TSV avalanche

Local tells about 'a lifesaving effort'

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 1/24/19

TAOS SKI VALLEY - Michael Boyle clasped his hands over Corey Borg-Massanari and started pumping his chest. He didn't look at his watch, but he estimated it had been …

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TSV avalanche

Local tells about 'a lifesaving effort'

Posted

TAOS SKI VALLEY - Michael Boyle clasped his hands over Corey Borg-Massanari and started pumping his chest.

He didn't look at his watch, but he estimated it had been about 25 minutes since the young man had been buried in an avalanche below Kachina Peak on Thursday (Jan. 17).

A medic began shocking Borg-Massanari with a defibrillator. Meanwhile, a team of ski patrollers and volunteers searched for another man still buried somewhere under the snow.

As an avid skier, Boyle knew the window to save an avalanche victim was slim - around eight minutes. So when Borg-Massanari's heart restarted on the mountain that afternoon, he knew how rare a moment it truly was.

It would take around 25 minutes more to find the second victim, Matthew Zonghetti, 26, Boyle estimated. Officials would declare him dead later that day.

Borg-Massanari, 22, would stay alive for roughly two more days at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. The announcement that he had also died on Monday (Jan. 21) hit Boyle, the rescuers and the entire ski community hard.

The deaths mark the first time anyone has died in an avalanche within the boundaries of Taos Ski Valley.

Zonghetti had come to ski from Mansfield, Massachusetts. Borg-Massanari, 22, had come from Vail, Colorado.

In an interview Wednesday morning (Jan. 23), Zonghetti's father, Michael Zonghetti, said his son didn't know Borg-Massanari, but if he had, he felt they likely would have been close friends.

Few people at the resort were inclined to talk about what had happened the day after the incident. Except for the Kachina lift and the high terrain that surrounds it, the other lifts on the mountain still turned and skiers waited in long lines to ride them.

"It's a sad moment," said David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski Valley, in an interview Friday from his office at the resort. "It was a rough day. Last night was tough on a lot of people here."

The response by Taos Ski Patrol to the scene of the accident was immediate, he said. Other details, however, such as how the avalanche might have started or whether the accident will prompt additional safety measures on the mountain, are pending the completion of an internal investigation.

Taos Ski Valley operates on land leased from the Carson National Forest, whose investigators will also be looking into what happened.

Marie Therese Sebrechts, regional director of communication for the Carson, said in an email that "the Carson National Forest is conducting a standard incident review to assess compliance with the special use authorization and the current operating plan."

Though the federal government has been partially shut down since late December, Carson employees including the Questa district ranger quickly coordinated with the ski valley personnel, she said. "TSV, Inc. was notified prior to the partial federal shutdown of whom to contact in case of an emergency and they did follow that protocol," she wrote in an email.

While avalanches are rare at New Mexico ski resorts, the National Avalanche Center reports that between 25 and 30 people in the nation die each winter in avalanches, and most of those deaths occur in national forests.

Norden confirmed that the mountain's ski patrollers had traversed the terrain where the accident occurred Thursday morning. They had also detonated explosives, he said, to reduce the chance of an avalanche near the high ridge, which is home to some of the mountain's most challenging - and dangerous - terrain.

The detonations are part of the resort's standard procedures, Norden said. He said the mountain's ski patrollers are "extremely experienced."

"We went through our typical routes - the control work we do on a standard morning," Norden said. "The reporting was in place and the mountain opened for the skiing public."

While the five chutes along the ridge have been open to hikers since Jan. 10, the Kachina Peak Lift only opened two days before the avalanche (Jan 15).

For years Kachina Peak was accessible only on foot - opening it to a wider audience was one of Bacon's most widely advertised additions when the lift first began operating in 2015.

Building the lift was also controversial.

Longtime members of the mountain community have expressed concern that skiers and snowboarders without the proper skill might find their way up the lift and into terrain that would put them in danger.

But Norden said the new lift doesn't create dangers that weren't there before.

While other lifts are designed for ease of access, he said reaching the Kachina lift is meant to be a challenge. Getting there means climbing a rise near Lift 4 and then traversing several switchbacks. Signs at the entrance warn skiers to turn back if the obstacles proved too challenging.

All of this, Norden said, is designed to give people time to consider whether they are skilled enough to navigate the expert terrain that lies ahead.

But other ski resorts, such as Silverton Mountain in Colorado, require riders to carry a beacon, shovel and probe before riding their toughest terrain. If they aren't carrying it, they can rent it from a shop at Silverton's base.

Boyle said he believes neither victim in Thursday's avalanche was located via a beacon.

He returned to the site of the avalanche with his two sons on Monday, the day he learned of Borg-Massanari's death, to remember the two men.

On Wednesday morning (Jan. 23), he spoke to one of the nurses who cared for the 22-year-old in his final hours. She was one of many health care workers who lined the hallways at the hospital to honor Borg-Massanari before his organs were donated.

"She helped me see a different perspective," Boyle said. "Our efforts to resuscitate and provide CPR to him allowed his family to be able to say goodbye and 11 people were able to receive organ donations. That was the result of the rescue effort, and that is literally a lifesaving effort."

Reporters Jesse Moya and Cody Hooks contributed to this report.

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