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The Day Taos Opened to Boarders

On March 19, a.k.a. T-Day, Taos Ski Valley officially opened its slopes to snowboarding. Skiing Magazine sent one skier, dressed him as a knuckle dragger, and waited for the punches to fly.
By Nick Heil
posted: 10/29/2008

They began to arrive during the night: the joeys, the jibbers, the bettys, the barneys; the herberts and scrots; prepubescent groms and brace-faced gumbys; noobs and schlobys and yups—stuffed into Subys and Vanagons and an enormous Red Bull tour bus farting diesel fumes and bleating Snoop Dogg, grinding up the mountain road like a battleship. The next day, March 19, 2008, was what for months my friends and I had been calling T-Day, the day when Taos Ski Valley, one of the last places in North America that prohibited snowboarding, would henceforth be open to all.

Taos had been snowboard-free for as long as anyone could remember. So when the news emerged that its sacred slopes would abandon such discrimination, a decision that was announced abruptly in February, skiers took notice.

The closer we got to T-Day, the more the emotions escalated. On Taos’s own website, managers tried to ease tensions by encouraging a dialogue between the old guard and new. “Be sure to let our snowboard friends know about good hotels and restaurants!” chirped one note. A local replied, “I know a good place to eat: Vail.”

A few days before the 19th, there was talk of demonstrations, even vague threats of violence. The timing coincided with a contest sponsored by Burton that had snowboarders send in videos of themselves poaching runs at any of the skiing-only American resorts: Taos, Mad River Glen, Deer Valley, and Alta. One video even featured Taos ski patrol tackling an unfortunate scofflaw. No one was quite sure what T-Day had in store, but management wasn’t taking any chances. When I arrived that morning, cops patrolled the parking lot and armed Forest Service personnel prowled the mountain. Seeking a report from the front lines, my editors suggested I head up to Taos from my home in Santa Fe and “embed” myself as a snowboarder. I tried to explain that I was a committed skier who hadn’t slid down a mountain on fewer than two planks in more than a decade. “Besides,” I added, “I’m old.”

They didn’t care. They assured me it would be funny and told me to expect a package in the mail. A few days later a large box arrived at my house—they wanted me to go undercover. When I sauntered into the lift line on T-Day, I was kitted out as a young bro: Burton boots and deck, a camo-print jumpsuit, red-rimmed goggles with rainbow lenses, a bright green hat with a pom-pom the size of a honeydew, and a bulky pair of leather-and-gold-trimmed Skullcandy headphones. The editors had done themselves proud. I looked like a Technicolor jackass.

The lifts fired up promptly at nine, and the queue began shuffling peacefully forward. An instructor led three little kids on skis toward the chair. “Future snowboarders!” someone yelled as the quartet loaded. The kids looked around, bewildered. Wearing my getup, I was braced for an argument, name-calling, or a scrap—something—but the opening was uneventful. The only incident of note involved a ponytailed tele skier named Dupre Lon Tisdale, a.k.a. Tizzz, who cut into the front of the line, jumped on a chair, and draped a banner over the back that read, “Ernie Weeps: Keep Taos Free From Snowboarding.” The crowd booed and hissed. Tizzz’s sign featured a large head shot of Taos’s late founder, Ernie Blake, who looked like the love child of Fidel Castro and Sean Connery, with four tears, drawn in red marker, running down his cheek.

As I scooted toward the lift, I had somehow wound up sandwiched between two Forest Service officers brought in for crowd control, Bruce Maldanado and Krisha Baron, who were both on skis. I was dreading an interrogation on the ride up but my fear was diffused when Maldanado fell off the chair trying to take his seat.

“He’s a beginner,” Baron said as we glided above the slopes. Her partner had successfully caught the chair behind us. “Me too,” I said. She was big and tough-looking, though she fretted for much of the ride about an old knee injury. A menacing black .45 was nestled into a thigh holster strapped over her Forest Service greens. I asked her if she thought it was necessary today.

“So far, it’s been quiet,” she said. “Just verbal warnings.”

***

Taos Ski Valley has always been something of a ski-industry anachronism. Tucked into the towering, sun-soaked Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico, well off the beaten paths to neighboring Colorado and Utah, the resort has managed to keep its high-desert hippie-boho personality for decades. There are no high-speed quads or Michelin-rated restaurants, and minimal on-mountain lodging. The nearest Starbucks is 15 miles away.

What Taos does have is 1,294 acres and 3,274 vertical feet of some of the finest skiing in the nation. I’ve been a regular there for eight years and still discover new terrain each season. Untracked powder lingers for days after big storms. There are so many steeps, chutes, and cliff bands that the mountain had to post a permanent sign in the base area that tells first-time visitors that Taos also has intermediate terrain. The line from the hill’s highest point, Kachina Peak, a hike-to knob that tops out at 12,481 feet, is one of my favorite runs in the Lower 48. Depending on the year, snowfall can be sparse (Taos averages about 300 inches annually) but what falls is some of the driest on earth. If season-pass holders were defensive about relinquishing their turf, I understand why.

