Psycho Path: Slipping Over the Edge at Taos Ski Valley
Some warning labels are ridiculous. A warning label on a chainsaw says: Do not attempt to stop chain with hands. A warning label on a wheelbarrow says: Not intended for highway use. A warning label on a mattress says: Do not attempt to swallow.
The lengths we go to prevent each other from hurting ourselves are absurd. Companies tie themselves in knots trying to imagine potential disasters and warn against them. A warning for an electrical rotary tool says: This product not intended for use as a dental drill.
The effect of all this mother henning is to produce a sanitized society increasingly free of risk. No one would dispute that the day-to-day life of a person living in the 21st century is a lot less dangerous than that of a person living a hundred years ago.
Pursued by the Beast
The funny thing, though, is that our brains are still wired to respond to a more dangerous world, a world where a guy might, at any moment, be eaten by a lion. When we feel threatened our adrenal glands release hormones into our blood, our hearts hammer, our lung passages dilate and we feel jazzed.
Taos Ski Valley, remote and challenging.
Now, however, the thrill of being pursued by a beast has been supplanted by the sinking feeling that sweeps over us when we glimpse a cop’s lights in the rearview mirror, another kind of predator, one who’s going to make us put on our safety belt.
Which is why we seek other ways to capture the thrill, to pump up the adrenaline.
Taos Ski Valley: 51% Ass-Kicking
I have lots of ways of achieving this, but one of my favorites is mogul skiing. It’s been a lifelong project to achieve the effortless grace exhibited by expert skiers in bouncing over the tops of Volkswagen-sized mounds of snow on a 60% gradient. As time goes on, I keep improving, but I am always terrified and have often taken harrowing spills.
At this point in my life, I have skied most of the major American ski resorts, from Snowbird to Telluride to Jackson Hole. But when it comes to sharpening my mogul skiing skills, there is no better place than Taos, New Mexico.
An hour and a half north of Santa Fe, the village of Taos, with its adobe buildings and mesquite-scented air, is still 30 miles short of Taos Ski Valley, where more than 110 runs are weighted heavily toward black diamonds and double black diamonds. 51% of the runs are labeled expert, and even the intermediate runs are of a character that would be deemed expert at any other ski area. Taos is not for the faint of heart.
A Friend, A Menace
I went to Taos with my old pal, Randy Gray, who is no stranger to harrowing adventures. I have known Gray for nearly 40 years and can confidently say that I have feared for my life more times in Gray’s presence than anyone else I know.
As a youth, Gray possessed an uncanny ability to endanger those around him. When we were pole vaulters in high school, Gray egged me on to all kinds of reckless stupidity. Then, as now, I have always felt obliged to return the favor. So it was with some relish we traveled together to Taos Ski Valley.
Gray has mellowed over the years. Since marrying and having kids, he’s become cautious and conservative. This has not lessened my ardor to push him beyond his comfort zone. If anything, it has increased it. You do not start a riot and then say you are uncomfortable with mayhem. You must own it.
Lorelai Claims Her First Victim
It takes large amounts of snow to open double black diamonds. The steep pitch, high winds and deep trenches between moguls have you scraping along over exposed rock unless you have at least a 50” base. We were at 42” in Taos and many of the double blacks were closed. But single black ass-kickers like Inferno and Psycho Path were there for the taking and I lured Gray on to them.
It’s been a lifelong ambition of mine to achieve the effortless grace exhibited by expert skiers in bouncing over mounds of snow .
I got Gray onto a bumpy, steeply pitched glade called Lorelai and watched as he got himself all akimbo and went flat on his back, legs in the air, like a silent film comedian. But I took no pleasure in it. I didn’t berate him as I was wont to do in the past.
Psychologists say that thrill-seeking behavior has always been a way for young men to win the admiration of peers and attract females. That was certainly the case when we were 17. But now that we had both been happily married for years, it felt sort of empty, trying to one-up each other in this way. But there was another guy with us whose admiration we might have wanted to win.
Gray Gets an Out
The night before at The Gorge Bar and Grill in Taos we had met Jeff an amiable electrical component salesman from Phoenix.
We gave him our cell number and told him to call us on the slopes. He joined us at the base of chair 4 and we bombed a few runs, tearing down over headwalls and rocketing along over flats, covering 1,200 vertical feet in mere minutes. Jeff liked speed.
This gave Gray an out. He could bomb along with Jeff and avoid the mogul fields. In younger days, he would’ve received a ration of shit about this, but now I didn’t feel like harassing him.
