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" New Mexico," a local wit once wrote, "has plains so flat that the State Highway Department has to put up signs to show the water which way to run when it rains; yet the mountains are so steep that the bears...have all developed corkscrew tails so they can sit down once in a while without sliding off into Texas."
To the amazement of anyone whose idea of New Mexico was formed while crossing Route 66 with its SEE THE DEADLY DESERT RATTLESNAKES and LAST CHANCE FOR WATER signs, New Mexico also has some of the finest snow in the country. And even though most New Mexicans don't know it, the bears are not the only ones sliding down their landscape. Skiing has come to the land of adobe haciendas and roadrunners. The mountains that form the state's disjointed spine thrust up as high as 13,000 feet. With every 1,000 feet of altitude being climatically the equivalent of 300 miles in latitude, a trip from the base of one of them to the top is like traveling from Mexico to Alaska.
"Altitude is everything out here," says Kingsbury Pitcher, operator of the Santa Fe ski basin and one of the most knowledgeable ski-area architects in the country. Altitude and face, that is. For the southern sun shines on the mountains with the same constancy with which it bakes the brown earth along Route 66. In New Mexico a ski mountain facing north, out of the direct gaze of the sun, can produce the most salubrious skiing in the U.S.—light, dry snow and sweater-sleeve skiing.
Take Sierra Blanca. This great hulk of a mountain soars up in the Lincoln National Forest, 200 miles south of Albuquerque. At night, from its 12,003-foot peak, you can see the glow of El Paso and Juarez, 130 miles to the south, and of Roswell, 90 miles to the east. The vast flat expanses of the White Sands missile range and the Tularosa Valley lava flow lie below—an area so desolate that the first atomic bomb was exploded here. Almost nightly, missiles seem to join the endless expanse of stars.
Sierra Blanca was built in 1960 by Robert O. Anderson, board chairman of The Atlantic Refining Co. and quite possibly the largest single landowner in the country. At one time, Anderson owned three ski areas—Sierra Blanca, Santa Fe and Aspen's Buttermilk. He invested $2.5 million in Sierra Blanca on trail cutting, lifts—there is a gondola and one double chair—a 16-mile switchback road up from Ruidoso and the lodge and adjoining motel. Anderson sold Sierra Blanca for $1.5 million in 1963 to the Mescalero Apache Indians. Why the $1 million loss? Anderson says that New Mexico has been good to him and he wanted to return the favor. The Indians hired Roy Parker, a veteran ski instructor and manager, formerly at Loveland and Vail, to run their investment, and Parker employs 15 Mescaleros as lift operators and cafeteria workers. The tribe also makes other contributions to keep its ski area in the black—or the white. A few days before Christmas and the first heavy onslaught of customers, Sierra Blanca had only a light dusting of snow on its best trails. While Parker was wondering whether or not to start making snow on the lower slopes—a costly and disagreeable chores—the Mescaleros dispatched their prize dance troop, which, wearing nothing more warming than body paint, performed the Mountain God dance on top of Sierra Blanca. Parker made snow, but so did the gods, six days later.
Sierra Blanca draws 80% of its skiers from Texas. Many of the folks know Ruidoso for its quarter-horse racing—its All American Quarter Horse Futurity, held each Labor Day, is the world's richest horse race (SI, Sept. 26). They come back in winter to show the kids what a mountain looks like. Others get the pitch from Ski-school Director Jim Isham and his pretty instructresses, who put on their Bogners and take to the road each fall like the tent-show men of old, selling the elixir of skiing to the Texas Panhandle towns of Hereford and Muleshoe, Bronco and Whiteface. Half of the people who ski at Sierra Blanca have never seen snow before, and Parker thinks that he has the largest stock of rental skis in the West—700 pairs.
The visitor to Sierra Blanca who wonders out loud what one does after the lift shuts down is in danger of becoming a victim of a brand of wide-open-spaces hospitality that can be more crippling than the anoxia of the heights. Ruidosans pride themselves on their hospitality at Futurity time, and the open-house spirit reawakens when the skiers arrive. "Fix your own" is the easy invitation, and Styrofoam cups with the host's name printed on them are filled for the road, so that a hand is never empty on the way to dinner. Dinner with Ruidosans is likely to be 30 miles away at the Silver Dollar in Tinnie, N. Mex., an 1880s building that has been restored by New Mexico philanthropist Bob Anderson. On the wide veranda stand three life-size saddle-store wooden horses. The interior glows with stained glass from Nob Hill. Dinner is at a long communal table, and the steaks-and-chops menu is painted on a Lancer's Crackling Ros� wine bottle. Everybody starts with an ironstone platter of serve-yourself salad and slice-yourself homemade bread, and the favorite entre� is steak and lobster tail and baked potatoes stuffed with everything but a simple dollop of butter. The Crackling Ros� flows, and the topper is a Pregnant Canary, Galliano and cream on the rocks. The journey back across the plains, through Lincoln, of Billy the Kid renown, is broken at the Inn Credible (sic), a skiers' watering place at the mountain's base.
If Sierra Blanca is one of the most isolated ski resorts in the country, Albuquerque's Sandia Peak is one of the most accessible. Albuquerque's mountain, unlike the ancient volcanoes that make up most of New Mexico's mountain landscape, is a great granite-and-limestone loaf that rose up in some primordial earth-shifting. The side toward Albuquerque to the southwest has a precipitous craggy face. But the opposite side, to the northeast, is a spruce-and-pine-covered slope that has been used for skiing since 1936. Until this season it was a long journey around the mountain to the skiing, but last summer Robert Nordhaus and his partner, Ben Abruzzo, opened the Sandia Peak Tram, two 60-passenger Bell cable cars, with a base only five miles from one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. New Mexico's small ski population cannot as yet support a $2 million tram, and Nordhaus and Abruzzo are after the summer tourist dollar as well—112,000 sightseers rode to the top last summer. To put grandma at ease, all of the machinery, the controls and the operator's console are exposed behind glass—the great drivewheel and brakes painted orange, blue, yellow and green. The hexagonal restaurant at the top has a sunset view of twinkling Albuquerque and an endless panorama of mesas and volcanic cones silhouetted against a Frederic Remington sky.
Albuquerque does not have a bad case of the ski bug as yet. For one thing, most of its expanding population has come in from the flatlands to work in the missile and nuclear industries, and they can play tennis and golf all year in that climate. Bob Nordhaus stages a combination all-in-one-day tennis tournament and ski race each spring. The skiing is on the gentle side, but what a place to learn! Ski school begins at the top of the mountain, and a double chair lift brings you back up.
The view to the north from Sandia Peak to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains ought to inspire any flatland beginner to perfect his stem Christy and get up there where the real mountains are, in Santa Fe and Taos. But the flatlanders are not the only ones New Mexico has to show. The state legislators in Santa Fe share the general disbelief that skiing is here to stay—or that New Mexico has got some of the best of it.