Plenty of stories circulated about why Taos had been closed to boarding for so long. Among locals, popular mythology held that Ernie Blake, lying on his deathbed in 1989, had expended his last breath to declare that Taos must remain snowboard-free in perpetuity.

“It’s just not true,” Chris Stagg, Taos’s PR director and Ernie’s son-in-law, told me. He went on to explain that the snowboarding ban had evolved out of genuine fear of the unknown—snowboarding still seemed “dangerous” when it first went mainstream back in the ’80s. After that proved groundless, snowboard prohibition evolved into a marketing gimmick. Taos began calling itself a skier’s mountain. By the early 2000s, though, as ticket sales began to flatline, it appeared inevitable that the mountain couldn’t keep shooing away over 30 percent of its potential market. And there was another, equally potent motivator: real estate.

“The people who develop and sell property in Taos were coming in and saying they had interested buyers, but they’re families with kids who snowboard,” Stagg said. “We started feeling like things were getting stale here. And so we began thinking, well, if snowboarding was inevitable, what were we waiting for?”

The counterpoint, to keep Taos for skiers, is meteorological. The average snowfall is just that, an average. Some Taos winters can run so dry that, during really bad years, much of the terrain never opens. A few people argued that, ban or no ban, the unreliable conditions mean that Taos would never be successful as a full-fledged megaresort, so why not keep it special and reserve it for skiers?

The ’07–’08 season had been one of the better winters in recent memory, but by the time T-Day rolled around, the snow was less than optimal. There hadn’t been a storm in a couple weeks, and the runs were packed pavement. As I skittered my way down a run, my board making a screeching sound as if I were sliding down a city street, I saw Tizzz, the tele guy, roaming around the slopes with his Ernie Weeps banner.

When I asked him how it had been going, he looked at me funny. I remembered that, oh, yeah, I was dressed like Bro-zo the Clown, so I scooted my goggles up and confided to him that I was really a skier in disguise. This seemed to perk him up. As a longtime pass holder, he felt obligated to push back against the end of the ban, he told me. “It’s not that I’m against snowboarding itself,” Tizzz said. “It’s more about what snowboarding represents. There are 685 other resorts where you can go ride. Taos has something very unique, very niche, that they’ve let go for some supposed economic benefits.”

I was happy to keep talking. Biting it in these boilerplate conditions, as I’d been doing with abandon all morning, would sooner or later break some of my bones.

While we spoke, Tizzz told me that some of the reasons for his concern could be found in the recent documentary Resorting to Madness, an exposé on the growing trend of ski-town gentrification and how it’s turning erstwhile mountain towns into soulless burgs populated by real estate agents and second-home owners.

“Allowing snowboarding is not about benefiting the community as a whole, but about serving the financial interests of a few. Taos is really special, but now it’s going to become Any Resort, USA. Someone has to fight the good fight!” Tizzz said before resuming his hippie-lunges down the run.

After he was gone, I sideslipped back down to the base. I made it almost all the way to the lodge, gathering confidence as my turns improved, but just before reaching the bottom I caught my frontside edge and went down face-first. I heard the wind expressed from my lungs with a loud “Hooooooffff!” and felt my shoulder wrench in its socket. I lay there motionless, in great pain, arms extended down the slope, directly under the chair until I finally managed to flop over and look up. A group of young guys, all attached to skis, floated over me in one of the quad chairs. They looked down, laughing and yelling something I couldn’t make out—probably because my ears were still ringing. Then they started clacking their skis together, and released a shower of loose snow down on my head.

After I’d convinced myself that nothing was actually broken, I limped into the lodge to recover over a coffee. The dining area was bustling with parent-or-guardian types, some walking around trailing bundled kids with teetering trays of food. I sat down next to an elderly couple and made a wisecrack about how I was getting too old for this sport.

“You’re not allowed to say that until you get to be my age,” the man told me. We made some small talk for a few minutes and I discovered that I was sitting with snowboarding’s founding father, Sherman Poppen, and his wife Lois.

Sherm and Lois lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and had come down for the opening-day festivities. Now 78, Sherm was a living legend. On Christmas Day, 1965, long before Jake Burton and Tom Sims had arrived on the winter-sports scene, he had bolted two alpine skis together and rode the rigid platform down a hill in his backyard in Muskegon, Michigan. He called his invention a Snurfer—it surfed on snow—patented the design, and sold the manufacturing rights to Brunswick. During the next 10 years, he sold more than half a million boards.

