Ernie Blake’s passion could have led to folly. Instead it led to Taos.
The ski business is about as far away from a sure thing as you can get. To begin, it’s reliant on the weather. If that’s not enough uncertainty, there’s nothing cheap about operating a mountain. As a “luxury” expense, skiing is prone to the whims of the economy. The cherry on top of the red-flag-warning sundae is that the sport comes with a steep learning curve. There are those of us who love the freedom from moment one. The rest of the customers are operating on a tenuous faith that the spills, the cold, and the discomfort of the boots will pay off in fun…eventually.
So who would ever sign up willingly to start a ski area? Easy. Someone who lives and breathes skiing.
Ernie Blake discovered the location for his would-be ski area on his work commute. You know how you might check Instagram during a meeting, or maybe squeeze in a personal errand on to the end of a client lunch hour? Child’s play!
It was 1954 and Blake was managing Santa Fe Ski Basin in New Mexico and a small resort in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. (It’s unclear if that was Glenwood’s Red Mountain Ski Area or Holiday Hill.) A trained pilot from the Swiss military, he flew a Cessna north from the Sangre de Cristos to the Elk Mountain range near Glenwood Springs. He flew over the Sawatch Range, the West Elks, and the San Juans, bouncing east and west of the Continental Divide. His employers figured a plane flight was an efficient commute. Blake had an ulterior motive. He was using the time and the 15,000-foot view to scout for his own ski area.
Just fewer than 20 miles from the town of Taos, New Mexico, Blake found the spot. Mount Wheeler (13,161 feet), the tallest peak in New Mexico, sits over the La Cal Basin, which is a natural depression that scoops up every bit of the area’s annual 305-inch snowfall. To the north of Mount Wheeler is Kachina Peak (12,481 feet). Flight after flight, Blake watched the snow build up.
Blake was born Ernest Hermann Bloch, in Germany, in 1913. He grew up in Switzerland where he spent the majority of his childhood and young adult years skiing. From an early age, he was an outstanding athlete. Had he not been Jewish, he would have competed for the German ice hockey team at the 1936 Winter Olympics. But his family was Jewish, and they weren’t safe under the Hitler regime of the late 1930s. In 1939, the family emigrated to the United States.
Landing in New York City, Blake took jobs running a ski shop and teaching skiers from the Saks Fifth Avenue ski trains. Wannabe skiers would board the train, drink themselves silly en route, then ski for a few days at a nearby resort. Apparently, Blake wasn’t overly impressed with either the revelers approach to skiing or the day ski areas. He dreamt of his own resort, where skiers would come and immerse themselves in the full destination, and importantly, leave a better skier than they had arrived.
His life moved forward. He met and charmed Rhoda, the woman he would marry. Then World War II began.
Blake volunteered for the American military, specifically to the 10th Mountain Division. The Army was suspect of his German ancestry and didn’t allow him to join the skiing troops at Camp Hale. When they learned that he spoke English, German, French, and Italian, however, they found a place for him as a military intelligence officer.
To downplay his heritage, he was given the codename Ernie Blake, a slight change from his given name of Ernest Bloch. He became a trusted interrogator of German prisoners, including German officers from Hitler’s inner circle. His work greatly aided the Allied cause. The war, as it was for so many, was horrid. Blake was a member of the first team to come upon the German concentration camps. Not much is written about that time for him specifically, though his family says the haunting experience never left him.
Upon returning to the States, Blake and Rhoda moved to the West. She had studied art in Santa Fe, and encouraged Blake to check out New Mexico years earlier. In 1949, they made the move official when Blake was offered the job to oversee both Santa Fe Ski Basin and its sister resort in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
We know how that went.
In 1954, Blake and Rhoda officially founded Taos Ski Valley, though it wouldn’t open for two more years. A spartan, mid-construction lodge in the nearly defunct town of Twining would serve as the base area. The owners of the building, the Hondo Lodge, sensed an opportunity. They printed brochures making the iffy accommodations look and sound like a luxurious European resort. Apparently, it worked.
The next year, the Blakes and their three children were living at the base of the mountain in an 11-foot trailer. With the amount of work to be done, the tight quarters were of little concern. The lack of electricity may have been a point of higher contention, but even that came around…in 1963.
Blake took the lead on installing the first lift, a J-bar (aka T-bar). He hired some local guys and a mule to aid in the heavy lifting. With one 300-foot run cut and a working diesel surface lift, Taos Ski Valley was open for business in 1956. A year later, the team added a wicked fast Poma and cut one of the steepest entrance runs around, Showdown. The ski area was now 1,800 vertical feet of black terrain.
To give Blake full credit for the original vision of Taos Ski Valley is fair. To give him full credit for all the work wouldn’t be accurate. He had help along the way, notably by Jean Mayer, who ran the ski school and helped to establish the European charm and excellent food that became two of the area’s calling cards. Equally, or perhaps to an even higher degree, Rhoda and the kids all pitched in to bring Blake’s dream come to fruition. Rhoda, especially, was more than the supportive wife. She was handy and skilled in ways that Ernie was not.
Even as the resort grew, the entire family continued to pitch in. Everyone, Blake included, did whatever needed to be done – from selling lift tickets, to cleaning tables, to grooming snow. Excellence was expected. For a grandchild to get a job handing out hot chocolate, Blake put them through a professional interview, asking what they thought they could bring to Taos Ski Valley.
In large part, because he was so present in the daily operations, Blake became synonymous with Taos. He wasn’t always easy-going, but his charisma, enthusiasm, and passion for the skiing drew people in. And his charm? World class.
Blake died at 75 years old in January 1989; his love of skiing never wavering. The lifts at Taos closed for one hour a few days later, as the National Guard flew over the mountain and spread Blake’s ashes.
According to the New Mexico Ski Hall of Fame, “The following month, it snowed six feet in three days at Taos. The word was that Ernie had moved from management to snowmaking.”
The Blake family, kids and grandkids of Ernie and Rhoda, continued to run Taos Ski Valley until 2013.
Photo courtesy of Taos Ski Valley Archives.