“The Man Who Put Taos on the Skiing Map: Ernie Blake Remembers”
This story was originally published in The New Mexican on December 17, 1972
By Georgia Hotten
Ernie Blake may be known as the chairman of the board, but he is, first and probably finally, a skier.
The story he tells sounds like that of a concert pianist who hated his piano lessons, but Blake had the imagination and determination to turn a forest into one of the most exciting ski areas in the world. He – at times with his bare hands – built Taos Ski Valley.
Probably no major ski resort has been built with more ingenuity and hard work – and less money – than Taos.
Blake planned to erect his first lift, a second-hand J-bar, with the help of an eight-man crew and two burros. There were no roads on the mountain, only a path up the steepest of runs now called “Al’s.”
The burros, it turned out, were too smart to walk up that mountain, but not the men. They installed the lift even though there was already more than eight inches of snow on the ground.
There were times when Blake came in from the snow, and there were duties waiting for him. He was responsible for answering inquiries from skiers interested in this new resort in New Mexico. And he sometimes pulled a share of k.p. duties – right down to
Whatever was required, Ernie Blake gave, to carve a mountain into a complex of ski slopes that delights skiers from all over the world.
Taos Ski Valley has long been recognized as one of the world’s great ski areas for advances skiers. This year (1972), despite pleas to the contrary from some of the old pros, runs for intermediate and beginners were opened.
Ernie Blake was a beginner once too. But let him tell you about that.
“I was born in Frankfurt, Germany, just a year before World War I broke out in Europe. My first memories are of march music and the thunder of hobnailed boots, of soldiers with flowers in their rifles and the thrill of seeing in the sky an occasional airplane or a majestic zeppelin.
“When the war entered its third and fourth hungry years, we went to the home of my mother’s family, a big farm near Basel, Switzerland. We spent the last war winter at the Chantarella Hotel in St. Moritz. That’s where we were taught to ski. It was the time when many skiers used only one long pole, and ski boots were just high walking shoes into which the local shoemaker had turned a smooth grove to hold the simple snap binding.
“Mother was a very farsighted and well-organized lady, and she engaged an instructor for her three children. This instructor brightly skied us through a dense forest where we hit every tree. For my fifth birthday I begged mother to forget about gifts and cakes and to be satisfied with burning those monstrous skis.
“The skis in those days were just like what you see on museum walls today, with a nice tip extrusion to attach to your sealskin climbers. There were no lifts. You got the elevation by dint of your own muscles.
“From the age of 10, I lived in the Engadine Valley of Switzerland where we skied almost daily, competing in jumping and cross country running. When skiing down got tight and tense, we put out rugged hazelnut poles between our legs and rode on them as a brake.
“In 1930 the Austrian students from Innsbruck came up with steel edges on their skis and the soft slopes soon were hard as concrete. Now we had to learn to ski on ‘pistes,’ hard-packed slopes caused by heavy ski traffic. We were impressed by the skill of the Austrians and went home to instruct our bicycle maker to copy those fabulous steel edges. He did – in all too soft white metal. When we skied hard, the screws would pop, and we had to stop and unpack a mini-anvil and hammer the empty holes to tighten down the edges.
“Racing was not as fast and nerve shriveling an event then as it is today. If you won, it was by minutes, not seconds or tenths of seconds, and there was always time to stop and fix a ski or eat a sandwich.
“Racing was only half the sport; touring and climbing new peaks were just as much of a thrill. Mountain huts were where you made new friends, and the lack of luxury did not bother us. Neither did the many hours of climbing for one downhill run of a few minutes. Hickory skis with edges of steel strips, a simple predecessor to what became fashionable in the 50s, long solid poles with broad rings which gave support even in light snow, sealskin climbers snapped to the base of your skis so that you could climb steeply and easily – this was our equipment.
“THE RELATIVELY SOFT and plaint boots of those days and the bindings which allowed your heel to rise several inches helped to make climbing easy. In 1930, a certain Dr. Amstrutz invented a steel spring which held your heel down for the downhill run, but its power was nothing compared to modern locking devices. We had limited control of the simple skis we used then.
