Success Poses Challenges for Ski Santa Fe

skiers on Tesuque chairlift at Ski Santa Fe on a sunny day Photo by: Jaime Pirozzi - Local Freshies®

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Ski Santa Fe, the smallish but excellent New Mexican ski area just 15 miles from the centuries-old Santa Fe Plaza, has a problem many others would envy. It’s become too successful. This winter has repeatedly seen capacity crowds almost every weekend and even on formerly sparse Fridays. Its windy access road has been clogged on many occasions, and it’s parking lots full, and hundreds of frustrated guests have been turned around on the road on these days and sent back down the mountain.

I sat with general manager Ben Abruzzo recently to talk about these issues, and get a snapshot of the years ahead.

Ben Abruzzo of Ski Santa Fe
Ben Abruzzo, general manager of Ski Santa Fe and a third generation of New Mexico ski industry leaders. Photo courtesy Ski Santa Fe

The biggest news, previously announced, is the construction of the ski area’s first high-speed, detachable quad chairlift. That will occur this summer. More details follow below.

Other Key Takeaways

The beginner chair is being considered for replacement, alleviating crowding on that key lift. The ski area will issue a new master plan, as required by law, within a year or two to guide development for the next decade or more. That plan must go through an extensive public comment period. Don’t expect significant changes to the access road, which is a state highway. Don’t expect to see enforcement of the four-wheel drive or chains requirement during storms.

Totemoff's at Ski Santa Fe on a spring day
A busy spring day with a band playing on the deck at Totemoff’s at Ski Santa Fe. Image appears courtesy: Ski Santa Fe

What Changes to Expect

Do look for programs to incentivize car-pooling to free up prized parking spaces. Expansion of existing parking lots can’t be undertaken until the new master plan is approved, and even then space for that is extremely limited. The Tesuque Peak Chair, now 30 years old, will be replaced, if approved in the new master plan. Replacing Totemoff’s, the mid-mountain restaurant and bar, which was approved in the existing master plan, will be held off and folded into the next master plan. They will continue their liberal “uphill” skiing policy for backcountry skiers and boarders.

Ski Heritage Lineage

It’s an ambitious agenda, but Abruzzo seems well suited to the task. The son of the previous general manager, Benny Abruzzo, and grandson of the long-time director of Sandia Peak and co-founder of the Sandia Peak Tramway, Ben Abruzzo, Sr., the 45 year-old Abruzzo grew up on the ski slopes. “I love the ski business, and I love this ski area,” he notes. “It is our home. We’re here trying to continue to make it a better place to ski, without pricing people out of the experience.”

He assumed his current role in March 2020 after filling many other positions at both Sandia Peak and Ski Santa Fe. It was a difficult time to assume control, as the ski industry was hit was a slew of Covid-era restrictions and operational requirements. But, fortunately, his appointment came with the addition of key new staff to help carry the load. “My dad and I had planned for that. We’d brought on new mountain manager and a new operational manager. That was the only way I could deal with everything Covid threw at us. Prior to that, I was wearing way too many hats.” Today, Jack Dant, former ski patrol director, is his very able mountain manager. And, Tommy Long, son of veteran ski area professional Tom Long, is operations manager.

The Tesuque Peak Chair that would be replaced – Image appears courtesy: Ski Santa Fe

New Detachable Coming

To eliminate crowding at base chair on holidays and busy weekends, this summer a detachable high-speed quad chair will be installed. The Leitner Poma lift, dubbed the Santa Fe Express, will follow the exact same line as existing chair. The 4-minute ride will carry the same number of skiers, but because it will eliminate stops and starts, will increase the effective capacity.

The chair costs $6 million. Ski area personnel will install it themselves, except for stretching the cable, which requires specialized equipment. “We are one of the few ski areas in the nation with this skill set,” he notes. “I’m excited about a self-install because it’s that many more jobs for our staff and New Mexicans in general. And, our crew will get to know the lift in ways they wouldn’t if someone else built it for us.” While the effort will cost them about a million dollars, he says it will save them another million if an outside firm was employed.

Leitner Poma has completed the design plans, called the profile, with ski area input. It is now manufacturing the tubular metal tower pieces, the tower heads, the shive (wheel assemblies) and seats. It’s also building the electronic control panels in their factory in Grand Junction, Colorado. All will be trucked to the ski area this summer and lifted into place with a helicopter.

New Master Plan

A new master plan will be submitted to the U.S. Forest Service within a year or two. “What triggers the update is when most of the projects under the existing plan have been accomplished, and that’s the case here. We are about done with the current master plan.” The new plan will not include any expansion of the existing ski permit boundaries. “The footprint won’t change. In general, it will simply be to improve what we are now doing. How do we take what we already have and make it better?”

Once “accepted” by the USFS, the plan will go into extensive public comment period, as stipulated by the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process. Then, specific parts of the plan will be submitted for approval by the USFS as they are tackled. While such consultation and reviews have slowed ski area developments down to a snail’s pace, Abruzzo says, “These requirements are there for a reason. I get it. There are environmental concerns, cultural concerns, tribal concerns, biological concerns to consider. It all makes sense.”

Road Issues

Abruzzo expects that repaving of the top half of the ski area access road will be completed this summer. But beyond that, the ski area’s hands are largely tied he says. While there’s lots of heat thrown at the snowplow drivers on the road, he comes to their defense. “We should all be appreciative and grateful of the state highway plow drivers. They do a fantastic job. You can’t find any ski area road in a snowstorm anywhere that’s perfect. They are plowing it while it’s snowing, and people are driving on it. The bad days are when it starts snowing hard at four a.m. It’s impossible to have it cleared by the morning commute because they’ve only been able to make one pass up.”

