The fatal avalanche that caught two men in their 20s inbounds at Taos Ski Valley on Thursday Jan. 17 has prompted a lot of questions, starting with "How did this happen?" and running to "What do we do next?"
The skiers were near the K3 chute of Kachina Peak, some of the mountain’s steepest terrain. Matthew Zonghetti, 26, of Massachusetts, died later that day at the Holy Cross Hospital in Taos. Corey Borg-Massanari, 22, from Colorado, died at the University of New Mexico Hospital days later.
After the slide started just before noon, ski patrol and witnesses immediately began a rescue operation, according to a statement provided by the ski area. Probes and avalanche dogs searched for people in a debris pile news reports estimated at 10 yards deep, 150 yards long, and 50 yards wide. The Taos News photographer Morgan Timms was on the scene and reported that a witness to the avalanche said, “It sounded like an earthquake coming.”
Ski patrollers work to mitigate avalanches throughout the season, and Taos patrollers had been at it as recently as that morning. But it’s a tough job: The conditions and terrain prime for skiing are also prime for avalanches. Yet even with 556 million skier visits nationwide each year, only 12 of 258 reported avalanche deaths in the last 10 ski seasons occurred inbounds, according to data from the National Ski Areas Association, and a significant number of those were ski patrollers doing snow safety work.
“An inbounds avalanche is extraordinarily rare and a situation like this has never happened at Taos Ski Valley before,” reads a statement issued from Taos Ski Valley on Jan. 18. Taos Ski Valley staff said that because the ski area is still conducting an accident review, they are not making further comments at this time.
While fatalities are rare, avalanches are not. On Thursday Jan. 17, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center had issued an avalanche watch for the San Juan Mountains in south-central Colorado. The northern portion of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, which stretches as far south as Santa Fe, was forecast as at moderate risk.
Yet New Mexico is currently without an avalanche forecasting center. A volunteer center closed last winter. On the National Avalanche Center nationwide map, which relies on data from Colorado, the Sangre de Cristos are treated as though they abruptly stop at the Colorado state line, and indicators of risk are cut off on a hard line.
No public agency nor the ski area has yet issued a determination about what triggered the avalanche in Taos. Changing temperatures over recent weeks or even over the course of the day can contribute, as can wind. In 2010, when a record-setting number of skiers died inbounds in the nation, SKI Magazine pointed to ski area expansions into increasingly steep terrain once only the domain of those willing to venture out of bounds or into hike-to terrain.
That’s the case at the Kachina Lift, completed in 2015 to access expert-only runs previously available solely to those willing to hike the ridgeline for an hour. The lift opened for this season on Tuesday Jan. 15. Poor visibility closed the peak again on Wednesday Jan. 16.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center tallies the total nationwide fatalities from avalanches, whether people are skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling or hiking. Its annual reports going back to the 2009-10 winter show between 11 and 36 annually. Some deaths have been reported from “sidecountry,” or terrain near ski lifts but beyond the ski area boundary, a term the National Ski Areas Association has begun discouraging for perpetuating an illusion that this area is less dangerous. These two fatalities at Taos are the only ones reported in New Mexico in a decade.
Snowfall this year generates a buzz—powder always does, but folks seem especially thirsty following a brutally thin season last year.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword that, as soon as we get an increase of snow or wind, everyone gets excited because it means powder skiing. But it also typically means an increase in avalanche instability and an increase in avalanche danger,” says Andy Bond, who ran the now-closed Taos Avalanche Center. “When we deal with new snow, the avalanche danger is quick to rise because you’re adding more stress and weight onto potentially weak layers, then it’s slow to fall off.”
The Taos Avalanche Center, a nonprofit that provided avalanche forecasts specific to New Mexico, closed due to lack of both funding and snow in February 2018. In Colorado, the Department of Transportation relies on the state’s avalanche information center to predict potential road impacts, so the state helps fund the center. Without a center to run here, Bond has gone to Antarctica, where he’s been guiding scientists studying the Thwaites Glacier.
“For me, personally, what I feel like the avalanche center can do is provide avalanche awareness in the state of New Mexico, and education as well as a safety product and messaging for backcountry users,” Bond says. “My hope is to get that back up and running.”
Future programming could include hosting avalanche education courses and awareness talks, as well as providing the public forecasts and snowpack information.
Ski areas make do without the center’s forecasts.
“More information is always better. But that being said, for us in particular, I don’t think that we’re missing out too terribly,” says Ben Abruzzo, mountain manager for Ski Santa Fe.
The resort has previously delayed opening for hours to check those risks and take steps to address them.
“Based on our terrain, the probability of an avalanche of any magnitude at Ski Santa Fe is very unlikely,” he says. “However, in the correct snowpack, on the right day, in the right conditions, it exists, which is why on those days we do go out … and the ski patrol does some preventative risk-mitigation steps before we open.”
With the trends in climate change reducing the state’s snowpack, does New Mexico really need an avalanche center?
“We honestly had one of the worst years on record, and it’s hard to keep the motivation or keep the ‘Why is this avalanche center operating?’ on a bad year. But we need to have consistency through the bad years to then be able to provide services in years like this,” Bond says. “I think that’s one of the challenges the avalanche center will face.”
The crux for expert skiers is that fun terrain—like much of that at Taos—is pitched at the angle most prone to avalanches.
"I don't want people to be afraid," Bond says, "but be aware that you're skiing in the exact terrain where avalanches can happen."