Dreaming of spring skiing 

click to enlarge GETTYIMAGES.CA - Kachina Peak Max dreams of Taos in this week's column.
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  • Kachina Peak Max dreams of Taos in this week's column.

In On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross outlined five stages one might go through dealing with death. Knowing a good thing when she saw one, she inflated her model to seven stages of loss. Why limit a handy self-help guide to just death? She slipped shock in before denial and testing before acceptance.

With apologies, here are the stages of COVID grief as I've experienced them.

Stage I: Denial/anger/depression. What the f@%k do you mean the mountains are closed?

Stage II: What do you mean, Stage II? Didn't you read Stage I? How much can one guy take?

Something way down in my psyche knows I ought to be skiing right now. It's the same deep-seated psychosis that makes me squirrelly in the weeks before Christmas when I have recurring dreams of final exams I haven't studied for, in classes I forgot to drop, notwithstanding it's been more than three decades since I had to take a final exam.

So, with virtual trips all the shut-in rage, I thought I'd take you along on two brief, virtual ski trips to places that should be on your ski/board bucket list. Not because they're over the top so much as because they're under the radar, each in their own way, albeit you'll immediately recognize one and wonder if I'm making up the other. The thing they have in common is this: They're both Wayback Machines.

Somewhere in the middle of Colorado, situated along the continental divide, is Monarch Mountain. There are a lot of things you won't find at Monarch. High-speed lifts, noisy snowmaking machines, endless terrain, bragging-rights vertical, swish condos, a hoppin' après scene, great shopping, gourmet dining, lift lines, surly staff, pushy guests.

What you will find is bottomless light powder, uncrowded runs, fresh tracks all day, stunning mountaintop views, great glades, a challenging walk-to bowl, outgoing staff and friendly locals and guests.

People come to Monarch to ride the fluff. Period. The nearest lodging is five minutes down the road but the nearest choice of lodging, restaurants, shopping and other amenities is half-an-hour down the mountain at Salida.

Monarch packs more thrills into 324 hectares (800 acres) and 354 metres (1,162 feet) of vertical than most upscale resorts manage to wring out of two or three times those numbers. With almost 60 per cent of its runs rated advanced and expert, Monarch makes Whistler skiers feel right at home...only smaller. But it you want expanse, hike 20 minutes up to Mirkwood Basin and grab bottomless powder all the way back to the base. Repeat as necessary.

Steep runs? Check. Bumps? Check...but soft. Trees? It's in a national forest; what do you think? People? Not that you'd notice. Untracked powder? Two days after a dump!

The day at Monarch ends at 4 p.m.— cocktail hour. But don't dally. Grab a handle at the bar baseside in the Sidewinder Saloon and order a refreshing bevie and snack from the friendly staff because the whole place shuts down at 5:30 p.m.—earlier if mountain personnel are going to blow the slopes above the highway for avalanche control.

Who ever said the '70s died?

For a long time, like at Monarch, they just settled in at Taos and seemed frozen in time.

Unlike Monarch, everybody knows something about Taos. Its reputation looms large, beginning with the mythology of founder, Ernie Blake, searching the terrain around New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains in his Cessna for a place he could swing financially and establish a dreamed-of ski resort.

Like Whistler, people thought he was crazy to choose a location half an hour outside of Taos pueblo. Too high, too steep, too far away from, well, anything.

Taos is still all those things. Too high? The base of Taos sits at 2,800 m (9,200 ft.) above sea level. Unless you've acclimatized or brought oxygen, buckling your boots is anaerobic.

Too steep? Under the cleverly named Lift #1 sits Al's Run. It rises 493 m (1,617 ft.) at an angle well beyond repose. It's pretty much the first lift everyone rides to start their day. At its base is a sign encouraging people not to panic. But Al's Run is the kind of run that makes almost everyone panic.

It cascades down the front of the mountain in a series of long, steep steps. At the bottom of each step is a thin ribbon of sanity, a traverse to something easier, an invitation to get the hell off Al's Run and onto something less threatening to body and self-esteem. From top to bottom, side-to-side, Al's Run is a riot of moguls. Big moguls—big enough to name. Every one of them right under the busy lift. It's a run only a certified lunatic, a highly accomplished skier or a serious masochist can love.

And it's far from the steepest run at Taos. Bumpiest? Maybe. But with over half the runs tagged expert and legendary chutes off Highline Ridge heading down from Kachina Peak, this is one mountain south of the border that'll stir the soul of any Whistler slider.

Ernie's long dead. At the end of the season in 2008, the mountain finally cleared the lifts for snowboarders, a change that didn't ruin the place the way skiers feared it would. The Blake family sold out in 2013 to a hedge-fund billionaire who has pumped hundreds of millions into the place. It's not quite the Wayback Machine it used to be but not even the new lift to the top of Kachina Peak can spoil the funkiness of the place. And for those of us used to lower elevations, not having to hike the ridge—at 3,658-plus m (12,000-plus ft.)—to access the powder chutes is a blessing... mixed, of course. Breathing is easier but I miss the hallucinations.

You don't have to exclusively book ski weeks any more. The lifts don't close for lunch, though you can still enjoy family style eating at Jean Mayer's Hotel St. Bernard. It's not ski school in the morning, free skiing in the afternoon. And even Tomas Schultz's Bavarian Restaurant at the bottom of Lift #4 has been sold to the ski company, although it still offers about as close to authentic Bavarian lunches as you can get without flying to Austria.

But with all the changes, all the new construction and even the lift to the peak, Taos, like heliskiing, is one of those life-affirming experiences skiers owe it to themselves to try at least once. Mullets optional.

Assuming, of course, we're not all skinning to the tops of bankrupt mountains when this nonsense is over. Oops, pessimism alert.


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