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Squaw Valley mourns loss of ‘best of the best,’ killed in accident

Placer official details investigation into death of ski patrol member at Squaw Valley

Joe Zuiches, 42, was killed after an explosive device used for avalanche control detonated at the resort.
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Joe Zuiches, 42, was killed after an explosive device used for avalanche control detonated at the resort.

The investigation into the death of a ski patroller at Squaw Valley will focus on the hand-held devices commonly used to trigger controlled avalanches at ski resorts, officials said.

Joe Zuiches, 42, died Tuesday in what officials believe was the accidental detonation of a hand charger.

The Squaw Valley-Alpine Meadows resort said the fatal incident happened at 8:35 a.m. and shut Squaw Valley for the day. Squaw Valley will not operate ridge lifts on the upper mountain Wednesday, resort officials said. No other injuries were reported.

“We have a team that is a family and that family and team is grieving,” said resort manager Andy Wirth. “Within moments of hearing of the circumstances we made the immediate decision to shut down. It just didn’t feel right to operate the ski resort.”

Zuiches, of Olympic Valley, was a member of the Squaw Valley professional ski patrol since 2012, according to a resort news release. His death occurred at the top of Gold Coast Ridge at Squaw Valley. A Gofundme account has been set up to defray funeral costs.

Much of the investigation will focus on the small explosive device used by Zuiches and other ski patrol members to set off controlled avalanches to ensure the safety of the public on the mountain. The Placer Sheriff’s Department, FBI, Cal/OSHA and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the incident.

We have a team that is a family and that family and team is grieving. Within moments of hearing of the circumstances we made the immediate decision to shut down. It just didn’t feel right to operate the ski resort.

Squaw Valley Resort manager Andrew Wirth

Zuiches was working in two two-person teams. It’s unclear how far away his partner was at the time of the explosion.

“Most hand charges are relatively safe,” said Lt. Alfredo Guitron of the Placer County Sheriff’s Department. “They are being used a ski resorts all over the United States.”

Wirth said the devices use ammonium nitrate, but wouldn’t say how much explosive charge was in the devices being used. He said the controlled avalanches are regulated by state and federal authorities.

Wirth said Zuiches was well trained. Zuiches was at a ski resort in Colorado before coming to Squaw Valley, but Wirth said he didn’t know in what capacity.

He described the patrollers as among the “best trained professions in North America, if not the world.”

“Joe was one of the best of the best, highly trained in his field. He had a great deal of experience in this space,” Wirth said.

Wirth said it was an easy decision to close the resort after news of the accident.

“We’re a family. Probably the furthest thing from our mind was the operation of the mountain,” Wirth said.

Liesl Kenney, spokeswoman for the company that owns Squaw and Alpine, said a year ago that ski patrols at the resorts analyze snow and other weather data before performing control efforts, including the use of artillery to break up potential avalanche formations. She said ski patrols are highly trained and participate in industry committees to develop best practices.

Both Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows have had casualties in recent years in the battle against avalanches. Andrew Entin, 41, died at Squaw Valley in 2009 when he and a fellow ski patrol member skied across avalanche-prone terrain to break it up because an explosive had failed to detonate, the Placer County Sheriff’s Office said at the time.

In 2009, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows were not owned by the same company.

Three years later, Bill Foster, 53, was one of three ski patrollers setting off charges at Alpine Meadows “in new locations higher up the mountain than normal due to a heavier snow accumulation,” according to an investigative summary by Cal/OSHA. Foster was dug out of the snow only minutes after the avalanche but had suffered numerous injuries and died at a hospital hours later. Cal/OSHA fined Alpine Meadows about $20,000 for violations related to his death.

The Sierra Avalanche Center rated Tuesday as moderate for avalanches near the tree line and above the tree line.

Bill Lindelof: 916-321-1079, @Lindelofnews

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