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Risking it all

When I read last week about the tragic death of Wallace Westfeldt, I felt a blow to the solar plexus. I didn’t know Wallace, but as a father myself to a 15-year-old boy, the sympathy I feel for his family runs deep.

Affixing blame was my knee-jerk reaction. Blame the Skico, the film crew, the entire spectacle-driven ski culture. But blame is simplistic ” a psychic scab over an emotional wound. It resolves nothing. Our duty is to honestly evaluate what happened and why.

The events are clear ” a young man jumped off a cliff for a ski film and died on the landing. The reasons behind it, however, are far more complex as we ponder why Wallace jumped off that cliff. Ego? Peer pressure? Validation? Reward?



Look back 40 years to a time when freestyle skiers were reinventing the sport with a crazy, care-free mystique that expressed overtones of the lifestyle revolution of the ’60s. Freestyle swept through skiing with the same hot flame that seared the counter-culture into the American mainstream, breaking all the rules of a fairly regimented sport based on Scandinavian, Bavarian and military traditions and disciplines.

Freestylers were mavericks who thumbed their noses at convention, often while flying inverted off a kicker jump to a chorus of cheers from gusto-grabbing crowds. Living in Crested Butte during those wild years, I knew a handful of guys who soared to great heights of fame and adoration. Some of them are crippled for life as a result.




Freestyle eventually was toned down by corporate sponsorship and insurance companies. It went mainstream as an Olympic event and accepted only trained athletes rather than weekend warriors whose dubious skills often were supplemented by chemistry. These influences established basic ground rules that reduced injuries while commercializing spectacle and daring.

The X Games have upped the ante by giving snow sports new vitality and loads of commercial panache and profit. Now that backcountry snowboarding and telemark skiing have gained prominence, riders are again exploding boundaries and abolishing rules.

Those rules often include the physiological. Watching a Warren Miller film or paging through a ski magazine, cliff jumping has become de rigueur for sponsored athletes. What we don’t see in the polished films and glossy photos are the hidden impacts ” the bone-jarring, organ-rupturing, back-breaking landings.

It was sadly ironic last week to pull the newspaper out of the rack to read about Wallace’s death while in the next rack was a front page story about Aspen’s “Ripper Factory.” In that article, which celebrated a cadre of young, local, extreme skiers, there was one stand-out image of Kate Cardamone in a headlong fall from a cliff, impacting the snow headfirst!

How can we cheer at images of these young, talented athletes as they risk their lives for a moment of rapture? What’s the role of parents, siblings, friends, sponsors, fans and commercial interests? And how are we, as a community, supposed to mourn their injuries and deaths when the ski culture promotes risk so profitably and enthusiastically?

If this trend represents a new social revolution, then it is being acted out with revolutions in the air on skis, snowboards, snowmobiles and motorcycles. This revolution might be valid for those living it, but not if deaths and injuries are tradeoffs for commercial gain.

“He died doing what he loved” is an unacceptable epitaph. It’s time to re-evaluate the direction of the ski industry ” and soon ” before more deaths and injuries shock this community into the grim awareness that the cost of selling risk is way too high.


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