Saturday, March 5, 2011

South Burlington freeskier 'knew the risks,' father says

An article published this morning by the Burlington Free Press. Wish I could be in Vermont today.

Peter Hawks smiles and remembers his son, Ryan, as he says
Peter Hawks smiles and remembers his son, Ryan, as he says "Ryan is not looking for the pain, he is focused on the smiles. He was totally focused on the joy of living and to honor him we will focus on celebrating his life."

Freeskiers form a tight-knit community, bound together by lines: the ones that whiz past on the road during their many shared hours on tour, and the ones they carve down the faces of mountains around the world.

Today, those lines will converge in Burlington, where a sizeable chunk of the freeskiing community is expected at the First Congregational Church to pay its respects to Ryan Hawks, a professional skier who died earlier this week following an accident during a California competition. Services for the 25-year-old South Burlington native will take place at 11 a.m. at the church, followed by a mountaintop tribute at Mad River Glen Ski Area in Fayston at 8 a.m. Sunday.

Hawks died early Tuesday from internal injuries suffered upon landing a backflip during the fifth stop on this season’s Subaru Freeskiing World Tour in Kirkwood, Calif., last Sunday. Hawks was airlifted to a Reno, Nev., hospital following the crash, and several dozen of his fellow competitors followed to offer their support.

“There were about 40 skiers assembled in the waiting room at the ICU, trying to help him through his struggle to live,” said Hawks’ father, Peter, who is an outback guide at Sugarbush Resort. “After he passed away, the whole caravan went up into the mountains to Donner Pass, above Lake Tahoe, to celebrate his life in the kind of place he’d want to be. It was very moving.”

Many of those people are expected to attend this weekend’s services. The trip marks a sort of homecoming for Adam Comey, president of Mountain Sports International, the company that hosts the Freeskiing World Tour; his company’s offices are in Salt Lake City, but he attended Green Mountain Valley School and grew up skiing at Okemo.

“It is tough for the freeskiing community to lose a part of itself, especially one that represents the spirit of the sport so well,” Comey said. “There is certainly an element of friendship, travel and adventure in freeskiing, a sense of exploration, together. I think a lot of times, the competitions are just an excuse to get together and spend time with one another, doing what they love.

“Ryan certainly embodied that, and I think you see a thread that runs through to (today’s service).”

A rising star

Hawks was a rising star in freeskiing, a form of alpine skiing that involves frequent jumping and aerial tricks in either natural environments or those enhanced with man-made obstacles. Settings for freeskiing competitions range from terrain parks (slopestyle) to the upper reaches of 10,000-foot peaks (big mountain), where competitors negotiate steep, rock- and tree-laden lines and propel themselves off cliffs in order to earn points from judges.

The competitive element of the sport was essentially born in 1991, when New England native Doug Coombs won the first World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, Alaska.

As the name implies, freeskiing is about self-expression. The athletes earn points from judges based on their individual abilities to assess the terrain, choose their own lines of descent and incorporate tricks and other maneuvers to inject style into their runs. It differs from alpine ski racing in that there is no predetermined route to follow, and no running clock to beat.

And whereas halfpipe and freestyle skiers must often pull off the latest, cutting-edge tricks in order to top the competition, freeskiers are judged more on their creative artistry across a proverbial blank canvas of terrain than on the number of spins they can incorporate into a single air.

“There is a start gate and a finish gate, and in-between you are free to put your signature on the mountain,” Peter Hawks said.

The prize pools at even the highest-level freeskiing competitions are modest in comparison to many other sports. The men’s winner at the Kirkwood competition was local Josh Daiek, who received $5,000 — exactly one-fifth of the total prize money handed out at the event.

Freeskiing’s popularity is growing, so much so that MSI has to impose limits on the size of the field at its contests.The field at Kirkwood comprised 69 men and 27 women, with 39 total athletes making the cut for the finals on day two. Those numbers may have actually been a contributing factor in the accident that took Ryan Hawks’ life.

