
Ever protective of the mountain, locals seem to have given the effort at least a satisfactory grade so far. While the opening act was a chairlift to the shoulder of the revered hike-to slopes of Kachina Peak, Taos has added faster new lifts around the mountain and a small gondola system on its redesigned beginners' slopes.
The resort protects its ethos, too. Taos spent money to attain B Corporation status, a designation that attempts to pair profit with purpose. It's the only ski resort with the distinction shared by companies like Patagonia and Ben & Jerry's. Norden says Taos has donated more than $1 million to the community and partnered with nonprofits on water conservation measures. They happen to have the side effect of producing more refined glade skiing at Taos, but that's part of the trick. So, too, with the introduction of resort-owned Taos Air. Yes, it brings visitors from Texas and Southern California. Without it, though, who knows when the Taos -airport would have been able to build the crosswind runway it had been coveting for years?
Taos is poised to ski better, eat better, sleep better. Old favorites like The Bavarian, St. Bernard and Tim's Stray Dog Cantina are still there. The Blake takes its named from founders Ernie and Rhoda, and its restaurant, 192, pays homage to the tail number on Ernie's plane. It's smart marketing, sure, but Norden promises it's respect as well.
A spiffed-up resort should draw more looks not only from skiers and snowboarders, but from real estate developers. The pre-sold units at the under-construction Blake Residences already command premium prices. Homes wedged along the Lake Fork of the Rio Hondo as it cascades down from Williams Lake easily fetch upwards of $1 million. Land and condos can go for a quarter million or more.
Ski companies will also watch the revamp with a keen eye. It's a fact of life at independent resorts, and one that makes some locals nervous. What if Alterra (Squaw Valley, Steamboat), Powdr Corp. (Copper Mountain, Snowbird) or Vail Resorts (Vail, Breckenridge, Whistler Blackcomb) comes calling?
"I know a lot of people here who will work really, really hard to make sure that doesn't happen," Norden says. "I think what [visitors] find here is that authenticity of experience, of being in the mountains."
It's worth pointing out that Stowe, Vermont—the project of his he compares most closely to Taos Ski Valley—is now part of the Vail Resorts empire. Taos boasts better snow. Stowe is on the other side of its high-end revamp. It's more an apples-to-aprés comparison at this point, but walking up to the ticket window to buy a single-day lift ticket this season costs $110 at Taos and $149 at the Vermont resort (Pro tip: Buy your ticket ahead of time and online).
There will always be questions about Taos' future. It's the nature of an independent ski area. The quaint old lifts are disappearing, sure. The slopes, though, are unquestionably legendary. Getting to ski more of them, faster, with better food and a little more life at the end of the day, might ensure Taos Ski Valley's future looks more like the glory days of its past.