By Daniel Gibson |
Top image caption: Peter Blake at his wedding three years ago in Taos. Photo courtesy Peter Blake. |
You might call Peter Blake a true son of New Mexico skiing. The youngest of three siblings, Peter grew up as wild as a wind-tossed columbine in the high alpine terrain of Taos Ski Valley. His famous parents, Ernie and Rhoda Blake, founded TSV in 1954 as Peter approached his fourth birthday, and like all those early ski pioneers, he pitched in, in many ways, to help it succeed.
Recently sitting in his comfortable sun-filled kitchen/dining area, with commanding views across the sagebrush plains of Arroyo Seco to the Truchas Peaks to the south, Vallecitos Mountain to the east and Lobo Peak to the north, he talked about his life and times.
Peter Blake’s Early Days
“I was born in November 1950, in Santa Fe,” Peter began. “My parents ran the Santa Fe Ski Basin for a handful of years before Taos; they’d moved there in 1949. I can’t remember much about the Santa Fe Basin, except that when I was first put on skis I didn’t really like them. They were basically just rubber galoshes strapped to short wooden skis. But when we moved into the ski valley, and I got some real skis, I began to like it.
“We lived the first few years in a sixteen-foot trailer,” Peter continued. “Mickey slept above my parents, while Wendy and I shared a bed that folded down out of the dining table. If we had a guest, they’d sleep on a cot in the hallway. We used Coleman lanterns and didn’t have a bathroom.
“I remember Mom once sweeping the floors and falling out of the trailer. We got a good laugh out of that! At some point she began using snow to clean the floors. I don’t think we did any cooking in it. The Hondo Lodge was up and running, even though I can recall cold air coming through the log walls where the chinking was missing. We’d eat there when there weren’t a lot of guests.
“In the late fifties, my parents put up a low wooden building that was both the ski shop and our house. It’s still in the valley, though it’s been moved and today serves as the medical clinic,” Peter explained.
The squat building sat, ironically, about where today’s Rhoda’s Restaurant sits, in the base plaza area. It served as the rental shop, ski shop and ticket office. Patrons were so sparse that the staff would go off to ski. If someone showed up who needed anything, they’d run a flag up a pole in front, and someone would break off their skiing to assist them.
First lifts and runs
“I can remember snow plowing down Snakedance, when I was five or six years old,” Peter recalled. “It was the only run we had. Next, I think, came Al’s, then Porcupine. The first few years, the lift — a platter pull acquired from the Taos Winter Sports Club’s operation at Aqua Piedra — ran only about half of the way up the frontside.”
Soon, that lift was replaced by a Poma that ran to the top of the frontside. It posed a real challenge for kids. “They’d have to shoot us out right behind a grown up, or it would pick you up in the air, spin you around and dump you,” Peter recalled.
School was also a challenge. He recalls attending Wood Gormley Elementary in Santa Fe for the first semester in grades 2-4, and being homeschooled the second semester. “In fifth grade I stayed all year in the valley, and in sixth grade I went to school in Santa Fe. In junior high, I first went to a private school called Cañoncito de Taos Academy, and then public school in Taos.”
Because getting back and forth to town was such a challenge, his parents rented a room at the Adobe Wall Motel, and he and Wendy stayed there many weekday nights, overseen by an adult. When Wendy went off to high school in Colorado, he lived in another place on Ledoux Street. He finished off his high school years at Santa Fe Preparatory. “I was in Prep’s second graduating class. My parents had kept the Santa Fe house, on Sun Mountain Road, and Prep’s women’s gym teacher lived in the house as well, so, theoretically, I had some adult supervision.”
Most of his childhood summers were spent at the ski area. “My parents were not cautious. When I was 9, Mickey and I spent most of the summer in the ski valley while they were living in Santa Fe. They’d come and go. I recall we ate canned rations and at the Hotel St. Bernard some. Mickey gave me my first horse on my ninth birthday, so I spent a lot of time hanging out with the horses and riding.”
A man from San Cristobal, Hipilito “Paulie” Cordova, also ran a horse rental operation in the valley for many of Peter’s childhood years, and Peter helped out a lot in the care of these horses and occasionally took people on trail rides. “People frequently got bucked off, and by today’s standards we’d never get away with it,” Peter said. “We didn’t have a corral for them. Initially we’d just hobble a few of them and put bells on some others, and let them roam around. There was so much grass that they wouldn’t stray very far. It was really wild then up there. There were only a few cabins and almost no cars. Even in the late ‘60s, we’d drive bunches of horses up and down the ski valley road, which was still dirt as far as Arroyo Seco. It was 1972, I recall, that it was first paved.”
