What is now a 45-minute march to the top of Kachina Peak may be a simple, five-minute lift ride as early as next ski season.
Taos Ski Valley has announced it will install a lift to near the top of the 12,450-foot peak this summer. The move is meant to attract more visitors to the resort by making some of its most spectacular terrain more accessible for skiers and snowboarders.
“There is nothing in North America in terms of in-bounds, lift-served terrain that compares to Kachina Peak,” Taos Ski Valley CEO Gordon Briner told The Taos News.
The resort says the lift will be installed this summer and will be operational by the start of the 2014-2015 ski season.
The green light for the Kachina lift comes only a few weeks after the sale of the resort to billionaire Louis Bacon was made public.
When announcing the sale in December, the Blake family — who has owned and operated the resort since it was founded by patriarch Ernie Blake in 1955 — said they could not afford to bankroll much needed improvements to the mountain, including the Kachina lift.
Briner told The Taos News the purchase and installation of the lift are expected to cost $2.7 million. The project is only one on a list of improvements on and off the mountain approved by the Forest Service in 2010.
Briner said the bottom terminal of the lift will be located near the short climb to Huntzinger’s Bowl as accessed from the top of Lift 4. The top terminal will be about 100 vertical feet below Kachina Peak, to skiers left of the prayer flags.
Once operating, the triple-seat, fixed-grip lift will carry skiers and boarders 1,100 feet up the mountain in five minutes. The top elevation of the lift will be among the highest the country.
The resort argues a lift to Kachina Peak will mean the terrain it serves will be open before the holidays and stay open through the end of the season because ski patrol will have better access to compact and maintain snow conditions. Briner said there are no plans to add snowmaking to the peak, primarily because its elevation and aspect mean it typically receives the most snow of any part of the resort.
The resort says the lift will increase lift-served advanced and expert terrain by 50 percent, while keeping more than half of the existing “hike-to” terrain intact. Briner notes competing resorts — like Telluride in Colorado and Big Sky in Montana — have seen visitor numbers jump after installing lifts for their highest terrain.
Briner estimates there might be 100 people on the peak or hiking the peak at any given time on a busy day. By comparison, the new lift will have the capacity to haul 1,400 people to the summit every hour.
Over the last decade, TSV has seen skier numbers steadily slide while the industry nationwide has been trending upward. The addition of the peak lift will likely become a center piece of the resort’s marketing as it hopes to attract visitors.
“The lift will be an important development on Ernie’s goal of building a challenging mountain that can be shared with all,” said Jean Mayer, owner of the Hotel St. Bernard and technical director of the Ernie Blake Ski School, in a statement from the resort.
Despite hopes the lift and other upgradess will bring new life to TSV, it’s not without its critics. Opposition to the lift has come from purist skiers and boarders who value the challenge and solitude of hiking the peak, and who worry more people on the peak will hurt the quality of the conditions there.
To address some of those concerns, resort heads are quick to point out that founder Ernie Blake had long envisioned a lift up Kachina.
“In many ways, this lift is a tribute to Ernie Blake,” said Ernie’s son and Taos Ski Valley President Mickey Blake in a statement.
The resort also faced a backlash when it decided to allow snowboarders in 2008 — a decision most detractors have accepted as a necessary change.
During the Forest Service review of the resort’s plans, public commenters also worried that a lift above tree line would be an imposition on the scenery and the nearby Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area that lies a stone’s throw away. The Forest Service responded that the proposed lift fits within the agency’s mandate of providing mixed use of public lands, and officials said there was no evidence the lift would be a threat to the environment.