Two for the Slopes

The pair of men in yellow ski jackets appear as silhouettes, sitting on a chair lift high over the Taos Ski Valley, tipping their skis back and forth. Their heads are turned to the right looking across the valley to West Basin and the chutes above it, runs they skied the previous day.

Dadou Mayer (pronounced the French way, My-ay), the younger of the two brothers, points with his gloved hand and talks in French. Jean Mayer nods his head and watches, as Dadou traces their tracks from yesterday with a sweep of his arm. These brothers are two of the best skiers in the world. They have all the credentials, all the trophies and cups, pins and certificates. They have been French junior champions, French national team members, NASTAR pace setters, racing coaches, ski school supervisors and examiners, but that doesn’t tell it all. They’ve also made a personal and permanent mark on Taos Ski Valley.

They ski off the lift and face the slope, then start down, skiing in apparent unison. Yet there’s a discernible difference as they settle into the run. They hold themselves differently, approach the mountain-and life-a bit differently. Jean and Dadou Mayer look like twins, but they aren’t. Their tracks are closely bound, but not identical.

From the base at Taos Ski Valley, there’s a walking trail that goes up to Williams Lake and Wheeler Peak, the highest point in New Mexico. Nearby, not quite as tall a mountain, is Kachina Peak. If the legendary Ernie Blake, the owner of Taos Ski Valley, is the Wheeler Peak, then Jean Mayer is the Kachina Peak of Taos Ski Valley. Ernie and Jean carved out most of the major trails at Taos, adding their own design to the runs.

It was fate and luck for the two to work together, like finding the right mate. Anything more or less wouldn’t have succeeded. They were like old miners, and old bears, scratching out their territory and putting their scents around their boundaries.

“I had never met Jean,” Ernie says, “until he arrived on a bus at the old La Fonda on the plaza in Taos on December 26, 1956. All our correspondence had been by mail. He had received a high recommendation from the military; he had been in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in Bavaria, in charge of skiing, and had made some courageous rescues. He was looking for a ski area where he could have the opportunity to be in on the ground floor.”

Ernie wrote to Jean Mayer, warning him that Taos wasn’t a sure bet: “There are no riches here, no money, a rough proposition, a pioneering experience at best, very primitive; perhaps you shouldn’t come.”

Jean’s response: “That’s exactly what I want.”

That first year, Jean managed the Hondo Lodge for the Twining Ski Corporation. “He was extremely successful,” Ernie says. “His food was fantastic. So much so that the next year we moved the restaurant out and away from the Hondo Lodge. That was in 1958, when Jean built the St. Bernard restaurant.”

“I cooked and had Tomacita, an Indian I had made friends with, helping in the kitchen, and her husband Tom fixing things around here,” Jean recalls. “Cooking is like skiing; it’s an art-no one can challenge it. It was at that time that I had Yvan Silve come from France. He was a crazy French chef who killed deer out of season and once took his clothes off in the middle of the winter to retrieve two ducks he had shot, also out of season.”

“We came in the summer of 1958, in August, when Jean was in the middle of building the St. Bernard restaurant,” Dadou says, recalling the trip he and his parents made from Nice to Taos. “I remember we started immediately, standing up huge hand-hewn logs or beams, and we plastered, and built a round stone fireplace with a round copper hood. We made lamps out of logs and papa made the chairs and tables and mama made the curtains and pictures.” (Today, the elder Mayers are retired and still residing in Taos.)

Before the winter began, Dadou decided to go to Santa Fe and work for Buzz Bainbridge at the ski area. “I worked in Santa Fe and then Red River as assistant ski school director, coached the New Mexico ski team, and was able to pursue my own racing,” Dadou recalls. “I was making my own name in the ski business. In 1962, I came back to work with Jean at the Hotel St. Bernard. Ernie agreed to sell me land for my own hotel. The magic was growing here, and I felt it had the most opportunity. It was a place you could put yourself into.”

Jean and the Hotel St. Bernard soon became the hub of Taos Ski Valley. Jean infused his hotel with his personality. He created an atmosphere that made people come and want to stay: he brought France to Taos, to one of the best mountains in the world.

The St. Bernard is chiseled into the side of the mountain, with dark wood beams, white stucco walls, and carved shutters. The eating experience at the St. Bernard has always been special, a combination of chef Claude Gohard’s famous French mountain gourmet meals, and Jean Mayer’s flair in presenting each course to the diners. Many people on the staff have been there for years.

The original round stone fireplace with the round copper hood is still there, and people still sit on the old wooden benches in front of the pin6n fire and tell stories. The old-timers talk about skiing six miles in six minutes down Rubezahl when it was the only run off the back side, or about Jean’s famous marathon of sixty runs down Snake Dance in one day using the old Poma lift. There are new stories, too, about board-sailing in Hawaii, for instance. The St. Bernard manages to be both old-fashioned and up-to-date. Vivaldi is played during breakfast, Edith Piaf for dinner, and there’s Red River two-stepping honky-tonk in the Rathskeller for dancing at night.

“Jean expanded the St. Bernard restaurant into ten rooms on top of the original building,” Ernie says, “then the A-frames were built alongside, and finally the Alpen-hof farther over yet. In 1964 Dadou added the crown to the ’French Empire’ when he built the Edelweiss.”

The Edelweiss sits off to the side of the hub of Taos Ski Valley, but is closely tied to everything else. As much as the St. Bernard is a reflection of Jean, the Edelweiss bears the imprint of Dadou and Use, his Austrian wife. The Edelweiss is a French-Austrian pensione, with shutters, balconies, hanging plants, baskets, a monstrous elk head, old skis nailed to rafters, and family pictures. While both men are unusually quiet about their personal lives, Dadou expounds upon his wife’s contribution. “It was Use,” he says, “who set the standard. It was her ideas, her drive. Without her it never would have been.”

In time Dadou’s special breakfasts and homemade croissants at the Edelweiss became as famous as the pastries and Claude Gohard’s four-course dinners at the St. Bernard. On some evenings the breakfast room is transformed into a music parlor, where Dadou’s children Christian and Sonya play the flute, or Keith Byers plays classical guitar, or another Frenchman, Jacques Bessin, sings French folk songs. In the summertime L’ Ecole des Ingenues de Taos, a young women’s finishing school, makes the Edelweiss its headquarters.

The two hotels, both Taos Ski Valley institutions, reflect the similarities of the two French brothers as well as their differences. Each has individual charms.

“Dadou is more open, more able to free himself,” says Jean. “I am more sparing in my movements. Dadou is more flamboyant. He likes to be up front more. He trained as a maitre d’. I trained as a chef. We have a different style, but similar technique.”

“We’re not competitive between ourselves,” says Dadou, in turn. “We pull each other along. Jean is more closed, not as free.”

Toward four o’clock the brothers head up the slope for the last run of the day. “Snake Dance and Show Down, a run for old times,” Jean explains. They reminisce a bit. They talk about the road over the catwalk and the time Jean tried to jump it and popped both Achilles tendons. They jumped it successfully the year after. There was the run down Snake Dance in three feet of fresh powder, no bumps, and it was like falling from top to bottom. At the bottom of Snake Dance is Show Down. It has a bird’s-eye view of the whole valley, and it’s straight-down steep, filled with moguls, and long. In the old days, the Mayer brothers used to stop on the knob, look down, see how many guests were out in front of the St. Bernard watching, and then put on a show.

The Mayer brothers move down the slope, nearly in tandem, cutting their edges on the fine snow, down toward the Taos Ski Valley where they have made their lasting double imprint.


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