HARDCORE: NEW MEXICO’S SKI PIONEERS
| By Snowsports Journalist Daniel Gibson |
Featured image caption: Kingsbury “Pitch” Pitcher would schuss into the New Mexico ski scene after World War II, but here he’s seen as a young man racing from Stanford University in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1940. Pitch was born in Los Angeles. He told Marian Love in the Santa Fean Magazine of January-February 1980, “I learned to ski in the Sierras when I was 10 years old. My skis were seven-foot boards with toe straps. It wasn’t a popular sport and ski clothes were an oddity. Once, when some friends and I went to a race, we stopped to get some food and the counterman asked, ‘Is youse guys acrobats?’” His grandfather was the famed Otto Mears, builder of the Million Dollar Highway in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, where Pitch spent his summers. (Courtesy Pitcher Family Collection.)
Around 1968, I recall watching Jean Mayer, the much-loved French-born founder, in 1960, of the first lodge at Taos Ski Valley, the Hotel St. Bernard — saw the cast off his broken ankle so he could resume his directorship of TSV’s famed ski school. “Well,” he said, “a ski boot is like a cast.” He, along with equally tough men — like Taos founder Ernie Blake, and tenacious women, like Ernie’s co-pilot Rhoda Blake — carved a now world-famous ski area out of a wilderness area.
These and many other characters are portrayed in a new visually-oriented book, Images of America: Skiing in New Mexico (Arcadia Publishing), through 183 photos, prints and other graphic materials. I am the co-author, along with Jay Blackwood of Rio Rancho, who spent decades working with the Sandia Peak Tram Company.
New Mexico has a long and rich history associated with skiing. From miners and homesteaders on handmade 10-foot skis, to some of the earliest recreational skiing in the American West, New Mexico is front and center in the story of skiing. Recreational skiing arose in the 1920s among students of the Los Alamos Ranch School, on the first developed ski runs in the 1930s in the Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque, and at Hyde Memorial State Park near Santa Fe. The men and woman who envisioned skiing in what most of the nation considers a vast desert displayed enormous vision, courage, tenacity, and capacity for hard work in bringing their dreams to fruition.
Here are a few vignettes of these ski pioneers’ lives and times.
A fictional but close-to-the facts conversation. “Daddy” Lebus is speaking to his large family seated around the debris-laden dining table. “We got that golf resort in New Mexico, right? Well, this here visit to Vail has been a real eye-opener for me. We are sitting on a goldmine. Let’s do both golf, and in winter, some skiing! I mean, how hard can be to put up some tow cable and scrape a few slopes of trees.” And that is what the Lebus family of Texas did, opening Angel Fire Resort in the lovely Moreno Valley of Northern New Mexico at Christmas 1966. However, the lift broke down. The can-do attitude was, “Not a problem! “We’ll just bus ‘em the back basin, tow ‘em uphill with the snowcat, and build a big bonfire and cook free weenies. They’ll love it.” They did, and the resort is thriving today, largely propelled by Texas skiers, who are thrilled to be out on that white stuff on their sliders, pokers in hand. Did I say these folks who launched our ski scene were “bold” ?
Another scenario: It’s February 1937, 4 p.m., getting dark and snowing like hell. The two-laner to Taos is impassable and dozens, who knows how many, diehard skiers who’d either watched or participated in the two-mile plus “Chinese downhill” at Cordova Canyon adjoining Agua Piedra ski area, are now stuck out in the boonies. You can imagine the talk: “What will we do?” “Well, the Bolanders at Tres Ritos said to come over there. They have a few rough cabins and the store and such. They said we could sleep on the pool tables, if need be. Might be fun . . .” Those Bolanders, instrumental in helping out at the now-defunct Agua Piedra Ski Area near Tres Ritos, went on to found Sipapu Ski Area in 1952, and maintain a hand in its operation today. Our ski founders might also be tagged “The Wild Bunch.”
Skiing in New Mexico photos include perhaps the oldest extant image of an American Indian on skis, taken circa 1900 of a Taos Pueblo Indian thought to be delivering mail to the mining community of Twinning above Taos. It also includes a photo taken in 1896 of a woman on skis, photos of the mining community of Twining that would later become the base area for Taos Ski Valley, and other early images.
Photos show Los Alamos Ranch School students leading horses with skis lashed to them through deep snows of the Jemez, “backcountry” outings to Lake Peak and what would become the Santa Fe Ski Basin, and photos of the first forays in the Sandias. The visual history of Taos Valley is amply illustrated, with numerous shots of Ernie and Rhoda Blake, Jean Mayer, Dr. Al Rosen, and other Taos founders. There are also photos of many other New Mexico ski pioneers like Kingsbury Pitcher (founder of Sierra Blanca, today’s Ski Apache), Robert Nordhaus (founder of La Madera and the Sandia Peak Tram), the Abruzzo family (long associated with both Sandia Peak and Ski Santa Fe), and many more.
The book retails for $24, and can be found in many local bookstores, in ski area gift shops, and online book outlets, including Amazon. For additional details or to order a copy, click here.
Daniel Gibson is the author of New Mexico’s only comprehensive ski guidebook, Skiing New Mexico: Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). His brand-new book, Images of America: Skiing in New Mexico, was just released from Arcadia Publishing with 183 historic photos. He is a member of the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and has written on the topic for newspapers coast to coast, web sites, and magazines including Powder, Ski and Wintersport Business. His first day on wooden skis with wooden edges came at age 6 in 1960 on a snowy day at the former Santa Fe Ski Basin. He can be reached at [email protected] or via www.DanielBGibson.com.
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