Chainsaws & Ski Racing
“You helped out with different things,” he explained. “Everyone helped in the rental shop and I helped with lifts and in sweeping the mountain at the end of the day. By the time I was 13, a friend and I would sometimes haul injured people off the mountain in the ski patrol toboggans, but eventually this was discouraged. In the beginning there were so few rules. I was in my 20s before I ever had a season pass. I never had to have a ticket; we’d just ski onto the lifts.”
At age 15 or 16, Peter began working “on the summer crews, cutting trails and burning the slash and some of the timber. “I did this for quite a few years. They were mostly Spanish speaking, and were a good group of guys. Phil Sanchez, who ended up being director of lift operations, was always really nice to me, as was Eloy Montoya. The Homelite 55 saws we used were really, really heavy, and along with gas cans, we’d hike up and down the trails.” To get close to the cutting areas, the crew would pile into the bed of an old Dodge pickup. The driver was usually Lee Varos, who only had one eye. Talking and driving led, a few times, to going off the narrow roads.
As a kid, Peter once accidently hit his sister Wendy in the eye with a slingshot, and she was hospitalized in Albuquerque, where Dr. James McGuckin operated on her and saved her sight. This led to a close relationship, and the two families spent many Thanksgiving and Christmas days with each other. The McGuckins subsequently built a large A-frame cabin in the valley, one of the first of the modern era, and became one of Taos’ private investors. Among other early investors were Taos’ corps of doctors — Dr. Al Rosen and Dr. Ashley Pond, Jr. (whose father had launched and directed the Los Alamos Ranch School for 20-plus years).
Peter began ski racing in the 1960s on the TSV team, under the coaching of brother Mickey. But in March of 1965, and again in December of that year, he broke his leg and lay off racing for a period. “The racing bindings we used had these six-foot leather straps you would wrap around your boot to help stiffen the boot for better control. The bindings had no forward release, and because the toe had no shock absorption, you’d have to have them a lot tighter.”
They raced all over the state and in Colorado, in slalom, GS, and even downhill. “We didn’t race much downhill, but we loved to train for it,” he noted. “We trained downhill on Powderhorn, and used to catch some major air off the big rollovers on it, which have now been shaved off.”
In his 20s, he crashed on this run, and compressed a vertebra and suffered a concussion. “I was walking around not knowing who I was,” Peter remembered. “In a previous year, my friend Paco Santisteban missed the pre-jump off a roller and went into a tree. Luckily he wasn’t hurt, but it tore the binding out of the ski. Paco was probably the best ski racer of my generation to come out of here.”
Peter returned to racing as a senior in high school, then seriously began to pursue it again in his early 20s, racing until he was 38. “We had a really fun pro series here for a number of years,” he recalled. He also coached racing in this period.
Peter’s Love of Horses
Then Peter was bit by wanderlust and a desire to forge his own path, and in 1989 he pulled up stakes for parts unknown. He often wears a black cowboy hat, long jeans, and snap button shirts, and used to sport a trophy belt buckle. “The twenty-three years I was away were mostly focused on horses,” he explained — raising them, training them, and competing on them. Fourteen of those years were spent in Texas and the remainder in British Columbia. The buckle he often wore, one of 15 or so he won, was awarded him in 1999 when he was the Canadian non-pro champion in cutting horses. “That year, I went to seventeen of the thirty-two events held around Canada, and I won the most money, plus two rounds in the finals. It was really cool, because the stallion I rode I’d raised and trained myself. I was in love with it.”
In his Texas years, he also had a side business as an embroidery artist. He had a mobile shop in his horse trailer and would get lots of work on the rodeo circuit, embroidering hats, shirts, and other gear. He often traveled in summer with two daughters, who helped with the embroidery while competing themselves in cutting. His daughter Terah was seventh in the world in cutting when she was just 10 years old, while competing against youth up to age 19. “She was an amazing competitor,” said Peter proudly.
Determination and a Love of Skiing
Looking back the founding of Taos Ski Valley, today an internationally renowned resort, Peter said, “I’m not sure mom and dad ever thought of it becoming a big ski area. They were having a lot of fun, and for them it was all about the skiing.” They made a good pair, and fortune favored them for their bravery and hard work.
“My father was very social, but my mother wasn’t. Mom, who grew up on Park Avenue, was really very mechanical; my father wasn’t. She could fix anything; he had a grand vision. Dad was a rules person; Rhoda wasn’t. He was very authoritarian. Dad was German, to begin with, and was an interrogator in World War II. He could get to the truth!”
As a young man, Ernie skied off a 75-foot cliff in Italy and broke his femur. “He lay there for twelve hours, then it took them another twelve hours to get him to a hospital. He was tough, yes, but not as tough as Mom. She was the toughest human being I ever knew. Dad died in 1989 and mom in 2014, at age 97. She smoked a pack and a half a day, and drank almost nothing but coffee. If you’d bring her healthy food, she’d hardly eat it, but a dozen doughnuts would be gone in 15 minutes! I tease them up at the ski valley because in Rhoda’s Restaurant they have a salad named after her, but she’d hardly touch one. You’d come in my house, which she lived in for years when I was away, and it smelled like a bar, with a haze of smoke. She always had an extra cigarette burning somewhere. She was sharp to the last day, even while losing much of her hearing and sight.” The property he bought, and the home he built and occupies today, is called Abuelita Ranch, in honor of his mother.
