It's Different Up Here

January 30, 2017 | By: Kent Wilhelmi

We’re perched atop the summit of Pajarito Mountain, high above the sleepy, post-nuclear town of Los Alamos, when Dianne finally allows her disbelief to be suspended.

This is my partner’s first visit to New Mexico, and while she’s attempting, perhaps in vain, to wrap her head around the place – I think it’s all beginning to sink in. We’re fortunate to be in Santa Fe for a week on a business trip, and with my being a native – I am more than happy to spend our downtime showing her around the mountains I grew up on.

In her pre-programmed race to the base ritual, Dianne is already halfway out the front door before I happily suggest that she dial it down a notch.

“We still have time for a breakfast burrito, sweetie.”

Having spent the last few winters in Colorado, where the pre-9 o’clock panic is palpable, we are refreshed that the accustomed rush and hustle to the hill is notably absent from this place. A quick 45 minutes from our hotel in Santa Fe, the commute to nearby Pajarito Mountain is populated more with scientists than with skiers.

Lining up in the base area parking lot 6 miles above Los Alamos, the signs and symptoms of a busy 3-day weekend are familiar. Bleary-eyed fathers coax 5 year-old feet into rear-entry ski boots, while microfiber-fangled mothers balance crock pots, peanut butter sandwiches, and steaming carafes of coffee in a positively graceful dance against gravity.

As the mountain quietly hums to life, I steady myself against the hand-hewn stable of the base lodge. Dianne is still letting it all sink in. Something is different, here.

The liftie manning the controls at a noble double chairlift appears genuinely thrilled to see us. His name tag proclaims “Barney,” and he cheers that it “might be a busy day, today!” Dianne, swooping her head from side-to-side across the hill, has a hard time believing him.

It has been snowing steadily all week, and with the area on a weekend-operating schedule, the mountain is wearing a very pretty white dress, indeed. Rapidly climbing 1000 vertical feet, the floor of the Valle Grande spreads out behind us like a white volcanic blanket of awe from the summit.

Our first few cruisers of the morning are soft and buttery; sweeping hero turns on narrow, fall line groomers. As our morning tour progresses further into Pajarito’s 300 acres of skiable terrain, Dianne becomes aware that this little mountain is hiding a fair few sugar and snow-coated teeth.

Chasing each other down a steep, manicured screamer called “Lumberyard” would be our warm-up to what locals refer to proudly as “The Fab Four,” a collection of double-diamond runs featuring Volkswagen-sized moguls and a pitch that can only be described as “Breathless” (one namesake of The Four.) The snow is grippy and oxygen-rich; that very varietal of southern Sangre de Cristo fluff which only New Mexico knows; a surface not unlike banana cream pie and Cool Whip. If there is any ice on the hill, it is buried beneath several feet of perfectly packed powder.

Nearby groomed cruisers “One More Time” and “Why Not” slow the pace down, offering up a little something for everyone. A cadre of easy-going locals and families swoop by, enjoying this perfect morning alongside us, as we detour to gnash back down “Sidewinder” and skate back to the lodge for a beer. Dianne has stopped asking me “where are the weekend crowds?” a few runs ago.

Despite appearances on the hill, by 11am the lodge at Pajarito is bustling. The parents from the parking lot are taking turns lapping the Aspen triple chair, keeping an eye on a bubbling crock pot, and watching for their kids returning from ski school. A high school freestyle team is taking notes in a busy corner of the building, while an elderly couple is holding hands and tracing their next run on a trail map. Teenagers fist-bump, and long-time locals greet newcomers like old friends. If everyone here doesn’t already know one another, it sure feels like they will by the end of the afternoon.

Alas, our fast, half-day lift tickets ($39) are already waning before we’re due back in Santa Fe, when we encounter our first lift-line of the morning. There are 5 people in front of us. The queue is lined up for the Townsight quad, which has opened a few hours late, and is holding 7 inches of fresh powder from the weekday storm. Fully expecting this pod to fill up with hungry locals, Dianne gives me her best “I-70 Face” (a Colorado affectation, characterized by anxiety and a desperate Fear of Missing Out).

4 laps into Townsight, and with fresh powdery tracks evident on each run, her attitude changes to one perhaps unique to skiers in New Mexico. “I didn’t think places like this still existed.”

Glad to have let her in on the secret, I reassure her with the sentiment that every skier in New Mexico already knows:

“Yes, they do.”

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