Friends remember Free Taos founders

Two men helped end snowboard ban, die days apart

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 7/3/20

George Medina and Michael Johnstone, two Taos County snowboarders who encouraged the Blake family to end an outmoded ban on the sport at Taos Ski Valley 13 years ago, passed away within a few days of each other last week.

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Friends remember Free Taos founders

Two men helped end snowboard ban, die days apart

Posted

George Medina and Michael Johnstone, two Taos County snowboarders who encouraged the Blake family to end an outmoded ban on the sport at Taos Ski Valley 13 years ago, passed away within a few days of each other last week.

"They were some of the first people to ever get fully certified as snowboard instructors in New Mexico," said Jeff Marcum, a skier from Angel Fire who partnered with Medina, Johnstone, Christoff Brownell, the mayor of Taos Ski Valley, and Brandon Peterson in the mid 1990s to form Free Taos, the movement that nudged the Blakes to open the resort to snowboarders for the first time in 2007.

"It's a real tragedy they're gone," Marcum said.

Medina died at the age of 54 on Wednesday (June 24), when a concrete truck he was driving flipped on U.S. Highway 64 near mile marker 258 in Taos Canyon. He drove the truck for many years for his family's business, Robert Medina and Sons Concrete and Sand. He also ran a concrete pump company on the side.

During the winter season, Medina spent almost every weekend on the slopes. He was often accompanied by Johnstone, who moved from Seattle to New Mexico in the 1990s to start Experience Snowboards with Medina in Angel Fire.

It was one of the first snowboard specialty shops in New Mexico, the birthplace of Free Taos and the launching pad for many adventures Medina, Johnstone and their circle of friends shared together in the mountains.

"George was one of the kindest, most generous people I've known in my life," Johnstone said Friday (June 26) after learning of Medina's death. "I spent 25 years working with and snowboarding with and philosophizing with and repairing snowboards with George. His kindness and generosity will continue to ripple throughout Taos and the snowboarding community."

Johnstone, 50, died in his sleep a day later, on Saturday (June 27).

Jeff Marcum helped spread the Free Taos movement throughout the Rocky Mountain region. He said Johnstone had been battling throat cancer for a few years and was undergoing a third round of chemotherapy. Marcum said Johnstone's death was also a shock that would be felt in the wider snow-sports community.

"There was every hope in the world that he was going to kick it in this last round," he said.

Jacob Herrera, who, along with Medina was one of the first snowboard instructors to teach the sport at Taos Ski Valley, remembered the elation felt by New Mexico snowboarders - as well as those who were itching to try the sport for the first time - when the ban was lifted.

He said Medina was a "technician," who helped introduce many newcomers to the sport, teaching them how to carve the hill properly. Even off the clock, Marcum said Medina would "jump in" with just about anyone on the mountain for a few runs.

"George was one of those guys that kind of seemed to be able to help people without them knowing they were being helped necessarily," Johnstone said. "He was a very, very special human being."

While the growing popularity of the sport became difficult for the Blake family to ignore, Herrera and many other snowboarders throughout the state still believe Free Taos helped to accelerate the change they had been hoping for.

"The whole Free Taos movement was huge," he said. "It was big, and it got some steam. It was a good eight-year movement those guys created. It really kind of forced the ski valley's hand in a lot of ways. I think money, did, too, in the end, but those guys started it before the ski valley was even going to consider it - before they even wanted to consider it."

Before the ban was lifted, Brownell famously used a snow shovel to carve "Free Taos" in giant letters into the snow on the hillside across from the ski valley's slopes.

"We felt that it didn't matter if you slide forward or sideways, regular or goofy, that you should be allowed the same access to terrain - regardless of how you went down the mountain," Johnstone said.

He said last Friday he still remembered the day he, Medina and their friends stood in the lift line for the first time at Taos Ski Valley with their snowboards strapped to their feet.

"We were in the lift line with a whole lot of locals and snowboarders from around the country," Johnstone said. "It was a pretty exciting day on the slopes."

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