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Joe Zuiches Remembered as Quiet, Passionate Outdoorsman

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The Tahoe/Truckee community and beyond is reeling after the death of Squaw Valley Ski Patrol member Joe Zuiches, who died yesterday from the detonation of an explosive hand charge while conducting avalanche control at the top of Gold Coast Ridge. Zuiches, who had worked as a ski patroller and mountain guide for more than a decade, is remembered by his friends as a passionate and highly skilled outdoorsman who was beloved by many.

Zuiches, 42, grew up in Pullman, Wash., and started skiing as a kid at places like Mt. Baker. In high school and while at Kenyon College in Ohio he skied and climbed in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Tony Wasson, who met him in 2000 when they were both patrollers at Winter Park Resort in Colorado, recalled Zuiches’ intelligence and dedication to his job.

“He was probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever known; his intelligence was off the charts,” Wasson said.

Because of his intellect, Wasson said Zuiches was given more responsibility and some of the more difficult jobs at ski patrol, like teaching new patrollers Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC), similar to EMT skills.

“He was a great friend, he was dedicated to his job, and a really great co-worker,” Wasson said. “He was always well respected.”

Wasson, who lives in Denver, said he had thrown avalanche bombs with Zuiches when they worked at Winter Park.

“He was very meticulous,” he said. “I don’t see him making a mistake. He was extremely cautious, not ever haphazard.”

Wasson, who said they both enjoyed playing golf and fly fishing together, is in shock from the news of his friends’ unexpected death.

“It floored me. I didn’t believe it at the time,” he said. “Everyone is reeling.”

Zuiches was a patroller at Winter Park until 2011. He also lived in Chile, working in the deserts of the north and skiing and climbing on the volcanoes of the south. Zuiches returned to Colorado in 2010 and began guiding with a cat skiing operation out of Jones Pass. He joined the Squaw Valley Ski Patrol in the winter of 2012, and in the summers, he spent his time guiding on Mt. Shasta and Mt. Rainier. He had more than 50 summits and 15 ski descents of Mt. Shasta.

Chris Carr, owner of Shasta Mountain Guides, had worked with Zuiches since 2011. Zuiches guided for four seasons on Shasta and the last two seasons on Rainier. Carr said Zuiches was the guide you wanted on your team.

“He was quietly capable, strong, confident, solid in every aspect,” he said. “I trusted him explicitly, and knew without fail that he was competent.”

Carr, a former Sugar Bowl ski patroller, said that patrolling is one of the most dangerous jobs. “You work in a very risky environment. To have 50 pounds on your back on a high hazard storm day, it’s one of the most you could ask of someone,” he said.

Carr said he was looking forward to having Zuiches guiding on Shasta again this summer and that the two of them had recently gravitated toward surfing.

“He was a great human being,” Carr said. “It’s shocking and completely saddening … thinking about his family and young son is the hardest.”

Zuiches met his wife Mikki, an occupational therapist at Tahoe Forest Health System, while guiding on Shasta. They were married in April 2014 and have a baby boy who is less than a year old.

Paul Koubek, a supervisor for Alpine Ascents International in Seattle and former Kirkwood ski patroller, met Zuiches last spring when he guided for AAI on Rainier. Like Carr, Koubek remembers Zuiches as a bit of an introvert.

“I quickly saw that he was a very sincere, friendly, genuine man,” Koubek said. “He was relatively quiet, not outspoken. In an industry that has a lot of big personalities, he was refreshingly quiet and reliable.”

Koubek describes Zuiches as a well-loved guide and one of AAI’s best.

“He was headed to Denali this year. He was excited, it was going to be his first time up there,” Koubek said. “He was also excited to be a new father. It’s a huge loss for all of us. He will be sorely missed.”

The investigation into Zuiches’ death is ongoing. The case has been turned over to the Placer County Coroner’s Office and the Placer County Sheriff’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD). The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) are also involved. Squaw Valley closed the mountain yesterday as a result of the incident, but has re-opened today in honor of Zuiches, according to a statement from the ski resort.

Ski patrollers getting injured or killed by hand chargers is rare. The closest local incident was in the late 1990s when a 106-caliber howitzer at Alpine Meadows misfired, killing a United States Forest Service employee. In 1974, a member of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol was seriously injured when he attached the fuse igniter to a hand charge prior to deployment. The fuse spontaneously ignited.

A Go Fund Me account, the Joe Zuiches Memorial Fund, has been set up to help his family. In less than 24 hours, the fund has already received $128,934 out of its goal of $150,000.

A Meal Train account has also been established.

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Reader comments so far...

hollyherbie@gma... | Seattle
I grew up with Joe in Pullman. Word of his death spread through facebook, and the reaction has been a stunned, incredible sadness. I remember him as a quite guy with a wicked sense of humor. He would deliver a funny line, almost under his breath, and then follow it with his signature smile. My thoughts go out to his wife, Mikki, and their son. RIP Joe Z.

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July 12, 2018