A year after fatal skiing accident at Vail’s Blue Sky Basin, family of Connor Vande Garde pays tribute
Vande Garde, 20, considered Vail his second home
Connor Vande Garde’s ideal day was carving turns in Vail’s Blue Sky Basin and cooking something up on the grill at Belle’s Camp.
That’s exactly what the 20-year-old was doing on March 11, 2020, when he lost an edge while skiing fast down one of his favorite runs and crashed hard, sliding into a tree. The accident took Connor’s life and left his parents, Blake and Nikki, and his three siblings, Nate, Caleb and Hailey, in shock and disbelief.
On Thursday, the Vande Garde family and some close friends returned to the tree where the accident occurred to honor Connor. The tree is located in a glade that sits skiers’ left of The Star trail in Blue Sky Basin, visible from the Pete’s Express chairlift.
There were plenty of laughs and smiles to go with some tears. Over the summer, working with members of Vail Ski Patrol, the family, which hails from the Kansas City suburb of Leawood, Kansas, was able to venture back to Blue Sky Basin to hang a plaque on the tree commemorating Connor’s life.
Connor’s grandparents, Larry and Linda Vande Garde of Overland Park, Kansas, also have a plaque on a bench near Gore Creek in Vail Village, and the family worked with the Vail Town Council to put a plaque honoring Connor on the same bench.
A second home
Blake Vande Garde said Vail “meant everything” to his late son.
The Vande Garde family has been coming to Vail for more than four decades. Larry and Linda Vande Garde bought a condo in the Creekside Building in Vail Village in 1978, and it’s where Blake and Nikki stayed after their wedding and where their four children grew up during extended stays over the years. In the summers, the kids tubed down Gore Creek and watched the Fourth of July parade through Vail Village. In the winters, it was days spent out on the mountain, primarily in Vail’s Back Bowls and Blue Sky Basin.
Nate Vande Garde was with his twin brother that day a year ago when the accident happened. He joked that Connor was carrying around 3 pounds of ground beef in his jacket that the two had planned to grill up later that day. He also said conditions were near-identical to Thursday — with soft snow on the ground and the bright sun shining overhead.
Nikki Vande Garde described her late son as a very sensitive, funny, goofy kid with a big heart. Connor was studying computer science at the University of Kansas and had friends all over the world that he played video games with, many of whom connected with the family to express their condolences after his death.
She said her son was a well of emotional support for her as she battled breast cancer after a diagnosis in Sept. 2019, constantly driving her to chemotherapy treatments and always trying to lift her spirits.
“I finished my chemo literally the end of February last year,” she said. “This was going to be my first trip back up here. Not even to ski yet. So I was bald when he died. It was kind of like we had that victory of feeling like we were just coming back into maybe being a normal family, and then he died within less than three weeks after the end of that.”
Thankful for the support
Blake Vande Garde said the family is forever grateful to the two physicians who were skiing nearby on March 11 last year and witnessed the accident and jumped into action to attend to Connor immediately. The two doctors didn’t want to be named in coverage about the accident, but he said he made a point of sending them Connor’s autopsy report to show that there was nothing that they could have done to save his son’s life after the violent crash.
He also thanked the members of the Vail Ski Patrol who helped with the transport of Connor to Vail Health Hospital and he singled out Chris “Mongo” Reeder, a longtime patroller and supervisor, for helping to construct the plaque for Connor. The plaque includes a laser-printed piece of granite encased in a wood frame to survive the elements.
“I had the idea,” Blake Vande Garde said. “He built this overnight and put it together.”
On Thursday night, the family planned to have dinner at The George in Vail — one of their favorite hangouts — where Blake said he would attempt to make it through a toast for his son.
He was sure there would be more tears, but also plenty of smiles, reflecting on memories made in a place that’s always been a home away from home.
“I’ll try to get through it,“ he said.