In the early 1950s, Ernie Blake had an unusual commute. Instead of driving from Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he managed Santa Fe Ski Basin, to the ski area’s sister resort in Glenwood Springs, he flew his Cessna 170. Taking to the air saved Blake about six hours of drive time each way, but even more important, the flights allowed him to study the landscape below. Through the plane’s windshield, Blake, then in his early 40s, could scan the terrain for “the spot”—the place where he would eventually build his own ski resort. On one such voyage in 1953, Blake found it. The perfect snow basin sat just north of 13,159-foot Wheeler Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The location was ideal: a mere 20 miles from Taos, with steep slopes boasting extreme pitches and a northern exposure that would ensure good snowpack.
The rest of the story has become ski industry legend: In 1954, after purchasing an old mining claim of 80 acres, Blake moved his family into a camper at what would become Taos Ski Valley’s base and began clearing the land by hand and mule. By 1956, one run, Snakedance, a modern-day black diamond, cut down the mountain. A year later, a second slope opened: Al’s run, named after a politically connected Taos surgeon who was instrumental in the resort’s early successes. The run was so narrow there was barely enough room for both those skiing down and those riding up an unwieldy surface lift. Mickey Blake, the oldest of the Blake children, remembers his mother mounting and tuning rental skis in those days. “My mom was the mechanical one. She was an aircraft mechanic in World War II,” he says. “My dad was terrible.”
Nothing about Taos Ski Valley has ever been conventional—not then, not now. Not even when, in December 2013, after nearly 60 years of ownership, the Blakes sold the ski area. Instead of becoming yet another ski resort gobbled up by a behemoth like Vail Resorts or Powdr, Taos Ski Valley sold for an undisclosed price to a media-shy, New York–based hedge fund billionaire named Louis Bacon. Overnight, Taos Ski Valley marched forward into a new era of independence.
News of the sale elicited a mix of surprise and relief that the family didn’t sell to a corporation, Mickey says. But some were still nervous Bacon would polish the rough edges from Taos Ski Valley’s homespun personality. Local bar manager Evan Blish was quoted in a February 7, 2014, Albuquerque Journal article saying, “We had this private enclave, and it’s all going to change.” A couple of weeks later, Elisabeth Brownell, the former co-owner of the Thunderbird Lodge at the base of Taos (and Ernie Blake’s longtime secretary), penned an op-ed in the same newspaper that spoke for many: “In my time I have seen many investors and developers buy up land, build condo complexes with soulless architectural design, sell them off, and leave…. The current major investors should work together to protect the charm of Taos Ski Valley.”
Their concerns were legitimate. The modern ski industry has come to fully embrace the trifecta of big, flashy, and glamorous. In the past three decades, lifts have gone from two-seaters to quads to six-person chairs. Gondolas, once novelties, have become the norm. Cozy warming huts with picnic tables and low-key food service have been replaced by sleek, high-ceilinged lodges with cell phone charging stations and $18 burgers.
There are places that try to hold on to at least some vestiges of the ski industry of old, but even they are often held by massive conglomerates: California’s beloved Kirkwood Mountain Resort is owned by ever-growing Vail Resorts, which gobbled up Canada’s Whistler Blackcomb in 2016 and Vermont’s Stowe Mountain Resort this past February. In August, KSL Capital Partners and Aspen Skiing Co., which combined to buy Mammoth and Steamboat, bought Deer Valley Resort in Utah. And last year, Powdr, which oversees nine resorts across the country, bought locally owned Eldora Mountain Resort outside of Boulder. “You’ve seen consolidation continue,” says Chris Linsmayer, public affairs director for Colorado Ski Country USA, a nonprofit trade association representing 23 of Colorado’s ski areas. “But I don’t think the ski industry is unique in that. You’re seeing it in telecom and construction, not just in ski and tourism.” Paul Marshall, director of communications at Ski Utah, notes that the marketing power of large corporations can be very appealing for smaller or independent resorts. In fact, he says the added oomph of brand recognition may have helped account for back-to-back record-breaking seasons in the Utah industry (the first time that’s happened since 2008).
Which is why the sale of Taos Ski Valley leads to one crucial question: Can eschewing bigger and slicker still be successful? Bacon’s team says the billionaire—known for his land conservation efforts and habitat protection in Colorado, New York, North Carolina, and the Bahamas—is intent on keeping the resort small and intact. In fact, after years of rebuffing offers from corporations, it was the Blake family that approached the hedge funder. “We thought he was the right person because of his conservationist background,” Mickey says. “Going corporate wasn’t in line with the family’s desires. We were specifically looking for someone to carry on the Taos tradition and not homogenize it into another big resort.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t changes afoot: In 2015, a lift began ferrying riders to the top of Kachina Peak, offering access to terrain that previously was only reachable by those willing to hike. There were objectors, of course, but the Bacon-led management team has swayed many naysayers by limiting skier numbers in the area. This season, Taos Ski Valley is even removing chairs on the Kachina lift to reduce capacity, in addition to continuing its program of granting hikers first pick of the peak after a storm.
This winter will also see a refurbished children’s center, a regraded beginner hill, and a new gondola transporting visitors from the children’s center to the base. The LEED-certified, geothermal Blake hotel debuted in February, and a new river walk, complete with a stream restoration on the Rio Hondo, will open in 2019.
That’s more than $300 million in upgrades, and yet the goal of the new ownership is for the feel to remain the same. “When you hear of a remake or revitalization, people think of massive growth and expansion,” says David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski Valley. “We’re in a situation where that’s not the plan. We’re on Forest Service land, surrounded by national forest, and we’re in a valley, so geographically we can’t push out. And we don’t want to. Will we upgrade facilities? Yes. Will we bring on additional rooms? Yes. Will we upgrade lifts and cuisine? Yes. But the scale won’t change. We won’t become the big guys.”
