The hospitable attitude seems to rub off on the guests, who mingle easily on the slopes, at meals, in the chalet bar (opens at 11:30 a.m.) or the Bierstube at the lodge.
There are only two minor things wrong with Big Mountain. One is the rooms; though comfortable and livable, they are not designed for the carriage trade. The other is that, despite the cloud cover and careful cutting of trails, the lower pitches of the main mountain and parts of both practice slopes can get mushy on some afternoons. But this is niggling about an otherwise excellent area which, in the two years since the main chair lift went in, has become perhaps the most pleasant small family resort in the U.S.
While Big Mountain goes happily and profitably on its way, at Taos, N. Mex. Ernie Blake is doing his best to pretend that he and his resort are suffering the traditional pangs of the ski business. "You don't run a place like this to make money," said Blake. But anytime a sharp, quick, well-organized Swiss like Blake runs a place, it is not likely to lose—particularly when the surroundings are as unique and fascinating as they are at Taos.
Blake's tight little ski complex is set in an isolated snow bowl 9,400 feet up in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The ski hill, rising sharply—a frightening 40� under the lift line—to 11,200 feet, gets a deep but dry blanket of November-to-May snow that connoisseurs consider as good as Alta's, i.e., the best powder skiing in the country. This hill is no place for beginners. (There is a so-called beginners' slope at the bottom, but the crowds are so light and the snow so deep that there is no packed snow for the beginner to begin on.) The easiest run from the top takes an intermediate with a certain amount of fortitude, and the hardest run, the lift line, takes an expert with good legs and a love of high places.
The nearest habitation to the resort is the Indian village of Arroyo Seco, 10 miles down the Hondo Canyon on a gravel road. Nine miles beyond that is the old (17th century) Spanish town of Taos. A colony of artists there has, by a series of chain-saw night raids on neon signs and garish billboards, convinced every new merchant—including Safeway, Conoco and J. C. Penney—to put up one-story buildings in the proper adobe motif.
At one corner of town there is an authentic and still functioning pueblo, founded in 1276, as near as anyone can tell, when a drought is said to have driven the tribe out of its cliff homes at Mesa Verde and into the New Mexico area. Aside from the ancient and middle-aged cars, the occasional glass windows and the Sears, Roebuck blankets the elders wrap themselves in, there is almost no difference between the way these Indians live now and the way they did when the conquistadores first showed up.
There is no setting like this anywhere else in American skiing, and Blake has done nothing to spoil it. In fact, he has added to it. At the base of the ski hill he helped put up the cozy, 20-bed Hotel St. Bernard, run by two French skiers, Jean and Bernard Mayer, who know how wine and salad should taste. They also know how to teach skiing, which they do in Blake's school, an oddly unprejudiced organization that will teach in any style the pupil prefers, rather than try to remake the poor sinner in some locally favored image.
Near the hotel are two other newly re-finished inns, a ski shop and the just-completed Chalets St. Bernard, owned by Ski Instructor Chilton Anderson, a bony Philadelphian who plays a passable cello for the Taos string trio in his rare spare time.
Because of its isolation and because Blake has carefully avoided advertising until the area was completely ready, very few people have discovered Taos. But the word is getting around and, despite the owner's mock despair ("In summer we live off the tax losses we suffer in winter"), it is fast becoming a money-making model of the small resort that gives the modern ski vacationer the special flavor he is looking for. The fact is that Blake can hardly manage the traditional ski-resort man's frown anymore, nor can his smiling fellow businessmen at the likes of Vail, Alpine Meadows and Big Mountain.