1,500 mourn athlete killed in Aspen climbing accident | AspenTimes.com

1,500 mourn athlete killed in Aspen climbing accident

Suzanne S. Brown
The Denver Post
Aspen, CO Colorado

WINTER PARK, Colo. – Spencer James Nelson was remembered as a gifted and driven athlete, an inspiring teammate, a trusted friend and a loving son by friends and family members who gathered Friday for a memorial service for the 20-year-old, who died a week ago in a climbing accident near Aspen.

Hideaway Park in the center of this ski town overflowed with an estimated 1,500 people attending the open air service.

Two buses brought athletes from the University of Colorado, where Nelson was a member of the ski team. The stage was lined with more than 30 ski boots filled with flowers. Photos on easels showed a young man remembered for both his engaging smile and passion for the outdoors.

“This kid was rabid about ski racing,” Jeff Burrows, director of the Winter Park Competition Center and one of Nelson’s first coaches, recalled during the two-hour service. “He was rarely out-worked and his passion was undeniable. To me he was inspiration and he made me a better coach.”

Richard Rokos, head ski coach at CU-Boulder, noted that Nelson battled back from a serious motorcycle accident a year ago to get in shape for ski season and help his team reach the NCAA championships, where it placed second.

“He proved himself every single day,” Rokos said, noting that Nelson was honored with the Lucie Hanusova Award after the season, given to skiers who overcome adversity and challenges.

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Rokos said he once asked Nelson why he had a smile on his face when he was going 60 miles per hour down a grand slalom run in competition. “Because I’m having fun,” the skier responded.

“We all feel the loss of him,” the coach said.

Several of the friends and classmates said they were Nelson’s best friend. “If you knew him you wanted to be around him,” said Katie Hartman, captain of the CU ski team.

Others said that while Nelson died too young, he lived life to its fullest, whether he was skiing, mountain biking or rock climbing, his latest sport.

“Look at the stars, the mountains and when the snow is dumping, put your hands up in the air” to cheer, said Christopher Acosta, a young skier who has lived with Nelson’s family for several years. “May you shred in heaven, buddy.”

Mike Cronin, a longtime family friend and member of Grand County Search and Rescue, was among the climbing party at the Maroon Bells where Nelson died Aug. 14. The group was descending from the South Maroon summit about 10 a.m. when a dislodged rock hit Nelson in the head and knocked him over a cliff. Cronin said he started repelling down the mountainside to reach Nelson, who had fallen 2,000 feet to his death, landing in a snow-filled couloir.

“This was a terrible accident and many will have second thoughts about getting out there,” Cronin said. “But let’s enjoy the outdoors in his memory, with gusto, and think of Spencer when we do.”

Nelson’s parents, Peggy Smith and Peter Nelson, moved the family to Winter Park from Denver 11 years ago so that Spencer and his younger brother Connor, now 18, could dedicate themselves to skiing.

His parents said they’re thankful for all the support they’ve been shown from the community, singling out Cronin for special praise.

“He risked his life to try to save our son’s,” said Peter Nelson, who was climbing with the group Aug. 14.

Cronin and all the members of search and rescue teams throughout the state, Nelson said, “risk their lives every day in these unforgiving mountains.”

The service concluded with a puja ceremony, a Hindu blessing of the mountains.