March 13th, 2023
TAOS Ski Valley aims to be a welcoming place to all, but that was not always the case. For more than 50 years, snowboarders were not allowed at TAOS. On March 19, 2008, TAOS Ski Valley opened its terrain to snowboarders for the first time in its existence.
The path to powder equality was an uphill battle.
There was a long-standing distrust of snowboarding. Many of the local skiers felt that the type of terrain at TAOS simply wasn’t conducive to snowboarding. They felt there was no way snowboarders could take on the steep lines of Kachina Peak. Not to mention their side-footed stance would mean their heel and toe edges would scrape away all the good snow and damage moguls!
Snowboarders also had to contend with rampant stereotypes. Traditional skiers and locals who thought of TAOS as a well-kept secret couldn’t imagine riders on their mountain with their baggy pants, loud music, vulgar language, and suspicious stench. While some boarders would happily adhere to these assumptions, it was, of course, a broad generalization—and not the best reputation to have when starting a revolution.
Luckily, these concerns did not deter snowboarders from fighting for access. For nearly two decades leading up to the announcement, a dedicated group of snowboarders—including longtime local Christof Brownell— advocated for their acceptance on the mountain. While Brownell claims to be nothing more than a torchbearer for TAOS Ski Valley’s snowboard movement, we know better.
One of the first momentous strikes was when Brownell, under cover of darkness, hiked up the Miners Slide—a hill adjacent to the resort —and carved “FREE TAOS” into the side of the mountain. By morning the sun had melted some of the snow, making the lettering clearer against the rock. Mountain management was more than a little upset. Before they could figure out how to remove the words, photos of the peaceful protest had circulated and been published in multiple ski and snowboarding magazines.
That's around the time tacos got involved.
“Free Taos” became the rallying call for change. Two snowboarders named George Medina and Michael Johnstone, owners of Experience Snowboards shop in the nearby town of Angel Fire, had always dreamed of riding the famed steeps of TAOS and decided it was time to expand the rebellion. They ordered hundreds of “Free Taos” stickers to give away. However, what they received were hundreds of “Free Tacos” stickers. We may never know if the typo was a clerical error or a brilliant marketing move, but the team at Experience Snowboards embraced it. What better way to rebel against a mountain that mid-90s snowboarders thought took itself too seriously?
While creative guerrilla marketing plans continued—songs were even written and performed about the movement—Brownell and other advocates for change took their argument somewhere with a bit less powder, Washington DC. Calls were made, and letters were written. The goal was to get the head of the Forest Service on their side because TAOS Ski Valley leases public lands from the government. Brownell asked the Forest Service how Ski Valley could lease public lands and choose to discriminate against members of the public.
After 20 years of fighting, TAOS finally opened its doors to snowboarders. But a funny thing happened when the Ski Valley renounced its ski-only reputation: nothing really changed. The terrain was still steep, the culture laid back, and Kachina Peak as tantric as ever. On that day, any misgivings of skier vs. snowboarder tensions dissolved into a distant memory, and a new wave of energy washed over the resort.
March 19th, now known as “Free Tacos Day,” is celebrated yearly. At 3:19PM, snowboarders line up on the top of the famed black directly under Lift 1, Al’s Run, and drop in unison to honor the hard work and the legacy of George Medina, Michael Johnston, and Christof Brownell. Soon after ban was lifted, Medina joined the Ernie Blake Snowsports School to teach snowboarding. His love of the sport and pure sense of joy made him one of the most beloved instructors at the school until he passed away in 2020. In his memory, TAOS named the glade above the Pioneer beginner area “Free Tacos.” Thanks to these passionate snowboarding enthusiasts, all are welcome.