He packed 80 years into 20 years of life
Grand County, CO Colorado
Spencer James Nelson, 20, of Winter Park, died Saturday, Aug. 14, 2010, after falling during a climb on the Maroon Bells near Aspen.
He was a graduate of Middle Park High School and the son of Peggy Smith, realtor and Fraser town board member, and architect Peter Nelson.
Born in Denver on March 16, 1990, Spencer became entranced with the sport of skiing when he was only 3 years old.
“From the day he was born he was filled with energy and passion,” recalls his father.
The year he turned 4, Spencer attended the U.S. Nationals at Winter Park and was so taken by the racers that he threw a fit when his dad wouldn’t pay the extra few dollars so he could race through the NASTAR course. Eventually dad relented, and life thereafter was never the same.
At 7, Spencer began racing with the Winter Park Competition Center team and, by the time he was 9, it became clear to his parents that they were going to have to move closer to the mountains.
“We always told him to embrace this beautiful state and this beautiful town. Living here is a gift that not everyone gets,” Peter said.
Spencer took that advice to heart. From mountain biking to climbing, he lived the mountain lifestyle to its fullest – and made it his mission to infect others with his enthusiasm.
After high school, Spencer took a year off to hone his skiing skills at the Competition Center and in 2009 he fulfilled a lifelong dream, making the ski team at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
But, only four months before the start of pre-season training, Spencer encountered a major setback when he was severely injured in a dirt bike accident. He broke his back and ruptured his spleen, among other things. Yet, he recovered from those injuries in time for the season and went on to become one of the team’s top skiers – as a walk-on freshman.
His coach remarked to the family this week that given his dirt bike injuries, Spencer likely had one of the best seasons in history for a freshman and established himself as one of the best giant slalom racers on the team. His seventh place finish at the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association Championships helped the Buffs qualify a full 12-member team for the NCAA Championships.
Nelson finished his freshman season with nine Top 20 performances and finished 21st in the giant slalom and 23rd in the slalom at NCAAs, helping the team to a second-place finish.
He received the Lucie Hanusova Memorial Award, which is given to those who overcome adversity and challenges with smiles and enthusiasm.
After the season, he was honored by Colorado Ski Country USA in its Double Diamond Awards as male all-star athlete of the year.
A business school student, he was studying finance and marketing.
Spencer had just returned from six weeks working for Atomic and attending ski camp at Mt. Hood. While out there, he had fallen in love with technical rock climbing.
He was focused on his goal of climbing all the state’s 14ers and had already ascended 17 of the state’s highest summits. He chose for his next hike one of the state’s most recognizable and technical hikes – the Maroon Bells – notorious for their crumbling rock and complex routes.
“Nothing was an obstacle,” Peggy said.
On Friday night, Aug. 13, he made a rare posting to his Facebook page: “Off to Aspen to climb the Maroon Bells! … Gonna be sweet. Life is good.”
On Saturday morning, before dawn, Spencer set out to climb South Maroon Peak with his father, Grand County Search and Rescue member Mike Cronin and several of his closest ski racing friends.
The group of eight summited one of the 14,000-foot Maroon Peaks and was traversing to the next shortly after 10 a.m. when a rock dislodged from above and struck Spencer, knocking him 600 feet down the Bell Cord Couloir.
He was wearing a climbing helmet.
“Mike risked his life to help him,” Peter said. “He repelled down to try to save him.”
Another climber and off-duty member of Mountain Rescue Aspen, saw the accident from a distance and came to assist.
Rescuers from Mountain Rescue Aspen, Aspen Fire Department, the U.S. Forest Service, Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Flight For Life also responded.
The Colorado National Guard High Altitude Army Aviation Training Site (HAATS) used a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter to transport equipment and personnel to the scene.
Rescuers reached Spencer’s body around 10:40 a.m. on Sunday.
When the Nelsons returned home to Rendezvous from Aspen on Sunday night, some 50 people were there waiting for them, including almost the entire ski team.
“The fact that Spencer is no longer with us is still beyond our wildest imagination,” coach Richard Rokos wrote.
By Monday, a row of flower-filled ski boots lined the dining room table, pictures of Spencer were scattered across the coffee table and the Nelson house was filled with local friends, some helping make plans for the services, some organizing media interviews, some supplying a steady stream of food and water to anyone who needed it.
“This is an amazing community we live in,” Peter said.
‘Lucky we had him’
“Spencer was an amazing kid. He lived life 100 percent,” said Peggy, sitting on the back porch of her home overlooking the ski area where her son discovered his greatest passion. “He lived 20 great years, and we were really lucky we had him.”
“He fit 80 years of life into 20,” Peter added.
That Spencer was well loved is an understatement. As news of his death spread, calls and emails flooded in from across the country. One ski team member who is in New Zealand had his father, who was in Aspen at the time of the accident, find the Nelsons and give them a hug.
“It’s sad this had to happen to make us realize what an impact this kid had on everyone,” Peter said. “You couldn’t ask for a better son.”
“He was doing what he loved,” his mother added.
One of Spencer’s best friends, Chris Acosta, who lived with the family for a year and “spent almost every waking moment” with Spencer over the past 4 years, wrote: “I’ll continue on the contagious, passionate vibes that you once spread amongst everyone you knew. Each time I click into my skis it’s for you bud. I love you Spencer. May you forever SHRED in heaven.”
Spencer is survived by his parents, Peggy Smith and Peter Nelson of Fraser; his brother Connor, 18; aunts and uncles, Nancy Miller of Denver, Jeff and Antonette Smith of Centennial, Greg Smith and Annie Roberts of Larkspur, Linda and John Cotton of Emerald Isle, N.C., Susan and Wayne Jacquet of Bradenton, Fla, John and LeAnn Nelson of Chippawah Falls, Wis., Liz and Chris Eaton of Lakewood; and grandparents Jim and Mary Smith of Greenwood Village, Colo.
He is predeceased by grandparents Jim and Mary Nelson.
In lieu of flowers, make donations to the Spencer Nelson Memorial Gift Fund at Wells Fargo Bank. Contributions will be donated to various organizations that had an impact on Spencer during his life.
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