On a clear January morning of this COVID winter, we lay in bed gazing out our picture window at the snow-covered pastures to the south. Hundreds of crows were dipping and soaring on their morning commute. We know what that feels like. We remembered the sensations of soaring down a snow-covered mountain, the closest thing to flying we will ever experience and have experienced thousands of times in our lives as skiers.
But this winter, everything is different. Last spring we notified our supervisors at Taos Ski Valley that we would not be finishing out the season in our role as ski instructors due to the pandemic. Two days later, the ski valley shut down as did all the ski areas in Colorado and elsewhere. We have been self-quarantining ever since.
Our decision to seriously “hunker down” was not a difficult one. My husband, Rick is five years clear of lung cancer and missing part of one lung. The virus likely would not be kind to him so we agreed from the beginning we would be patient and not take any chances. Now, 10 months later, we are still being very careful. I venture out once every two weeks for grocery shopping and Rick, not at all. We walk in the fields around our house and cross-country ski when there is snow. We play with our dogs and cats and listen to our friends tell us how good the skiing is, how uncrowded the slopes are and how the whole operation feels safe.
Skiing has come to be a very social sport, but honestly, the times we relish the most are those times we have been out on our own, so we’re fine with the social-distancing aspect. Just the thought of being on a mountain top again and then flying down with the wind in our faces is what we are most longing for. I nostalgically reflect on one very foggy afternoon atop Kachina Peak when the fog broke momentarily and the sun shone like a spotlight on three full-curl bighorn rams not more than 20 feet away. Then the fog thickened again and in an instant they were gone. Or those early season runs on groomed corduroy with not a soul in sight. According to reports, those types of runs are prolific this year. We thought maybe we should give it a try.
Our first information gathering stop was the ski valley website, skitaos.com where we are told “what to expect.” Sounds like the old days when we were kids… pack a lunch, put boots on in the car, layer clothing and prepare to be self-reliant. OK, we can do that.
Oh, and don’t forget your mask! It sounds like precautions are being taken and that is reassuring although we are still wary of guests coming in from other states ignoring the quarantine protocol which is not being enforced. But if we avoid the base area we probably don’t need to be concerned with that. Some people may say we are being overly cautious, but that’s something we won’t ever know for sure. If you finish second in a race, maybe you could have gone faster and finished first or maybe you would have blown out of the course and not finished at all. We just want to finish. This could be life or death so we’re being cautious and are trying not to let “COVID fatigue” make our decisions for us. With great anticipation and some trepidation, we packed up the car and headed out.
We decided to drive up to the backside and load lift 4, thinking it would be less busy than the front. We were not the only ones with that idea, but still, there was plenty of space to distance and everyone was conscientious, considerate and polite. The parking area had a friendly, old-timey feel to it with folks sitting in camp chairs putting boots on and familiar, albeit masked friends waving from a distance. The restroom facilities were open, but we opted to avoid any indoor spaces. The Bavarian Restaurant was serving at well-spaced outdoor tables. No indoor warm-up spaces were provided. It felt good to be in the mountains.
As we approached the lift, we noticed the maze was dotted with signs designating 6-foot distancing and other signs reminding skiers to “mask-up,” “Don’t make us ask, put on your mask,” “No mask, lose your pass,” etc. The reminders didn’t seem to be necessary as we all seemed to realize how lucky we were just to be there and since Taos Ski Valley is operating at 25 percent of maximum capacity, lift lines were not an issue.
Riding the lift up, we are practically giddy with excitement and awestruck by the beauty of the high country. As we begin to slide down, our minds are focused only on the sensations in our bodies and responding to the terrain. Ah, the blissful meditation of skiing. Everything else is forgotten.
We make our way around to the front and load lift #1 without a hitch. As we pass over the iconic Hotel St. Bernard, Rick is surprised by the tears that suddenly spring from his eyes. The sale and closing of the hotel and the recent passing of Jean Mayer – proprietor, friend, mentor, coach and heart and soul of Taos Ski Valley – is a reality that didn’t quite hit home before now.
We decide to ski Porcupine (Jean’s favorite run) in his honor. I imagine Jean skiing in front of me demonstrating some nuance he is hoping I will get. Rick imagines Jean skiing behind him, tortured by Rick’s slow, round, elegant turns; “Ricky, you are rotating!” (Their 62 years of skiing history as ingrained as ever).
Completing our tour of the mountain we are impressed by the quality of the snow. Even the steeps are covered; and the bumps are soft, round and friendly. But then again, that should come as no surprise considering the relatively low skier turnout due to limits imposed.
As we return to our car and remove our ski gear we feel rejuvenated, our minds a little clearer, our perspectives a little higher, the future a little brighter. We remember why we ski. We are lucky. We are blessed.
Teri Koss and Rick Richards are veteran ski instructors at Taos Ski Valley. Rick is author of “Ski Pioneers; Ernie Blake, His Friends and the Making of Taos Ski Valley” (1992; hardcover).
— to www.taosnews.com