Aspens in the northern high country are already starting to show the first vestiges of a golden hue and the sweet tang of roasting chiles is in the air. These harbingers of fall can mean only one thing: Ski season is imminent.
And several of the northern New Mexico ski areas are busily preparing for what early forecasts say should be a stellar season.
While nothing can quite compare with last season’s ground-breaking new lift up Kachina Peak at Taos Ski Valley, there have been some notable improvements undertaken this summer.
Once again, the big news is a new lift – this time at Sipapu.
The ski area is adding a quad, fixed-grip lift that will rise 370 vertical feet on its main opening route, said John Paul Bradley, mountain manager.
“This gives us great access to our beginner trails,” he said. “It’s perfect for ski school and families. It also has access to some of our intermediate trails.”
Coupled with some expanded snow-making capabilities, “we typically can make snow from the top of the lift to the bottom,” Bradley said. “That will give us lift access earlier in the year.”
This clears a big hurdle for Sipapu in terms of catering to families, as well as beginners.
“It’s definitely focused on the majority of the season,” Bradley said. “A family of four can take it up together. Our instructors can ride up with three students. There’s big excitement for the lift.”
Clearing the way for the new lift created a nice intermediate trail, he said, while the top of the lift has been cleared, with a staging area covering three-quarters of an acre. This required rerouting a favorite intermediate run, making it longer with a greater fall line, he said.
The ski area also is getting improved snow-making capabilities that include a new dedicated water pump that will double the water that feeds the mountain’s upper levels, he said.
Additionally, the electrical supply to the upper reaches has been increased, and new hydrants have been installed to reduce the length of surface lines to make the system more efficient, Bradley said.
It’s all part of an ongoing $10 million improvement program that the owners are spreading among their four ski areas, which also include Pajarito near Los Alamos and Purgatory in Durango.
The changes at Pajarito haven’t been as extreme as at Sipapu, but they should nonetheless have a significant impact on the skiing experience there, said Tom Long, general manager of Pajarito.
Again, the changes include upgraded snow-making capabilities
“It will mean expanded coverage for the snow-making system,” he said. “There will be terrain covered.”
Portable hydrants have been added, and hydrant and riser pedestals that were in place but left dormant have been completed and will go online this year, Long said.
This expands the snow-making by 20 percent to 30 percent, he said.
Perhaps the biggest improvement comes courtesy of Mother Nature, which dumped regular amounts of rainfall on the area throughout the spring and summer, filling the snow-making pond nearly to its brim with more than 9 million gallons of water, far more than it has ever held, Long said.
Work has also been done to help mitigate the damage done by the 2011 Las Conchas Fire that destroyed 300 acres of the ski area. A number of the burned trees have been knocked down, paving the way for forest regeneration, which is already underway with the advent of aspen trees.
“We’re trying to rehabilitate the burned areas by taking out the hazard trees that were presenting problems next to the trails,” he said.
At Taos Ski Valley, the improvements aren’t as pronounced and won’t have the impact of the Kachina Peak lift, but there are still some improvements that should benefit skiers, said Gordon Briner, TSV chief executive officer.
The snow-making capabilities have been increased, he said, in an effort to have as much of the mountain open by Thanksgiving weekend as possible.
In addition, the purchase of two new snow cats means steep trails, such as Hunziker, Pappa Bear, Ruby Gully, Zagava and Moe’s, along with Main Street on Kachina Peak and Blitz, will see additional grooming, Briner said.
And a glading project should double the width of the Wild West, while tree thinning through North American and Ernie’s should make those runs more skiable, he said.
Finally, construction is underway on a new, full-service hotel with 65 rooms that should be ready by November 2016, Briner said.
Beginning with the Kachina Peak Lift, it’s part of a $350 million investment planned over the next five years.
“The construction should have essentially no impact on people,” Briner said. “We’ve replaced rental and retail ski sales, and the ticket office. The guest experience shouldn’t be affected at all. In some ways, the adjustments will be quite guest-friendly.”