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Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol honors exchange patroller killed in Bariloche

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Mario Ruiz stands at the head of a ski run at Aspen Highlands named after his hometown. Ruiz was part of ski patrol exchange program last winter.
Courtesy photo

HOW TO HELP

Members of the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol have set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds to help the family of Mario Ruiz. To help, go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/memorial-fund-of-mario-ruiz.

Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol is grieving over the loss of a brother in turns.

Mario Ruiz, who worked at Highlands last winter through the ski patrol exchange with Aspen’s sister cities, died July 27 while performing avalanche control at a resort near Bariloche, Argentina.

Ruiz, the ski patrol director at Cerro Catedral, and the assistant patrol director were using their skis to cut snow in preparation for using explosives, according to Luke Demuth, a Highlands ski patroller. They triggered an avalanche that carried Ruiz to the bottom of the slope. He died of traumatic injuries; the assistant patrol director survived and is recovering.

“It’s a huge loss not just for the patrol down there but for the community,” Demuth said. “The sudden loss is deeply felt. We share the grief and loss.”

Ruiz was remembered fondly by Demuth and Highlands patroller Pat Harris. They said Ruiz, who had been a longtime ski patrol director, was willing to essentially become a low patroller in the pecking order to study techniques at another resort. They said Ruiz was quiet and didn’t speak English real well, but quickly ingrained himself as a member of the team.

“He was just another one of us, for sure,” Demuth said.

Harris worked at Cerro Catedral on the patrol exchange seven years ago so he had roots with Ruiz. “He was really humble and open to new experiences,” he said.

Ruiz arrived for boot-packing the steep slopes in Highland Bowl early last season and participated in all the grunt work in preparation for opening. Harris said Cerro Catedral has a ski patrol about the size of Aspen Highlands, but it covers terrain as expansive as Snowmass and hosts even more customers. The patrol stays busy with sweeps, avalanche control and responses to injuries so there is rarely time for free skiing. He said Ruiz was thrilled shortly after Highlands opened last December to free ski the Deception run on a powder morning. He still remembers Ruiz’s big grin at the bottom of the run. He asked if the skiing was always that good.

“It was cool to be able to share that with him,” Harris said.

Demuth said Ruiz enjoyed working and skiing at Highlands.

“He was blown away by the amount of terrain that we have that’s as steep as it is and open to the public,” he said.

Ruiz turned 50 in February. Members of the Highlands patrol threw him a surprise birthday party at Capitol Creek Brew Pub in Willits and presented him with a new pair of Folsom skis.

“He felt like he was part of the group at that point,” Harris said.

Griff Smith, who helps coordinate Aspen’s Sister Cities Program, said Ruiz worked on the Cerro Catedral patrol for 30 years. Smith has known him through skiing in Bariloche over the last 20 years and working with him the last seven years on patroller exchanges. “He was one of the first patrol leaders to take advantage of the exchange” with a personal visit, Smith said.

He recalled showing Ruiz around town when he arrived last year. “He was constantly taking videos and sending them back to his wife,” Smith said.

He noted that Ruiz fit in well, as evidenced by the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol voting him “Patroller of the Year.”

Smith said Ruiz was thrilled with the entire experience, as nearly all the exchange patrollers have been.

“Everyone who comes to Aspen is just overwhelmed with awe,” he said. They are impressed by the snow quality, length of season, welcoming nature of the ski patrols at the mountains and Skico’s quality operations, according to Smith.

The COVID-19 crisis forced an abrupt end to the ski season on March 15 and Ruiz went home to prepare for the South American ski season.

Smith said Ruiz told him he now considered both Cerro Catedral and Aspen Highlands as his home mountains.

Cerro Catedral was late to open for their winter, but had received a ton of snow. Ruiz and his assistant were performing avalanche control in the main part of the ski area, as Demuth and Harris understand it.

Ruiz has a wife, three daughters and two granddaughters. The Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol has set up a GoFundMe account to raise funds to benefit his family.

“He leaves a void in the hearts of everyone he’s worked with in the past 30 years,” the narrative says on the fundraising page. “The fundraiser is to help supply the family Mario leaves behind and create a meaningful memorial for one of the best in the industry.”

No memorial service is currently planned among the Highlands patrol, in part because of the social distancing requirements.

“I’m sure we’ll all remember him in our own way,” Harris said.

Ski patrollers from Bariloche have been coming to Aspen for seven years. They are assigned to Highlands, Aspen Mountain and Snowmass on a revolving basis and stay at the same ski area for the entire ski season. A patroller has been coming on exchange from Chamonix for longer than Smith can remember.

Aspen-Snowmass sends one patroller to both Chamonix and Bariloche for the season. Both Demuth and Harris have worked at Bariloche.

The patrol exchange program will be on hiatus this year because of the pandemic.


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