Merchants of Taos Ski Valley: A Series
Alain Veth is not your ordinary ski shop owner.
A veteran of the FIS Alping Ski World Cup
race circuit, a winner of hundreds of ski races stretching from his childhood in France to a pro circuit in Canada, an insider at the Dynamic ski company in France, and a certified ski instructor since his teens (who has skied extensively in Alaska and around the globe), Alain brings a world of experience and knowledge to his family-owned and run shop—Le Ski Mastery
—in Taos Ski Valley
, New Mexico.
Born in 1962, he looks far younger despite a huge workload and many responsibilities. As he noted in a recent interview, “The lifestyle I have makes me look and feel younger. I’ve always done the things I’ve loved to do, so the years go by.”
He began to ski at age three in his hometown of Grenoble, France, and was racing by age seven during an auspicious period for French skiing; Jean-Claude Killy
took three gold medals at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble. Alain recalls being glued to the black-and-white television coverage that year.
“The French team at the time, with Jean-Claude Killy and others, was one of the best of all time,” he recalls.
The games served as an inspiration for him but he was already a multi-sport athlete—a black belt in judo, a track-and-field competitor, swimmer, speed skater, serious rock climber and alpinist. Despite this, skiing slowly became his dominant passion. He began winning races at age seven and by 18 he was on the French National Ski Team. That lasted two years; he left the team but continued to race. In 1982, skiing independently, he won the Spanish national championship in Grand Slalom.
“I knew what I was made of, that I was strong and that I still wanted to race, so I decided to come to America,” says Veth, referring to several North American pro-race circuits operating at the time. He landed in San Francisco in 1983 and headed for Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A year later he was in Canada, based out of British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley as a sponsored racer of Silver Star Mountain Resort. “I was making a nice living in Canada as a professional ski racer. I was doing really well, winning many races. I was on TV every weekend and on the Wide World of Sports.”
A Slew of Sponsors
He found a sponsor, Dynamic of France, to provide his skis and others (Look) to cover his bindings and boots (Trapeur.) Writing for a French publication about the racing life, he even netted an airline sponsor who would comp his extensive, required travel, including two summers racing in Chile and at other South American sites.
After two winters, however, the Canadian circuit folded and Alain decided to head south to the U.S. and compete in the World Pro Ski Tour
underway here. The first race of the 1986-87 winter was set for Copper Mountain, Colorado. He settled in nearby Silverthorne to prepare but had no plans beyond that.
He’d gone to Canada with a friend from Grenoble, Teri Mulin, who’d become a ski patroller. “He was a great guy, lots of joie de vivre, and could really ski!” When the Canadian scene dissolved, Mulin headed to Taos. He’d met Jean and Dadou Mayer (the founders of Taos Ski Valley’s iconic Hotel St. Bernard
) and been offered a job.
“Teri told me about it and those four letters—T-A-O-S
—stuck in my head. At Copper, I met a Native American ski racer, James Herrera, who was sponsored by Taos and I asked him if he knew the French brothers who owned a hotel there,” recalls Alain.
Not only did Herrera know them, he had Jean Mayer’s number on him and gave it to Alain. “I called many times but Jean was always too busy to talk. Back then, Taos Ski Valley had more than 360,000 skier visits a winter. But finally I got him at a quiet time and I explained that I was looking for a home base, a place to train, and a job. He said, "Come down, we’ll sit and talk and see where it goes."
Bienvenido a Taos
“So I drove my van down, which I was sleeping in. That night was really cold, way below zero, but with a cap on—which I never wear—I got a little sleep and I showed up at 9 o’clock,” says Veth. But it would not be until after
lunch that Jean could at last sit with him. “He walked up and saw how exhausted I looked and said I should go to his apartment and sleep for a while, then talk.” A few hours later, to his surprise, his buddy Teri woke him. Jean offered Alain a bartending job on the outdoor deck of the St. Bernard
and his Taos Ski Valley days began.
He raced a few more pro events “but I was fried after seven seasons of racing,“ so he decided to retire and focus on his new life in Taos. “And, that was the best winter of my life—discovering a new culture, a new mountain, new people.”
Jean Mayer became his mentor and ideal.
“Jean came here with almost nothing and built a life for himself through hard work. He was my inspiration. ‘How can I mimic that life?’ I asked myself. Thirty years later I have my business, six or seven employees, have raised a family, and am taking care of our guests,” Alain recounts.
Le Ski Mastery
is the quintessential ski shop, with a selection of some 250 pairs of rental skis, snowboards, and boots, plus skis and boots for sale. It also carries a discerning selection of other hard goods and apparel as well as a complete line of ski-racing accessories. Plus, it's the only Rossignol Race Center
in New Mexico. But it is probably best known for the quality of its tuning operations and binding mounting, in line with its promise of "World Class Ski Tuning.”
