What’s in a Name?
Learn the tales behind these 10 trail's at Taos Ski Valley.
Peruse the Taos Ski Valley trail map, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a run name that doesn’t carry a story or anecdote cemented in the memory banks—and a few history books—from Taos’ earliest days. Personal friendships, legendary events, inside jokes and local vernacular were fodder for Taos Ski Valley founder Ernie Blake and his fellow trailblazers, as they shaped the mountain into a labyrinth of 110 ski runs—each as rowdy as the backstories that support them.
The historic lore of Taos’ trail names spout from the pages of Ski Pioneers, but the published biography accounts for only Ernie’s side of the story. Here, Chris Stagg, a 40-year ski veteran of Taos Ski Valley, adds his take on some of the mountain’s most colorful trails.
Abundant wild strawberry patches once grew on the forgiving slope of Strawberry Hill, hence the beginner trail’s friendly name. But it wasn’t always sunshine and berries. The beginner trail got its start as Idiotenhuegel (German for Idiot Hill), and was only renamed because it was “insulting to the poor beginners.” Despite its welcoming facade, Stagg says, “It’s probably the only beginner area I know of that sees avalanches and routine avalanche control work” because of an exposed slope above it.
One of the most popular “return” trails to Chair 4, Patton lives up to its namesake. A renowned officer in U.S. history, General Patton was an expert in tank warfare during WWI and earned military intelligence notoriety during WWII. With a ruthless drive and a lust for battle, he was instrumental in liberating Germany from the Nazis. He was also Ernie Blake’s commanding general during WWII in Berlin.
The courageous West Basin run is named in honor of Claus von Stauffenberg, a German Army officer who led a daring but unsuccessful plot to assassinate Hitler inside the dictator’s own bunker. Von Stauffenberg was quickly executed under Hitler’s orders but was hailed as a significant hero of WWII. “About 10 years ago, Stauffenberg’s son came and skied with us,” recalls Stagg. “He was told there was a run named after his father and was treated with great celebrity. There were a lot of people in Taos that didn’t know the history but knew the name, and here was this guy skiing it. He found it really amusing.”
Sir Arnold Lunn
During WWII, Ernie lived in London and was intrigued with everything British, including Sir Arnold Lunn—a national skier who laid the rules for modern ski racing and established the first slalom course in 1922. “The British loved putting rules with everything,” says Stagg. “But Sir Arnold Lunn didn’t really invent modern skiing. Just the idea of ski racing around slalom poles.” Nonetheless, his efforts paved the way for the debut of slalom skiing in the 1936 Olympics—ironic, given the raucous freeski nature of the double-black trail.
Ernie’s wife, Rhoda Blake, was notorious for dodging the steepest part of Al’s Run. To the confusion of her fellow skiers, she would duck into the trees and “magically” reappear at the bottom. It took a long time before anyone figured out that Rhoda had forged her own bypass trail, later becoming her signature run—still considered a black diamond trail but not nearly as intimidating as Al’s. “She was always good at laying out trails,” says Stagg of the rogue trail builder. “But she was particularly good at laying out trails that weren’t expert runs.”
While Ernie was infatuated with European war heroes, his son, Mickey, had a penchant for Mexican revolutionary heroes. Recalls Stagg: “Mickey studied Mexican history in school and would go to the reenactment of Benito Juárez,” a political revolutionist and former Mexican president who helped create a more liberal society in Mexico. “You’ll see a lot of runs on Highline Ridge going towards Kachina Peak that were named after a bunch of Mexican heroes and revolutions” that ultimately contributed to Mexico’s independence.
In 1897, Mathias Zdarsky wrote the first useful ski manual, introducing the world to techniques like the snowplow and the stem turn. He was also one of the first skiers to switch to a metal-based binding, allowing for more adjustability and tighter control—something that’s much needed on the expert West Basin Ridge line. “He was a pretty obscure character,” says Stagg, “and only Ernie would know something like that.”
The lower Kachina bowl was named after Paul Hunziker, a Swiss engineer who designed Chair 4 and was killed in an airplane accident on the way to inspect the lift in 1971. “When they first turned on the lift, there was a problem in the middle section and the chairs dragged on the ground,” recalls Stagg. “So they came back in and blasted out a bunch of rock,” prompting Ernie to erect the infamous sign mid-slope: NO UNLOADING HERE. SURVIVORS WILL BE PROSECUTED.
Named after Clark Funk, a longtime friend of Ernie Blake, El Funko was a playful jab at Funk’s ski ability. Or lack thereof. According to Ernie, he wasn’t a gifted skier and may well have fainted at the first sight of his namesake black diamond run in the shadows of Kachina. An art collector and retired local businessman, he was one of the earliest members of Taos ski patrol and still lives in town.
While many trails have noteworthy stories behind their names, some were simply christened from a more literal interpretation. Take Meatball, for instance. After an unusual winter storm brought in wet snow and heavy dust from the surrounding valley, brown-colored snowballs began rolling down the highly visible hike-to line on West Basin Ridge, taking on the appearance of…meatballs.