Many a morning this winter drivers have also found themselves trapped behind stuck vehicles. The ski area’s web site notes the state law requiring vehicles during storms to use chains or be a 4WD model, “but people simply ignore it.” With the need for state police to enforce the edict, he does not see much improvement ahead on that front.

So, what about increased use of public transportation? While the North Central Regional Transit District (the “Blue Bus”) does have a route to the ski area, Abruzzo notes they’re way short of needed drivers, and have actually reduced service. 


Parking on weekends and holidays has been another headache this season, but he notes it is an issue at many ski areas. “The ski industry is in a boom. Some places have 2,000-people lift lines! We have a very fine parking crew that works very, very hard to park the cars quickly and efficiently. It’s one of the most difficult jobs here. But I acknowledge there are problems. How do we make this better?”

They do not want to charge people for parking, which is known to reduce traffic, he says. Instead, they are exploring ways to encourage car-pooling, which could free up hundreds of parking spaces. They looked into issuing gift certificates to high occupancy vehicles, but this really slows down parking lot entry, so it was nixed. Now they are now leaning into designating lots closest to the base for car poolers. They are also looking into expanding staff carpooling.

Why not simply build new parking lots? “I’d do it in a second, but we are very limited in suitable terrain. There are steep drop offs all around.” And, such work would have to come in the next master plan, so it won’t be something done in the short term. One possible solution they are considering is a parking structure, but he notes they are very expensive and might be highly criticized.

snowmaking equipment at Ski Santa Fe in the early season
Image appears courtesy: Ski Santa Fe

All in on Snowmaking

“We decided a decade ago we needed to go all in on snowmaking, and that was approved in the master plan, so we’ve gone from twelve snowmaking guns to forty-two. We have the second largest fleet in the country of Demaclenko snow guns, which is kind of amazing considering our size” At a cost of $60,00 per unit, that cost a pretty $1.8 million. “We’ve built a five million gallon water storage tank. We’ve completed almost all the water lines we need, and buried all the electric lines. This has allowed us to do away with the old portable diesel generators we used for snowmaking.”

Other Recent Developments

He notes other positives at the ski area in recent years. The Santa Fe Ski Team is back training on the mountain after a few years at Sipapu. But Ski Santa Fe won’t be hosting any races in the near term, as they no longer have snowmaking on what used to be the racecourse on Muerte. “We live and die by our snowmaking. Our capacity has gone way, way up, but we have to be very strategic in where we use it and where it’s needed,” notes Abruzzo.  And those are high traffic zones. Our life-blood is the skiing public, and we first must serve their needs, versus having the ability to host two races a season.”

They greatly expanded the outdoor decks at Totemoff’s, redid the interior of the bar, and opened the outdoor grill kitchen on a daily basis, taking the number of people this mid-mountain pit stop could accommodate from 150 people to 400.

New Pass Reading System

This is the first season with the new electronic pass reading RFID system. “People like order and it feels far more orderly. It’s also better for our staff. They used to have to walk up to every single person to scan their ticket face to face. Now you can deal with folks from a distance, managing the groupings. It’s faster, there’s fewer missed chairs, there’s less fraud and we are getting exact skier counts. They’ve always been low, because we missed people scanning.”

Time marches on. Some of us miss the days of leisurely cruising up even on holidays to sample the delights of Ski Santa Fe’s 12,000-foot plus peaks, the superb tree skiing, amazing views, inexpensive prices, and assurance of seeing friends. These same attributes have now brought on a crush of new patrons. But, who can blame them? The question is, can the ski area figure out how to manage its newfound popularity?

7 thoughts on “Success Poses Challenges for Ski Santa Fe

  1. The ski business is a tough business for one much work with Mother Nature and she can be a tough task master, as well as the Forest Service.
    We all must be patient and be grateful that we have such a wonderful place to enjoy the outdoors.

  2. A tram from perhaps Bishops Lodge Road would alleviate a lot of traffic, although it would obviously not be cheap. Perhaps State funds could help sp as to relieve congestion on Hyde Park Rd.

    1. Craig: believe it or not, when Santa Fe leaders dreamed up the idea of a ski area far above the existing Hyde Park ski hill, USFS contractor Graeme McGowan came from Colorado in 1937 to survey the potential, and he drew an illustration showing an aerial tramcar climbing from Hyde Park to about the summit of Tesuque Peak (where the old triple chair of Ski SF ends) ! But today such a lift, plus parking, etc. would cost tens of millions of dollars, perhaps even over $100 mil. So, I’m afraid we’ll probably never see that! Many such details are found in my book “Skiing in New Mexico” in the Images of America series from Arcadia Publishing.

  3. For those of us who come during the week days, we don’t encounter a lot of the those fore mentioned problems, the ski area has during the weekends, and holidays. The groomed runs are excellent, lift operators are always helpful and fun! The only problem I seen parking is when a parking attendant’s are not there to enforce uniformity. I wish all the very best to the GM, and his managers, in the future.

  4. The Blue Bus service to Ski Santa Fe has an unfortunate flaw on busy days: there are three buses up during the day, but only one bus down at the end of the day. It’s entirely possible for that bus to be entirely filled up and people left behind to…hitchhike, I guess?

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