“You know,” he continued, “I started as a skier, a damn good one, I’ll tell you, but the thing I discovered about snowboarding was, and I say this to these kids: It’s really good to do it alone. There’s this Zen thing about it. You can really think about things, sit in the snow, and say, God, I’m happy today.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell Sherm that all I’d thought as I’d sat in the snow this morning was, “I wonder if I’ve torn my rotator cuff.”

***

After lunch, I changed teams. My plan was to spend the afternoon on skis (thank God) and see if I could ferret out any deeper insights into the communal reaction to snowboarding. The only drawback was that my editors insisted that I morph into a “gaper,” meaning I was forced to wear the other outfit they had sent me, this one from a 1983 Warren Miller flick—a forest-green Bogner one-piece and a pair of white-rimmed sunglasses. Suitably, my skis were a pair of 20-year-old neon-accented 207-centimeter K2 GS race boards, as stiff and straight as pressure-treated lumber. I was beginning to realize that all my editors wanted was for me to have my ass kicked by a pack of adolescent thugs.

I wedeled a few laps on a blue run called Bambi, survived, and decided to take a break on the sundeck at the St. Bernard, Taos’s most popular hangout. The typical blues band that often played there had been replaced by a quartet of longhaired teens, dressed in black, making a feeble attempt at playing metal. A few kids sat close by bobbing their heads, but most of the patrons huddled at their tables, grimacing. One woman in black stretch pants tucked into her ski boots walked past the band with her hands theatrically clamped over her ears.

It was warm on the deck, so I stuck around till the end of the set, drinking a beer with the top half of my ski suit unzipped to the waist, my elbows propped back on a picnic table, face aimed into the sun. A crew of randy young jibbers sat next to me, apparently impressed by my bare-chested repose.

“Hey, man,” said one of them, a shaggy blond fellow from New Zealand named Mato. “Do you get a lot of pussy?”

“That depends on your definition of a lot,” I replied, tilting up my white-framed shades.

“Where are the parties, bro?” asked Mato’s friend Camilo, who lived at Copper Mountain. “This place seems kinda beat.”

“Yeah,” said a third guy, Alex. “Where should we go to meet girls?”

I had to think about this. Though we weren’t exactly at Whistler, Taos wasn’t devoid of a social life, either.

“You should try in town,” I advised them. “There’s not much up here on the mountain.”

“Yet,” said Camilo.

I had time for a run or two from Highline Ridge, so I told the jibbers I’d see them later. They seemed like nice enough guys; I figured they were yanking my chain about my sexual prowess, but hey, that’s just the way kids communicated these days, right? A little sarcasm here, a little testosterone-soaked obnoxiousness there. Whatever the case, if an approaching-middle-age guy in a Bogner one-piece that was so snug in the crotch it produced the male equivalent of camel toe (manel toe?) could carry on an easygoing conversation with hipsters like them, it certainly seemed like we were all going to get along just fine. As I strolled off the sundeck, I heard someone behind me yell, “Nice fag bag!”

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t them.

***

A little later, at the top of the chair, I chatted with a ski patroller named Chamisa, who just shrugged when I asked her how many skier-boarder altercations she’d dealt with.

“None! Everybody’s been in an awesome mood today,” she said. “It’s been a real love fest.”

The closest I’d come to encountering any actual ire had been the day before, when skiers had come to Taos simply to relish the last day they would have the hill to themselves. I’d met a few on the chairlift. “I don’t think those snowboarders are going to like it here, with all these open slopes and everything,” drawled one guy, a vacationing Texan. “They shave off, like, the top six inches of snow!” squealed a woman from Albuquerque, sitting at the far end of the quad.

At the end of March 18, the day before T-Day, I’d skied down with patrol during their sweep, but drifted behind as we approached the bottom so that I could claim to be the last person to ski Taos “pure.” When I pulled up at the St. Bernard, the sun dropping behind the ridgeline to the west, the bartender was standing on the roof of the building, playing taps on his bugle.

If my run the day before was about the end of an era, today’s was about the beginning of one. Whatever hype had preceded Taos’s transition to board-friendliness seemed to have fizzled before it began. We’d been spoiled for a long time, I realized, skiing on borrowed time.

I slashed some turns down from the ridge and was about to make my last run down Bambi when I saw a small group lingering around a bench by the lift shack. They were mostly snowboarders, but in the middle of the klatch, relaxing on his side, was a tele skier. It was Tizzz, his Ernie Weeps sign nowhere in sight. When he saw me staring at him, he gave me a shrug. He was smiling and appeared to be having a good time. I nodded, returned the gesture. No one made the slightest acknowledgement of my Bogner getup. The last skiers and boarders were making their way toward the base, and I fell in with them. The hardpack, frozen solid all day, had just begun to thaw. I’d kept thinking it was going to seem mighty strange sharing the mountain with snowboarders, but as I swooped down the hill it didn’t seem odd at all. It seemed just like everywhere else.

-SKIING MAGAZINE, November 2008

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