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March 2, 2011
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Snowmass avalanche victim's body recovered

SNOWMASS VILLAGE - The body of Brandon J. Zukoff, who died in a backcountry snow slide Feb. 22, was recovered Tuesday from East Snowmass Creek Valley by a rescue team assisted by avalanche dogs and a helicopter, the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office said.

Two members of the Snowmass Ski Patrol and a member of Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA) hiked into the area at about 6 a.m. with three dogs trained to locate avalanche victims. They "very quickly" found Zukoff's body and reported a confirmed location at 8:05 a.m., according to a press release from the sheriff's office. A 12-person MRA foot team arrived at the site shortly after 9 a.m. and recovered the body.

The slide occurred in Sand's Chute. Prior rescue operations were postponed because of the high avalanche danger. A second slide occurred in Sand's Chute on Thursday when rescuers were trying to create safer conditions for a recovery. Debris from that triggered release covered and moved the body.

"According to reports from the field, Zukoff's body had been moved approximately 200 yards from the original location reported last week and was covered by approximately 1 meter of new snow," the sheriff's office press release said.

A helicopter from DBS Helicopters of Rifle arrived at the scene at 11:32 a.m. Tuesday and flew Zukoff's body to the staging area in Snowmass Village parking lot E, in the Divide area. Zukoff's body was taken to Farnum Holt Funeral Home in Glenwood Springs, Pitkin County Deputy Alex Burchetta said, and the medical examiner at St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction will conduct the post-mortem exam. Burchetta said the Pitkin County coroner's office will release the cause of death, likely to be either suffocation or trauma.

The sheriff's office previously said Sand's Chute is about 1,400 feet long. Zukoff's body was about 1,000 feet below the point where the slide started.

All rescue teams were out of the field by 12:30 p.m. The helicopter was used in the body recovery rather than transporting Zukoff out by ground to minimize the exposure of the rescue team to avalanche threats, Burchetta said. "Conditions are definitely not great," he said.

The snowpack had stabilized to the point where the rescue team was confident to enter the backcountry Tuesday. However, Burchetta urged backcountry travelers to remain wary.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported Tuesday that the slide danger in the Aspen zone was considerable on all slopes near and above treeline. "Northwest through east aspects have the deepest slabs and most dangerous conditions at this time," the report said. "Large, triggered avalanches remain likely today."

The danger below treeline was moderate.

The CAIC website reported that a large, natural slide occurred on Monday near Willoughby Peak, farther up East Snowmass Creek Valley from the site of the Zukoff tragedy.

Zukoff was skiing with two friends in a "sidecountry" area outside of the Snowmass Ski Area boundary on Tuesday, Feb. 22, when the slide happened. Several steep chutes outside the ski area's west boundary are popular with adventuresome skiers and riders because of easy access from the Sneaky's trail at the ski area.

Zukoff and his companions were "very familiar with the terrain in the East Snowmass Creek valley," the CAIC accident report said. Two members of the group skied a different chute earlier in the day without incident. They hooked up with Zukoff after the first run and the three of them made a second safe run down a chute, according to the CAIC website and information released at a sheriff's office press conference last week.

"Their third lap of the day was in Sand's Chute," the avalanche information center's accident report said. The time was about 2 p.m.

"Once in Sand's Chute, the group skied one at a time. Since they had observed blowing snow, they expected any avalanches to be small, shallow wind slabs," the accident report said. "They did not expect avalanches to break into deep snowpack layers.

"The first skier descended and pulled out into a safe zone," the report continued. "The second skier [Zukoff] entered the path and triggered the avalanche on approximately his third turn. He was caught, carried, and fully buried in the avalanche."

The slide passed the safe zone where the first skier had stopped. After it passed, he turned his avalanche beacon to receive and skied down the debris to the area where he thought his partner was located. He picked up a signal almost immediately and located Zukoff within a minute or two of probing, the report said.

The third skier came down a different ridge to the site and helped dig the victim out. "They performed CPR for about 30 to 35 minutes with no results," the CAIC report said. "The survivors then skied out of the valley and were able to make a phone call for help form a restaurant located in the upper part of Snowmass Village."

The other men were not injured in the slide.

Zukoff, 26, had lived and worked in Snowmass Village for four years. He was a passionate skier and frequent backcountry visitor, his friends said. He was a native of Grand Blanc, Mich. His body will be released to his family after the medical examiner is finished with an assessment. A memorial service was held Sunday, Feb. 27 in Snowmass Village.

"The Pitkin County Sheriff's Office would like to extend a special thanks to the dedicated and professional members of the Snowmass Ski Patrol and Mountain Rescue Aspen for their continued efforts in this difficult operation," the office's press release said.

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The Aspen Times Updated Mar 2, 2011 11:47AM Published Mar 2, 2011 11:45AM Copyright 2011 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.