"Watching the skier get caught up in the avalanche last week was like watching what my brother went through."
Todd Gravelle was on his third run on Kachina Peak at Taos Ski Valley last Thursday (Jan. 17) when he saw the start of the avalanche and a skier being pulled under the snowpack.
The mountain was busy with the usual winter recreation that day, so many tourists and regulars, like Gravelle, saw the inbounds avalanche. The incident has rattled the larger skiing and Taos community.
"I was on Main Street, skier's left. I stopped and was standing there for a minute looking at the area when I saw the cornice broke," said Gravelle, a Taos resident.
"I was looking at it because I was planning to go there, about 75 feet to the left of where it broke, and ski. It's my favorite little area. That's why I was looking at it when I saw the slide start," he said.
Gravelle, a Taos Ski Valley ski instructor, was off duty at the time.
"It happened so damn fast, like five seconds or something. Where I was watching, from my first eyesight, I flushed down with my eyes -- I could see a skier on top fighting for his life the whole way down. I'm literally watching hands and legs kicking. Not a rag doll; he was literally fighting for his life."
The experience, quick as it was, brought him back to a shockingly similar moment 32 years ago.
Gravelle's brother Garrett died in an out-of-bounds avalanche in Telluride, Colorado. The day was Jan. 8, 1987.
Gravelle still grieves the loss of his beloved brother. He gave his eldest son the middle name of Garrett and routinely shares stories and photos of his brother on social media to honor his memory.
"Watching the skier get caught up in the avalanche last week was like watching what my brother went through," he said.
"To see someone else go through it … It was really ..." he paused, and sighed, "horrific to see that.
"At the last spit, when you see the body going 70, 80, 90, 100 mph -- it really freaks you out visually. The natural instinct [is to fight back]… he disappeared the last 75 to 100 feet," he said.
Gravelle could identify that the falling skier was wearing black, or at least dark colors, and immediately reported the sighting to others who were responding to the search-and-rescue efforts.
An incredible twist of fate
Todd and Garrett Gravelle's other brother, Darien Fernandez, was one of the responders to the scene. Fernandez jumped in with the team digging for the first victim located. Fernandez was in the hole with patrol, he said, when they uncovered a person. He then helped clear the snow from around the victim's head and body while the first responders established an airway.
"I saw my brother Garrett's face in the face of the person I helped dig out," said Fernandez, a Taos town councilor. He would eventually learn the name of the victim: Matthew Zonghetti. "I was so deeply saddened, but also strangely at ease, knowing Zonghetti had so many people around him that cared," he said.
Fernandez previously worked at Taos Ski Valley, where he took part in avalanche training from the resort's ski patrol.
Remembering and reassessing
Both Gravelle and Fernandez explained that their eldest brother's death in 1987 still weighs on them, especially in January. It's both the month of his birth and his death. That the recent avalanche at the ski valley also happened in January is hitting the family particularly hard.
"My mother, Patricia Martinez -- the strongest woman I know -- still grieves daily," said Fernandez. "And [she] had to grieve for the loss of her son Garrett as she was building a social services program in Taos and helping others deal with their own loss."
The brothers grew up skiing Taos Ski Valley. Both will continue to ski Kachina Peak, although the incident has left them with a heightened sense of cautiousness.
"I passionately love the mountain, however never fully trust its natural power. Now, certainly, I will be even more distrusting -- that's a survival mechanism layered from many close calls and bad situations, out-of-bounds and inbounds, experienced as a young skier. Every day is different, every situation is different. I try to read my gut," Gravelle said.
"The last thing I would ever want would be to cause pain for my kids and family. It's more worth it to back off, [and] then jump in. It's always tough making that judgment," he said.
Fernandez echoed his bother. "I will continue to ski Kachina and the backcountry. In addition to always skiing with a beacon, shove, and probe, I will invest in an avalanche airbag system."
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