Garrett Spencer, record-setting 19th Colorado ski area death, being laid to rest

This morning at 10:30 a.m. in Hesston, Kansas, a memorial service will be held for Garrett Spencer, a nineteen year old who died at Wolf Creek Ski Area a few days ago.

Spencer's passing either extends a deadly record for ski area deaths in Colorado during a single season or ties it, depending on how the fatalities are calculated.

Our William Breathes began tracking ski area deaths in Colorado earlier this year, when he noticed the high number of reported casualties -- one that seemed on track to go beyond the 2007-2008 mark, when seventeen people died.

By Breathes's count, Matthew Bowers, a 36 year old from Texas who died at Crested Butte, was this season's eighteenth death, setting the record. At the time we published our piece about Bowers, the Denver Post agreed with this total. However, Jennifer Rudolph, communications director for Colorado Ski Country, argued that Bowers's death was the seventeenth of the season -- and the Post is now back-tracking even further. In a March 24 item, the paper describes Spencer's death, which took place on a beginner's run after he crashed into a tree (it was only his second day skiing), as the seventeenth "inbounds fatality" this season. The retrenching is explained like so:

Two other deaths in January -- a 13-year-old skier who died in an avalanche in closed terrain at Vail and a 43-year-old skier who died in an avalanche just outside the boundary of Snowmass ski area -- are not listed among the Colorado's inbounds fatalities according to longstanding resort industry criteria that separates fatalities inside resort boundaries from those beyond the boundary ropes or in closed areas, where terrain is not patrolled or managed for safety.

Such parsing of the data -- if a ski area visitor ventures outside the official boundary line, a death no longer counts? -- should not distract from the startling number of fatalities at ski areas this season. Indeed, Rudolph emphasized that one death is too many in her recent interview with Westword. And neither should the numbers debate take the focus off the pain being experienced by the Spencer family. Garrett's obituary notes that he graduated from Hesston High School, where he was captain of the football team, before moving on to Kansas State University. He's described as "an active member of God's Family and a leader of the Hesston Youth Group, where he touched many lives," including those of his survivors -- his parents, his two brothers and many more.

When viewed in this context, the question of whether Spencer was the nineteenth or the seventeenth skier to die on Colorado slopes this season is inconsequential. Our condolences.

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More from our News archive: "Joseph Shematek's death means 2012 Colorado ski season tied for most lethal ever."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts