Above: Skiers wait for the lift pull at Agua Piedra. Photograph courtesy of the State Archives of New Mexico (Item No. 002468).
ERNIE BLAKE STOOD TRANSFIXED in the deep canyon of what would become Taos Ski Valley. In the spring of 1954, the only accommodation was a small, unfinished log lodge, its doors and windows gap-tooth holes. Prodigious snow lay underfoot as he and Pete Totemoff, an Alaskan Aleut, surveyed the precipitous setting.
Blake, who grew up skiing the Alps, had plans to move his wife, Rhoda, and their three young children to the site in just a few short months.
A man of almost unlimited drive and zest, Blake had already helped open Santa Fe Ski Basin (now Ski Santa Fe) in February 1950. He could be forgiven for thinking he could create a world-class ski resort in such a remote wrinkle of the almost unknown mountains of northern New Mexico, in a land most Americans thought of as desert.
Having initially pulled skiers uphill with a snowcat, Blake and a crew from Taos Pueblo, local Hispanic laborers, and some hearty friends cut the first lift line in 1956 straight up a north-facing slope, the initial tenuous thread of what would become known as the famed and feared Al’s Run.
Rhoda, raised on New York City’s Park Avenue, had her work cut out for her as well. As the ski area’s cook, mother, and general do-it-all, she spent those first winters in the valley living in an 11-foot metal trailer. “At night we would often get trapped in the trailer,” her son Mickey told me years later. “The door would freeze shut. An employee would have to pour boiling water on it to get us out!”
Although old black-and-white images reveal New Mexicans—miners, a rare homesteader, a Taos Pueblo man thought to be a mail carrier—on immensely long skis in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Blakes and Totemoff are among a cadre of audacious, visionary, and incredibly hardworking men and women who dared to think they could create a viable ski industry in the American Southwest. Many are chronicled in a new book I wrote with Jay Blackwood, Skiing in New Mexico.
Thanks to their ambition and foresight, New Mexico’s ski industry today creates an estimated annual economic impact of more than $142.3 million and offers a little something for everyone, whether it’s challenging your mettle on Al’s Run, spending a weekday carving fresh powder with friends at Ski Santa Fe, or helping the kiddos find their footing at Pajarito Mountain Ski Area, in Los Alamos. As we eagerly watch the snow reports, it’s worth looking back at a few of those folks who made it possible.
GIVE SOME CREDIT to the Los Alamos Ranch School for helping to lay New Mexico’s base layer of skiers. Founded in 1917 by Ashley Pond Jr., the boarding school in the Jemez Mountains complemented rigorous academics with robust outdoor activities. In the winter, students loaded horses with everything they needed for days in the snowy woods, including their large, stiff skis. When the snow eventually became too deep for the horses, the young men loaded everything on heavy sleds they pulled by rope up to a log cabin at Camp May.
Their reward? Another hike, yet higher, to the actual skiing on a slope they nicknamed Mother, which remains central to Pajarito Mountain’s current operation. Yet despite those struggles, or maybe because of them, those young men returned to their homes across the country and spread affection for the sport of skiing and New Mexico.
The Ranch School eventually gave way to an even greater collection of outstanding minds—European-born scientists like Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and others who came to work on the Manhattan Project. With some 5,000 scientists and their families settling in the Jemez Mountains to design and build the world’s first atomic weapon during World War II, lab administrators put in tows and cleared land on Sawyer’s Hill as a way for them to exercise and build morale.
By the 1930s, the first public ski areas were being developed in the state. In 1937, La Madera Ski Area, near Albuquerque, installed rope tows in the Sandía Mountains. Two years later, Hyde Memorial State Park, above Santa Fe, featured a two-story stone-and-timber lodge with fireplaces, dining room, and rental shop. At Agua Piedra, a small ski area west of what is today’s Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort, a band of skiers from northern New Mexico and Amarillo, Texas, formed a ski club and cleared a slope near where Paul Bolander was building a lodge and cabins in 1937.
The Bolander family, who eventually helped found Sipapu, were known to put up any number of downhillers—on pool tables or whatever surface might be available—who became stranded by the notoriously deep snows in Tres Ritos.
In Albuquerque, Robert Nordhaus, a Las Vegas, New Mexico, native and Yale University–educated lawyer, established the Albuquerque Ski Club with other enthusiastic Duke City families in 1936. Nordhaus helped get a rope tow erected and persuaded the Civilian Conservation Corps to build a warming lodge. After serving in the famed 10th Mountain Division during the war, Nordhaus coordinated the installation of a 4,200-foot Constam T-bar (the longest in the country at the time), as well as an ice rink, bunkhouse, and restaurant. With the additional amenities, 16,000 people took to the La Madera slopes in 1946–47. But that was just the beginning.
