Nobody—not anywhere, not ever—knows what to say when a parent is forced to bury offspring. If well-wishers are lucky, they won't ask dumb-ass questions of the actual parents, only friends and associates.
And so it came to be that, blessedly, I asked a friend of Himay Palmer how Himay was doing after his son, Abel, died—at 27—in a January 21 avalanche off southern Colorado's Red Mountain Pass.
"How the fuck do you think he's doing?" the astounded friend snapped. "A 59-year-old man just learned his 27-year-old son died. By no means is he doing well."
No. Of course not. And yet, those of us in the mountains often find ourselves asking these dumb-ass questions. The collective of global skiers—the Planetary Snow Bohemians, if you will—simply witnesses far too many funerals.
Abel Palmer's memorial service was held the afternoon of February 3, 13 days after his death, at the upper terminal of Telluride Ski Resort's gondola, Station San Sophia. Many attendees arrived on their boards, still sporting Wagner beanies, nylon laminates, and polyurethane footwear. Late afternoon sunshine poured through 30-foot-tall windows overlooking 13,275-foot Mendota Peak and the rim of Telluride's famous box canyon.
Longtime local Brian Carlson, a contractor, said, "Not all of us knew Abel, but anyone who has kids who ski can imagine what his parents are going through."
Surveying the overflow crowd of approximately 500 people, populated by three, maybe four, generations of Telluride diehards, Carlson announced, "Everybody showed up. We showed up for each other. The huge crowd says a lot."
Abel's father, Himay, must be one of the most photographed skiers in the San Juan Mountains, famous for his long blond dreadlocks and woolen, old school apparel. He famously skied leather boots and '80s telemark gear well into this century. Interviewed in 2015 by POWDER, Palmer said it gives him "immense joy" that his younger son, Cedar, "has the opportunity to walk out his door and ski every day."
Before graduating Telluride High School in 2008, Abel actually pursued basketball more than skiing. He didn't start out as quite the ski fanatic his dad and brother are. Abel lived in Durango the last few years and worked at a health club. But he was getting more and more into the freedom of the hills. So when the first significant storm of winter cloaked the San Juans, Abel and a partner beelined up U.S. 550 to the renowned alpine snowfields above 11,018-foot-high Red Mountain Pass.
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a slab broke at the ground in a below-treeline area shortly after 1 p.m. The avalanche then roared into a gully, partially burying both skiers. Palmer's partner was able to extricate himself, locate Palmer, and clear enough debris to attempt resuscitation. But Abel never regained consciousness. Hence, his Station San Sophia memorial service. While it really sucks that skiers must constantly attend wakes for folks under 30, some healing does occur when hundreds of friends and family assemble together to celebrate a life.
The crowd squeezed many mourners into the lobby, where memories of Abel festooned the walls. One newspaper clip, from the Rocky Mountain News in 1991, included a picture of a young Himay skiing with an infant Abel in a backpack. The article described how management of the erstwhile Berthoud Pass ski area decided to ban Himay from riding lifts with Abel after he'd already skied hundreds of runs with him that season.
As Himay told the paper: "We don't make a whole lot, so we thought we could ski and baby-sit at the same time."
At the service, snow safety expert Matt Steen and veteran ski patroller Jim Greene were slumped against a wall, trying to recall exactly how many skier funerals they've attended at Station San Sofia. Said Steen: "Gosh…it's between two and four…"
Interrupted Greene, "For me, it's definitely two."
Steen's sadness departed momentarily as he described seeing Himay earlier in the day "skiing the hell out of Telluride, leading a pack of a hundred locals. Maybe that's how you heal. Or at least try."
Added Greene, "We saw Himay up on the mountain the day after Abel died. How else are you going to cope? Skiing is what we do."
And, sometimes, we do more. The most encouraging news to emerge during Telluride's grieving period was this: Five days after Abel's death, his dad and stepmom, Melanie, were walking in downtown Telluride with their good friend Valerie Sloan when a 70-year-old man in front of them collapsed, falling face first on the ground.
Sloan ran to a public access defibrillator, grabbed it, and resuscitated the man. He survived. Just days after a life was lost, a life was saved. If nothing else, the story made the concept of Karma seem real, that good things truly do follow bad times.