The world -- sunlit snow, green pines and skiers gliding off the chairlift -- faded out, then swam back into focus.
"Are you all right?" asked a lean young man in black pants and a ski mask, popping his skis off and leaning over to check out the recumbent body -- my body -- on the snowbank. "You need to drink lots of liquids when you exercise at this altitude," he continued, pulling off the mask and proffering a water bottle.
Fifteen years skiing in the Rockies, and I'd never felt queasy before. But when, in less than a day, you climb from sea level to the top of 12,000-foot Tesuque Peak, the highest point at Santa Fe Ski Area, dehydration sneaks up like a thief in the night.
"Who was that masked man?" somebody asked, as my rescuer waved and skied off. "That's Benny Abruzzo," answered the lift operator. "That dude's the owner."
In an era when skiing has become big, big business, Santa Fe Ski Area, 16 miles northeast of Santa Fe, N.M., and 80 miles from Albuquerque, remains a genuine family affair, owned and managed with brisk affection by the Abruzzos -- Louis, 36; Benny, 34; Richard, 28; and Mary Pat, 25.
In 1986, the four siblings inherited Santa Fe Ski Area from their parents; since then, running the place has been a way of life. If La Casa Cafeteria's home-baked croissants are stale or the green chile enchiladas bland or the high-performance rental skis wobble or the lift lines crawl, nailing the problem is no problem.
At least one Abruzzo is usually near by, doing paperwork, checking trail conditions, monitoring snow-making guns or smoking the mountain's black diamond runs just for sheer joy.
If an Abruzzo is playing hooky on new powder, it's only natural. Santa Fe Ski Area, brushing the tree line (12,000 feet in these latitudes) in the Sangre de Cristo range near the Rocky Mountain's southern tail, enjoys some of the nation's most benevolent ski weather.
Four days out of five, the sun shines out of a brilliant lapis sky
and the view from the summit of Tesuque Peak is bigger than John Wayne's West, spanning 8,000 miles of red, gold and tan New Mexico earth.
On the fifth day -- 20 percent, statistically -- it blizzards, dropping an annual average of about 13 feet of powder on the slopes. Last winter, when the rest of the west was parched and bare, Santa Fe averaged 6 to 8 feet of base, kept fresh by regular toppings of powder.
Ski conditions continue to look promising. The New Year began with 77 inches of base at mid-mountain, and the snow-making equipment, installed on a third of the runs, was running at full capacity.
Though an expansion program planned for the next several years will double the skiable acreage, the resort today is mid-sized, spreading over 700 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest.
Of these, 550 acres are developed and 150 acres are groomed, with 39 trails fanning out over a surprisingly varied terrain of wide, sloping runs, big bowls, steep chutes and hair-raising descents through trees. If you ski from top to bottom without a pause, you'll have gone 3 miles and descended 1,650 feet.
Halfway down you'll pass the Outdoor Grill, a great place to grab a cheeseburger and fries. For more gourmet eats at the base of the mountain, try La Casa Cafeteria, with an authentic Southwestern menu and blue corn tortillas, enchiladas and green chile stew, as well as salads and hamburgers. Also in the lodge is the rental shop, the Ski School office and a full-stocked ski shop.
But the big news this year is the Children's Complex in the Chipmunk Corner, a child-care center for children ages 6 months to 3 years, one of the few ski-resort care centers that accept babies in diapers.
The facility, run by licensed child-care professionals, operates out of a new 3,220-square-foot building decorated with bright colors and equipped with cribs, toys, playpens and high chairs. The Chipmunk program includes outdoor snow play, indoor games and meals. Parents are welcome at any hour and !B encouraged to join their children for lunch.
For families skiing together, the Chipmunk Corner's ski school for children 3 and older is a long-established program designed specifically for youngsters and one of the reasons that many parents ski at Santa Fe. Half- or full-day lessons start young skiers off learning the right techniques, and just as important, give parents a chance to ski by themselves.
Beginner classes are held in a protected, fenced area behind Chipmunk Corner, with its own rope tow, but more advanced groups -- lines of bundled-up youngsters happily snowplowing without poles -- are a frequent sight on the mountain, trailing like ducklings behind their instructors.
"We signed the twins up for a week, five mornings in all," said Laura and Bob Denning, Columbus, Ohio, residents who take a one-week family ski vacation every winter. "Then after lunch we all ski together. This is the third year we've been here, and both kids really keep up with us now, even on the steep runs."