World-Class, World Cup Tuning Chops
Alain has the credentials to back up the world-class tuning claim, having spent three years (1987-1990) working as a ski technician for the U.S. Ski Team
, on the World Cup circuit. After he left ski racing, Dynamic approached Veth to ask if he’d serve as the racing tech for their U.S. National team members, including skiing star Tamara McKinney
. Alain jumped at the chance and helped orchestrate McKinney’s World Championship win at Vail in 1989. “Those were my skis, the skis I worked on. She was a great pilot, obviously, and we made a great team. It was great fun, and fascinating, traveling the world with all expenses paid.”
McKinney was eventually injured and Alain was assigned to other female racers, including Christie Turgin. “Of the 15 races that season, she (Turgin) placed in the top 15 thirteen times; it was the best year of her career. We got those girls so fired up!"
Despite these successes, he decided to call it quits in 1991. He had been on the road since he was 14 and in 1987 had met his future wife, Peggy, in Beaver Creek, Colorado. He longed to settle down. He returned to Taos and had several tête-à-têtes with Mayer to discuss what he might do for a future. Mayer suggested a ski shop. With that in mind, Alain settled back into Taos, plopped down $25,000 for a state-of-the-art tuning machine, and opened Le Ski Mastery for the 1990-1991 season.
He could have returned to France for a position within the French Ministry of Sports as a skiing “professor” through ENSA
(Ecole Nationale de Ski et d'Alpinisme), but working in a government bureaucracy did not appeal to him. “I was in America, the Wild West, for years and I was too free!” Because of this freedom, Veth had not built up any credit, thus could not obtain a bank loan for the business and had to start small. He opened with only 30 pairs of skis, boots, and bindings for rentals, and did a lot of ski tuning. As there were six ski shops in the Tao Ski Valley at that time, his first few years were really a challenge.
“The longer I have the business, the more people say ‘This is a true ski shop,’" says Veth. "I stick to what I know.”
He figures that the shop now averages 20 tunes a day/3,000 per year. A huge percentage of those are still done by Alain himself. He often goes right through dinner and occasionally into the morning hours, personally mounting bindings and preparing skis for first- and long-time customers.
“Skiing is my passion and that applies even to preparing the equipment. It is almost meditation; there is a flow and dynamic. I am always in motion; it’s an eye-hand thing coupled with years of experience.”
He also knows skis from the inside out. He worked periodically in the Dynamic factory, overseeing production of skis for the racers he was teaching on the World Cup, tweaking models to achieve custom results. And, as a racer himself, he understands ski performance, arching tendencies, edge pressure, and myriad other factors. That's why at Le Ski Mastery you get a ski that a World Cupper could climb onto and rip.
He does almost no advertising and has only a very basic website, with business generated largely by word of mouth and loyalists. “I feel my business is a success. We do what we do with integrity. I’m sure I may have turned some people off because of my strong beliefs and values of what is good and what isn’t, but that is me.”
Family = The Key to Success
Peggy Veth, Alain's wife, also works in the shop and often handles female customers.
“It’s a family endeavor. My wife has always been by my side and now my daughter is here. Peggy has been so supportive all these years when I am working past midnight seven days a week all winter. I am dedicated to my clientele, but Peggy has the business degree," says Veth. "She does the books and oversees the apparel. Without her, the business would not have survived. There are highs and lows and she keeps me centered in the good years as well as the lean.”
Family support is key component to Alain's success, as is his work ethic. Certified as a ski instructor in France at age 18, he has continued to teach since his arrival in Taos. Working in Taos Ski Valley's Ernie Blake Snowsports School
“I try to make people feel confident within themselves, to improve their technique and to make a difference in their skiing and lives. I think I might get bored if I just skied by myself. I love, I love skiing, and movement pattern and analysis. As I get older, I’m enjoying it more and more. I’m feeling closer to my mountain, closer to my guests, closer to my family. It is feeding my soul.”
He also has a contractor’s license and in the off-season is a homebuilder. “I love making things with my hands, from foundations to making cabinets, working with adobe. 'If you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life.' That’s how I feel.”
The family home he built is in El Salto, near Arroyo Seco, at the foot of the mountains he’s come to cherish. There, Peggy and Alain raised their daughter Amanda and son Nicolas, who is a member of the University of New Mexico Ski Team
. Both children went to the World Junior Alping Skiing Championships
, finished in the top 15, and were invited to work with the U.S. Ski Team. But Amanda was injured and had to give it up. Nicolas's career is still unfolding.
“Yes, we are a racing family,” Alain says.
And his personal favorite runs at Taos? “There’s so many beautiful, intricate and interesting runs, it’s difficult to pick just a few but I love the technical challenge and exposure of Dog Leg (on Kachina Peak’s approach to Hunziker Chute
), and the theatrical aspect of Al’s Run
, which I once skied top to bottom in one minute and 25 seconds.”
He concludes, “I moved to Taos because of the way it made me feel. It made me feel alive
and Jean made me feel welcome. I didn’t come here for the money; I came because it is where I felt I belonged. I feel that more than ever.”
For more on Le Ski Mastery of Taos Ski Valley call 575/776-1403 or visit www.leskimastery.com.