East Vail avalanche victim Johnny Kuo remembered by skiers, family

John LaConte
Vail Daily
Johnny Kuo is pictured in August of 2012.
Photo by Damien Andrews


EAGLE — When Johnny Kuo passed you in his ski boots on the staircase to East Vail, you rarely heard him coming.

The longtime Vail local’s death Thursday, Feb. 4, reminded East Vail skiers that even the most talented athletes are taking their chances every time they visit the popular, but deadly, sidecountry area.

A fast, silent, light-on-his-feet skier, Kuo dressed in all black and earned the nickname “The Ninja” for his style. He earned the respect of some of the best skiers in the region and will be remembered for his uniqueness in Vail.

“I can confidently say John died doing exactly what he loved most,” Johnny’s sister Caroline Kuo said Sunday. “He wouldn’t have wanted to die any other way than on that mountain, in the beautiful majesty of that snow and that mountain, having just done a run.”

Skier for life

Johnny’s parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in the late 1960s, moving to the Washington, D.C., area.

While growing up, Caroline said Johnny learned from his parents that, while they were not well-to-do, through hard work, they could attain the occasional ski trip to Stowe in Vermont — a moment to be cherished.

“Skiing was a part of them immigrating into America and embracing what America could offer,” Caroline said. “Some of my earliest memories of my brother were him racing down the mountain.”

Caroline said an observer of Johnny’s upbringing might have expected him to grow up to be a lot like her. She attended the University of Oxford and became the associate dean of diversity and inclusion at the Brown University School of Public Health. But instead, his family started suspecting that Johnny was destined to stay in the mountains; the first indication occurred when he stayed for an extra year of college at the University of Colorado in 2002.

“He fell in love with the state, and he never wanted to leave,” Caroline said. “He did a fancy internship at a big firm, and he hated it so much. He said it was soul-sucking.”

Johnny Kuo skiing in Vail a few days before his death in an East Vail avalanche on Feb. 4.
Photo from Erin Connelly

‘Less talk, more skiing’

Not long after college, Kuo would find himself living in a ski fantasy. He found residence in the heart of Vail Village, a seemingly unattainable situation near the landmark clock tower building for $600 per month, and he was exploring the region’s most extreme terrain with a crew of some of the best skiers in Vail.

“He was always ready to go,” said Chris Del Bosco. “I don’t think I ever had a bad day with Johnny.”

Del Bosco grew up in Vail and met Johnny through Vail local Eric Biboso. One day in East Vail, Johnny and Biboso saw Del Bosco land a front flip off a set of cliffs and remarked that Del Bosco might have a future as a pro. The day has been burned into Biboso’s memory.

“It was just the three of us out there, during an amazing snow year,” Biboso said.

A few years later, Del Bosco was in the Olympics as a skicross racer. After earning an X Games medal, Del Bosco credited some of his fitness to skiing with Biboso and Johnny.

“We definitely skied some great stuff together,” Del Bosco said.

Del Bosco said as his career advanced (he still competes on the World Cup after 15 years in the sport), he didn’t get to ski as much with Biboso and Johnny. Biboso got married, had a child and couldn’t maintain Johnny’s level of skiing anymore, either. A few years later, “I saw (Johnny) was hanging out with John Spriggs and Taylor Seaton and those guys,” Biboso said. “I always thought it was really cool that he started skiing with them.”

Spriggs and Seaton, both X Games athletes who have transitioned into ski filming, were shooting a movie in Wyoming when they received the news of Johnny’s passing. Spriggs took it especially hard.

“I skied with him a lot during the pandemic,” Spriggs said. “A lot of times, it was just me and him in the backcountry, doing some of the iconic lines around Summit County. … He had a motto: Less talk, more skiing.”

An illustration of Johnny Kuo in front of the Gore Range.
Illustration by Brooke Dodson

Professional skier

Johnny wore a button-down dress shirt under his ski attire. His friend Bryan Calcaterra said Johnny once told him it was because skiing was his job.

“We always got a kick out of that,” Calcaterra said. “He was the classiest skier you’ve ever seen, because he’s got an all-black kit with a merino wool button-down shirt underneath it.”

Erin Connelly had been skiing with Johnny in recent weeks. She said he was ready for the next phase of his professional career.

“Johnny told me how happy he was he finally could retire as a ski bum,’ she said.

Caroline said from a skier’s perspective, she can understand how unique her brother’s story must sound. He once lived on Bridge Street, skied with Chris Del Bosco and John Spriggs, was faster as a boot-packer than his Alpine touring brethren, skied five East Vail laps in one day, wore a dress shirt because skiing was his job, and was ready to retire and ski even more. All this was accomplished in his 20s and 30s (Johnny turned 41 in November).

From her perspective, however, Caroline doesn’t see it as an accomplishment in skiing. She sees it as an accomplishment in courage.

“He had the courage to recognize that life could be short and to spend every minute of it doing what he loved,” she said.

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