Addition of snowboarding gives lift to family-owned Taos Ski Valley

TAOS SKI VALLEY —Four years ago this week the Blake family opened the slopes of their then 53-year-old ski area to snowboarders, ending one of the longest standing bans on single-plank riding in the world’s resort industry.

The idea was to grow business. Attract families. Stir spending that could fund improvements designed to stem a steady decline in visits.

So far, it’s worked.

The 1,268-acre ski area — one of the few family-owned and operated hills in the West — has seen visitation climb. Thanks to both the snowboarders and bountiful snow, Taos’ 2011-12 season is tracking toward its busiest in more than a decade, with expectations for 250,000 visits.

“We feel pretty good about where

we are,” says Alejandro Blake , grandson of the iconic Ernie Blake , who founded Taos in 1955 with little more than some handtools and a dream.

“Hano,” as Alejandro is known in the 70-resident valley town that is home to the Taos ski area, wears a half dozen hats at his family’s ski area. Today, he’s handling events, running the area’s annual extreme ski and snowboard contest. As his sister Adriana — whose several executive titles include marketing director — strolls the crowd with a garbage bag, picking up trash at the base of the stunning Kachina Peak, the radio strapped on Hano’s chest crackles.

“We all do a little bit of everything here,” he says of the six Blakes who run the ski area. “That’s the way the

family has always been. Everyone has to get their hands dirty and be familiar with every aspect of the business. That was definitely intended by the generation before us and the generation before them. That was very much Ernie’s approach: work for what you’ve got.”

What the Blakes have built in 57 years is one of the most colorful, challenging ski areas in the nation. Forged by a legend who passed in 1989 at age 75, the Blakes have walked a fine line between honoring their patriarch’s vision

and surviving in a competitive, corporately funded ski industry. While resorts across the West pursued Wall Street-backed village building and expansion, the Blakes have labored by an increasingly rare creed.

“We are very, very debt averse,” Hano says. “That was the way Ernie operated and he passed it along to us. We recognize how important that is because from one season to the next, you can go from good times to bad. “

The last two seasons are proof of that. Last year, when Taos weathered below-average snow and Colorado posted a record snowpack, visitation plunged below 200,000, near the 2005-06 158,000-visit low-point that eventually prodded the Blakes to abandon Ernie’s disdain for snowboarders. This season, as weekly storms

have pounded Taos, and as Colorado weathers a down winter, business has soared.

The surge has spilled from the slopes down into the valley below.

“This year has been exceptionally busy,” says Orlando Ortega , whose 17-year-old Orlando’s restaurant in Taos was buoyed by the Blakes’ capitulation on snowboarding in March 2008. “I wish they’d done it 20 years ago, but it’s really helped business. We see a lot more families now and a whole new clientele that we used to never get. It’s like suddenly, we have a whole new mountain up the road.”

The solid season has reinforced plans for growth at the ski area. In 2010, the Blakes sculpted a master development plan that included a wish list of nearly every conceivable improvement

the area could host. In addition to modest plans like a tubing hill and increased summer amenities like mountain-bike trails, the Blakes floated plans for a lift climbing Taos’ iconic 12,481-foot Kachina Peak and another reaching the area’s expert-only West Basin Ridge, both of which can only be reached by hiking today.

To support the expansion, the Blakes slightly tweaked Ernie’s debt-avoidance mission by buying slopeside land they developed into homesites. The family has 11 ski-in, ski-out lots for sale and sold three in the first season on the market. Cash from the sale of those lots will fund a redevelopment of the base area and on-hill improvements.

“We are building cash flow for the things we want to do and have less risk,”

Hano says. “We won’t be borrowing money. Maybe that means we grow slower than everyone else, but hopefully it means we will be here another 50 years.”

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374 or

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