TAOS SKI VALLEY — For more than 50 years, skier Dadou Mayer has ridden a lift that glides above the northern face of this mountain. His anticipation usually builds as he reaches the top.
But when Mayer shared a ride with resort owner Louis Bacon the day after the first fatal inbounds avalanche in Taos Ski Valley’s 64-year history, the mood was grim.
On Thursday, a steep chute near the Kachina Peak Lift became the site of a historic tragedy when a layer of snow broke free, slid down a coulier and buried two skiers. One of them died and the other was critically injured.
Officials have identified the man who died at Holy Cross Hospital in Taos as Matthew Zonghetti, 26, of Mansfield, Mass.
According to Zonghetti’s LinkedIn account, he was director of acquisitions for Laurel Trail Properties, based in Florida, and he had attended Wake Forest University in North Carolina. People who knew him called him an expert skier and a standout football and lacrosse player at Mansfield High School, where he graduated with the Class of 2010.
“He had big mountain experience,” Tim Frias, Zonghetti’s high school lacrosse coach and ski club adviser, told the The Taos News. “We would go skiing out there [in the West] all the time. Skiing was a way of life for him. I have one hundred percent confidence in his skiing ability in the terrain he was in.”
Messages for comment left at the Zonghetti residence in Mansfield were not returned by press time.
The second man caught in the avalanche remained in critical condition Friday at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, where he was flown by helicopter after rescuers pulled him from the snow. Authorities have not released his identity.
Mayer and Bacon didn’t discuss the tragedy as they rode the resort’s main lift Friday. But Mayer sensed the incident weighed on his friend.
“He was pretty mellow,” Mayer said of Bacon, the billionaire conservationist who purchased the resort in 2013.
The avalanche shocked Mayer and others who live and breathe skiing in the rugged mountain resort.
“This is a freak accident,” Mayer said. “It’s not a pleasant thing to talk about.”
“It’s a sad moment,” said David Norden, CEO of Taos Ski Valley, in an interview Friday at the resort. “It was a rough day. Last night was tough on a lot of people here.”
According to a news release from Taos Ski Valley, the avalanche occurred just before noon Thursday in chute K3 near near the top of 12,481-foot Kachina Peak, the resort’s highest point.
Dozens of rescuers, including skiers and snowboarders who had witnessed the accident, searched the piled snow at the base of the coulier and dug the two men out just before 1 p.m. Medics performed CPR and transported the men to Mogul Medical Clinic at the base of the resort before they were transported to hospitals.
On Friday, the Kachina Lift and the backside of the mountain remained closed as Taos Ski Valley investigated the incident.
Norden said the response by Taos Ski Patrol was “immediate,” but other details — such as how the avalanche might have started, if either man was breathing when he was found or whether the accident will prompt additional safety measures near the peak — will be revealed when the internal investigation is complete.
Members of the Ski Patrol had traversed the area where the accident occurred early Thursday morning, he said, and detonated explosives 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 practice, Norden said.
“We went through our typical routes — the control work we do on a standard morning. The reporting was in place,” he said, “and the mountain opened for the skiing public.”
Because Taos Ski Valley operates on land leased from Carson National Forest, investigators from the forest also will review the incident.
Marie Therese Sebrechts, a spokeswoman for the forest, said in an email that it is conducting a review to determine whether the resort was in compliance with its special-use authorization.
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 the deaths occur in national forests.
Taos Town Councilor Darien Fernandez, one of the rescue volunteers at the avalanche scene Thursday, said the deadly incident “hit close to home for me.” His oldest brother, Garrett Gravelle, was killed in an avalanche in Telluride, Colo., in 1987.
Fernandez used to work at Taos Ski Valley and received avalanche training from the resort’s Ski Patrol. He was skiing Thursday and had gotten off a lift just after the slide.
“I jumped in on the digging team for the first person located,” he said. “… I helped clear the snow from around his head and body while patrol established an airway. I then stepped out and joined a probe line for the next two hours.”
Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a Taos resident, also was at the avalanche rescue scene. A former University of New Mexico ski racer, Johnson has been skiing Taos Ski Valley for years.
His biggest takeaway from the incident, he said, was just how feverishly 200 people were trying to find the two buried skiers. “There wasn’t anyone unwilling to get out there and help.”
Johnson said the K3 chute on Kachina Peak was his favorite run, and he was heading there at the time of the avalanche. “I know over the years, having skied it so often, it does slide,” he said.
Referring to the large base of local skiers and visitors who delight in the Kachina Peak runs, Johnson said, “It could’ve been any one of us. No one is to blame. These things do happen.”
For years, Kachina Peak was accessible only on foot. Opening it to a wider audience with a new lift — which began operating in 2015 — was one of Bacon’s most widely advertised additions.
The lift also has been controversial. Longtime members of the mountain community were concerned that unskilled skiers and boarders might ride the lift and find themselves in terrain that posed dangers.
Norden said the lift doesn’t create dangers that didn’t exist before.
Signs warns skiers and snowboarders about the difficulty of the terrain off Kachina, he said, adding that reaching the lift is challenging by design — a “gateway” that gives people time to reconsider whether they are prepared for what lies ahead.
Jesse Moya, Staci Matlock and Yvonne Pesquera of The Taos News contributed to this report. The Taos News is a sister paper of the Santa Fe New Mexican.