Vail community celebrates life of Nick Courtens, a talented horticulturist and dependable friend, at Betty Ford Alpine Gardens
Local was killed in a paddling accident Sunday in Glenwood Canyon
VAIL — A celebration of life for Vail local Nick Courtens took place on Friday in the same location where Courtens arranged a memorial for his friend Spencer Cooke eight years earlier. Courtens, 34, died in a paddling accident in Glenwood Canyon on Sunday.
Courtens was the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens’ curator of plant collections, and his life was celebrated in the gardens where he spent much of his time. In addition to those duties, Courtens had taken on an unofficial role as a memorial organizer in the years that followed Cooke’s death, as he also lost friends Bindu Pomeroy and Lily Connelly in backcountry accidents and helped plan their celebrations of life.
Courtens’ friend Riley Campbell said the irony wasn’t lost on those attempting to plan Courtens’ celebration as, in difficult times following the loss of a friend, “it was Nick we had to lean on,” Campbell said. “He was always the one to step up and organize everything.”
Betty Ford Alpine Gardens Executive Director Nicola Ripley said Courtens had learned many skills in his 13 years at the gardens, moving from intern to horticulturist to curator.
“He had an artists’ eye for rock placement, which is a rare talent,” Ripley said. “Making gardens where the rocks look like they were created by nature.”
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Courtens was on the board of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the North American Rock Gardens Society, “and I have no doubt that the national board was next,” Ripley said. “He was in demand for speaking tours and recently returned from a tour of Canada, having done a tour of Scotland and England a couple of years ago.”
Courtens’ father, Jean-Paul Courtens, said Nick’s first public speaking job came when he was just 6 years old.
“I was holding the hay wagon, and Nick would give a tour of the farm, telling what each crop was and how they were grown,” Jean-Paul said.
It was on that farm in upstate New York where Nick developed his love of horticulture, said Jody Bolluyt, Nick’s stepmother. Bolluyt said after high school, Nick was apprehensive about going to a standard four-year college.
“I can’t learn that way,” Nick said, as recalled by Bolluyt. “Give me a chance to find a different way.”
Courtens instead attended a two-year program at the Longwood Gardens professional gardener program.
“Nick, what you made of that chance is beyond our wildest dreams for you,” Bolluyt said. “He had way more than a job, he had a place that loved him and nurtured him and allowed him to pursue his passions.”
When Courtens arrived in Vail in 2010, he lived in modest accommodations in the basement of the Vail Library, Ripley said.
While living in that basement he met Maggie MacLean, nee Sanders, who he dated briefly before becoming close friends. MacLean said their relationship was like Jerry and Eliane from Seinfeld, a show they both loved. They traveled the country together attending Widespread Panic shows in California, New York, and many places in between — Campbell called them “Spread Heads.”
MacLean said Courtens inherited his love of Widespread Panic from his aunt, Jen Cashen.
“He owes a lot of his skiing skills to her, as well,” MacLean said. “She’s a ski patroller at Jackson Hole and Nick would go visit her every year.”
MacLean said a highlight of their Spread Head days came in 2018 when Courtens and her got to go backstage and meet the band.
“Nick didn’t say a word the whole time,” she said.
After moving out of the library basement, Courtens moved into a house on Bellflower Drive in Vail, where he met Cooke. They also had a similar love of music. Cooke died tragically in an apparent rock climbing incident at Red Rocks after attending a Yonder Mountain String Band show in 2015.
Cooke’s parents, Tav and Carolyn, flew in from Tennessee to attend Courtens’ celebration of life on Friday. Carolyn Cooke said she wasn’t able to attend her son’s memorial in Vail but didn’t want to miss the celebration for Courtens.
“Spencer passed away on a Saturday, and Nick planned a big memorial for that Thursday,” Carolyn said. “We were in Memphis with family, and then a group of about 40 of these kids here today got on a plane and came out to Memphis for his memorial.”
After living on Bellflower Drive for a few years, Courtens moved to Minturn and lived with Campbell. The two had met years earlier on a flight to Costa Rica, where they recognized each other from a mutual connection at Ski and Snowboard Club Vail, where Courtens was a freeski coach. Campbell was coaching moguls in Breckenridge at the time, and took a job in Vail a couple of years after that.
“When it came time for me to move to Vail, Nick was the only friend I had in the valley,” Campbell said. “But little did I know at the time, to know Nick was to know everyone in Vail. … Nick had friends on ski patrol, friends who were fishing guides and raft guides, he knew everyone at Kirby’s, Vendetta’s and Vail Brewing Company, he knew everyone at the town of Vail, he knew all the backcountry guys, and he had a loyal battalion of senior citizens who volunteered at the gardens.”
Ripley said she was happy she had the chance, on Friday, to thank Courtens for all his hard work in getting the gardens ready for this season.
“I said no one deserved a weekend off more than him,” she said.
Local Amy Riddle said she was with Courtens in the morning the day he died.
“He was so happy that morning,” she said. “He kissed me and said thank you for the perfect weekend. At 10 a.m. we were texting again, Nick was waiting for his friends by the river. He said damn there’s a lot of water, and it’s huge.”
Jean-Paul Courtens said he was grateful that Nick died during a time in his life when he was happy with the person he was at the time.
“I wish to express, especially, a thank you to Nicola, for being a caring boss and friend who supported him through light and darkness,” Jean-Paul said. “I love how he found a place here in Vail at Betty Ford where people recognized his qualities and allowed him to thrive. I want to thank you all for loving our boy the way we loved him.”
Jean-Paul was born in the Netherlands and was introduced to Colorado through Nick.
“I remember the day when Jean-Paul drove him out from New York, it was a typical spring day in Colorado — it was dumping with snow,” Ripley said.
Every May, “Nick turned into a crazy man,” she said. “He used to drive the golf cart in May like it was a snowmobile, with one leg hanging out the side, so he could leap off before it even stopped … and then there were the bulbs, Nick — no more bulbs, stop buying bulbs — his answer was always the same: ‘I’m a Dutchman, I can’t help myself.’
“So enjoy the early tulips blooming here today,” Ripley said, “and I promise that every year from now those will be blooming.”