TRAVEL The Family That Skis Together

As the cold wind stung my face, I leaned over my skis and raced my husband, Peter, down Lower Deep Freeze. At the end of a perfect day-sunny but. frosty-there was no one else on this intermediate run, pure pleasure for greenhorns who didn’t learn to ski until age 32.

We might never have learned-or taken our children skiing-if we hadn’t discovered Ski Apache Resort, one of New Mexico’s best-kept secrets. Located on the Mescalero Apache’s “sacred” Sierra Blanca mountain, just west of Ruidoso. it’s the ski resort closest to Dallas. Ski Apache is easy to get to, inexpensive (as skiing goes) and boasts snow conditions that often beat those on other, more celebrated slopes.

1 have to admit we didn’t really discover it. My husband’s parents called us one night four years ago to tell us they were thinking about buying a second house in the mountains of New Mexico. But first, they wanted to know if we would use it for getaways.

We looked at each other. Was this a trick question? “Of course!” we told them enthusiastically. “Where is it?”

1 was thinking Santa Fe, Taos, the only places in New Mexico I had visited besides Carlsbad Caverns. When they told us Ruidoso, in the southeast part of the state. I was mildly disappointed. I had never heard of the place.

Our first visit to Ruidoso was in the summer of 1988. Instead of adobe and desert, we found a small, laid-back mountain town fueled by the money of Texans escaping the summer beat. We took the kids to the horse races, examined Indian pet-roglyphs in the nearby desert and visited the Smokey Bear Museum.

Nestled in the last high-rising peaks of the Rocky Mountains before the range enters Mexico, Ruidoso’s climate in July is balmy, at least 20 degrees cooler than the temperature in Dallas. But it wasn’t until that winter that we really fell in love with the place. Why? Ski Apache, owned by the Mescalero Apache Tribe.

The Sierra Blanca peak is actually in the Lincoln National Forest, A portion of the ski area sits on the Mescalero reservation. The rest straddles government land. Except for ski instructors, almost every employee at Ski Apache-lift operators, ticket sellers, cooks-is a Native American.

Four years ago. during a Christmas vacation, we strapped on rented skis, bought lift tickets and lined up for the free ski lessons for novices. In two days, we were flying down intermediate slopes. We’ve been going every year since, usually with friends and a pack of kids. I came to skiing late, but I want my two boys (now 5 and 8 years old) to learn while they’re still so little they don’t have far In fall.

Though Taos and other New Mexico ski resorts gel more press. Ski Apache has the largest lift capacity in the state. With 52 trails and 10 lifts, there is rarely a long wait, especially on the upper slopes. The season runs from Thanksgiving to Easter, and the average annual snowfall is 180 inches. It seems every time we ski. I end up in a chairlift with someone from Montana or California or Colorado, who is in Ruidoso because his or her usual resort has no snow.

Last year, Ski Apache got more than 230 inches of snow. We persuaded our friends Garry and Susan Brown to go skiing with us over President’s Day weekend.

Several times, when the children were smaller, we had flown to El Paso and rented a four-wheel drive vehicle for the three-hour drive north. Add on driving to the airport and getting a rental car, and the trip takes about seven hours. But you can make the drive from Dallas in about 11 hours, and when you’re talking a whole family. it’s hundreds of dollars cheaper.

So this time, we packed four adults, four kids. lots of coloring books, tapes and munchies into a minivan and a Suburban and hit the road at 5 a.m. Friday. We drove west on I-20 through Abilene to Sweetwater.

I highly recommend eating breakfast in Sweetwater before you leave the freeway to go north on U.S. 84 to Post. Because nobody was really hungry yet, we ended up with eggs and toast at a Dairy Queen in a town so tiny a tumbleweed could clear it in one bounce. The meal took forever because the cook had to go to the store and buy eggs.

From Post, we caught U.S. 380 west, through Tahoka. Brownfield and Plains- just think of the movie Giant and you’ll know what it looks like. Just after Bronco, Texas, we crossed into New Mexico. At Roswell. 380 merged with U.S. 70. which took us into Ruidoso. (The kids loved counting the abundant dead skunks on the road through Hondo and Sunset. The things you do while traveling.)

Because Peter’s parents had rented their house out for the season, we decided to indulge ourselves and checked into the Inn of the Mountain Gods, a resort hotel that is also run by the Mescalero Apache Tribe. Built of wood and native stone, the chalet-type hotel perches on reservation land just outside Ruidoso, overlooking a lake that reflects the peak of Sierra Blanca.

