Over the Desert: Ski Apache
By DANIEL GIBSON
When people think of skiing in New
Mexico, their thoughts naturally turn toward the northern mountains,
but high above the beautiful deserts of south-central New Mexico
is one of the nation's finer mid-sized winter resorts, Ski Apache.
Sitting on the flanks of majestic Sierra Blanca Peak, which
soars to an elevation of 12,003 feet, winter is no joke here.
In fact, this season Ski Apache has outstanding conditions,
with a mid-mountain snow base of 55 inches or so.
From the resort's summit you can
gaze down on the baking realm of White Sands National Monument
more than 7,000 feet below--an astounding contrast! On clear
days the awesome panorama encompasses the Sangre de Cristos
to the north, the Gila country to the west, the high plains
to the east, and mountain chains marching southward into Mexico.
But there's more here than scenic vistas.
The area's attributes include the
state's greatest lift capacity (16,650 skiers per hour), coupled
with 1,000 vertical feet of snowmaking to get the resort through
lean winters. And though not boasting major vertical drop, Ski
Apache does have a respectable 1,900 verts spread over 750 acres
and a surprisingly diverse range of terrain.
On "The Face" you'll find
at least nine tough fall line pitches, such as Screaming Eagle,
The Terrible, Incredible, Mescalero, and Roy's Run served by
the state's only gondola (which rises 1700 vertical feet over
its mile and a half length) and two chairs. Five other chairs
service wonderfully groomed beginner and intermediate pockets
with gently meandering runs, wide-open ballroom cruisers, and
some beginning expert terrain. And for those in the know, there's
even some glen and tree skiing, such as the hidden one-skier-wide
tracks off Game Trail.
Perhaps the most outstanding natural
feature of the mountain, however, is Apache Bowl, a vast tree-dotted
amphitheater near the summit served by its own chairlift. While
high winds occasionally strip away its snow, when it's on-as
it is this year--it's fabulous. Snowboarders especially love
the bowl's natural halfpipes, "The Fingers."
In addition to its outstanding mix
of terrain, Ski Apache also exhibits a unique skiing culture.
The majority of patrons drive in from Texas, some from as far
away as Austin, who arrive bleary-eyed but ready to ski. Alongside
them one finds scores of Mescalero Apaches, whose tribal government
owns the resort, and local Hispanic and Anglo skiers. The final
element is patrons from Mexico-who compose almost 20 percent
of the area's business. The scene in the base area bar at the
end of the day is-to say the least-quite lively.
Guiding this social experiment for
the last 37 years has been general manager, Roy Parker. During
a recent visit, the hard-charging skier (and accomplished pilot)
filled me in on the history of the area as I caught my breath
on chairlifts between runs. Ski Apache first opened in 1961
with three T-bars and $3 tickets under the ownership of Roswell
oilman Robert O. Anderson, who installed one of the nation's
first four-person gondola; it is still in use. In 1963 Anderson
sold the area to the Mescalero Apache tribe, who had no experience
running a ski area. In the winter of 1964, Parker-who worked
previously in Colorado as a Vail instructor, a Winter Park patrolman,
and as manager at Loveland Basin from 1956-1959--was brought
"It was kind of a fiasco, at
first," he recalled. "Between a poor snow year the
previous winter and bad management, the area was bankrupt."
He methodically set about improving the ski experience while
getting his hands around the financial problems. Since then
he has had only two losing years, in 1974 and last winter, while
adding significant new terrain and lifts, support facilities,
and snowmaking-with the aid of his right-hand man, mountain
manager Denny Grover, a former California surfer and sailor
who arrived in 1967.
"I'm proud of the fact we've
increased the number of skiers from 20,000 a season to over
200,000, and the role we play in introducing new skiers and
snowboarders to the sport," said Parker. "On a good
day, as many as 1200 people may be enrolled in ski/boarding
school here, and of those, some 90 percent will be first-timers.
In any given winter, we estimate we introduce 20,000 to 25,000
people to skiing. We've also have turned this into a good investment
for the tribe. We employ more than 150 tribal members each season,
and are generating a positive cash flow."
Looking forward, Parker noted there
is more terrain to be developed at Ski Apache. In Apache Bowl,
he pointed out a potential chairlift corridor which would add
loads of upper-expert skiing, and he also has an eye on another
potential expansion area. But he cautioned, "Whether or
not it will ever become a reality is anyone's guess," citing
the difficulties today in obtaining necessary permits for any
ski area developments. But, expansion or no, Parker said he
expects to close out his distinguished career at Ski Apache.
"This has been my life." Not a bad way to go.
Prices--Adults lift tickets $42,
kids 12 and under $27; adult rentals $19 per day, kids $10.
Free lift tickets to first-timers enrolled in ski school.
