Once they couldn't
get no respect, but today snowboarders and trick skiers are
the darlings of ski resorts, propping up an otherwise sluggish
industry. The growing importance New Mexico's boarders and
new "free ride" skiers has certainly been recognized by Angel
Fire Resort, which is pumping some serious money and effort
into wooing this segment of winter sports enthusiasts to its
fine facilities in the breathtakingly beautiful Moreno Valley
of north-central New Mexico.
This season, in
fact, Angel Fire has opened not one, not two but three terrain
parks-including the state's only professionally designed and
maintained halfpipe. Here, on any given weekend, you'll find
hundreds of earnest, enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders
plopped down on the snow at the top of the Liberation Terrain
Park at the mountain's summit. Pop and rock tunes blare from
speakers hanging from the park's own two-person chairlift,
while the trick riders scope out their fellow aerialists in
the halfpipe and jumps below. You see kids pulling tail grabs,
360s, and even an occasional flip. This ain't no ordinary
turn left, turn right kind of place.
calls Alex Diamond, 15, of Albuquerque. "I'm, gonna give it
a try," he explains. "A friend just ripped the pipe, and now
I've got to follow." He stands up, crouches into a stable
stance and tips over the edge of the resort's halfpipe and
pulls off a credible series of turns up and down the pipe's
steep walls before exiting to a high-five from his bud at
The halfpipe was
designed by Chris Gunnarson of Snow Park Technologies, and
is unique in that most of its mass is actually earth (11,000
square yards of dirt were bulldozed into place to create its
walls), which means it can open with a minimal amount of snow.
Gunnarson has designed pipes for the ESPN Winter X Games,
as well as international events. The pipe features walls at
least 12 feet high (and as tall as 14 feet in some spots)
and runs 500 feet in length. To maintain its smooth, sloping
walls, the resort purchased a Bombardier Halfpipe Grinder,
and to police its use, has hired five young park rangers.
"It's getting tons
of use," says Chris Dunsirn, 20, of Albuquerque, who has an
enviable staff position as a terrain park ranger. "We're getting
great feedback on it, and the most exciting thing is that
every time people show up to use it, it's different. We change
the jumps nightly, and are adding new rails and other 'hits'
all the time. The pipe is just one part of it."
It couldn't have
come at a better time. "This state has always been seven to
ten years behind the rest of the nation, but Angel Fire has
bolted forward into the future with this move," says enthused
boarder Erin Fria, 31, of Albuquerque. "I've been fortunate
to ride at a lot of resorts, and this is as good as many I've
seen in California and Colorado. Hopefully other New Mexico
resorts will follow suit. I love this sport, and it is terrific
to see some local resort step up. I drive up every weekend,
because I'd rather give them my business-they obviously value
snowboarders. And the new parks are first class. If there's
powder, I'm there. Otherwise, I'm here in the terrain park.
It's a personal challenge and something new."
at Angel Fire is actually just one of the resort's three terrain
parks. It is designated as the intermediate-level facility.
On the mountain's "backside" is the advanced level Badlands
Park (with bigger jumps but no pipe), and at the resort's
base is the beginner-level Exhibition Park, with a quarter-pipe.
"The bottom line is to increase the number of skiers and riders,
and to generate a new level of excitement," explains Jon Mahanna,
the resort's mountain manager. "We aren't just a ski area
anymore. We're a snow sports area, with cross country skiing,
snow shoeing, snow biking, ski blading and the terrain parks-something
for everyone. When you look at the industry trends, skier
numbers are flat-at best. If it wasn't for the snowboarders
and trick skiers, we'd really be hurting. Currently snow boarders
comprise about 12 percent of our business. I see the opportunity,
with the terrain parks, to increase this to 30 to 35 percent."
