About Utah: Sarah Burke's death rekindles an old debate

Published: Sunday, Jan. 22 2012 11:39 p.m. MST

The Ecker Hill Memorial in Summit County is a tribute to the daring men who risked their lives to jump there.

Lee Benson, Deseret News

Predictably, the death of freeskiing champion Sarah Burke nine days after a crash-landing in the superpipe at Park City, just like the death of extreme skier Jamie Pierre in an avalanche at Snowbird last November, and the fall that sent snowboarder Kevin Pearce into a coma in Park City two years ago, quickly re-ignited the never-ending debate about the propriety of mixing people and snow in Utah's mountains.

Or all mountains, for that matter.

The morning after the announcement from Salt Lake's University Hospital that Burke did not survive complications from her Jan. 10 training crash at Park City Mountain Resort, all sorts of commentaries began questioning the very existence of perilous sports, typified by this muse from Lynn Zinser of the New York Times:

"This is when sports gets hard, when the awe over spectacular performances in increasingly dangerous sports is replaced by horror that someone could die doing them."

Under the headline, "After Burke's Death, a Time for Contemplation – and Questions," Lynn continued: "Burke's sport, freestyle skiing, is one of a long line of sports growing more perilous as the athletes get better, the physics get riskier as speeds and heights increase."

But hold on a moment. Calmar Andreasen might have something to say about that.

Hah! he'd scoff. Think it's dangerous now? You should have been around in my day – back when no one wore helmets; back when an entire hospital wasn't the equal of what a single paramedic truck is today; back when there were no airbags to help cushion the fall.

Calmar's name is preserved on a plaque at Ecker Hill, just around the corner from the Park City superpipe.

Ecker Hill, in a way, was the superpipe of its day — as fine a ski-jumping hill as you could find anywhere in the world when it was completed in 1929 — back when Nordic-style was the only ski jumping game in town. A Summit County rancher named Rasmussen donated the land, the Utah Ski Club and its president, Pete Ecker, designed the jumping hill, and immigrants from Scandinavia like Alf Engen proceeded to set world records one after the other with prodigious launches off its wooden scaffolding.

But there was always danger; always the possibility that the going up might not be worth the coming down.

That was the case on Feb. 22, 1934.

That's the day Calmar Andreasen, a Utah amateur jumping champion, crashed during a state tournament competition and died.

The plaque that sits at the bottom of the mountain suggests that no one had any more idea how to handle the tragedy then than they do now.

After extolling the historic virtues and prominence of Ecker Hill in Utah's skiing history — one of the important pegs that the Olympics of 2002 would be built upon — and after chronicling both the world records set by Engen and the death of Andreasen, comes this concluding paragraph:

"This monument serves as a memorial to Calmar Andreasen and as a tribute to the achievements of Alf Engen and the other daring jumpers at Ecker Hill."

The ecstasy and the agony, both covered in the same thought.

That Calmar Andreasen was doing what he loved, I'm guessing wasn't any more consolation for his family and friends than it is for the loved ones Sarah Burke has left behind.

But the hard cold truth is, you can't have one without the other.

It's an old story, but it's a new one, too.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

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