Identity of Colorado’s sixth ski death for 2016-17 now confirmed
A 44-year-old man from Olathe, Kansas, who died after skiing at Crested Butte Mountain Resort in February was recently confirmed as the state’s sixth ski fatality this winter as part of the 13 to occur during the 2016-17 season.
Jim Bell, a 16-year veteran firefighter of northeast Kansas’s Consolidated Fire District No. 2, was involved in an accident on Feb. 13, later dying from severe head injuries on Feb. 17, despite wearing a helmet. Due to the way in which the state’s ski-related deaths often go unreported, a Colorado news outlet had not previously been able to identify Bell. The Kansas City Star wrote about the incident in February, and Westword, Denver’s alt weekly publication, became the first in Colorado to name him last week.
“He was just a stand-up guy,” Courtney Bell, his wife of 10 years, told the Summit Daily by phone Tuesday. “He touched so many lives, just with what he does every day, and just would care about people nonstop. He was a huge outdoors guy, riding ATVs, skiing. He hunted, fished and he has two little boys, and they were his world. They’re 7 and 8, and he lived for those kids.”
Although his identity was not known at the time, Jim Bell was part of a three-part series from the Summit Daily News published earlier this month. The series sought to document every ski-related fatality during the past 10 years. In total, 137 skiers died at Colorado resorts since the 2006-07 season. Every name had been confirmed, with one exception. The person was simply designated No. 130 in the series as a placeholder until additional facts could be found.
The minimal information Colorado Ski Country USA, the state’s ski industry trade group, would provide about the incident suggested the individual died between Feb. 16 and March 6 and was the sixth fatality this ski season. Based on data from the other 136 deaths, averages also suggested it was probable the person was a male skier, approximately 37 years old, wearing a helmet, but died from head trauma.
Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s vice president, Erica Mueller, confirmed the incident in an email Tuesday. She said it occurred on an intermediate run named Buckley, but that he did not hit a tree — a frequent occurrence in these types of deaths.
“It is an extremely unfortunate and sad situation no matter where it happens,” Mueller wrote. “Losing a loved one has got to be one of the toughest things in life.”
Courtney still doesn’t know what could have possibly happened to her husband. He was a lifelong skier who, before they met, lived in Durango for a stint working on the Silverton Railroad and as a lift operator at Purgatory Resort. The two had visited Crested Butte for an annual ski trip since they were married, and he was in great physical shape, as well as being very safety-minded.
“He was an amazing skier, amazing,” she said. “He lifted weights and worked out to stay fit for his job, so was muscular, and he was always ‘Mr. Safety.’ He was an indestructible kind of guy. Never in a million years did I think something like this could happen to him, ever.”
The two put their young boys in ski school that Monday morning as part of a planned weeklong vacation and took the lift up the mountain. Jim wanted to ski some of the more difficult terrain while she preferred to stay on the greens. So they split up and agreed to meet at the base for lunch with the boys around noon.
When she arrived and didn’t see him, Courtney repeatedly called Jim and just figured maybe he didn’t have cell reception. She went ahead and started into lunch when a ski instructor approached to tell her she needed to get over to ski patrol.
She was told Jim was found face-first in the snow after someone on the lift overhead spotted him lying on the ground and reported it. Jim was unconscious, though still breathing, but that would soon stop once patrollers got him down to the mountain clinic. He was then transported by ambulance to the hospital in Grand Junction, where he was pronounced dead. Jim was ultimately kept on life support so his wish to be an organ donor could be honored.
Like his wife, the fire department where he long worked can’t understand what happened. More than two months later his comrades are still mourning the loss.
“He was a go-to guy, and would drop anything and help you,” said Jeff Scott, the department’s deputy chief. “The department as a whole lost a great, great firefighter, as did the community. He had a wife and two kids, and a big hole is what he left.”
When she first got to see him, Courtney said Jim had no broken bones or visible bruises, and just two small scratches on his face as well as the makings of a black eye. She asked ski patrol for his helmet to better understand the injury, but never received it. The Gunnison County coroner also didn’t approach her about conducting an autopsy, and she remains entirely unclear on the circumstances that led to Jim’s death.
“It is so frustrating,” she said. “I had to get the ski (patrol) report to the fire department for insurance purposes and there was nothing written on it. Not where they found him, how they found him — nothing.
“He could figure out the problem and a solution to anything. His captain even said that. He was so strong and never complained, and his friends said he’ll make it through this,” Courtney added, about Jim’s accident, “‘It’s Jim, he knows what to do.’ So it’s every day that I ask myself, ‘Is this really my life? Did this really happen?’”
To donate to the Bell family, visit the GoFundMe page created on their behalf.
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