As skiers and snowboarders pause at the entrance of a 500-foot shaft of snow and ice, known more colloquially as the Park City Mountain Resort Halfpipe, it is typically to readjust their minds as much as their bindings.
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And, yet, as they take a deep breath to gather courage and concentration, few take notice of the metal sign mounted on a post just to their right, even though it beseeches passersby with bold letters.
STOP READ THIS.
Most signs on the ski resort’s slopes are simple: blue squares, green circles and black diamonds, indicating with arrows which direction to take for routes of varying degrees of difficulty. The signs are so plain and so visible they barely require anyone to slow down, let alone stop, on their way down the mountain.
But this one reads like a liability waiver, laying out a long set of expectations and recommendations before warning that plunging into the halfpipe “exposes you to the risk of serious injury or death. Inverted aerials are not recommended.”
YOU ASSUME THE RISK.
At any other halfpipe, especially ones that do not have 22-foot-high walls, at least 4 feet higher than most in the United States, it would be easier to roll your eyes at this type of lawyerly, cover-your-butt language. Not here. Not anymore.
Last month, Sarah Burke, a talented, trailblazing freestyle skier, died after falling during a practice run and slamming her head against the frozen wall of this halfpipe. Her death comes two years after an elite snowboarder, Kevin Pearce, suffered a serious brain trauma after a headfirst fall on the same course. Pearce spent four months in hospitals, has undergone eye surgeries to recover his sight and equilibrium and recently got back on a snowboard for the first time, though his competitive career is over.
These accidents might have rocked the tight-knit community of freeskiers and snowboarders, whose epicenter lies here. But they do not seem to have sparked any introspection, let alone any calls to examine whether this sport, whose essence is about freedom of expression and blasting through boundaries, has become too dangerous.
Whereas the death of a luge racer on the eve of the Vancouver Olympics led to changes in the track, speed restrictions for the 2014 Games and much hand-wringing by those in the sport, nothing of the sort has happened here.
Despite the accidents, it’s hard to find anyone calling for change.
“These accidents that have happened are unfortunate and terrible,” said Devin Logan, a freeskier who won a slopestyle silver medal last month at the Winter X Games at age 18. “But they’re accidents. It’s as safe as it can be. It’s an extreme sport.”
These are not the callous words of the clueless or the detached. They come from someone who grew up idolizing Burke, as much for the way she pushed her way into what had been a men’s domain — she is widely credited with getting superpipe skiing added to the Olympic program for 2014 — as for how her graceful acrobatics showed little girls what was possible on skis.
The crossover appeal of snowboarder Shaun White notwithstanding, the world of freeskiing and snowboarding is a cloistered one. In this circle, Burke was an iconic figure. Photogenic, charming and a pioneer, a much broader audience learned of Burke in the aftermath of her accident.
Just days after her death, a candlelight night ski down a mountain in Aspen, Colo., was part of ESPN’s programming on the X Games. It served as a solemn, poignant counterpoint to the rest of the adrenaline-fueled, energy drink-guzzling, can-you-top-this ethos of the event. Many of the competitors honored Burke by wearing stickers inscribed: I Ski For Sarah.
It was an idea borrowed from the Vancouver Olympics, when snowboarders took a pledge, “I Ride For Kevin,” as Pearce lay in a hospital, his recovery still touch and go. That rallying cry was given a new, upbeat twist in December, when Pearce got back on his board for the first time and cruised down a slope in Breckenridge, Colo., accompanied by dozens of others who wore T-shirts inscribed: Ride With Kevin.
These events were a rare show of solidarity in a sport that is defined by — and celebrates — the individual. Even at the highest level, where there are sponsors, coaches, competitors, organizers and fans, it is about man vs. mountain — and himself.
“In skiing, it’s all individual,” said Tyler Battersby, a development coach for the Park City Ski Team whose sister, Ashley, is a competitive skier and whose mother would often host Burke when she trained in Salt Lake City. “The only interference you have is the weather. It’s a very concentrated sport. It’s not like soccer, baseball, basketball — you don’t have to worry about who’s running where when you can’t see all around you. In skiing and snowboarding, it’s only you. That sets the mind-set for athletes — it’s just me and this jump, me and this mogul. That kind of alleviates stress: Anything you do, it’s all on you. There are no limits. Everyone picks their own limits — what are your goals and do you want to exceed them?”
That notion, in concept or in the concrete, can be awfully empowering. Sure, it can be co-opted and trivialized by an ad campaign, but it is hard to feel anything but unadulterated awe standing at the bottom of the halfpipe and watching a snowboarder named Scotty Pike launch himself above the rim, contorting his body into unimaginable twists and flips about 25 feet in the air and landing gracefully — that is, on his feet — before riding up the other side and doing it all again.
When he nonchalantly pulled up at the bottom, Pike said there is a thrill that comes with being able to fly ever-so-briefly and that he works on these maneuvers on trampolines and in foam pits “so it doesn’t seem scary.”
Sometimes, though, it is. He has broken his collarbone, twisted knees and wrenched ankles. But sometimes you just have to, you know, go for it.
“When my friends do tricks, I have to go with them,” Pike said. “You don’t want to be a pansy.”
