It was sunny, the sky mostly blue, and warm - upwards of 20 C. July 4, last summer, not a day you expect to go skiing.
But on the Horstman Glacier atop Blackcomb Mountain at Whistler, July 4 was a perfect day to ski.
Among all those with big smiles on the snow in the sun was Sarah Burke, the pioneer of women’s freestyle skiing, four-time winner of gold in the halfpipe at X Games. Burke was on the Horstman, as had been her practice in recent years, not as competitor but as coach, mentor and big sister to hopeful teenagers.
“What do you feel like doing today?” Burke asked her troupe of teenage girls, standing atop a 22-foot superpipe, much like the one in Utah where Burke fell on Jan. 10.
“Pipe,” one girl voted.
“Halfpipe,” another agreed, “and airbag,” adding a vote for the training ground for new tricks where the landing is softer than hard snow.
Burke then reminded the teens of some important basics, standing strong on skis forward in the knees, a good bend in the knees to exert edge control on the skis, arms out front.
And then they were off, into the pipe, the girls dreaming of pulling tricks like one of their heroes. Among Burke’s many accomplishments was the first 1080 - three 360-degree rotations - landed by a woman in competition.
The Horstman Glacier, for several decades, has hosted summer camps for skiers and snowboards, something of an Olympics incubator. When Sarah first attended at 14, it was not with Olympics dreams. Her friends were going but she ended up on a different week. “I came alone, very scared and very shy,” she told me in an interview in the early afternoon, the snow soupy, the day of training over.
She was a moguls skier, from Midland, Ont., skied at the nearby Horseshoe Valley Ski Club. She made numerous trips to the summer camps out west and, at 17, she showed some of the spunk that eventually made her a pioneer in her sport. Burke eschewed the bumps to sneak over to the halfpipe, a place then not especially welcoming to women, never mind girls. But she was good- and caught the eye of Mike Douglas, a Whistler freeski legend.
Her singular career ascended from there, not only winning competitions but fighting, lobbying, cajoling organizers to take women’s halfpipe skiing seriously and include it at events.
She loved coming back to the Horstman to teach teenagers. Burke had an easy, warm smile, a glow.
“It’s always good to come here and remember why,” Burke told me. “The kids are so excited when they do their first 360.”
Summer days skiing on a glacier are festive.
“It’s so much fun, the atmosphere, the vibe for the kids,” Burke said. Channeling her memory of her summers as a camper: “All the best skiers are in one spot, and you get to ski with them. You don’t get that anywhere else.”
As camp was ending, word had gone around that the International Olympic Committee finally decided to add slopestyle, skiing and snowboarding, to the 2014 games in Russia. Burke’s sport, women’s ski halfpipe, had been given the nod in April, the culmination of her efforts to push the sport.
The Sochi Olympics - she would have been 31- were Burke’s main focus if, she said, “everything goes according to plan.”
Burke’s death cuts a deep scar, from the stretch of Pemberton-Whistler-Squamish-Vancouver in British Columbia, through a whole sport, and through all of Canada. Many Canadians have been affected by her widely reported/broadcast crash, hospital stay and death, and there has been an international outpouring of support online.
For those who knew her directly, and for those who love adventures in mountains in winter, it is a difficult death. When avalanches kill, it is terrible, but the circumstances are relatively clear. When Shane McConkey died, it was awful but not completely shocking, considering the extent of his extremities - skiing down radically steep faces, jumping off cliffs, then parachuting to the ground. It was amazing, until some equipment malfunctioned in Italy and he died, plummeting from the sky to the ground.
Burke’s crash wasn’t a particularly harsh one but it ruptured a vertebral artery, one of four that supply blood to brain. There was a brain hemorrhage, which caused cardiac arrest, which cut off oxygen to the brain and caused severe and irreversible brain damage. She died Thursday morning. She was 29.
After Burke and I spoke, she pulled some tricks in the pipe for the lens of my colleague, photographer John Lehmann. The story and picture ran Saturday, July 16, the photograph splashed big on the page, the image of Burke flying above the lip of the pipe, a pioneer in her prime, a halo of clouds in the sky.
She was the star of a niche sport. Few people had heard of her before her crash. My story about the summer camps was only the sixth time her name had ever been in The Globe and Mail. It is a testament to the extent of her accomplishments, and her quality as a human being, that her story has resonated so much in the past ten days.
A report released on Tuesday reported that skiing and snowboarding are the most hazardous of winter sports. Some 2,300 people were sent to hospital last winter in Canada with injuries bad enough to require at least a night’s stay. The numbers are double those of hockey, which had about 1,100 hospitalizations, about the same as snowmobiling.
Thankfully, most people on mountains now wear helmets. Of skiers and snowboarders 18 and younger, four out of five wear a helmet, double the rate of a decade ago. And there is a new push to make it mandatory, at least for kids.
Still, there is no absolute safety. And, despite risks, some people love to race down mountains and pull impossible-looking flipping, spinning tricks, because it’s rad, a jolt of joy. The rush is often described by adherents as drug-like, an addiction.
But death lurks. It may be rare, but it lurks, in the halfpipe, in the backcountry, or on any ordinary intermediate-rated run on any ski hill anywhere.