Back to New Mexico
Back visiting at one point, Jeff “Mugsey” Mugleson, the head of the Taos Ski School, offered him a job, and “I decided to take it in order to spend more time with my mother, who was getting old. I thought it would be just for one winter, the winter of 2012, as I’d vowed never to return here to live. Never say ‘never’ — God has a big sense of humor! I fell totally back in love with Taos and New Mexico, and I stayed.”
He went on to spend years in the TSV ski school, but off the slopes he fractured a foot three times. This made wearing ski boots quite painful, and during the pandemic he retired from that role. “But my feet are getting better,” he noted, “and while I can’t stand stationary in ski boots, skiing is okay, and this winter, for the first time in four years, I went to lunch in them.” Asked about his favorite Taos runs, Peter replied, “I love Porcupine and always have. When it’s good, Ernie’s is another of my favorites. And, I love upper and lower Stauffenberg.”
Family Life Today
Today he is happily married to Kristi Blake. They’ve been together for seven years. She has two grown children and three grandchildren, and he, from previous marriages, has seven grown children. “I’m really proud of my children.” His eldest daughter, Mariah Blake, age 49, is a “very successful investigative journalist,” he said, who worked for the likes of Mother Jones magazine. She secured a mid-career fellowship at Harvard, and is now working on a book about the plastics industry. His youngest child, artist Jennifer Blake, is 22. Among his five grandchildren is Chole Nuckols, the eldest at 22 years old, who is in the Air Force. He concludes, “It’s been a good life, an interesting life — to say the least!”
ski Conditions and Events as of March 9, 2022
After some 60-degree days in Santa Fe last week, winter returned on Sunday and again on Monday night, and all northern ski areas picked up substantial snow.
Ski Santa Fe saw 16 inches fall and now has a 54-inch base. All runs are open, except Big Rocks Chutes 1-8, Chiles Glade, Sunset Bowl, and Easter Bowl. I skied BR Chute 9 on Monday and it was sweet, and the new snow will really help improve the somewhat sketchy conditions on the steeper terrain and in the woods. The groomers are in terrific shape. This Saturday, catch free live music on the Totemoff Deck from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and a tap takeover by Bosque Brewing.
Taos Ski Valley picked up 14 inches at the top of Chair 7, and sits on an 86-inch base there, with 69 inches at mid-Shalako. The Kachina Peak Chair was closed on Tuesday, but all the hike-to runs off West Basin and most of Highline Ridge are open.
Wolf Creek gained three feet over the previous three days, and has a phat 112 inches at mid-mountain. The Meadow Loop and the Lake Spur of the Nordic Track were groomed and track-set on March 8.
Angel Fire Resort saw 10 inches fall, and has a 2-foot base, with 85 percent of its runs open.
Sipapu received 10 inches and has a 37-inch base, with 38 runs open, including some of its expert slopes and the double blacks Reasonable Anxiety and Upper Oops.
Red River caught 10 inches of new fluff, and has a 30- to 36-inch base. All but one run is open.
Pajarito caught only three inches, and despite a base of just 17 inches, has 75 percent of its runs open, due to some fine grooming. It is open on a Friday – Sunday basis.
Ski Apache will be open March 10 – 20, but its online conditions section is non-functional, so what exactly is open and base levels are unknown.
Crested Butte picked up only three inches, but still has a 70-inch base. Almost all of its double-black terrain is open, but nothing under the Butte itself — runs like Banana, Peel, Funnel, and Forest. On March 19, CB resurrects the Al Johnson Memorial Race, in which racers climb 660 vertical feet on telemark gear, followed by a 1,200-foot descent through Crested Butte’s infamous extreme terrain, while sporting their best costumes. Come to race or just to watch. Check-in and registration is in the Adventure Center in Mountaineer Square from 8 – 10 a.m., with the race starting at 1 p.m. The awards and after-party runs from 3 – 5 p.m.
Monarch Mountain has a 63-inch base, with all runs open and both terrain parks.
Purgatory saw seven inches fall and has a 65-inch base, with all but one run open. On March 16, the folks at Wolfwood Refuge will bring some of their pack of wolves to Purg for the public to see up close and hear remarks from their director Paula Watson.
Telluride has a 67-inch base, and 134 of 149 runs open.
Arizona Snowbowl was really in the flow, picking up 31 inches in three days. Their base is now 66 inches, with all but their hike-to terrain open.
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). His new book, Images of America: Skiing in New Mexico, was recently released from Arcadia Publishing with 183 historic photos. 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