But the young users
aren't thinking about economics as they wait their turn to
drop into Liberation Park. Amber Herbert, 13, or Mabank, Texas,
is simply nervous--but game. "My boyfriend is at the bottom
waiting for me. I guess I have to follow." Mark Hughes, 16
of Amarillo, on the other hand, has been trick skiing for
eight years. "I want to go pro," he notes, shaking the ice
off his Snow Jam skis, designed specifically for terrain park
use. "That's my main focus now in skiing. I've been on bigger
pipes before, but this is pretty cool for New Mexico." Justin
Hoyle, 19 of Taos, another of the terrain park rangers, notes,
"I enjoy the whole mountain, but I have the most fun here.
Right now I'm working on mastering the spine (a long rail
for balance tricks) and straight airs with grabs, but there
is always something new to learn. It's a lot of fun."
To go with the
new terrain parks, Angel Fire is hosting eight or nine major
competitive events this season, several sanctioned by the
U.S. Snowboarding Association. In March it will conduct the
Big Open for boarders and skiers, with prize money ranging
from $5,000 to $10,000. It is expected to draw participants
from as far away as California.
Angel Fire was
founded in the mid-1960s by the LeBus family of Wichita Falls,
Texas as a land development operation. With the arrival of
new owners (Tim Allen, Greg Allen and Craig Martin of Dallas)
in the mid-1990s, the installation of high-speed quad chairlifts
in 1996 and 1998 and other major facility improvements, it
has evolved into a fine resort.
The hardware has
been joined by a proliferation of snow sliding options. The
resort is the only ski area in New Mexico to offer the new
sport of snowbikes, and last winter opened one of the state's
premier cross-country ski operations. It also provides snowshoeing,
ski blades, snowmobiling and tubing (at the summit on weekends
and holidays during the day and on a tiny slope at the base
from 5-7 p.m. for $7 per person), and numerous non-snow activities,
including wagon rides, and winter horseback riding. The resort's
famous and wacky World Championship snow shovel races will
be held this year Feb. 1-3.
The resort boasts
a respectable 2,200 foot vertical drop spread over a modest
400 acres. Runs are ranked 31 beginner, 48 percent intermediate,
and 21 percent advanced. The area is best noted for its long,
relaxing cruising runs, some of which-like the appropriately
named Headin' Home--wind miles from the 10,650-foot-high summit
back down to the main base. These easy-going runs allow even
beginners to descend from the summit--where you can scope
out the impressive views of the Moreno Valley below and New
Mexico's highest mountain,13,161-foot-high Wheeler Peak to
the west. Tucked away in the back basin are steeper runs like
Hari Kari, Minder Binder, and Charisma. Nice Day is another
advanced run which meaders along a ridge and presents an interesting
double fall line.
Angel Fire is a 30-minute drive to the east of Taos, over
Palo Flechado Pass.
Adult single day lift tickets (for all lifts) run $43, for
teens (ages 13-17) $35, and for kids (ages 7-12) $27, and
free for kids under 7.
Dancing: Angel Fire has one of New Mexico's better ski
area restaurants, Aldo's Cantina. It's located in the base
area just to the north of the Chile Express chairlift. The
intimate space-only 16 or so tables-has a pretty fireplace
and a warm and colorful ambiance. One of the oldest eateries
in the village is Zebadiah's Restaurant and Bar (NM
434), which is open for lunch and dinner daily and is popular
with locals. Pool and live music on weekends provides one
of the town's few places to congregate. Another suggestion
for some tasty New Mexican fare is Maia's (village center
on N. Angel Fire Rd., 505/377-1897).
The most convenient place to stay is the Angel Fire Resort
Hotel, located just a few minutes walk from the Chile Express
chairlift. Ask for a room with a slope side view. The lodge
has a small indoor pool, hot tub, a bar (it often hosts live
music on weekends and holidays), several restaurants, small
a video arcade, retail ski shop, and gift shop. Altogether,
there's some 3,000 beds in town for visitors, including many
web site at www.angelfireresort.com, or call 800/633-7463
or 505/ 377-8012.