Snowmass avalanche victim died pursuing his passion |

Snowmass avalanche victim died pursuing his passion

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Brandon Zukoff

ASPEN – The victim of Tuesday’s avalanche in the backcountry outside the Snowmass Ski Area was identified Wednesday afternoon as Brandon John Zukoff of Snowmass Village.

The 26-year-old native of Grand Blanc, Mich. was an avid skier and outdoor enthusiast who played college football. Zukoff had written that he wanted to be remembered as “a risk taker who loves the outdoors and skis like there’s no tomorrow.”

“If this was going to happen, he died doing exactly what he wanted to be doing – living life to the fullest,” said Caitlin Doyle, concierge supervisor at the Timbers Club in Snowmass Village, where Zukoff was formerly employed. “This happened too soon,” she said.

Zukoff died when he triggered and was then caught in an avalanche as he skied down Sand’s Chute off the west side of the ski area. Two companions – one who skied safely down the chute first and one who picked a new route down after the slide caught Zukoff – located and dug out their friend and determined he had been killed, authorities said at a press conference Wednesday in Aspen.

The companions, both local men, were not identified. All three skiers were reportedly equipped with avalanche beacons, shovels and probes, and Zukoff’s companions reported finding him about five minutes after he was buried.

“With that terrain, to negotiate that terrain, that’s pretty fast,” said Matt Huber, a member of the Snowmass Ski Patrol.

The two other skiers had already taken a lap on a backcountry run known as Fool’s, and were then joined by Zukoff for a run down the top of Fool’s and into Sand’s Chute, officials said.

Members of the ski patrol and Mountain Rescue Aspen, as well as Brian McCall, local forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, assessed conditions in Sand’s Chute and the surrounding area Wednesday morning and found the snow still unstable. The decision was made to delay recovery of Zukoff’s body until the snowpack stabilizes, possibly on Friday, said Sheriff Joe DiSalvo.

“At this point, I’m just hoping we are able to do this Friday,” he said, noting snow returns to Aspen’s forecast Thursday. “I really want to make it clear how dangerous this area is. I will not risk [rescuers’] lives at this point,” the sheriff said.

Members of Zukoff’s family arrived in Aspen Wednesday morning and have been informed of the decision to postpone a recovery effort.

“As far as I know, they’re backing this plan 100 percent,” DiSalvo said.

Wednesday morning’s scouting of the area was done by airplane and on the ground, from a backcountry ridge where the trio of skiers began their decent after exiting from the Sneaky’s Run on the west side of the Big Burn at Snowmass. The chute drops down to East Snowmass Creek; members of the team that assessed the area Wednesday estimated Zukoff was caught by the slide about 200 feet above the valley floor. His body is about 1,000 feet below the point where the avalanche began and the entire ski route is about 1,400 feet long, they said.

Sand’s Chute ends in the valley at a point about 1.5 miles up the Ditch Trail, which begins on the edge of town and connects with the East Snowmass Creek Trail.

Rescuers decided not to mount a recovery effort Tuesday afternoon, given the approaching darkness. The sheriff’s office was notified of the incident shortly after 4 p.m. The slide apparently occurred between roughly 2:30 and 3:15 p.m.

In surveying the terrain Wednesday morning, the scouting team discovered new snow loading where the slide occurred and snow above it that had not yet broken away, said Mountain Rescue member Scott Messina. In addition, evidence of multiple natural slides was visible on Garrett’s Peak on the opposite side of the valley, including one that slid to the valley floor.

Winds out of the southwest on Tuesday apparently loaded Sand’s Chute and the surrounding area with additional snow.

“Today was a real eye-opener,” Mountain Rescue president Douglas Paley said of the conditions he observed.

“It made us aware that other slopes are of a tender nature right now,” Messina added. “We felt it best to let everything settle out for us for as long a time as possible.”

The plan had been for rescuers to ski up the valley and reach Zukoff from below. Paley said the team will be reduced to three to four members if that approach is taken, because of the danger. However, it’s possible a helicopter will be used to drop a recovery team close to the body; the team and the body would then be evacuated with the chopper, Messina said.

Sheriff’s information officer Alex Burchetta urged the public not to attempt a recovery of Zukoff’s body. The area is dangerous, mountain rescue officials stressed.

Zukoff originally came to Snowmass Village to work as an intern at both the Snowmass Village Recreation Center and at the Stonebridge Inn in order to complete course work for a degree in commercial recreation and facility management at Central Michigan University, according to Doyle, who helped him secure a job at the Stonebridge Inn. He later worked three seasons at the Timbers Club before taking a job at the Timberline Condos, she said.

“Really, such a great kid. I’m just so sad,” Doyle said.

Zukoff’s colleagues at the Timberline Condos, where he had worked as a bellman since November, were equally stunned, according to manager Mary Harris.

“He’s just a wonderful person. Everyone’s devastated, just devastated,” she said.

Zukoff, the son of William Zukoff, played football at Central Michigan and worked jobs that allowed him to ski, according to information released by the sheriff’s office.

His girlfriend, Kaitlyn Schappert, called him a patient, kind and adventurous soul in a written statement. “I love him dearly and my life in Snowmass will never be the same without him here by my side,” she wrote.

In a “mission statement,” taken from inside a photo album, Zukoff said he wanted to be remembered as a risk taker who loved the outdoors. He wrote:

“As I roam the earth as a free-spirited ski bum, I want to be known as a fun-loving, thrill seeker who loves nothing more in life than homemade chocolate chip cookies and a big glass of skim milk. I want to be looked at as a loyal grandson, son, brother, friend and teammate while maintaining the freedom to do things on the spur of the moment. I’m a Christian who believes all things happen for a reason and that good things happen to good people. After my days wandering this place we call earth are over, I want to be looked at and remembered as a caring man who would do just about anything for anyone. I want people to also remember me as random, intelligent, honest, trustworthy and last but not least, a risk taker who loves the outdoors and skis like there’s no tomorrow.”

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