“About that time, the Norwegians invented laminated skis which were lighter and stronger. The depression had hit Europe, but skiing seemed to grow regardless of the financial misery, and it was an inexpensive sport. There were no lifts and you slept in alp huts on straw for nothing: bread and cheese were not all that costly, nor was the local wine.
“But the big change was coming; in 1931 in Davos, Switzerland, after being rejected by the big Swiss banks, a few wild enthusiasts built a cable railway straight up the Parsenn. It seemed doomed to financial failure.
“Up to that time, everyone had climbed the Parsenn. But the gamble paid off so well that the whole railroad was paid for in a couple of winters, and suddenly, in languishing economies, cable cars and mountain railroads sprang up like so many mushrooms after a summer rain.
“Suddenly skiing became available to the lazy and the not-so-dynamic, and it became fashionable and a mass sport all in one swoop. A few years later, in 1936, the Olympics admitted the alpine version of skiing for the first time. Dick Durrance, an American skier, placed tenth out of a field of 66 competitors in that competition.
“I LIVED IN ENGLAND at the time, and the fog and rain got me down so that I finally sold my services to three British debutantes to serve as the ski instructor in Arosa, Switzerland, for two months. This was a fine way to escape the soggy island and get into the bright mountain sun. I had never known I would miss it so much.
“There were no lifts in Arosa, so we rented a horse drawn sled with silver bells and a bearded old driver who drove us as high as there was a path. I then attempted to teach my charges how to ski down. It was a well-paid job and when the three girls went home, I went on to Davos where the Parsenn Bahn was running, to ski up every cent I had made. Then I returned sadly, but well-tanned, to grimy London and my job in a bank.
“The next year I was sent to Italy to learn another language, which I felt could best be achieved by skiing with the Club Alpino Italiano. That was a great experience of climbing a different peak every weekend, of traveling to the far corners of that stunningly beautiful Italian north. But it ended in a disastrous fall (off a mountain cliff hidden in the clouds), and when I came to the United States in late 1938, I still limped on a cane.
“Jobs were hard to come by in New York, so I ended up selling Fords in the Italian section of New York. Then my eyes lit on a modest ad placed by Saks Fifth Avenue in search of ski instructors for their two-day weekend snow trains. I reported for an exam still fairly crippled and unsure. We drove all night in an unheated old car to Bromley Mountain in Vermont. It was the first time I had ever seen electric Christmas lights outdoors – a mechanization of Christmas that shocked me deeply at that time.
“I was a total fake with a short leg and a lame knee, but the others were bigger fakes. I got the job and was off with Saks to the more glamorous side of New York to ski with the ‘Café Society’ in often rain-swept North Creek.
“THE SKI TRAINS were all old sleepers with a couple of bar cars and one lonely ski-rental and supply car. The guests were unanimous in voting skiing their second most popular sport. We skied a little, drank a lot and slept few hours. It was great fun and a great introduction to American life. As instructors we taught skiing on mild hills and used rope tows to get our charges up the hill. Occasionally, we engaged a taxi to take us to some ‘high’ peak.
“The local chamber of commerce thought the guests should be shown the wonders of Adirondack living, so they placed a stuffed, snarling bear standing on its hind legs on the edge of a trail. The guests, hardly in control of their skis at best, lost all semblance of control and madly careened into the dense forest, returning that night quite scratched and tattered. The bear was promptly removed.
“A couple years earlier I had read about the exploration of Aspen, then a long dead silver mining town, by Andre Roche from Geneca and Dr. Gunther Langes from the South Tyrol. In fact, the story had so excited me that it made me want to come to the United States. I planned to get to the Rockies with whatever money I’d been able to save. It was 18 months before I was ready, and then my boss wanted to go too. So in March 1940 we loaded his convertible with skis and boots and packs and drove off through the narrow winding eastern roads.
“It took three days to reach the vast straight roads of the Midwest, and then we hit our stride. Late on the fourth day, after vast open spaces and repetitive vistas, the silvery Rockies suddenly stood on the skyline and made us stop and gasp.
