Doing it His Way: Mayor Christof Brownell of Taos Ski Valley
| By Snowsports Journalist Daniel Gibson |
His is the classic case of the outsider becoming the insider, the person with no authority becoming the authority.
Christof Brownell was a lucky kid. Born and raised in Taos Ski Valley, he is the older of two sons of Elisabeth and Tom Brownell, who owned and operated the fabled Thunderbird Lodge for some 40 years. For decades Christof was a highly visible and vocal critic of the way TSV operated, and particularly its ban on snowboarding. Today he is the Village of Taos Ski Valley mayor and spends most of his days in meetings, traveling far and wide to fulfill his duties, squeezing in snowboarding in his rare down time. What a trip it’s been.
Last March, just as the pandemic was ramping up and TSV was about to shut down, we sat for an interview in the home he grew up in and talked about his long and winding road from outsider to insider.
“My parents met at the Hotel St. Bernard,” he explained. “My dad was on vacation here, and my mom was working for Ernie Blake (TSV’s founder) as a ski instructor and secretary. My dad had such a good time he came back the next year and one thing led to another and they eventually got married.”
On his Taos visits his father had been staying in one of the valley’s earliest accommodations, the Thunderbird Lodge, which first opened in the mid-1960s as the low budget alternative to the St. Bernard and Hondo Lodge. It was a Spartan cinderblock box when they bought out the original owners in 1968, but over the years the Brownells transformed it into a very comfortable and attractive accommodation, with a great bar and excellent food. For many years they hosted a major jazz festival every January, attended by the likes Ralph Sutton, Milt Hinton, Warren Vaché, Scott Hamilton, and Jake Hanna.
The family also built the Thunderbird Chalet in 1968 next to the lodge, and in 1971 they moved into it. “This was the house I grew up in. I used to take a van down to Taos with other kids who grew up in the valley — there were lots of us back then — for school. I’d come home and then get to work helping in the hotel, washing dishes, carrying luggage, shoveling snow, whatever was needed.”
It was an idyllic childhood: skiing almost daily in winter and hiking in the high alpine in the summer, running wild as the deer. However, his father became chronically ill, and they sold the Thunderbird in 2005. The T’bird was leveled in October 2007 and Tom Brownell passed away two months later; Elizabeth now resides in an assisted living facility in Santa Fe.
But Christof had no intention of riding his parents’ coat tails. In his 20s he began to seriously pursue music as a career — inspired in part by his father and the jazz musicians he associated with during the Thunderbird’s festival.
Die Hard Snowboarder
And, he got into snowboarding, which would transform his life.
“Around the late 1980s snowboarding made its advent on the scene, and myself and a bunch of friends got really interested in it. We’d haul a Snurfer (the predecessor to today’s snowboards, complete with a short looped rope run through the board’s tip that you’d hang onto) up onto the beginner hill. Then on the first Burtons we worked our way up the mountain, getting better and better. We got into it more and more, but Taos banned it and forbid us from riding on their slopes. We’d have to travel to other ski areas to snowboard, but this did allow us to see what everyone else was doing with the sport. My family and other business owners in the valley began to see a loss of business here, as families went elsewhere.”
Thus was born the Free Taos movement. “We continued to hike up TSV runs and board down on full moon nights and in the early mornings, and eventually we snowboarded every square foot of the mountain. We’d even hike Kachina Peak, or up Al’s pre-dawn on powder days and leave tracks down it.”
The TSV Ski Patrol tagged them as public enemy number one and “that got us in trouble. One morning a friend and I were on Al’s Run a bit later than usual and the patrol was on the lift riding up. We waved at them and when we got to the bottom authorities were waiting. We ended up with a federal citations (as the ski area is located on U.S. Forest Service lands).”
The group — which included George Medina and Michael Johnstone (who both later ended up as TSV snowboarding instructors) and Brandon Peterson — then launched a very effective public relations campaign. Medina, Johnstone, and Peterson, who owned a shop named Experience Snowboards in Angel Fire, printed up thousands of “Free Taos” stickers and soon they were festooned across TSV, northern New Mexico, and wherever the riders traveled to. One night Christof carved out “Free Taos” in massive letters on the snow covering the old mine tailings slide facing the ski area, and a photo of it appeared in TransWorld Snowboarding magazine. A petition was launched, and the forest service lobbied on the grounds that the skier-only policy was discriminatory.
It’s not that he disliked skiing or skiers, he noted. “I grew up skiing and never quit skiing; it’s just another discipline. Now I’ve had a number of injuries and knee operations, and snowboarding is a lot easier on my body, so that’s what I pursue.”
Meanwhile, Christof and others began to explore the idea of creating a rival ski area, to be called Northside, on the opposite side of the valley from TSV in the Bull-of-the-Woods drainage beneath Gold Hill. They scouted terrain, created some trails (still widely used by mountain bikers today), did some minor thinning, and studied avalanche potential.
In 1996, the base village incorporated as a town, with an administration separate and distinct from that of Taos Ski Valley, Inc., and he ran for office as the youth candidate. He lost by four votes. He ran again in 2000, this time really pitching his snowboarding mantra. He was trounced, but times were changing. TSV had been left as one of only a handful of U.S. ski area that forbid snowboarding, and the number of annual guests had taken a big hit.