ERNIE AND RHONDA BLAKE, along with a few others, perched on a steep slope above Ouray, Colorado, eyeing a massive, rusty cable on the ground. To them, the discarded relic represented a vein of gold. Manufactured in 1888 with some of the world’s finest Sheffield English steel, it had once carried mining buckets of ore downhill to the mill. It was exactly what they needed—just brush and bang off the rust, and add some reclaimed seats from B-24 bombers. Installed for use at the Santa Fe Ski Basin in 1950, it became New Mexico’s first chairlift.
The area’s 1949–50 brochure, echoing the current ski marketing, promised, “Skiers can choose between pleasant, easy-to-ski slopes or fast, daring downhill runs from the top.”
While some understood how to build the industry’s infrastructure, others found ways to prime the market. Ski clubs were crucial to grooming the state’s early ski industry, whether that meant organizing outings and races or spreading the gospel of fresh powder.
Many got their start thanks to A.G. “Buzz” Bainbridge and his wife, Jean, who often worked the Santa Fe Ski Basin lift line. The duo, who helped get Red River Ski & Summer Area and several other New Mexico ski areas off the ground, formed clubs right there on the spot. “I’d ask where a group was from and said I could give them each a 50-cent discount if they formed a ski club,” Buzz once told me. “They’d elect a president right there on the snow!”
The mid-1950s brought brothers Jean and Bernard “Dadou” Mayer to Taos, where they managed the Taos Ski Valley Ski School and built and ran the beloved Hotel St. Bernard. A few years after that, the industry rapidly expanded in places like Red River, Angel Fire, and Ruidoso.
For Ruidoso, Kingsbury “Pitch” Pitcher led work crews on 3,000-vertical-foot climbs into an alpine basin at the foot of Sierra Blanca. During weeklong explorations in 1958 and ’59, they studied the terrain, snowpack, and other factors to design a major new ski area from scratch. The area was so remote, the only way to get fresh supplies was via airdrop. Even then, the plane often arrived late, and the goods could end up landing far from camp in some thick Engelmann spruce forests.
The seeds of Pitcher’s efforts led to Sierra Blanca Ski Area. Opened for Christmas 1961, it became the first ski area in the nation built on land leased from a Native tribe, the Mescalero Apache. (Today, as Ski Apache, it’s operated by the tribe.) With the aid of Totemoff, Buzz Bainbridge, and Roger Pope, it debuted the longest monocable gondola in the nation, and the only one in New Mexico for five decades.
Then, on a crisp, sunny day in May 1966, Nordhaus and his longtime partner, Ben Abruzzo, joined Governor Jack M. Campbell to dedicate the Sandia Peak Tramway. An engineering marvel, the 60-person jig-back tram was said to be an impossible dream that took Swiss engineers and New Mexican building skills, plus two years and roughly $2 million to get up and running. Climbing almost 4,000 vertical feet, it linked the city to the 10,378-foot summit of Sandía Peak and the Sandia Peak Ski Area in roughly 15 minutes, rather than the normal car travel time of an hour or more. The mountain and the metropolis were connected.
But it meant more than that. While a lot has happened in the 55 years since, the tram demonstrated the lengths we would go to for a powder day. The next time you enter the luxurious 80-room hotel that bears their name at Taos Ski Valley, remember the 11-foot trailer the Blakes lived in that first winter. That spirit of adventure lingers like fresh snow.
These pioneers, along with many other bold, tenacious, wild, and creative New Mexicans, helped establish a fiercely independent ski culture, not one dominated by a corporate bottom line. They built ski areas out of their passion for the mountains and its winter blessing, snow. In the end, that’s all that really mattered—then and now.
Old Is New
Check out these three new additions to New Mexico's ski resorts.
Let’s Skate. Outdoor ice skating was enjoyed alongside skiing in New Mexico in its earliest days. But outdoor rinks have become as scarce as icebergs in the Gulf Stream. This winter, Taos Ski Valley’s Eis Haus rink, located in the new plaza complex at the foot of the mountain, will be open afternoons and evenings with firepits, comfortable seating, and skate rentals. (Cloudcroft and Los Alamos also have outdoor ice rinks.)
The race is on. On February 26, Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort hosts the Lloyd Bolander Memorial Pine Cup Race as part of a tribute to the resort’s founder. Bolander launched Sipapu in 1950 after helping out at nearby Agua Piedra. The giant slalom race, for skiers and snowboarders, follows a best-of-two-runs format ($25 entry fee).
Bring on the tech. One of New Mexico’s most prominent “old-style” ski areas, Red River Ski & Summer Area is implementing the state’s first RFID system to speed chairlift access. The automated, contactless system remotely scans your day lift ticket or season pass and opens a gate to allow lift access. You can order a day ticket online and pick it up at a dispenser at the ski area.