Here in New England, skiers are familiar with what I call the “skitter” – the combination of a clattering sound and a slipping movement a skier experiences when she is cruising down a slope and suddenly encounters a patch of hard-packed snow-ice. The best skiers hardly notice the ice and continue flying straight down the hill. Others dig their edges into the ice and carve a turn.
But on the skitter, I choke. I try to ski uphill. Or I slide sideways across the icy patch, and then try to slip down the slope inch by inch, all while praying that the slope angle levels out a bit. Sometimes I stop dead in the middle of the ice and try not to cry.
I’ve been working on the “lean in and carve” technique, but I was really looking forward to skitter-free skiing in Taos, New Mexico, the fabled land of fluffy white powder. Although I once spent New Year’s skitter-skiing in the Lake Tahoe region (where conditions are often similar to New England’s), I had never skied in “real” Western ski country: the powdery mountains of Utah, Colorado, or Taos. Taos Ski Valley has a reputation as an expert’s mountain, but the trail map showed plenty of blue and green trails. We could also visit other nearby areas, like Red River and Angel Fire.
I also wanted sun. With 300 days of sunshine per year, Taos was sure to deliver.
We left Boston’s Logan Airport just in time to get out of the way of a snowstorm heading to New England–a storm that eventually dropped 15 inches of powder in the White Mountains. Although the snow had been falling here in the Seacoast all winter, the storms were mostly coastal events. Throughout January, the mountains up north were pretty bare, with lots of skitter potential. But the weather pattern changed in February. The snow kept coming and coming.
Meanwhile, out in New Mexico, the land was and is bone dry. The state is having its worst drought since record keeping began. The mountains had some snow early in the winter, but it has barely rained or snowed in New Mexico all winter. The result: The. Worst. Ski. Conditions. Ever.
The land surrounding Taos is rugged and beautiful, with mountains rising from scrubby plains. But the conditions at Taos Ski Valley were abysmal. Although the mountain does offer green and blue terrain, it definitely merits its reputation as a place for expert skiers. The experts like to hike up a steep ridge (after getting off a lift) so that they can ski from 12,481-feet Kachina Peak down steep cliffs into a bowl full of soft powder.
This year, the bowl had only a thin lining of snow, but on our two visits to the mountain, plenty of hard-core skiers were hiking on the ridge to challenge themselves on the steep icy terrain. Some even considered it fun.
I never intended to ski down from Kachina Peak, although my husband probably would have given it a go if the conditions were better. But I was looking forward to cruising down blue trails under sunny skies. We had the sun, but the blues were steeper than what I’m used to and very very icy. Lots of skittering; one burst of crying and profanities.
The green trails mostly consisted of thin roadways linking various expert ledges and bowls, and were very very icy. Although I felt confident negotiating these trails, the conditions were unnerving: imagine sliding along ice on a flat narrow trail with steep double-black diamond drop-offs to one side. As an intermediate skier, I felt like I had to be constantly vigilant, ready to dig in. I couldn’t relax. Oh well. After the skiing, a hot tub awaited.
We stayed in a great little rental guesthouse in Arroyo Seco that once had been the three-car garage for actress Julia Roberts, before she sold the property to the current owners. The views were wide and sweeping. Just after dark, a million stars glowed in the sky. Later at night, the moon rose and glowed above the mountains.
We did lots of other things during our stay in Taos (See my next blog post, Five things to do instead of skiing during New Mexico’s worst drought ever).
People who live in Taos can’t imagine living anywhere else. As our host explained, after living for years in wide-open country with views of the mountains, she feels claustrophobic when she returns to the tree-shrouded East.
I too love those open views, the way the moonlight lights up the wide sky. But after more than a week in New Mexico, I missed my woods, the coziness of being surrounded by hundreds of tree. I missed my mountains, where the lifts take me to the summits for 360-degree views, and blue and green trails lead me to the bottom.
During our stay in New Mexico, the snow continued falling back East. In Pinkham Notch, at Wildcat Mountain, the Polecat top-to-bottom trail was soft with new snow. Skiers were sliding easily through the Wild Kitten tunnel. The weather was probably bitterly cold and gray, and the visibility near zero, but it would feel like home. The snow would make me brave enough to try the black diamonds. If I skittered on upper Lynx, I could deal, because I know where the steep pitch levels out.
Lesson learned: If I am going to skitter-ski, I want to skitter on home territory–not only do I know the lay of the land, but the skittering is cheaper and more convenient.
Fortunately it hasn’t snowed since our return. The temperatures remain low, and the snow has been hard-packed into concrete ice by all those skiers who enjoyed the February storms. I can hardly wait to get to the mountains.
P.S. As I was fine-tuning this post, we had a mid-March storm that dumped two feet of snow in the White Mountains. Talk about crushing my soul! How am I going to practice my carve and turn in these conditions?