Rick Richards: The Ski Instructor Different
| By Snowsports Journalist Daniel Gibson |
More regional ski areas continue to open and add additional terrain after last week’s substantial storms. For details read on. But as we await better days, here’s a look at one of New Mexico’s skiing institutions, Rick Richards of Taos Ski Valley (TSV).
Richards is the author of the excellent, informative and colorful book Ski Pioneers: Ernie Blake, His Friends, and the Making of Taos Ski Valley, and has been a key member of Taos’ acclaimed ski school for 35 consecutive years, though he is taking off this winter due to COVID concerns.
The 236-page large-format book is chock full of wonderful historical black and white and color images of Blake, as well as many other people who played significant roles in TSV’s founding, particularly his wife, Rhoda, as well as Jean Mayer, Chilton Anderson, Pete Totemoff, Max Killinger, Wolfgang Lert, Elizabeth Brownell (the Thunderbird Lodge) and many many more. But the book is really a look at the larger story of the development of skiing in the American West, with extensive commentary from and images of people like Howard Head (Head Skis), Friedl Pfeifer and Fred Iselin (Aspen founders), Kingsbury Pitcher (of Sierra Blanca and the Santa Fe Ski Basin), Willy Bogner (ski apparel), Alf Engen (of Alta in Utah), Dave McCoy (of Mammoth Mountain in California), Buzz Bainbridge (of Santa Fe Ski Basin and Arizona Snowbowl), Otto Lange (Lange boots), Bob Nordhaus (of Sandia Peak), Warren Miller (ski filmmaker) and many other well-known figures, plus a chapter devoted to the 10th Mountain Brigade of World War II, which produced many of these figures.
The book, a sprawling compilation of oral interviews Richards had with these industry leaders, was released in 1992 and in 1994 secured the Ullr Award from the International Skiing History Association. It is available at select shops in Taos Ski Valley, and on Amazon and other online book retailers. Signed copies can be obtained through the author via his email: [email protected].
Now age 75, Richards himself has become one of the legendary figures associated with TSV and American skiing in general. Last March, just before the newly named coronavirus hit, we sat down to talk at TSV’s Blake hotel restaurant.
How It Came to Be
He explained how the book came to be. “At one period I used to often walk with Ernie, who had the beginnings of Parkinson’s. It was affecting his knees and he couldn’t walk well, but he liked to walk — and liked company — so we’d walk together and talk. He told me all these amazing stories and I told a friend, who suggested I record these stories and produce a book.” Ernie agreed and these sessions led Richards to the cast of characters and images found in the book.
“I knew it was a good story but I think it really captured the era because it came from so many sources, versus just one. The book is not about me! It’s about all these other people; it’s their voices. They were pretty liberal in loaning me images and helping with the interviews. I was very lucky to know these people, and that I got them to talk to me.”
Some interviews took real perseverance to obtain. For instance, he was supposed to meet with Howard Head three times but Head keep getting sick and postponing. “Finally, he was stuck in a Denver hospital near death and I spoke with his wife, who was in Vail. I called and said I was sorry that it was not working out, but she said that Howard wanted me to come to Denver, that he really wanted to talk. So, we did that interview in a Denver hospital! He was an amazing dude.”
Growing up on Skis
Few people were better suited to capture these stories than Richards, who was adopted as a newborn into a prominent Taos family and grew up on the slopes of TSV. “My adopted father was Dr. Al Rosen. Al’s Run (TSV’s world-famous mogul run) was named after him. He was a general practitioner and the only surgeon in Taos. He saved many people’s lives and was owed many favors. Because of that he was instrumental in getting electricity and telephone service into the valley, and the road paved. He skied with an oxygen tank that he and I rigged up after he had a massive heart attack and was told to never ski again. I still remember the Sunday afternoon when Ernie and Rhoda and Pete (Totemoff) drove up to our house in a Volkswagen bug, knocked on the door and introduced themselves. Ernie announced that he was going to build a ski area up Twining canyon and he wanted Al’s help.”
Richards began skiing at age 3, near present-day Sipapu on a small rope tow at a place called Tres Ritos, and at nearby Agua Piedra on a platter pull tow that was subsequently moved to Taos, where it became their second lift. “I can remember the smell of leather ski boots and wool socks burning around the old fireplaces here, at the St. Bernard and the Hondo Lodge. They’d be smoking! We didn’t have the equipment people have today, but we still had a great time!”
Richards, however, had a difficult relationship with his stepfather, who sent him off to the Colorado Military Academy in Denver at age 9. “He was a great man, a great person, but had a hellish personality. He was a lousy father and a lousy husband. But he did a lot. I give him that.”
He attended various high schools, including a stint at the Albuquerque Academy for Boys, but finally convinced his parents to let him have a “normal year” at Taos High School, and graduated there. “I didn’t give a rat’s ass about what they wanted. I wanted to be home!”
That winter he ski raced and while he was often trounced, he persevered and Colorado University offered him a ski scholarship.
With his father’s urging, he’d also applied and been accepted into West Point Military Academy, but to do so, he would need to attend the N.M. Military Institute in Roswell for at least a year. “I was not any type of military guy, which tries to break you down. So I had decided I would go to CU when Rosen had a heart attack, on the very day I planned to tell him.” So Richards passed on CU and went to NMMI. He lasted a semester. “I quit. I hated it. I liked the students — the Mechem boys were there, who both ended up dead in Vietnam — but I couldn’t stand the rest.”
Now disowned, in 1964, after becoming the youngest person ever to be certified in the Rocky Mountain Division of PSIA, he began teaching skiing at Taos, then headed to Europe, where he landed a job as an instructor at Klosters-Davos in Switzerland for two winters. He married a Swiss lady and the two bounced back and forth between New Mexico and Europe. He attended a famous hotel and cooking school in Lucerne, and took classes at UNM in Albuquerque and St. Michael’s College in Santa Fe before returning to TSV to teach under Ernie Blake’s supervision.
Ernie Hired & Fired
“Ernie was another great man but a tough son of a bitch. He could be as charming as could be, but he was volatile. He hired and he fired. It’s incredible what he did here. He had a vision. But without Rhoda this place would not exist. Anyway, I could see it wasn’t going to work at that point between us, so I went to Aspen and landed a job as a cook at the (infamous) Red Onion. I’d go out at noon before lunch and look up and watch all these skiers coming down and finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to go skiing, so I got a job teaching skiing at Aspen Highlands in the Fred Iselin Ski School. I did that for a number of years and owned a little place in Montezuma Basin, past Ashcroft up Castle Creek at 13,000 feet! I acquired a small place in town as well, and cut it into ten rooms with bunk beds, with four people to a room! I called it Rick’s Racks. It had a communal kitchen and shared bathrooms, and I charged $10 a night.”
For several summers he first coached at, then owned and ran, a summer youth ski camp held on a permanent snowfield in Montezuma Basin. Into construction, he returned to Taos to do some building projects, then got divorced and headed to Stowe, Vermont. There he remarried and returned to Taos, where he finally settled down.
“I’ve been skiing for 72 years,” he concluded. “How wild is that? Lucky, lucky me. I do what I like to do. I’m up on the mountain almost every day. I love my office and I’m still blown away by the beauty of the place. Taos has always been, and still is, a different kind of ski area.” And, filled with a different breed of people, like Richards himself.
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). 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.This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead