By Mike Roth – I have been skiing now for over 50 years and have skied at over 140 different ski areas. As you can see by my hat there is a pin for almost every ski area that I have visited. Last week in January I added two more to that list, both in New Mexico. One being Angel Fire and the other Ski Santa Fe. I will get back to New Mexico shortly but first I need to mention how things have been locally.
The past three times I skied here in the East the skiing was good. That means the trails were all skiable but every run you would encounter different conditions. Most mornings after a cold night, you will find nice groomed corduroy which had set up overnight due to the cold temperatures. We have not received much snow but thank God for snowmaking. After a run or two the firm corduroy changes to loose, large granular pieces (not death cookies but more like rock salt consistency). Then after a couple more runs that will change to a fine granulated sugar, again very skiable. As the day progresses that sugar finds its way to the sides of the trails and the rest of the trail, especially the slightly steeper spots get scrappy and eventually Boiler plate. Time to go home!
Now once in a while you will hit a day when it was snowing or had just snowed. Here in the Northeast this seems to be happening less and less and I am convinced that it is a product of global warming. As Eastern skiers we can usually ski any condition as it changes throughout the day and lately that has been the norm. I still love it but it can get frustrating.
Last month I went with a group to New Mexico to ski. You might ask – New Mexico? There are no mountains there. But yes there are.
First, in the cities of Santa Fe, at 7,199’ and Taos at 6,969, there was very little snow on the ground. Albuquerque is at 5,312 feet. That’s pretty high but it is all considered high desert which is very arid with little precipitation and 20% humidity. The elevation here in Albany is 400 feet above sea level just to make a comparison.
Now the ski areas are even much higher and as you climb up you get colder and they receive more major snowstorms. Skiing at Taos, Red River and Santa Fe you will be skiing approximately from 9,000 ft. to 12,000 feet. That’s 6,000 feet higher than the tallest mountain in the Northeastern United States which is mount Washington in New Hampshire at 6288 feet.
Their average snowfall in Taos is around 300″ per year of very dry fluffy powder due to the high elevation. Ski Santa Fe receives 220″ and Red River comes in at 214”. Due to the higher elevations the nearby temperature is lower and the snow sits longer. Compare that to the Eastern ski areas where the elevations are below 4,000 feet. Whiteface is the highest ski area at 4,650′ with average snowfall of just over 100″. Altitude, acreage, the snow and weather is all the difference.
In the East we fight icy weather conditions as I mentioned at elevations up to 4,000 ft., whereas the higher and drier climate of the Rockies are well above 10,000 feet above sea level. In the East there are wind chills that are very, very cold, where out West it is sunny during the day with Blue Bird sunny skiers.
Moguls are hard and icy here in the East but in the West, there is constantly soft snow. No matter how big the moguls may be they are usually always soft. You can be a hero out West while in the East you battle the ice on the downside of almost every mogul. I have to admit that I don’t do moguls anymore.
The length of the trails at all the New Mexico areas is substantial with open bowls compared to the dense tree lined trails of the East. Bigger vertical gets plenty of skiing in the West compared to skiing shorter lifts in the East and more runs. Comparing the three areas we skied probably isn’t fair since there were pluses to all of them.
Taos certainly is the biggest area, with 1294 acres of which 51% is expert, 25% intermediate and 21% beginner. Taos also has the most expert terrain, especially now that you don’t have to hike Kachina peak (now lift serviced and one of these days I will write about my experience with Kachina Peak). There is only one main lift that gets you to numerous other fixed grip lifts on the mountain.
Angel Fire has 560 acres of skiing with 23% of it expert, 56% intermediate, and 21% beginner. The main chair is the Chile Express lift. It’s over 2 miles in length so all the runs down are very long. Their two main lifts are high speed lifts and you get plenty of skiing in a day.
Ski Santa Fe was the smallest in skiable acres with 660 of which 40% is expert 40% is intermediate and 20% is beginner but still had pluses. One of which is that you can stay in Santa Fe and drive to the ski area and enjoy the culture and arts of the region (especially when your wife says” you didn’t do anything but ski when there was so much to see?”) The same goes for the city of Taos which provides accesses the ski areas of Angel Fire and Taos. Lodging is abundant in town.
While at Angel fire, I was off by myself exploring and found a trail that I considered my favorite for the week. It was off the Southwest Flyer chair and called Arriba, a narrow winding run with nice gentle dips and ridges that can be done at a nice pace. I think I skied that trail four times it was so nice and you could even jump into the trees if you so desired.
Once you can ski the East, skiing the West is a piece of cake and very, very enjoyable.
Snow making is appearing everywhere and helps to build an early base. Red River has over 52% snow making, so great snow is almost always guaranteed. Western ski resorts enjoy low humidity, consistently low temperatures due to elevation and enough snowfall that ice doesn’t form. It is consistently packed powder from top to bottom.