Book dives into the history of the winter sport in the Land of Enchantment - Albuquerque Journal

Book dives into the history of the winter sport in the Land of Enchantment

New Mexico’s skiing history began in the mining era of the late 1800s with miners taking to their long boards high in the Sangre de Cristos. This image, thought to be perhaps the oldest existent photo of an American Indian on skis, depicts, it’s believed, a Taos Pueblo man delivering the mail to the mining camp at Twining, the site of today’s Taos Ski Valley. (Courtesy of Taos SKi Valley)

Editor’s note: On the fourth Sunday of every month, Journal Arts editor Adrian Gomez tells the story behind some of the hidden gems found throughout the state in “Gimme Five.”

Daniel Gibson grew up in the North Valley.

In winter, he would often look up to the Sandia Mountains and see the peaks blanketed with snow.

It was in there, he felt alive.

It’s a feeling that hasn’t faded.

“I’ve been skiing since I was almost 7,” he says. “Back in the days of leather boots and wooden skis. All you wore was wool and you’d be soaked after a run.”

Gibson worked on his latest project, “Images of America: Skiing in New Mexico” on and off for two years along with writer Jay Blackwood.

The book is currently available and dives into the history of the winter sport in the Land of Enchantment.

“I’ve come to know a lot of the ski history in the state,” he says. “Arcadia Publishing proposed the book to me and I really wanted to do it.”

Daniel Gibson

Gibson says skiing in New Mexico goes back well over a century – and the sport is still popular today.

New Mexico’s ski history is among the oldest in the American West, when prospectors in the late-1800s and early 1900s were trying out their long boards.

He says many people are surprised there is any skiing in the state, but the southernmost range of the Rocky Mountains, the Sangre de Cristos, bisects northern New Mexico, with several peaks topping out at more than 13,000 feet in elevation. Taos Ski Valley’s Kachina Peak chair climbs to 12,450 feet, and Ski Santa Fe’s parking lot sits at 10,350 feet, to name a few.

Research for the book wasn’t easy. Gibson says one of the biggest obstacles with the book is that early photographs couldn’t be found.

As an avid skier, Gibson breaks down five historic moments that changed the landscape of the sport in New Mexico.

1. Taos Pueblo man on skis

New Mexico does have the distinction of being home to perhaps the oldest-known image of a Native American on skis, a Taos Pueblo man around 1900.

Gibson says skiing began due to the miners in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

“We found this photo, a Taos Pueblo man delivering the mail to the mining camp at Twining, where Taos Ski Valley is today,” he says. “Back in the day, instead of having two poles, there was only one. It’s such a significant photo to see. The only photo that eluded us was one from the 1800s.”

 

2. Charlotte Ellis on skis in 1896

Ellis was a member of the Ellis family who lived on 160 acres in the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque in 1905 in Las Huertas Canyon.

Pioneer settlers were the next to take up skiing, as seen in this photo of Charlotte Ellis taken in 1896 in the Sandia Mountains. Her family homesteaded in the Las Huertas Canyon, and used skis for practical means of traveling on snow. (Bob Cooper/New Mexico Ski Museum)

“She’s is seen in the photograph on skis while on the family’s property,” Gibson says. “The photo is the oldest known of anyone in New Mexico on skis.”

Gibson says skis were used by many early pioneers as a way to move across snowy landscapes, rather than as a form of recreation.

“In the photo, she seems like she is skiing for fun,” Gibson says. “Charlotte would have used the one wooden pole for balance.”

3. The Blake family in New Mexico

Major developments blossomed across the state in the 1950s and 1960s, with the launch of Taos Ski Valley by the remarkable Blake family, Gibson says.

Ernie Blake, who founded Taos Ski Valley with the aid of numerous associates and his family, was perhaps the single-most important figure in New Mexico’s skiing history. Hes seen with his plane that he used to scout the region for the best location to site the ski area he dreamed of launching. (Courtesy of Taos Ski Valley)

“Ernie Blake built Taos Ski Valley, which is now world-famous and brings a lot of visitors to New Mexico,” Gibson says. “When he got into the valley, there wasn’t electricity for nine years. He lived in a trailer with his three kids for three winters. He had a grand vision for the ski area and we see it today.”

4. Kingsbury Pitcher

Pitcher was known as “Pitch” and his presence in New Mexico was key as he cultivated the growth of the ski industry.

Kingsbury Pitcher is credited for building Ski Santa Fe to a ski destination. (Courtesy of Pitcher Family/AP)

“He launched Sierra Blanca, which is called Ski Apache today,” he says. “Kingsbury and his family also really built Santa Fe from almost nothing. He also put the chair at the top of Tesuque Peak.”

Pitcher was a New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame member. He died on Dec. 29, 2017, at 98 years old in Santa Fe.

5. Los Alamos Boys Ranch School

Los Alamos Boys Ranch School was a private ranch school for boys in the northeast corner of Sandoval County founded in 1917 near San Ildefonso Pueblo. During World War II, the school was bought and converted into the secret nuclear research campus for Project Y.

Though the first developed ski areas in the state were at La Madera, today Sandia Peak Ski Area, in the Sandia Mountains and Hyde Park, today Hyde Memorial State Park, in Santa Fe, children in Los Alamos were using the area up there, Gibson says.

“The students at Los Alamos Ranch School in Los Alamos were skiing in the 1920s and ’30s in the Jemez,” Gibson says. “In the 1940s, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory took to skiing in their off hours from developing the atomic bomb.”

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