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Federal review says skier triggered deadly New Mexico slide

By MORGAN LEEJuly 16, 2019
FILE - In this Jan. 17, 2019, file photo, people search for victims after an avalanche buried multiple people near the highest peak of Taos Ski Valley, one of the biggest resorts in New Mexico. A skier triggered an avalanche in January at the ski resort in northern New Mexico that led to his death and the death of another skier after they were overrun by snow, the U.S. Forest Service said in a written review obtained by the Associated Press on Monday, July 15. (Morgan Timms/Taos News via AP, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 17, 2019, file photo, people search for victims after an avalanche buried multiple people near the highest peak of Taos Ski Valley, one of the biggest resorts in New Mexico. A skier triggered an avalanche in January at the ski resort in northern New Mexico that led to his death and the death of another skier after they were overrun by snow, the U.S. Forest Service said in a written review obtained by the Associated Press on Monday, July 15. (Morgan Timms/Taos News via AP, File)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A skier triggered an avalanche in January at a ski resort in northern New Mexico that led to his death and the death of another skier after they were overrun by snow, the U.S. Forest Service said in a written review obtained by The Associated Press on Monday.

Taos Ski Valley followed safety procedures under a federal land use permit in the days and weeks leading up to the Jan. 17 avalanche within ski area boundaries, the agency said in a five-page outline of its findings and conclusions.

The snow slide on expert ski terrain on the upper reaches of the valley temporarily buried 26-year-old Matthew Zonghetti of Massachusetts and 22-year-old Corey Borg-Massanari of Vail, Colorado. They died after being pulled out by rescuers from beneath about 7 feet (2 meters) of snow.

The Forest Service says it reviewed extensive records of avalanche prevention and control measures, from weather monitoring to the use of explosives that can dislodge unstable snow. The agency also interviewed personnel at Taos Ski Valley who responded to the snow slide.

Forest Service regional Winter Sports Coordinator Adam LaDell said Monday that the agency’s review showed ski resort personnel complied with operating procedures, including detailed snow safety procedures that accompany each day’s decision on whether to open lifts and ski runs.

He said the procedures at Taos are in line with the industry’s current standards for best practices on snow safety.

“We didn’t find anything in our review, any red flags, anything they weren’t doing that’s in their permit,” LaDell said. “I’m very confident, where I’d go up and ride it and have no questions. Unfortunately things happen, very unfortunately.”

A representative for Taos Ski Valley had no immediate comment on the Forest Service review. Results of an investigation commissioned by the resort into the cause of the avalanche were not available.

Taos Ski Valley has begun the process of installing an avalanche control system that allows detonations by remote control to cope with unstable snow, reducing hazards associated with handling traditional explosives. Planning for the system already was underway before January’s deadly avalanche, Forest Service and resort officials said.

The outline of the Forest Service review describes the breadth and deadly force of the snow slide that measured 150 feet across (50 meters) at the ridgeline cornice, and swept the length of a steep chute.

A member of the ski patrol witnessed the avalanche from the Kachina Peak ski lift and called emergency dispatchers. The skiers were located using probes — typically a lengthy pole that is poked through the snowpack — following indications in one instance from a specially trained avalanche rescue dog.

The Forest Service made one new procedural recommendation that annual signatures accompany the resort’s snow safety plan to ensure the document is continually reviewed to incorporate new technology. LaDell said the plan was up-to-date when the avalanche occurred.

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