Taos Ski Valley debuts Kachina Peak Lift

If the Kachina Peak Lift was built to impress visitors to Taos Ski Valley, it’s already working.

By J.R. Logan
Posted 2/13/15

If the Kachina Peak Lift was built to impress visitors to Taos Ski Valley, it’s already working.

“Put people up here and give them this view, and they’re going to keep coming back,” said Chris Cardoni, a Connecticut resident who was among …

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Taos Ski Valley debuts Kachina Peak Lift

If the Kachina Peak Lift was built to impress visitors to Taos Ski Valley, it’s already working.

Posted

If the Kachina Peak Lift was built to impress visitors to Taos Ski Valley, it’s already working.

“Put people up here and give them this view, and they’re going to keep coming back,” said Chris Cardoni, a Connecticut resident who was among hundreds of skiers and snowboarders who flocked to the lift’s public debut Friday (Feb. 13).

Most people milling around the prayer flags and cairn at the 12,481-foot summit were thrilled to be among the first to ride the lift, which was completed just before the ski season started but had not opened because of thin snow cover.

“This is a historic moment for Taos,” said Ursula Berkowitz, 70, who took a minute at the top to snap a selfie with craggy Lake Fork Peak towering in the background.

For many longtime Ski Valley employees, the opening was a generation in the making.

“It’s been a part of my life for decades,” said Kei Braun, mountain manager at Taos Ski Valley. “Eventually we had to open the damn thing. We went for it, and it was wonderful.”

A lift up Kachina Peak was first proposed by Ernie Blake, the Ski Valley’s iconic founder. But until last year, the notion wasn’t much more than a pipe dream.

That changed when the Blake family announced in 2013 it was selling the resort to billionaire Louis Bacon, who committed to making the kinds of improvements the Blakes planned but couldn’t afford.

For the last decade, annual skier visits at Taos have been slowly slipping while the industry, in general, has been booming. Most blamed the slump on aging infrastructure and a general lack of upgrades.

The Kachina Peak Lift is the centerpiece of a Ski Valley that’s reinventing itself. A recent economic analysis prepared for the resort predicts $350 million in construction during the next decade, including $23.5 million in recreation facilities alone.

Resort officials say generating buzz by opening the Kachina Peak Lift is an important first step in that plan.

In the coming months, Taos Ski Valley CEO Gordon Briner said the Ski Valley’s marketing department is going to be pushing the “Kachina Peak experience” — ride the lift, take in the views from what feels like the top of the world, and then dive into as much as 3,250 vertical feet of skiing or snowboarding.

While that’s a strong selling point, it could create challenges as well.

The peak’s high altitude and exposed terrain mean Ski Valley officials are learning to deal with the increased volume of riders in a clearly experts-only place. Last weekend was the first chance to see how things would actually change.

The triple chair gains 1,100 feet in five minutes, and can haul as many as 1,000 people-an-hour to the top of the peak. That’s a notable increase over the 200 hikers-a-day the peak used to host on its busier days.

In years past, the 45-minute hike up Kachina Peak was enough to dissuade most dilettantes. Nearly all of the terrain off the top of the peak is steep and often rocky, and those who stray from the main run down find it’s easy to get in trouble.

Mountain manager Braun said he and other resort officials have given some serious thought to how they’d handle such a situation.

“It’s absolutely a genuine concern, but so far it hasn’t been an issue,” Braun said.

There were no major problems with the first round of skiers Friday. One straggler with a bum knee did have to ask the ski patrol for help to get his ski on before he went down.

Braun said it’s inevitable some people will panic once they get to the top and have to be downloaded on the lift, but he thinks most amateurs who see the terrain from the bottom will recognize their limits and stay off the chair.

Instead of managing scared or injured skiers last weekend, Braun and Briner said they were surprised at how much the new lift changed the dynamic of the entire mountain, especially the peak.

The most obvious impact of three days of lift service was the mogul field that quickly developed on Main Street — the peak’s primary run.

“We’re going to see a week’s worth of skiing every two hours, so it’s going to pack out much quicker,” Braun said. “It’s taking much harder pressure, so we’re seeing people ski where we’ve never seen people ski before.”

Being able to do laps on the peak meant veteran skiers and boarders were venturing into areas they never had before, Braun said. Over the weekend, new lines were already being developed and named. He also said less popular chutes on the peak’s west side were seeing a lot more attention.

“This is changing everybody’s plan for how they ski Taos,” Braun said.

The novelty of the peak lift also drew a lot of people off the front side, and Briner said the remaining hike-to terrain was left relatively empty, giving purists who still want to earn their turns more breathing room.

Briner and other Ski Valley officials have emphasized that most of the hike-to terrain remains inaccessible by lift, and those who still want a work out are able to hike the peak if they feel like it.

While most people at the top of the Kachina Peak Friday were excited, there was a palpable discomfort among some longtime hikers (including a few resort employees) who found it hard to imagine a throng of people at a place that, until Friday, held quiet, spiritual significance.

“I think it’s a sacrilege they put this here,” said Dennis Paredes. “I used to hike it, so my first impression of seeing this ... I don’t know.”

Braun said he held a similar opinion before the lift was built, but his attitude has changed. He said his dad’s ashes are spread on top of the peak and he wasn’t sure he’d be OK with providing easy access to such a revered place.

But after the opening weekend, Braun said any concerns were completely put to rest.

“It doesn’t ruin anything for me,” Braun said. “I think it’s so great. There’s a lot of happy people going up there for the first time.”

Another skier who was among the first to ride the new chair said he wouldn’t have built the chair if he were in charge, but since it’s there, it would be stupid not take advantage of it.

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