Finally, on March 19, 2008 the restriction was finally lifted, and he, his buddies and hundreds of other snowboarders descended on TSV for a grand day of riding and celebration.
Activist Turned Politician
The plans for Northside were abandoned but a political fire had been lit under Christof. “I unintentionally became an activist over something I believed in — that Taos could be a great place for snowboarding and that the policy would open up our economy. It eventually happened.”
Having secured a freer Taos, Christof departed the valley for several years. He had begun playing music professionally, often in a duo with Hotel St. Bernard’s founder Jean Mayer’s nephew, Kristian Mayer, as The Groove Junkies in the 1990s. They played around Taos, northern New Mexico, Colorado, and even in Beijing and on the streets of Paris. He took his music career to Denver, where he settled and got married. But the valley continued its Siren call, and he returned and ran again for mayor in 2018, and won — by a single vote. The kid who used to shoot spitballs at the teacher was now at the front of the class!
While his rebellious nature has not entirely vanished, three years into his term he often finds himself making compromises in order to benefit all parties. “I have to look at the big picture, which includes the ski area, private businesses, residents, employees who may not live here but spend their lives working here, and our visitors and guests.
“The valley has seen more change in the past few years than it’s entire history. It’s been a challenge for the village. We’ve had to negotiate a lot of deals with the ski corporation, from financial issues to passage of ordinances and development regulations.”
This includes some very complex transactions, such as the design and construction of upgraded roads and utilities needed for development. The ski area initially is paying for these costs upfront, and the village is paying them back over time from gross receipts tax income, with ownership eventually transferring to the village.
A Passion for the Valley
“Sometimes it seems the village is just in the way of the corporation but we have to do what’s right for the whole community, not just the ski area. I have to be as diplomatic and unbiased as possible to get the job done. Growing up here, it’s my home and I really care about the ski valley and its future. Developers can come in here with a lot of money and it seems there are no limits to their agenda, but there are practical limits to what we can handle.
“I have mixed feelings about our future. I recall the good old days, when there were lots of families living here and there was a sense of camaraderie. There were many independent small businesses and that’s going away. But the corporation is doing a lot of great things: upgrading the lifts, adding the Kachina Peak chair, and expanding the accessible terrain. All the glading they’ve done on the frontside has been great — Wild West Glade, Ernie’s Run, and so forth. I’m also encouraged by their becoming the world’s first ski area to be certified as a B Corporation (a formal designation by an independent body that measures a company’s commitment to social, economic, and environmental improvement). That’s all pretty amazing. So there are a lot of positives. But there’s lot of things that could be done better, and we’ll work with them to achieve some of these goals, such as a valley-wide recycling program and a shuttle system to Kachina Basin in summer and winter. It’s become very popular, and the road produces a lot of dust.”
And, he notes there’s been a great deal of cooperation between TSV and the village around COVID-19 safe practices. “With limited guests, it’s actually kind of pleasant on the mountain, but we are all just hanging on by a thread.”
He certainly did not pursue the role of mayor for its salary or perks. The Village of Taos mayor is paid $700 a month, and requires essentially full-time devotion. He sits on several regional boards, like the Rural Transportation Division, and has to attend lots of meetings — in the town of Taos, in Santa Fe and other locales.
But Some Time for Play
But it’s not all work. He still plays music, or did up to the pandemic, often as The Band With One Man or the One Peace band, in which he simultaneously plays piano, keyboard base, drums, various percussion instruments, and sings. Anyone who has spent time at the St. Bernard over the past decade has probably seen him playing to a crowded dance floor with his entertaining selection of R&B, blues, jazz, ska, reggae, jazz, and World Beat tunes. His version of “Riders on the Storm” as a blizzard pounded outside the Rathskeller’s heavy door last winter is etched into my memory. In 2013 he released a solo CD, Sol Grande, of jazz standards and original compositions. A student of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, over the years he’s opened for many major musicians, including Taj Mahal, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Merl Saunders, Burning Spear, Steele Pulse, and Los Lonely Boys.
These days he’s also overseeing the four rental units of the Brownell Chalet, yet he still manages to get onto the mountain occasionally. “Being close, I have the ability to pick my times, when there are fewer people here and optimal conditions.” So it’s not all a struggle, and he finds solace, energy and a renewed drive after his on-snow sessions. As it should be, for the child-become-a man of the mountains.
Brownell Chalet at TSV
This Bavarian-styled multi-storied structure, which was a favorite retreat for former President Jimmy Carter, at 1 Thunderbird Road is just a few minutes walk from Chair #1, and features onsite free parking. The four units consists of the Fireplace Room (with a gas fireplace), the Studio, the Bird’s Nest Suite (with balcony) and the Apartment (with one bedroom and a full kitchen).
All include down comforters, private bath or shower, satellite TV, free WiFi and high-speed Internet, and queen beds. For details, see www.BrownellChalet.com or call 575-204-8784 or 575-776-2625.
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