Kachina Peak as seen in the distance from the intersection of the Highline and West Basin trails
My head was in the clouds and my burning lungs felt like they were in my stomach…being digested. At an altitude of some 12,000 feet, I looked up at the final approach to Kachina Peak, breathless and more airheaded than usual. More than a little humbled, too, as the words of the ski shop clerk down in Taos Ski Valley (TSV) echoed in my head with a sort of taunting lilt. When I had asked him earlier in the week if the hike to the ski resort’s highest peak would take me the 45 minutes a local had estimated, he in turn asked me, “Where you from?” Upon hearing the place I call home is the relatively low altitude Birmingham, AL, he smiled and answered my original question with a confident, perhaps overly so, estimate of, “An hour and a half.”
Back on the mountain, I looked at my watch and reveled in the fact that he was wrong. By his reckoning, I should’ve reached the top five minutes ago, yet I still had another quarter mile to go – all of it up hill.
Note the person carrying the red skis in the group of people in the lower right-hand corner of the photo. According to Ed (see below), she had started her first ascent of Kachina at about the same time we did. Here she’s just lapped us during her second ascent. Amazing.
All that gasping notwithstanding, the hike to one of New Mexico’s highest peaks was way more than worth the effort. The 12,481-foot Kachina Peak is the cherry on top of TSV, yet it and the other ski runs that slide off the Highline (aka East Basin) and West Basin ridges are not served by a lift – a wish of TSV founder Ernie Blake that’s still honored. Such lack of automated access keeps the traffic down, but there are still plenty of skiers willing to make the hike and enjoy some of the best panoramas and skiing in the Rockies.
On My Own
Having parted ways with my wife and son where TSV’s highest lift stops and the Kachina trail begins – the family prefers to let the chairs get them up the slopes – I started my approximately two-mile hike towards the peak with skis on my shoulder and provisions in a backpack. Having been advised by the ski patrol against going it alone, I tried to keep up with a group of men and women of various ages, who, I should note, quickly left me winded and in their wake. I was happy to rest up and worm my way in with the next group to come along.
Such was the luck of Cindy and Ed from The Woodlands, Texas, that we stumbled upon each other. I can’t remember if they caught up with me or me with them, but being the good reporter I asked the couple very short questions about their time in TSV that required lengthy answers from them. (In the video below, that’s me wheezing off camera.)
Up, Then Down
In March 2008, TSV allowed snowboarding on the mountain. Many of us old-line skiers had our reservations, but after a year, I for one feel comfortable about the decision. For starters, it increases business and helps ensure TSV will remain a family-owned resort – one of the few remaining in the U.S.
On the way to the peak, I saw as many boarders as skiers passing me on the trail. One such boarder was Vince from Albuquerque, who plans to graduate from the University of New Mexico this spring and get a post-graduate degree in physics from University of California, San Diego.
A photography buff himself, Vince helped me shoot some video on the peak, and afterwards tried to reassure me I could make it down a run designated as a double black diamond. (A much gentler slope than your typical double, sources tell me it was rated such because of the hike to get there.) Still, I suspect with his knowledge of such things as gravity, mass, and velocity, Vince was calculating if my skis would reach the bottom of the run first, especially if I went down face first.
For more information about hiking to Kachina Peak during the ski season, which in 2009 ends April 5, see skitaos.org.