Danger lurking below

Last weekend’s competition was held in an area of Kirkwood known as The Cirque, which is off-limits to recreational skiers due to its pitch, natural obstacles and overall level of technical difficulty. As with every Tour stop, skiers were allowed to conduct a course inspection prior to the competition.

The first round of the event was postponed for two days due to heavy snow, and the conditions that existed once competition commenced Sunday proved a double-edged sword for skiers. The blanket of powder created a softer landing pad for big airs, but it also provided the course’s obstacles with a sort of natural camouflage that shifted shape with each of the day’s many runs.

“There were a lot of people skiing similar lines at Kirkwood,” said Lars Chickering-Ayers, Hawks’ teammate on Green Mountain Freeride. “There was some nice, fresh snow, but unfortunately it was covering up a lot of hidden rocks.”

The current men’s points leader on the World Freeskiing Tour, Chickering-Ayers had won the Tour’s two previous events, in Revelstoke, British Columbia, and Crested Butte, Colo., — but didn’t make the finals at Kirkwood after crashing on his first run.

According to Peter Hawks, his son was having “a really strong run” before his crash, which occurred immediately after he completed a full 360-degree backflip and landed on his skis.

“There was one, single rock in his landing area, and Ryan must have come right down on top of it,” Peter Hawks said. “I saw his ski afterward, and it was just crushed. All of the force of that landing went straight up through his body, and that is what caused his injuries.

“If he had landed eight to 10 inches ahead of where he did, or farther back, he’d be here talking about it right now. It was just a brutal, freak travesty of justice.”

Peter Hawks says that his son’s “signature move” in competitions was to perform backflips off cliffs, and Scott Seward of Burlington agreed. Seward, a design engineer for Burton Snowboards, was a lifelong friend of Ryan Hawks’ who traveled with him two winters ago to compete in North Face Masters of Snowboarding events held in conjunction with the Freeskiing Tour.

Seward is wary of outsiders blaming Hawks’ fatal accident on recklessness. He insists that his friend would have carefully analyzed the terrain features in The Cirque during his pre-competition course inspection, and only attempted maneuvers that were fully within his capabilities.

“If you know Ryan, you know that doing a backflip off a 40-foot cliff was like any Sunday morning for him,” Seward said. “That was what he did; he was just going to work. It was definitely not anything out of his realm.”

Peter Hawks agrees, saying there was “nothing remotely reckless” about the trick.

“It was a calculated, intended maneuver, totally within the boundaries of Ryan’s control,” he said. “He knew the risks of what he was doing; he understood them and accepted them.”

Toning down the extreme

In fact, Hawks was a proponent and even advocate for de-emphasizing the trademark aggressiveness of the sport’s “extreme” roots in favor of a more fluid, creative style, his father said. In addition to competing on the Tour, he served as a judge for the sport’s junior circuit, where he tried to impress his own philosophy of self-expression onto younger skiers.

“Ryan didn’t just try to launch himself off every cliff and jump he could,” Peter Hawks said. “There was an ebb and flow to his runs, an almost musical melody to the way he was able to find lines.”

The Tour’s organizers have also embraced that philosophy. Prior to this season, MSI made the first rule change in the Tour’s 12-year history, eliminating aggressiveness as a scoring category and replacing it with style and creativity.

“Honestly, it was always hard for me to understand exactly what aggressiveness meant in regard to freeskiing,” Comey said. “I think [the new categories] speak more clearly to what the sport is about.”

The rule change was also made in hopes that it would help attract more slopestyle and halfpipe skiers, and possibly put big-mountain freeskiing over the top in regard to popularity. Proponents of freeskiing are even making a push to have it included in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Peter Hawks expressed hope that his son’s death might help bring more positive attention to the sport. He said that a plan is in the works to turn — the website for the team his son founded with Chickering-Ayers and Chuck Mumford — into a definitive forum for participants and fans of the sport to “share their love, passion and knowledge of the mountains.”

This story appeared on page A1 of Saturday's Burlington Free Press

A memorial fund for Ryan Hawks has been set up online at

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