Although some still might see the improvements as an incremental march toward the Vail-ification of Taos Ski Valley, Norden emphasizes that many of the projects completed and in the works were improvements the Blakes hoped to make but lacked the capital to take on. “We wanted to, we just didn’t have the funds,” Mickey says. In this sense, Bacon is something of a fairy godfather for a resort that was slowly failing.
The best season on record for Taos Ski Valley was during 1993-1994, when the resort hit an all-time high of 364,000 skier days. Last year, the numbers leveled off at 229,000. That downhill slide might sound grim, but the figures have steadied since Bacon took over four years ago. “As a facility becomes tired—or has a reputation of being tired—people start to drift,” Norden says. “We have to work to get them back.”
Taos is doing just that with slopeside improvements coupled with an inviting business philosophy. In 2015, Taos joined the Mountain Collective ski pass, which allows skiers and riders two days each at a group of 16 independent resorts, including Telluride, Banff, Jackson Hole, and Sun Valley, for a package deal. The 2017-2018 price is $469. This is their answer to Vail Resorts’ $879 Epic Pass, which includes its 15 areas ranging from Breckenridge to Whistler Blackcomb. There’s a common sense of purpose to the Mountain Collective pass: Consider it the ski industry’s alternative voice writ large. “I truly think the Mountain Collective pass has been a big help to Taos,” says Ski Utah’s Marshall. “It has also helped in Utah [with] Alta and Snowbird, and new-this-year Snowbasin.”
In February, Taos Ski Valley announced another piece of the marketing puzzle: a B corporation certification. It’s the first ski resort in the world to claim the esteemed designation bestowed by B Lab, a nonprofit that serves a global movement of people using business as a force for good. Across the planet, B corps (short for benefit corporations) are held to the highest standards of environmental, social, and economic transparency. Other companies with the certification include Patagonia, New Belgium Brewing Co., and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. For Taos Ski Valley, the designation highlights the resort’s commitment to the environment (the river restoration project is a crucial part of this, as is energy-efficient snowmaking, the geothermal heating and cooling system for the Blake hotel, and a nearly 11 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions from 2015 to 2016) as well as its investment in the surrounding community.
Since taking over the ski area in 2013, Bacon (who declined to speak with 5280) and his team have converted the entire valley from propane to more energy-efficient natural gas, laid fiber-optic cable, and shortened the supply chain by using local contractors and purchasing as many goods as possible within a 200-mile radius. “Historically, the ski valley has been the destination in the winter and Taos dies. And in the summer, Taos is the destination and the ski valley dies,” says Dana Blair, founder of Tea.o.graphy, a Taos-based tea company whose product is featured throughout the resort. “[Bacon’s team is] building bridges, so there’s not as much of a dip season for either.” A big part of that symbiotic relationship is philanthropic. The Taos Community Foundation pushes money to several nonprofits throughout the region, Norden says. “And we just created a new policy for full-time, year-round staff that they can contribute three days to a nonprofit on the clock.” That last detail received a standing ovation when it was announced at a companywide meeting. Others are taking notice, too. The day after Taos Ski Valley publicly shared its B corp news with its email list, ticket sales jumped by 20 percent.
Among those noticing Taos’ trajectory are Colorado skiers. Although not the largest group of visitors, skiers hailing from the Centennial State make up Taos’ fastest growing sector. Two seasons ago, Coloradans were roughly five percent of Taos’ audience; now it’s up to 10 percent. Norden attributes the uptick to the resort’s positioning as an independent. “People are looking for an alternative to the mainstream ski experience,” he says. “A lot of consumers are digging deeper to find out the philosophy of the companies that they consume from.” Norden believes that as the industry becomes more homogenized, Taos’ differentiation, coupled with its B corp status, will become even more desirable.
But it’s more than transparency powderhounds are chasing—it’s soul. And in that respect, Taos delivers. If there’s one example that epitomizes the resort’s personality, it’s the martini tree. As the story goes, in the late 1950s, Ernie Blake was skiing with a woman who was overwhelmed by the flat light and unable to make it down the hill. He sent his son on an errand: Ski down to the base, fill an old liquor bottle with a martini, and bring it back. Once delivered, the skier had enough liquid courage to make it to the base. To this day, the occasional martini awaits visitors under a tree on an undisclosed run. Other resorts—those more concerned with liability than culture—would have shut this practice down long ago. Taos Ski Valley merely adjusted: On intermittent Fridays, an employee stationed near the martini tree—which guests usually discover courtesy of their ski school instructors—checks IDs and unlocks a birdhouselike contraption mounted to a trunk. After a sip, warm-bellied riders are sent on their ways. This core spirit informs Taos Ski Valley’s ideology. “It’s about how to preserve the best of what was,” says Dawn Boulware, Taos Ski Valley’s director of human resources, “but still be present today and set a foundation for tomorrow.”
Perhaps the best way to understand Taos Ski Valley’s future is to look back at Bacon’s ski roots. He fell in love with skiing while attending college in Vermont and frequenting resorts such as Mad River Glen. Its motto: “Where skiing is a sport, not an industry.” As if to prove that point, in 1995 the resort formed the Mad River Glen Cooperative; its skiers become owners by purchasing shares. This sentiment—that a ski area can be privately owned and be a benefit to its community—is what Ernie Blake believed in. Bacon appears to agree.