TAOS — One man is dead and another critically injured after being buried in an avalanche just before noon Thursday at Taos Ski Valley near Kachina Peak, the resort’s highest point.
Holy Cross Hospital CEO Bill Patten confirmed that a skier treated at the facility died from his injuries before 5 p.m. Authorities had not released the man’s identity late Thursday.
Taos County Emergency Services Chief Chris Medina said the second man was in critical condition and was flown by helicopter to University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. His identity also was not released.
Members of the report’s Ski Patrol and other first responders pulled the two men from the slide just before 1 p.m. and performed CPR before rushing them to the base of the mountain, the resort said in a news release.
The skiers were taken down to the resort’s Mogul Medical Clinic, said Taos Ski Valley Vice President Chris Stagg, and were then transported to the other medical facilities.
The search for other victims was called off shortly after 2 p.m., when rescuers determined “there were no additional people caught in the avalanche,” the resort said in a statement.
Stagg said dozens of rescuers and volunteers had used avalanche probes, shovels and the help of rescue dogs to try to find other possible victims caught in the slide on 12,500-foot Kachina Peak’s K3 chute. The snow was so deep that the probes, as long as 30 feet, could not reach the bottom of the snowpack.
“We are grateful to the ski patrol and community of visitors across the mountain who responded without hesitation to rescue these individuals,” Stagg said in a statement.
A woman at the scene of the rescue effort, who asked that her name not be published, said she could see — and hear — the moment of the collapse.
“I see two people trying to come down and a third person on the left. They were really good skiers, it looked like,” she said.
The woman gestured to a point near the top of the steep run. “I turned my back to put my bindings on … and then I heard a sound,” she said. “It sounded like an earthquake coming.”
The woman said a cloud of snow rushed down the run, but she didn’t see how many people were buried once the slide settled.
It’s unclear what triggered the avalanche, but the ski resort officials said an investigation was planned.
Members of the ski patrol had detonated explosives near Kachina Peak early Thursday morning in an effort to reduce the risk of avalanche, Stagg said. The measure is meant to trigger a potential slide before skiers take to the slopes.
The resort also delayed opening the Kachina Lift at the start of the day, Stagg said.
“We had checked that area for avalanche conditions this morning and enacted controls,” he said. “This is a great example that you’re never 100 percent certain.”
Stagg, an employee at the ski resort for over 46 years, said he could not recall an incident similar to the one that happened Thursday.
“It’s certainly very rare,” he said.
Signs are posted to warn skiers and snowboarders that the terrain around Kachina Peak can be dangerous, he said, but no special equipment, such as a locator beacon that can be used to find avalanche victims, is required for a skier to ride the lift.
George Brooks, the director of the nonprofit Ski New Mexico, which promotes the sport, also said avalanches are fairly rare in the state.
“If they occur, it’s not usually when anybody is around,” he said.
The slide at Taos Ski Valley comes as the region enjoys one of its better ski seasons in recent years after a spell of dry winters.
Several snowstorms have moved across the Southwest since the start of the year, and another was expected to hit parts of the region Thursday night and Friday.
Taos Ski Valley received 2 inches of snow Wednesday and 15 inches in the last week, according to its website. The spot where the avalanche happened is prone to winds that can blow up the mountain and create a cornice, meaning avalanches can occur there even without a high level of recent snowfall, Brooks said.
The Kachina Peak Lift, built in 2015 to provide easy access to expert terrain at the top of the mountain, just opened for the season Tuesday. It was closed Thursday during the rescue operation, and another lift, No. 4, was closed temporarily.
Other lifts at Taos Ski Valley continued operating.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This story first appeared on the website of The Taos News, a sister publication of the Santa Fe New Mexican.