It has been a winter season full of loss and tragedy for Whistler and the Sea to Sky.
Over the last two weeks alone, an avalanche claimed the life of Squamish snowmobiler Dennis Leski, Pemberton lost Clifford Ronayne, one of its seed potato pioneers, the remains of missing local DJ Mike Grefner were discovered near Whistler Secondary and, while he wasn't a local, many in the ski community here were once again rocked by the death of one of their own, Nik Zoricic.
While death is an unavoidable reality of life, all but one of the recent losses are tragedies that don't follow the "natural" way of things. When friends and loved ones are taken too soon it leaves the rest of us reeling in shock and disbelief.
While words seem hollow and impotent in these circumstances, we still search for ways to convey our sympathies and share our sorrow and heartache. We extend our most sincere condolences to all those in Whistler who are struggling with grief from these recent deaths, and to friends who continue to mourn Sarah Burke and Duncan MacKenzie — other young, vibrant lights that were extinguished prematurely in what has become an increasingly deadly winter.
In addition to grief, any unnatural or tragic death leaves behind many questions and the search for answers and rationalization, and that's particularly been the case when it comes to elite athletes.
Could these losses have been prevented? Are winter sports getting too extreme? How much risk is acceptable?
In the days and weeks after pioneering freeskier Burke's death, following what was described as a relatively minor crash in a superpipe in Utah, various media outlets began raising questions about so-called "extreme" sports — where the most daring tricks translate into championships.
Burke, considered one of Whistler's own, is described by loved ones as an individual who pushed boundaries throughout her life. It was a direct result of her pioneering efforts that halfpipe skiing will be included in the Olympics for the first time in 2014.
Zoricic's sport, ski cross, is also relatively new on the winter sports scene, having debuted at the Olympics in 2010. The risks seem pretty inherent, with four racers battling at the same time on courses full of jumps, banked turns and rollers.
But aren't all sports about pushing the boundaries, gunning to be the best, and getting faster, higher and more extreme to achieve that end? And how do you quell the personal passion and drive that fuels these athletes?
For someone like Burke, who was apparently sneaking into the pipe on mornings before school at age 7, there's likely nothing her parents or coaches could have done or said to make her stop.
We think Whistler ski cross champion Ashleigh McIvor, a teammate of Zoricic, said it best following his crash on the weekend: "The fact is we do these sports because we love them, and there are risks associated with them and there's only so much we can do to minimize those risks."
So if the athletes themselves continue to push the boundaries, knowing the risks involved, is there a metaphorical smoking gun in such tragic accidents?
Certainly nobody approaches a day on the slopes, on the racecourse or in the pipe expecting to die, and all possible safety precautions should be taken. Is there more that can be done? Perhaps. But McIvor herself said she thinks the FIS often errs on the side of caution to the point where athletes miss out on some of the fun that brought them to the sport in the first place.
There will always be an appetite among athletes to soar higher and race faster — whether there's an Olympic medal on the line or if it's just a day riding in the terrain park or sledding in the backcountry.
But pros and amateurs alike push these boundaries because it's what they love to do. Those trying to place blame after tragedies like the loss of Burke and Zoricic are ignoring the fact that it's the passion and courage to take such risks that made us admire them in life.
— Jennifer Miller