‘It might get progressively easier, but it doesn’t ever go away.’ Taft Conlin’s parents recall the day their son died
June 18, 2018
EAGLE — Taft Conlin was a boy on the cusp of becoming a young man.
He wanted independence, to ski more with his friends than his dad and mom. On the other hand, the night before 13-year-old Taft died, he heard a noise, got scared and crawled into bed with his dad.
Taft's parents, Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin, testified Monday, June 18, the day before what would have been their son's 20th birthday.
If you haven't lost a child, then you cannot imagine the grief, Stephen testified Monday. He still cannot describe it, he said.
The skier death trial entered its second week Monday. Taft died Jan. 22, 2012, in an in-bounds avalanche on Vail Mountain.
'We don't do anything that stupid'
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Stephen gave Taft a GoPro camera for Christmas, the GoPro Taft was wearing when the avalanche killed him. The jury saw the footage of Taft's final, fatal run on Friday, June 15. Stephen said he had seen the video once before Friday.
"As a parent, when I looked at it, there were a couple things I asked," Stephen said. "Was Taft skiing in control, and were there other tracks?"
Taft learned to ski the way most local kids do, by being out there with his family and friends. In testimony, Stephen and Louise both said they are "committed parents," and they had some long and frank discussions with their son about on-mountain behavior.
"We don't cut ropes, we don't enter closed areas. We don't do anything that stupid on the ski hill," Stephen said.
If he was seen cutting ropes, then he was done for the season. If he was seen skiing recklessly, then he was also done, Stephen said.
Stephen is an expert skier, and his son could ski any terrain his father could, he said.
Louise said no one ever told her that you could only ski where gravity takes you — a rule Vail ski patrollers testified to last week — and she never heard anyone else say that, either.
The day the call came
The day before Taft died, he was skiing with friends. Louise spent that Saturday at her daughter's telemark skiing event at Ski Sunlight, talking with other parents.
"We were talking about how happy we were that our kids were in the mountains, living a healthy lifestyle, instead of hanging out in a mall," she said.
Taft had a flip phone, not a smartphone. He sneaked onto Facebook to create an account. His parents heard about it and made him take it down. He didn't like open water, even with a life jacket. He finally tried water skiing on Lake Powell the summer before he died.
"He had this great ability, if I was a little cranky and tired at the end of the day, he could make me laugh," Louise said.
Louise spoke with her children every night to ask about their day and tell them she loved them.
The day he died, Taft was going to ski Beaver Creek with his dad, aunt, uncle and older sister, but Taft learned some of his friends were going to ski Vail. It was the first big snow of an otherwise abysmal year, and he wanted to ski with his friends.
Stephen finally relented, and Taft hopped on a bus from Beaver Creek to Vail, something he had done countless times. Their kids took the county bus from Eagle to Vail almost every day to attend Vail Mountain School, Louise said.
Stephen was back in Eagle, home from skiing, when the call came. He said an emergency room doctor and friend, Dr. Gordon Hardenbergh, made the call.
There had been an avalanche.
Taft and some friends were in it.
Taft had not survived.
Taft's sister heard Stephen tell his brother, her uncle David. His daughter broke down crying, and so did everyone else.
Louise had taken a long walk on an Eagle Ranch trail near her home. The phone rang soon after she returned home. It was Stephen. There had been an avalanche … Taft had not made it. It was late afternoon as they made their way to the hospital together. Stephen's brother David drove. Steve, Louise and their daughter rode in the backseat.
Hardenbergh escorted Stephen, Louise and their daughter to see Taft. Then they went back to Louise's house. She remembers lying in their daughter's bed, crying together.
Family and friends started arriving. They cried, too. Friends planned the memorial service that packed the Edwards Interfaith Chapel.
"I remember there was lots of crying," Stephen said.
Planning so the family wouldn't have to
Holly Simonton works at Castle Peak Veterinarian Service with Stephen. She has children about the same age as Taft and his sister. So does Linda Mossman.
Simonton learned of an avalanche. She also soon learned Louise and Stephen's son, Taft, had died in it.
"What did you do then?" asked Jim Heckbert, Taft's parents' attorney.
"Cried," she replied.
Taft died on a Sunday. The family's friends started planning the memorial service the next day, setting it for that upcoming Friday.
They thought of as much as they could … plowing the driveway, making sure the family had plenty of household supplies, meals delivered to the house all the way through May … so Taft's family wouldn't have to, Simonton said.
During the service, some of Taft's friends spoke. Some finished their speeches. Some needed help to get through it.
Patrick Scruggs said, "I was skiing with Taft Sunday. If I could say something to Taft, I would tell him, 'Taft, you are the funniest kid I ever met. … You were always everyone's friend. … We will always remember you. We will never forget you.'"
A few days later, the kids had a ski-down.
The family and community built a lacrosse ball wall at Eagle Valley High School. The family established a Taft Conlin Scholarship at Vail Mountain School, funded in part by selling Taft Conlin signature skis. The first scholarship went to a young man who graduated the same year Taft would have. He would be in college now.
Taft was not a morning person. To wake him, Louise rubbed his head and asked, "I wonder what this head will be thinking today?" She rubbed his hands, "I wonder what these hands will do today?" She rubbed his feet, "I wonder where these feet will jump today?"
As he got older, he sometimes wanted a backrub, so his mother rubbed her son's broadening shoulders.
On his last morning with her, he stuck his foot out from under the covers. He wanted his foot rubbed. He got it.
Broken Heart syndrome
Sometimes, the pain is physical. Louise thought she might be having a heart attack, so she went to a cardiologist, she said. The doctor told her she had "broken heart syndrome," a medical condition in which grief can cause physical problems.
She said that if she can "lay down beauty" next to the pain — something good that happened that day, her love for her daughter — it helps her balance.
She has skied Prima Cornice once in her life, much later, to show her sister where her son died.
Simonton learned not to ask Louise the standard, "How are you?" Instead, she and others learned to ask, "What kind of day are you having?"
Louise and Simonton kept taking walks together. Friends kept an eye on Louise, Simonton said. Mother's Day was "difficult," her first without her son. So was school starting.
Louise is genuinely pleased for the accomplishments of her friends' children. But it's not easy, Simonton said.
"Taft is frozen at the age he died. It feels hard that Taft is not doing the same things my son is doing," Simonton said.
Louise attended high school graduations, both at Vail Mountain School, where Taft attended, and Eagle Valley High School, where many of his friends went.
Mossman, Simonton and others tried to help the family through it all.
"You don't carry it for one day and set it down. You carry it with you the next day and the next … and years from now," Mossman said.
"It might get progressively easier, but it doesn't ever go away," Simonton said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.