In a sport still jostling for full recognition, obstacles to a woman pursuing extreme skiing were about as common as frostbite. When the new superpipe at her home mountain refused access to skiers, Sarah Burke snuck in at the end of the day so that when they inevitably pulled her ticket, she would have had a whole day of skiing and pipe training to boot. Now her competition history is peppered with gold, and thanks to Sarah, superpipe skiers worldwide can begin to dream of a color previously reserved for specialty crayon packs – Olympic Gold.
We can only hope to spend our lives doing what we love. Sarah Burke was lucky enough to do so since she was young, but she has also been pushing through walls the entire way – openings that now look more like doors. But now that we have lost one of the greatest trailblazers of extreme skiing, the question begs asking – what now, for a sport just hitting its growing pains? What do we say now, to the scolders who’ve been saying from the start, “it’s too dangerous”? How do we answer the question “is it worth risking your life for” after this jarring reminder that even our brightest stars are very mortal?
Skiing courts death. All extreme sports do. In choosing that particular sport, you cannot find yourself 35 feet in the air in that moment of stillness between rising and falling, with five-foot blades secured to your feet and aluminum spears in your hands, and not have that single moment (preceded by anticipation and succeeded by exhilaration) where your internal monologue quiets and there is a geometric point of white panic that whispers shrilly: I’m going to die.
How then do we justify the continuity of a sport that communes so blithely with death? In a sense, Sarah herself has answered this question already. In a Ski Channel documentary called Winter, Sarah and her husband speak as if to directly address us after all this: “It is what our lives are, being on the hill, and there is a reason for that. It is where we met, where we play, where we live – and hopefully where we will die.”
Hopefully. Out of so many other adverbs you’d usually associate with forecasting death – probably, sadly, hopefully not – Sarah chooses to hope for her death to be on the slopes. In that single word, she says, “Don’t fool yourself – death is coming. It is the manner in which it finds us, that is our choice in life.”
So to the question, “what now?” we must answer, “we live as she chose to – not ruled by fear of death, but driven by love of life.”
To the statement “it’s too dangerous,” the answer “yes – and the same could be said of living.”
And to the question, “is it worth risking your life for?”