Report details factors in East Vail slide that killed one

Nate Peterson
Vail Daily
An avalanche in the area known as Marvin's killed Johnny Kuo on Feb. 4.
Photo from Vail Ski Patrol


EAGLE — Vail local Johnny Kuo, an experienced backcountry skier who was a regular in the East Vail Chutes, felt he was in a safe zone when he was engulfed by snow in the Feb. 4 avalanche that took his life.

That’s according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s final report, which was released Friday.

Kuo, 41, was with another skier, who triggered the avalanche in an area known as Marvin’s West or Big Marvin, according to the report.

The pair had entered the popular sidecountry area from Vail Mountain through a backcountry access gate at about 10:15 a.m. They then hiked for about 30 minutes to an area locally known as Benchmark before descending along the ridgeline to the top of the large, open bowl.

Kuo dropped in first on Marvin’s West, which the report states is a steep, east-facing slope below tree line that is dissected by two cliff bands. After skiing through the cliff bands, Kuo stopped at a bench about 800 feet below the ridge and waited for his partner.

The slide occurred as the second skier navigated through a narrow opening in the cliff band.

“She had skied about 300 vertical feet down to a narrow opening through a cliff band when she triggered a large avalanche that broke above her,” the report states. “She tried to escape to the trees on the skier’s right side. She managed to stay upright and came to a stop on the apron below the cliff band, buried to her knees in avalanche debris.”

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reports that the Feb. 4 slide broke about 2-3 feet deep, 700 feet wide and ran about 1000 vertical feet.
Photo from Colorado Avalanche Information Center

The skier who triggered the slide uncovered her skis and began to descend into the debris field while looking for Kuo, who was not at their planned meeting point. The avalanche had run over and well past the bench where he was supposed to be waiting, the report states.

Kuo’s skiing partner then switched her avalanche transceiver to receive and began to search. She located Kuo and began digging, reaching him below snow that was up to 3 feet deep. She cleared the snow from around his head and shoulders, which took about 10 minutes, and found that Kuo wasn’t breathing.

Kuo’s partner called Vail Ski Patrol at 11:20 a.m. to report the accident.

A trio of nearby skiers came to help after hearing Kuo’s partner calling for assistance. All four helped dig Kuo out of the snow. The group conducted CPR for about an hour but were unable to resuscitate Kuo.

Kuo was eventually taken down the mountain via toboggan by ski patrollers who transported him to authorities at Interstate 70.

“This was a soft slab avalanche unintentionally triggered by a skier,” the report states. “It was medium size relative to the path and produced enough destructive force to bury, injure or kill a person. It broke into old snow layers. The avalanche broke about 2-3 feet deep, 700 feet wide and ran about 1000 vertical feet.”

Kuo’s death came just days after three other Eagle County locals were killed in a slide in the San Juan Mountains.

Avalanche Information Center Executive Director Ethan Greene on Friday said conditions haven’t been this bad since 2012, adding that this year’s slides are running wider than you’d expect and crossing multiple terrain features — in some cases running the full length and width of avalanche paths. Greene said this effectively means the routes backcountry users are used to taking may not keep them safe this year.

This story is from The Summit Daily News contributed to this report.

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