Standing at 12,480 feet above sea level, I completely forget how to turn. My boots cement themselves against the 45-degree angle of Taos’ most famous mountain peak. Signs warn that ski patrol will not drag me down the run because I’m scared. The signs are also clear that this is advanced skiing. I should know better, but now fear and anxiety swirl inside my head. A voice echoes between my ears, “How do I turn?!? Why can’t I remember how to turn??? Just point your stupid feet down the mountain, dummy!” This internal dialogue repeats as I dangle atop New Mexico’s premier precipice. How I got to this moment begins a few years earlier when I first came to Taos.
I thought taking a ski lesson would be a good idea during my first trip to the world renowned Taos Ski Valley. Others told me about how good Taos’ ski instructors were at making new and advanced skiers comfortable on the famed northern New Mexico slopes. If I wanted to improve my turns and finally get comfortable in moguls, the Ernie Blake Snowsports School would help me get there. When I arrived, I lucked into a group lesson with only a single other member – like getting nearly private instruction!
My instructor was a classic Taos ski teacher. He was one of many who came for a season, but fell in love with the people and the tranquility of the New Mexico skiing experience, so he decided to stay on for nearly a lifetime. A teacher more concerned with making sure we all had a good day than anything else. After some preliminary turns to check out our skill levels, the three of us headed above the famed Al’s Run on lift 1. Like so many times in Taos, our instructor knew the other guy riding with us on the lift. Talk quickly moved to the news that the Blake family sold the Taos Ski Valley. Our lift companion voiced concerns about the sale changing Taos. Maybe the good old days would writhe away. Maybe Taos would lose that elusive thing called “character.” Could the bright yellow jackets of ski instructors be a thing of the past and be replaced with corporate logos?
Things did change in Taos. Perhaps the most reported was building the Kachina Peak ski lift, which ushered me to the top of Taos a few moments ago. Standing with ski poles in hand and staring across the western ridge of the ski resort, I remember that Taos sits among the southern portion of the Rocky Mountains. It is part of the same swatch of saw-tooth mountains ranging from Canada through Colorado and down into Albuquerque. Kachina Peak is a little different from her sisters as her top is flattened, which makes for a great place for skiers to take pictures and chat with each other about the view and the conditions. The flat top of Kachina Peak is also where I spot two bright yellow beacons that would become my salvation – Taos Ski Instructors!
I shuffle over to the two instructors, “Umm. Sorry to disturb you, but this is my first time on Kachina Peak. Would you happen to know the best way down?”
The taller instructor responds, “No problem! We’re on break and thought that we would sneak a run in before our next lesson.”
I think, “Am I getting another virtual private lesson at Taos?”
The shorter instructor starts toward the left, warns of some ice patches, and then pauses at the lip where I should begin my first descent down Kachina. Effortlessly, he drops in. The taller instructor follows. I muster my courage and pause. My mind goes blank. Kachina is steep. My inner voice says, “Just turn your feet”, but the long planks of wood strapped to my ankles remain motionless, while I see the instructors making their way down the slope. Teetering on the lip, with fear spreading from head to my throat to my stomach, I lurch forward, spin the back of my skis counter-clockwise, and make my first turn. And then the rhythm comes back. I’m doing it. I’m moving from bump to bump down Kachina Peak. I follow the yellow jackets down the run as my internal fear morphs into laugher. I am actually laughing out loud because the snow and the experience is that good.
The instructors in their yellow jackets show that Taos isn’t changing. Teachers and skiers come for the best experience possible. People know each other. Instructors help you even when they aren’t on the clock. And, Kachina Peak remains a place where skiers learn that fear can lead to joy.