Inside, the Inn is decorated in what can best be described as modern Native American-pretty Southwestern fabrics and wall coverings in the rooms and halls that radiate from a lobby filled with tribal art and an enormous, round, copper fireplace, a great spot for the après-ski drinks that came with our package.

In the best move of the weekend, we rented a “Bizaayi” suite, an enormous middle room between two bedrooms. For an extra $90 per night we got a wet bar. a TV. a dining table and a bathroom, as well as a sleeper couch and Murphy bed- plenty of room for the kids to roam. (My sister and her husband flew in from California and took a room down the hall. At any given time, there were 10 people in our suite.)

That night. Peter and I rented ski equipment in one of the shops in Ruidoso. Ski Apache has a rental shop, but on holiday weekends the line can stretch out the door.

The next day. we ate breakfast at the Inn’s excellent buffet. The restaurant will make up box lunches, but we always take granola bars in a fanny pack and buy a hamburger or bowl of chili at one of the outdoor stands on the slopes.

At about 8:30 a.m., six adults and three children piled into the Suburban and started up a long, winding mountain road to the ski area. (The hotel had provided a list of babysitters, and Susan had called in advance to arrange care for the Browns’ 1-year-old in our hotel room while we were on the slopes.)

Ski Apache has no “ski in, ski out” hotels. All skiers stay down in Ruidoso. then drive almost 2,000 feet up, a trip that can take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on weather conditions. (You can take a shuttle bus for $10 per person.)

On this day, the wind was blowing snow off the mountain onto our windshield. “You better have your wits about you, or you will die,” was Garry Brown’s slightly exaggerated assessment. It took us almost an hour to reach the ski area.

We got Andrew, 4, and Diana, 5, settled in Kiddi Koral ski school, which costs $60 per day. That includes two lessons on the snow, lunch and ski equipment. It gives Mom and Dad a chance to ski without little guys from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Enrollment in the school is limited and offered only on a first-come, first-serve basis. That means no reservations, Get there early; the program is very popular.

Seven-year-old Eric was grouped with a handful of other kids his age for his novice ski lesson, which is free with a lift ticket. (Lift tickets this year are $34 from (he Christmas holidays through Jan. 3 and S32 after that.) We skied for several hours, then met him for lunch.

Since this was Eric’s first year to ski by himself, he was a little nervous. But by the end of the day, he was maneuvering well and had mastered getting on and off the small chairlift. (The day was so clear and sunny he also was sunburned; I had forgotten that even in snow, kids need sunscreen.)

We spent time standing in lift lines watching the skiers who entered the Texas Cup, Apache’s annual race for Texans, fly down an expert slope called Capitan. (Only requirement to enter: a valid Texas driver’s license.) The parking lot was filled with cars bearing Texas plates, and you could hear occasional cheers as a popular skier completed a run. Every year, the fastest male and female skiers win skis, season lift passes and other goodies.

At 3 p.m., we picked up Diana and Andrew and found a small area where we could pull them on sleds. Andrew was so tired he fell asleep face down in a plastic toboggan.

Garry, the expert skier in our group, thought the trails were well groomed and compared favorably to any place he had skied in California or Colorado. He liked the fact that 45 percent of the runs are for advanced skiers. And the Kiddi Koral got the vote of kids and parents alike. “It’s not easy to gel a 4- or 5-year-old up on skis” says Susan.

The only downside: Facilities on the mountain are very basic. The only shelter is a two-story lodge where you can buy food and drinks, but it’s crowded and noisy. (This year, however, a new 7,000 square-foot day lodge is scheduled to open.)

And the night life won’t threaten Vail. The first night, we were all so tired we ordered pizza in. The next night, we hit. a local steakhouse at 7:30 only to discover that it was about to close. (The sidewalk rolls up early in Ruidoso, even during ski season.) We got served, but it was clear they weren’t equipped to handle the holiday crush; they were out of baked potatoes.

The last night, our whole crew trooped to Casa Blanca (501 Mechem). The hostess took one look at the kids and found a separate dining room with a table for 10. We ordered milk for the kids and Pink Cadillacs (a top-shelf margarita with a touch of cranberry juice) for us. then dug into New Mex-Tex chile rellenos, green chili chicken enchiladas and fajitas. (There’s a special children’s menu with small tacos, hamburgers and chicken strips.)

If only we had had another day of vacation to work those calories off. On Monday, we all piled back in the cars and headed back to Dallas–stopping to snare a tumbleweed for Tuesday’s show-and-tell at school.

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