My envelope-pushing aspirations had reached a different level. It wasn’t about doing crazy things and daring others to do the same. It was about embracing a challenge and seeing if I could prevail. A little adrenalin spike along the way was icing on the cake, a taste of the man versus lion terror.
Our Money’s Worth
This decidedly more mature approach to skiing was everywhere in evidence at Taos. Ironically, this monster of a mountain was populated almost entirely by people 40 years and up. Perhaps it was the remoteness of the place or perhaps it was the fact that we were there mid-week, but the usual scrum of teenaged snowboarders was absent and skiers dominated, as in days of old.
To sweeten the broth, the mountain was not at all crowded, a situation, we were told, that’s commonplace at Taos. The entire day we never waited in a lift line, but just skied right up to the chair and got on. This allowed us to get in nearly thirty runs, a huge amount of skiing, and well worth the $70 we paid for a lift ticket.
It also meant that by late in the day our quadriceps were burning and we were tired. Gray wisely headed for the base lodge with an hour of slope time remaining, but I wanted one more crack at Lorelai, the black diamond run I had mastered earlier in the day. This time Lorelai would prevail.
The warm sunshine had given way to a cold, sharp wind that transformed the half-moistened snow into hardened kernels and scoured the steeps of their powdery cover. In the mogul fields every third mound had a hemisphere of ice on one side. There were exposed rocks that hadn’t been there earlier. My skis slapped and scraped as I plunged down the slope.
Almost immediately I saw the problem. I didn’t have any pop left in my legs. Instead of pistoning over and around the bumps, as I had earlier in the day, I found myself struggling to maintain balance and I kept dragging my left pole, a sure sign that my form was falling apart.
I tried to pull uphill but my body was slow to respond, and then I sensed a patch of ice and hesitated for an instant, just enough for my skis to turn into the fall line again and gather velocity.
I found myself hurtling toward a line of trees at the edge of the glade. I pumped my knees, trying to lift and turn, but only managed to throw myself off balance, and in the next instant experienced that awful combination of momentum and disorder that precedes a fall.
I flipped over. One ski went pin-wheeling away. The other popped off and went for a leisurely glide down the mountain, coming to rest about 100 yards below me.
Even after I arrested my fall, the pitch of the slope was such that any movement caused me to slip down another few feet. I slid down over an exposed rock and scraped my arm.
I stopped and gathered myself. Here I was clinging to the side of a slope, bereft of my skis. It was late in the day. I was cold, hungry and bone weary. But before I could go home, I would have to clean up the yard sale I had laid out.
One ski was stuck in the snow about 15 yards to my left. I clawed my way over to it, gasping for breath in the thin mountain air, and confronted the question of whether it was better to snap it back on or try to drag it along after me as I side-slipped down.
I decided I would have more control with it on, but then had to deal with the logistics of standing up on a slippery 50% gradient and toe my boot into the binding without falling over or letting the ski slip away. The effort left me draped over my poles, head hung, panting heavily.
Having once again gathered myself, I tried to ski-step along (never a good idea) and tipped over, sliding head first down the slope for 30 or 40 yards before I got the ski swung around below me so it could break my fall.
I then continued to side-slip down until I reached the other ski and put it on. I was totally depleted.
By the time I got back to the base lodge the chair lifts had stopped running and the sky was losing light.
Gray was waiting for me. In a show of admirable maturity he declined to harass me about my late day mishap. Jeff joined us and we toasted our day of skiing.
All things considered, we’d had a marvelous time, courting danger, pumping up the adrenalin, feeling the rush. But I had miscalculated the icy late day conditions and my own weariness, and it could’ve gone badly for me on Lorelai.
“It was nasty out there at the end,” I told the guys. “They should put a warning sign on those things.”
“They have one,” Gray reminded me. “It’s a black diamond.”
“No,” I said. “They need something something more intense, something like they put on products, something like, Warning: Downhill skiing can cause you to go downhill fast.”
“That’s dumb,” said Gray.
“Maybe,” I said. “But it would be safer.”
“If you want to be perfectly safe you don’t go skiing at Taos Ski Valley.”
“True,” I said. “True.”
Video: Skiing at Taos Ski Valley
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Wipe out, Craig Cloutier; Taos Ski Valley Entrance, Malcolm Logan; Bumps, Emerson12; Young Gray, Randy Gray; Malcolm Logan skiing moguls, Randy Gray; Gray and Jeff, Malcolm Logan; Snow blaze, Malcolm Logan; Taos Ski Valley from base, Malcolm Logan; Catwalk, Malcolm Logan; Tree run, Malcolm Logan; Yard sale, Malcolm Logan; Jeff, Gray and Malcolm, Malcolm Logan; Black diamond, Public Domain.