East Vail avalanche victim Johnny Kuo remembered by skiers, family
VAIL — When Johnny Kuo passed you in his ski boots on the staircase to East Vail, you rarely heard him coming.
The longtime Vail local’s death on Feb. 4 reminded East Vail skiers that even the most talented athletes are taking their chances every time they visit the popular, but deadly sidecounty area.
A fast, silent, light-on-his-feet skier, Kuo dressed in all black and earned the nickname “The Ninja” for his style. He earned the respect of some of the best skiers in the region and will be remembered for his uniqueness in Vail.
“I can confidently say John died doing exactly what he loved most,” Johnny’s sister, Caroline Kuo, said on Sunday. “He wouldn’t have wanted to die any other way than on that mountain, in the beautiful majesty of that snow and that mountain, having just done a run.”
Skier for life
Johnny’s parents immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in the late 1960s, moving to the Washington, D.C., area.
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Caroline said growing up, Johnny learned from his parents that, while they were not well to do, through hard work they could attain the occasional ski trip to Stowe in Vermont, a moment to be cherished.
“Skiing was a part of them immigrating into America and embracing what America could offer,” Caroline said. “Some of my earliest memories of my brother were him racing down the mountain.”
Caroline said an observer of Johnny’s upbringing might have expected him to grow up to be a lot like her — she attended Oxford and became the associate dean of Diversity and Inclusion at the Brown University School of Public Health. But instead his family started suspecting that Johnny was destined to stay in the mountains; the first indication occurred when he stayed in the Rocky Mountains for an extra year of college at the University of Colorado in 2002.
“He fell in love with the state, and he never wanted to leave,” Caroline said. “He did a fancy internship at a big firm and he hated it so much, he said it was soul sucking.”
‘Less talk, more skiing’
Not long after college, Kuo would find himself living in a ski fantasy — he found residence in the heart of Vail Village, a seemingly unattainable situation near the landmark clocktower building for $600 per month, and he was exploring the region’s most extreme terrain with a crew of some of the best skiers in Vail.
“He was always ready to go,” said Chris Del Bosco. “I don’t think I ever had a bad day with Johnny.”
Del Bosco grew up in Vail and met Johnny through Vail local Eric Biboso. One day in East Vail, Johnny and Biboso saw Del Bosco land a front flip off a set of cliffs, and remarked that Del Bosco might have a future as a pro. The day has been burned into Biboso’s memory.
“It was just the three of us out there, during an amazing snow year,” Biboso said.
A few years later, Del Bosco was in the Olympics as a ski cross racer. After earning an X Games medal, Del Bosco credited some of his fitness to skiing with Biboso and Johnny.
“We definitely skied some great stuff together,” Del Bosco said.
Del Bosco said as his career advanced (he still competes on the World Cup after 15 years in the sport), he didn’t get to ski as much with Biboso and Johnny. Biboso got married, had a child and couldn’t maintain Johnny’s level of skiing anymore, either. A few years later, “I saw (Johnny) was hanging out with John Spriggs and Taylor Seaton and those guys,” Biboso said. “I always thought it was really cool that he started skiing with them.”
Spriggs and Seaton, both X Games athletes who have transitioned into ski filming, were shooting a movie in Wyoming when they received the news of Johnny’s passing. Spriggs took it especially hard.
“I skied with him a lot during the pandemic,” Spriggs said. “A lot of times, it was just me and him in the backcountry, doing some of the iconic lines around Summit County. … He had a motto: Less talk, more skiing.“
Spriggs said he was planning on taking a trip to Japan with Kuo.
“He was known as a legendary travel guide also,” Spriggs said. “If you hadn’t done the Japan trip with him, it was on your list.”
Jeremy Aschenbach joined Johnny on one of those Japan trips.
“We’d go to through the train station with all our skis and backpacks, he’d say stay here, and he would go find out where we need to go,” Aschenbach said. “He knew how to travel, he would go to the Philippines all by himself for months on end.”
Caroline said one time Johnny showed up at her dorm room in England carrying nothing but a small pack with a wok in it, which he had brought all the way from China. The wok was a gift for her.
“There was nothing else in his backpack,” Caroline said with a laugh.
While traveling in India, “he was so exhausted, he got his passport stolen out of his moneybelt after he fell asleep in a rickshaw,” Caroline said. “He only realized it when he got off the rickshaw, he went back to the rickshaw spot and saw the driver, and got back in saying he wanted another trip, not saying he knew his passport was stolen. He saw the edge of his passport sticking out of the guy’s basket, reached around and re-stole his passport back.”
Johnny was a common sight around the pool tables at the George in Vail, where he was a formidable opponent.
“He was a pool playing phenom,” said snowboarder Larry Harris, who knew Johnny not from the mountain, but from playing pool, being neighbors and riding the bus together.
But Harris said Johnny’s nickname, earned through skiing, followed him off the slopes, as well.
“I called him the silent ninja,” Harris said. “His eyes always told the story.”
And while he was a common sight at a pool table or on Grandpa’s line in East Vail — Johnny, like Harris, is not a common sight in Vail.
Harris, who is Black, said his conversations with Johnny were often about being people of color in a community that is 90% white.
“We had the minority talks, I got to find out about his background, his immigrant history, and we really got to bond over that,” Harris said.
Harris said he met Johnny in 2012, after he had been in Vail for five years, and found someone to look up to in Johnny’s ability to break down the ski town barriers.
“It felt good growing up with him through the years,” Harris said.
Johnny wore a button down dress shirt under his ski attire. His friend Bryan Calcaterra said Johnny once told him it was because skiing was his job.
“We always got a kick out of that,” Calcaterra said. “He was the classiest skier you’ve ever seen because he’s got an all-black kit with a merino wool button down shirt underneath it.”
Erin Connelly had been skiing with Johnny in recent weeks. She said he was ready for the next phase of his professional career.
“Johnny told me how happy he was he finally could retire as a ski bum,” she said.
Caroline said from a skier’s perspective, she can understand how unique her brother’s story must sound — he once lived on Bridge Street, skied with Chris Del Bosco and John Spriggs, was faster as a boot packer than his alpine touring brethren, skied five East Vail laps in one day, wore a dress shirt because skiing was his job, and was ready to retire and ski even more. And all this accomplished in his 20s and 30s (Johnny turned 41 in November).
From her perspective, however, Caroline doesn’t see it as an accomplishment in skiing. She sees it as an accomplishment in courage.
“He had the courage to recognize that life could be short,” she said. “And to spend every minute of it doing what he loved.”