“Denver was a small and quiet country town then. In just one day we had met all the people who really skied. They soon took us to Berthound Pass and Winter Park, to Loveland and Independence Pass, to the mountain huts and even to the top of Pike’s Peak. On Loveland Pass there was no lift, so we simply drove as high as we could and skied down.
“SATURDAY, APRIL 7, we had a big race in the relaxed way races were run then, in deep, unpacked snow, without much formality. Everyone was there who became famous after the war: Barney McLean, Gordy Wren, DRC Brown, the Schnackenberg brothers, Dick Tompkins, Bob Kidder, and even a Bavarian chef from Albuquerque, Fritz Ehrl. We ran in a roaring snowstorm and total blindness; Barney beat us all quite easily.
“We went into Aspen and Ashcrott and stayed at the fabulous Jermone Hotel for a dollar, which provided room, bath and a giant breakfast. From there we went on to Alta where we skied the very end of the season. Then on through moon-like landscaped to California where we arrived just in time to race in the first Silverbelt race from Lincon to Sugarbowl. We hadn’t known about the race and drove in just as the first runners finished. We merely climbed up and picked up our numbers and came on down without a rest, winning no medals either. But we met and were defeated by Durrance of Olympic and Dartmouth fame and my Swiss-American schoolmates, the Schwarzenbachs who later built a home near Taos.
“Sugarbowl was far from the road and a delightful resort built by and for the San Francisco elite who were the true ski enthusiasts. We benefited from their generous hospitality, because our supply of cash was nearly gone. In fact, we sold my boss’ car and split the profit. Each of us traveled home his own way: I via Santa Fe and El Paso with a short foot trip into Mexico, a land of mystery and fascination for any European student of Cortez and Alvarado, Hidalgo and Juarez and the tragic Habsburg prince, Maximilian.
“When the war broke, I volunteered for the mountain troops. My brother was accepted and was one of the first to get to their new station at Camp Hale, while I was thought to be a spy and landed in the infantry in Georgia.
“In due course, I was taught to be the leader of a small intelligence team and sent to the war in Europe, back across all the lands I had visited as a boy and as a student. When it all ended, we were near Munich and it took me only days to requisition boots and skis and poles and to have a tailor cut my green army pants to a near facsimile of ‘Keilhosen.’
“THEN THE ARMY, in its wisdom, sent me off to hunt last islands of resistance in the Bavarian mountains. We never fired a shot, but we did get some fabulous skiing mountaineering. Ultimately, in a then-secret hunt for Martin Boremann, we penetrated as far south as the famous Marmolata in the Italian tyrol. The war suddenly seemed far in the past as we climbed in perfect step with a long line of Italian and German mountaineers, many still in some mélange of old uniforms and most of them probably without proper discharge papers.
“Home in the States it was hard to revert to paying for lifts and cablecars again; the East seemed so very crowded and the hills so small. Memories of the Aspen came back and I took my wife there in the early spring of 1949. Lifts had replaced the risky boat towns of 1940 and 1941 and the Jerome now charged $35.00 for the same room and no breakfast. All the chic and the important skied at Aspen; here were even lift lines and moguls, unknown before the war.
“We went on to Santa Fe to look for new ideas and new mountains. There we met Charles Le Feber, Kingsbury Pitcher, and Buzz Bainbridge. Soon we were all arguing about how to build Santa Fe Ski Basin.
“By Christmas of that year, 1949, I had moved my family to Santa Fe and became an employee of the Sierras de Santa Fe Corporation. I taught skiing and rented skis. I went off to Texas to bring the gospel of ski-dom to such dusty places as Midland, Lubbock, Levelland, Amarillo, and Abilene. I talked about Hannes Schneider, Emile Allais and Rudi Rominger where those names had never been heard before.
“Soon the guests from Texas flooded the slopes of New Mexico and spilled over into booming Colorado. Their funds promoted development in Aspen and later in Vail and Steamboat Springs, as well as much of Taos, Angle Fire and Red River.”
After letting Blake tell his own story, it would seem logical to credit Taos Ski Valley to his mother or to World War I. Without the war, he might never have gone to Switzerland; and without his mother, he might never have gone skiing. Ernie Blake built a ski valley that a man who had skied in the Alps could be proud of.