The pressure to invent new tricks — or at least mimic them — comes not just from peers, from judges or from within. There is also the pressure, implied or explicit, that accompanies sponsorship. If a company invests in a skier or snowboarder, the athlete is expected to pay it back by pushing the sport — and the envelope — further.
“Is it the athletes that want (tricks) to get this big or is it the sponsors?” asked Lance Viola from behind the counter at Bazooka’s Free Ride Shop, a ski and snowboard store at Park City. “The days of ‘take this sticker and put it on your board’ — it’s not like that anymore. It’s, ‘We’ll fly you to Canada and you better do good.’ ”
For the elite, like snowboarding champ White, that means being fortunate enough that before the Vancouver Olympics, his sponsor, Red Bull, built a private halfpipe in the Colorado backwoods that was equipped with a 400-square foot pit filled with foam cubes. This allowed him to perfect the then-cutting edge “double cork,” a pair of diagonal flips, with a safety net.
It is the same maneuver Pearce was trying to refine when he was injured. A year earlier, he broke his ankle trying the double cork.
“I felt like I really didn’t have a choice,” Pearce told Outside Magazine last year. “I knew that if I wanted to win, I needed to land it.”
If Pearce’s fears or desires were not going to stop him, then who could? Or, more appropriately, who should?
As sports are being played harder and faster, there has been an increased spotlight on safety. The NFL, after dragging its heels, has instituted changes in its rules, administration and equipment to help reduce head injuries, though it is fair to ask whether enough has been done. Hockey is now beginning to address similar issues after the deaths last summer of several former enforcers and the possibility its biggest star, Sidney Crosby, might be forced into premature retirement because of head injuries. In the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s death more than a decade ago, NASCAR chassis have been redesigned to better protect stock-car drivers.
Farther out of the mainstream, the Canadian bobsled team withdrew in protest last month from a World Cup competition in Germany because the international federation failed to make changes to the course that would have made it safer after the Canadians crashed twice.
All of these changes have had catalysts: Players unions, governing bodies, media and an outraged public have all been agents of change.
In freeskiing and snowboarding, with its emphasis on individualism and its benefactors emphasizing its extreme nature, who has an interest in being a voice of caution?
“It’s an interesting ethical question,” said Dr. Colby Hansen, of the University of Utah’s Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department. “When people are on their own, you lose some of that oversight. To what level is it appropriate to intervene and not allow people to do things that they want to do by their own choice?”
Hansen says his department’s concussion program sees five to 10 new patients a week, and up to 20 percent were injured in snowsports. Hansen said preliminary data collected over the past five years by a colleague, Dr. Stuart Willick, shows that skiers and snowboarders are twice as likely to incur a brain injury in the terrain park, where the halfpipe and other jumps and rails are located, as they are on other parts of the slope.
Willick declined to confirm those figures but said he is examining injury patterns of skiers vs. snowboarders, younger vs. older, and experienced vs. inexperienced. The goal, he said, is to make skiing and snowboarding safer. To that end, he believes resorts have designed safer courses and manufacturers have improved safety features.
But Willick lamented not having NFL-type funding, adding, “it’s not on anyone’s radar right now.”
A blanket of fresh powder that had been dumped the night before gave way to stunningly beautiful conditions on a recent day in Park City: nothing but blue skies and sunshine on a crisp, windless 25-degree day.
A steady line of skiers and snowboarders hopped off the chairlift and wasted little time before dropping into the park to skid atop railings, go flying off ramps or leap into the halfpipe. Some carry video cameras to film friends, others have them affixed to their helmets, one of which bears the message: "Live Free or Die," a paean either to New Hampshire or the rush that comes with the sport.
Nevertheless, it was a reminder of how much interpretation is at the heart of the sport, no matter your level.
“It’s like what an artist does with a paint brush, they do with their body,” said Nick Cummings, who was stationed at the bottom of the halfpipe, critiquing the skiers he coaches at Westminster College of Salt Lake City. “Everybody has their own style.”
While there might be distinctive flair in the way people ride and in the way they dress, when it comes to whether there were any lessons to be learned by Burke’s death and Pearce’s life-altering crash, they were of a single thought: Don’t change a thing.
In interviews with more than a dozen people, the reasons were manifold:
• Pearce and Burke wore helmets, which was a sign they were not being reckless. (There was little consideration given to the idea that helmets might be manufactured to provide more protection.)
• Burke landed on her feet, then lost her balance and hit her head, severing an artery. Thus, her accident was described as somewhat of a fluke.
• More people are killed in avalanches, often a result of unnecessary risk taking, but that is rarely reported upon.
• The halfpipe at Park City Mountain Resort is carefully calibrated and diligently monitored, making it much safer than others around the country.
But the bottom line seemed to be this:
“I don’t want to have contests dumbed down,” said Sean Kaldhusdal, who works at Powder Huffer, a popular freeski accessory store, when he isn’t on the slopes. “You can’t put a trapeze net on the side of the halfpipe. It’s an extreme sport for a reason. There are extreme consequences.”
Later, it was not hard to think about this conversation while watching some skiers and snowboarders fly off ramps and over the edge of the halfpipe, artfully contorting their bodies and spinning upside down two stories above a surface that felt as dense as cement.
Somewhere, logic suggests, there has to be another Kevin Pearce or Sarah Burke out there. It’s one thing to defy gravity, another to defy the odds.