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Man killed in East Vail avalanche was standing in a spot “he felt safe” when he was buried, report says

Johnny Kuo died during a dangerous avalanche cycle that continues with new snow coming over President's Day weekend

An avalanche in East Vail's Abraham's Bowl in an area known as Marvin's killed John Kuo on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. (Provided by Vail Ski Patrol)
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Johnny Kuo had skied East Vail hundreds of times in his many years in the Vail Valley. 

A little before noon on Feb. 4 he and a friend planned to ski through a band of cliffs on the side of Marvin’s Bowl in the popular backcountry zone beyond the Vail ski area boundary. Kuo went first and stopped below, at a spot where skiers typically regroup. 

It was “a place he felt was safe because he had never seen an avalanche run that far before,” said the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s report detailing the avalanche that killed the well-known Vail skier. The report was released Friday.

“Travel habits developed during usual conditions do not always work during periods when avalanches are breaking wider and running further than you have previously witnessed,” warns the report, researched and written by CAIC avalanche forecasters Mike Cooperstein, Kreston Rohrig and Mike Floyd. “Avalanches and avalanche involvements throughout Colorado prior to this accident demonstrated that backcountry travelers could trigger avalanches from a distance or low on a slope. Observers reported avalanches breaking wider and running further than many had seen previously.”

High winds and a foot of fresh snow last week loaded slopes and spiked the avalanche hazard around Vail and Summit County. CAIC issued an avalanche warning on Feb. 4, saying “large, wide, and deadly avalanches will be very easy to trigger.” Forecasters with CAIC rated the avalanche danger as “high” that day, noting that the weak layer of sugary crystals deep in the snowpack could fail under the load of new, wind-driven snow. 

Kuo’s partner used her avalanche transceiver to locate him, and dug him free from nearly 3 feet of snow, but he was not breathing. She and a trio of nearby skiers conducted CPR on Kuo for more than an hour but were unable to revive the 41-year-old. 

The Vail Daily this week published a tribute to Kuo, who was respected as one of the most skilled and accomplished skiers in the valley. 

“He had the courage to recognize that life could be short,” Kuo’s sister Caroline told reporter John LaConte. “And to spend every minute of it doing what he loved.”

The backcountry gate at the Vail ski area boundary heading toward East Vail. (Jason Blevins, Colorado Sun)

The weak layer in the snowpack is creating a widespread avalanche hazard across the Rocky Mountains. Early February marked a historic stretch of avalanches for the western U.S., with 16 people killed since Jan. 30 in Colorado, Alaska, California, Montana, Utah and Washington. It’s the country’s most fatal avalanche cycle in more than a century. 

The grim list includes three Eagle men killed in a Feb. 1 slide near Ophir Pass and four skiers killed in Utah’s Millcreek Canyon on Feb. 6. 

The Utah Avalanche Center on Friday issued its final report on that avalanche, which involved eight skiers traveling in two groups. Six skiers were caught in the slide and the report details a heroic rescue attempt to recover the people who were buried while ascending a popular, gladed backcountry slope.

The Utah avalanche, one of the deadliest in the state’s history, involved experienced backcountry skiers. The two skiers who were not buried managed to recover all six of their fellow travelers, but only two survived. 

In one of the most wrenching lines ever in an avalanche report, one of the survivors turned to the three others who escaped and said: “We all got a second chance at life today; we need to go now make a difference in the world.” The report describes the four remaining survivors hugging one another before loading into a helicopter for evacuation.

Like CAIC’s reports, the Utah Avalanche Center noted “lessons learned” in its report, offering insights that could prevent others from getting caught in an avalanche. The four skiers killed had their ski bindings in uphill mode and “locked toe pieces keep skis attached to your feet and can contribute to deeper burial,” reads the report. The report noted a study of 2009-17 avalanche fatalities that found nearly one-third of skiers killed in slides were ascending. 

The avalanche hazard is not fading in the Intermountain West as new snow continues to fall on that weak layer of rotten snow buried in the snowpack. A series of storms approaching Colorado’s high country is promising to deliver some of the deepest days so far in this lean season. 

CAIC director Ethan Greene sees this season’s weak snowpack as a once-in-a-decade problem, so terrain that has not seen avalanches in 10 years could rip this year. His forecasters on Friday issued a “special avalanche advisory” through the President’s Day weekend, warning that “avalanche conditions are unusual and may become very dangerous as storms impact the mountains.”

“Your normal routes and safety habits may not keep you out of a dangerous avalanche,” the advisory reads. “Backcountry travelers need to take extra precautions this weekend.”

Rising Sun