Dan Egan Articles

Commentary for Skiing Heritage

South American Powder

Commentary for Skiing Heritage 

Beyond the Limits – By Dan Egan

September 2013

Freeskier Ryan Hawks, 25, stood on the ridge at the 2011 North American Freeskiing Championships at Kirkwood, California. He was aware of the dangers. In 2008, during the Freeskiing World Tour Championships at Alyeska, Alaska, he had witnessed 27-year-old John Nicoletta catch an edge and tumble to his death.

As Hawks prepared to drop in at Kirkwood, he mentally ran through the terrain. He had picked a line based on a partial visual inspection: The rules allowed competitors to enter the terrain from the side and look at it, but not to ski it. While alpine racers take training runs on World Cup downhill courses and NASCAR drivers get to test the track, in freeski and freeride competitions, the trend is moving toward visual inspections only.

Hawks waited at the top of the famed Cirque at Kirkwood, an area that’s permanently off-limits to the public. His girlfriend and defending tour champion, Angel Collinson, stood below. Hawks was a member of the Green Mountain Freeride team. Along with brothers Silas and Lars Chickering-Ayers, these Vermont skiers have tasted success on the circuit.

“He had a great run,” says Peter Hawks, Ryan’s father. “It was on the last jump, off of a large cliff, that he threw his signature back flip. He stomped it, but unfortunately there was a rock spire under the snow.” Ryan landed on the spire. It sent a shock wave through his body that shattered bones and ultimately cost him his life.

Collinson, who went on to win the tour that year, said Hawks’ death confirmed why she skis. “I decided skiing made me feel alive and it has brought me a lot of joy,” she says. “So I give thanks and remember the ones we lost, who represent why we do it.”

Athletes dying are nothing new to the freeski community. In the last six years, three people have died on the freeskiing tour, in which the world’s best freeskiers, both men and women, compete in a series of events on backcountry, big mountain terrain. Other deaths in the community include the tour’s head judge, Jim Jack, who died in an avalanche in Stevens Pass, Washington in 2012. Shane McConkey, one of the founding members of the tour and an honored member of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, died in a ski BASE-jumping accident in 2009.

A new documentary, titled CRJ, chronicles the life and times of freeskiing icon CR Johnson, who died at Squaw Valley in a 2010 skiing accident after what many considered a second chance on life; he had suffered a TBI in a life-threatening ski crash a few years before his death.

Roy Tuscany is the founder of the High Fives Foundation and a former extreme athlete who suffered a spinal cord injury while training in Mammoth Mountain, California in 2006. Proceeds from the documentary will benefit the foundation, which provides grants for injured athletes and has a recovery facility in Truckee, California. “For CR Johnson, skiing was breathing,” says Tuscany. “We rehabbed together in 2006 and 2007. We both lived with the dream of getting back to competitive skiing…I don’t think the number of injuries has gone up, but I do think the severity of the injuries has increased.”

Competitors being injured and killed is not limited to skiing and snowboarding; this trend reaches into every corner of action sports. As X Games motocross athlete Todd Potter said in Sports Illustrated (“Wrecks over Reason,” by Austin Murphy; August 5, 2013), “They [the audience] are hoping to see crashes. They don’t want anyone to get hurt, but it’d be cool to see a wreck.”

Spectators witnessed just that this past year in Aspen, Colorado. Tragedy struck the X Games in January 2013 when Caleb Moore was critically injured when his 450-pound snowmobile landed on him during a failed flip in the “Best Trick” competition. He died days later. It was the first death in the 18-year history of the X Games.

Within many action sports, from America’s Cup sailing to elite-level freeskiing, there is an underlying current of bigger, faster, higher. This progression is the backbone of the industry. Extreme sports athletes, this author included, will talk about risk management. But in what situations should risk management be applied

Chris Davenport, a mountaineer and former freeskiing champion, says about the dangers, “Over the last few years I have lost many friends, and every time it happens, I have a long talk with myself and my wife. You have to be a good risk manager.”

These athletes and their stunts are being viewed like never before—and it goes beyond ESPN and YouTube. HBO recently featured a documentary titled Crash Reel (for a review, see the July-August 2013 issue of Skiing History). It featured the story of Olympic snowboarding hopeful Kevin Pearce and his halfpipe crash in Park City, Utah, during the build-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Pearce suffered a TBI.

Crash Reel featured Pearce and his professional snowboard friends partying the night before his accident. Moments prior to the crash, while training in the halfpipe, Pearce and a fellow snowboarderdid “rock, paper, scissors” to see who would attempt the trick first.

This hardly looks like the proper way to manage risk. It’s difficult to imagine world-class athletes training without a coach, partying the night before and then leaving it to chance to see who would attempt a high-risk maneuver. But that’s often how it happens.

It could be that extreme sports and tricks are progressing faster than training techniques and coaching, not to mention the mentality of the athletes. Training has come a long way with the development of foam pits, airbags and indoor training facilities. Mark Hayes, owner of Highland Mountain Bike Park in Northfield, New Hampshire, has built such a facility and runs an annual spring training camp for professional slope-style mountain bikers. “For today’s athletes, it’s a new world when it comes to trick development,” he says. “We have foam pits for jumps and drops, and large rubber ramps so riders can ride away from tricks and then move to the airbag. So by the time riders get to dirt, they have perfected their stunts.”

Mountaineer and photographer Jimmy Chin, who has skied Mount Everest, thinks that the end is not near. “If you look at the development in equipment, clothing and techniques, and then combine that with the unlimited potential of humans, we’re just scratching the surface. It’s going to keep going and it will be mind-blowing,” he says. His new film features world-renowned climber Conrad Anker and his lost climbing partners. “It’s a look at the internal conflict of ambition and family and takes a look at the price we pay for the things we do.” The film is scheduled to release next fall.

On a recent trip to Kirkwood, Peter Hawks and his wife climbed to the top of the Cirque above that rock spire. This part of the mountain is now named the Hawk’s Nest. “It was good to visit with Ryan,” he said. “I hear his voice saying, ‘It is what it is, Dad.’… The only way to honor Ryan is to move on. Two inches north, west, east or south of that rock spire, and he would still be with us today. His spirit goes on and we must respect the way he lived his life.”

There are very few critics. The viewing audience has an unquenched appetite for action sports and advertisers are ready to pay. Add to that the expanding population of athletes who love the lifestyle and are willing to push the progression matrix of equipment and potential, and action sports—along with the thrills and dangers—are here to stay.

But the action-sports movement is making a big mistake. They are searching for freedom in the face of fear and living under the delusion that dying doing what you love is a good death. What about the people who are left behind to justify their decisions and mourn their loss?

Named one of the “Top Skiers of All Time” by Powder Magazine, Dan Egan was one of the world’s leading extreme skiers in the 1980s. In 1989, he founded the Egan Entertainment Network to market skiing around the world through multi-media shows. His Wild World of Winter television series reaches more than 80 million homes; he has also authored two books and produced a dozen videos on skiing. Egan leads adventure travel trips and coaches advanced ski clinics all over the world.

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