Getting There--Ruidoso has a large
airport, but no regularly scheduled major airline service. Most
people drive-it is about three and a half hours to the ski area
from Santa Fe. The ski area is 12 miles from Ruidoso up a windy,
narrow road off NM 48. Chains are required during storms.
Lodging--There's loads of options
in the area, though none at the base itself. Because summer
is actually "high" season here, winter rates are quite
reasonable. There are hundreds of condominiums and many good
motels in and near Ruidoso--including the comfortable Best Western
Swiss Chalet (800-477-9477) with dining, a bar, sauna, and indoor
pool. A few miles beyond Ruidoso is the Inn of the Mountain
Gods, a four-season resort owned and operated by the Mescaleros.
Amenities include a casino, indoor tennis courts, and swimming.
A shuttle service provides rides to the ski area and town. For
details, call 800-545-9011. For general information on Ruidoso
lodging, call 800-253-2255.
Another lodging option is to stay
in the historic town of Lincoln, about 37 miles from the ski
area. This small, charming town set along the Rio Bonito was
the center of the famous Lincoln County War and the life of
Billy the Kid. There are several excellent B&Bs here, including
the 115-year-old Ellis Store & Co. (800/653-6460). Rates
begin at $69 and include a tremendous breakfast. Another excellent
Lincoln B&B is Casa de Patron (505-653-4676).
Other Activities: Because of the
altitude difference between Ruidoso and Ski Apache, you can
also often enjoy golfing on one of the town's two public courses
on your ski trip. There's also horseback riding, sleigh and
carriage rides, snowmobiling, live theater and music at the
incredible Spencer Theater (505-336-4800), and numerous art
galleries to peruse.
Information: web sites: www.skiapache.com
or www.ruidoso.net. Snow reports: 505-257-9001; general information:
AROUND THE REGION
Ski Santa Fe will host the annual
Jimmie Heuga Snow Express, a fund raiser for MS programs, Feb.
22-23. The event was launched in 1986 to support the Jimmie
Heuga Center of Edwards. Colorado, a non-profit institution
dedicated to improving the quality of life for people suffering
from multiple sclerosis. Three-person teams of skiers and/or
snowboarders compete in a four-hour marathon and a giant slalom
event for prizes and points. These results are combined with
additional points awarded for a team's fundraising ability (a
minimum of $1,000 is required to enter). The winning team will
receive a trip to Vail, Colorado to represent Santa Fe in the
national finals on April 15-18. Participants receive free skiing
courtesy of Ski Santa Fe, and a free racing clinic being conducted
by Norwegian World Cup and Olympic ski racer Reidar Wahl. They
also can attend the opening reception on Feb. 13 at the Governor's
Mansion, hosted by Governor Gary Johnson, and a free breakfast
and lunch at the ski area. Teams are still being formed and
accepted. Register your team at www.heuga.org. For details,
contact this year's volunteer coordinator, Dan McCarthy, owner
and manager of Santa Fe Mountain Sports (505/988-3337 or email@example.com).
Ski Apache is out to prove who is
the fastest skier in Texas. March 3-4, the area will present
the Texas State Ski Championship, with classes for women and
men in both skiing and snowboarding. There will be various age
classes as well. Prizes will include trophies, medals, T-shirts,
bibs and bragging rights. The grand prize-a season pass to Ski
Apache for next winter will be awarded to the fastest man and
woman skier. Participants will also be included in a raffle
for loads of major ski gear and lodging at the Inn of the Mountain
Gods. The cost per entrant is $60 for pre-registration (at www.skiapache.com
or at "J's Joint" in Ruidoso on Friday, march 2, 6:30-8:30
p.m.), or $80 the morning of the event at the Ski Apache Lodge
(a valid Texas driver's license is required. Registration includes
a two-day lift ticket, T-shirt, and race bib. For details, call
Contact Ski N.M. at 505/984-0606 or www.skinewmexico.com for
reports on New Mexico ski areas; Colorado Ski Country at 303/825-SNOW
for Colorado reports; or individual areas: Angel Fire--800/633-7463
x 3; Crested Butte--888/TO POWDER; Durango Mt. Resort: 800/525-0892,
ext. 4; Enchanted Forest (XC)--505/754-2374; Monarch--800/228-7943;
Pajarito--888/662-7669; Red River--505/754-2220; Sandia Peak--505/857-8977;
Ski Santa Fe--505/983-9155; Sipapu--505/587-2240; Ski Apache--505/257-9001;
Taos Ski Valley--505/776-2916; Telluride--970/728-7425; Wolf
Daniel Gibson of Santa Fe (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is the author of Audubon Guide to the National Wildlife Refuges:
Southwest (St. Martins) and two general guide books, American
Southwest and New Mexico (John Muir Publications).
His first day on "sliders" was 39 years ago.