While en­dur­ing the tragic loss of his wife, Rory Bush­field’s life re­mains a boy­hood dream


While en­dur­ing the tragic loss of his wife, Rory Bush­field’s life re­mains a boy­hood dream.

The damp air pulsed as the ro­tors of three he­li­copters cut through low-hang­ing fog in the Squamish Val­ley. Towed by a snow­mo­bile, Rory Bush­field tore across a glassy river on his pro model Nordica Bushy Wayne skis, throw­ing rooster tails of wa­ter 10 feet be­hind him. A cam­era­man leaned from the win­dow of one of the he­li­copters fol­low­ing the ac­tion, cap­ti­vated by Bush­field’s raw tal­ent.

Af­ter the sun dipped be­hind the rocky hori­zon, Bush­field ditched his skis and stepped out of his boots onto the snow. The tops of his feet were tat­tooed to look like he was wear­ing flip-flops, a dis­guise he has used to go shoe­less in es­tab­lish­ments. Bare­foot, he took a fi­nal run atop the shal­low, icy river, wring­ing the last drops of light from the day. Get­ting him to call it quits was like coax­ing a child in from the play­ground.

Bush­field, 34, has been mak­ing a liv­ing as a skier since he inked his first deal with Oak­ley at 18. Af­ter win­ning the 2002 Ju­nior World Mogul Cham­pi­onships, he moved into slopestyle ski­ing, com­peted in the X Games (he landed the first 1080 in a half­pipe com­pe­ti­tion), and ul­ti­mately shifted his fo­cus to big moun­tain ski­ing, film­ing with Match­stick Pro­duc­tions, Level 1, TGR, Sher­pas Cin­ema, and oth­ers. He hasn’t had a ma­jor film part since Into the Mind in 2014, yet his pen­chant for ex­e­cut­ing Bond-es­que stunts, like walk­ing the wing of his 1953 Cessna 180 while soar­ing over alpine glaciers, has el­e­vated him from pro­fes­sional skier to pro­fes­sional per­son­al­ity, and he has no plans to tone it down. While en­dur­ing the tragic death of his wife, freeskier Sarah Burke, six years ago, Bush­field’s life re­mains his boy­hood dream re­al­ized, with no need to plan be­yond the next pow­der day.

“Rory gets by on his charis­matic na­ture. He doesn’t have life skills re­ally—i mean, he knows how to pay bills, but he doesn’t pri­or­i­tize that stuff. He’s al­ways telling me to live more in the mo­ment,” says his older sister, Elanor. “It is all or noth­ing for Rory. He doesn’t do it con­sciously, he just lives in the mo­ment.”

Bush­field and his sister grew up with their par­ents on a farm in the ru­ral Al­berta town of Balzac. His mom, Shel­ley, was a nurse, while his fa­ther, Wayne, worked as a me­chanic and farmed bar­ley. An aunt and un­cle who owned a ski shop helped the fam­ily af­ford the kids’ ski equip­ment.

“We come from hockey places, but it didn’t seem like a fam­ily sport. We wanted some­thing we could do to­gether,” says Shel­ley. “Rory was a nat­u­ral skier and he liked the thrill. He’s a bit of a wild thing, but he’s been like that since he was born.”

As a kid, Bush­field built ski jumps in the back­yard and had his friends tow him off of them with the farm trac­tor. By the time he reached eighth grade, he con­vinced his par­ents to home­school him so he could have more time to ski.

Dur­ing the sum­mers, he trained at Smart Mogul Ski­ing camp (now Mo­men­tum Ski Camps) on Whistler Black­comb’s Horstman Glacier, which is how he met a 15-year-old Burke, who he would even­tu­ally marry more than a decade later. Their coach, Tren­non Payn­ter, re­mem­bers the ado­les­cent Bush­field as a world-class tal­ent—and a loose can­non.

On Bush­field’s first day of camp, Payn­ter took him to the top of the ter­rain park for what was sup­posed to be a slow run-through to get a feel for the course. Bush­field dropped in full bore on the big­gest jump, at­tempted a back­flip, and landed on his head. He got a con­cus­sion and had to miss the whole week of camp.

“He al­ways has the ten­dency to just go for it, and he’s al­ways had that fear­less el­e­ment to him that re­ally helps him ex­cel in sports that re­quire that,” says Payn­ter, now the head coach of the Cana­dian Na­tional Half­pipe Team. “He cer­tainly got re­sults.”

Bush­field par­layed his 2002 Ju­nior World Mogul Cham­pi­onship win into a spot on the World Cup de­vel­op­ment team, but the pro­gram’s mil­i­tant ap­proach to ski­ing quickly turned him off. “That was not, in any way, the style of pro­gram that was go­ing to work for a kid like Rory,” says Payn­ter. “He had the tal­ent and, had he stayed fo­cused on that, he could have gone all the way to the Olympics.”

In­stead, a wel­come dis­trac­tion came with the emer­gence of freestyle com­pe­ti­tions where the rules were still be­ing writ­ten. Bush­field quickly hung up his mogul skis and won a gold medal at the 2002 Planet X Win­ter Games Freeski­ing Cham­pi­onship.

“What he de­cides he’s go­ing to be good at, he’s go­ing to be good at,” says his mom, Shelly. “He could have done any­thing, it’s just that this is what he chose.”

His then-girl­friend, Burke, was also climbing the ranks of the com­pe­ti­tion scene, win­ning X Games gold medals and half­pipe world cham­pi­onships while she lob­bied for the in­clu­sion of women’s half­pipe ski­ing in the Olympics.

Payn­ter de­scribes their re­la­tion­ship as a “fairy tale ro­mance.”

“They were two peo­ple at the top of the game. Shar­ing that was a huge part of the con­nec­tion,” he says. “But the depth of their re­la­tion­ship was much more. They were re­ally in love and it was re­ally ob­vi­ous to any­one around them.”

Bush­field pro­posed to Burke on Christ­mas Eve in 2009. He flew his plane over the words ‘Marry Me, Sarah,’ which he had hiked sev­eral miles into the moun­tains to stamp out in the snow be­fore coax­ing her into his fixed-wing plane and of­fer­ing her a ring. They mar­ried in Pem­ber­ton the fol­low­ing Septem­ber.

“Sarah loved Rory for who he is—cre­ative and rad­i­cal,” says Payn­ter, the best man in their wed­ding. “In their vows, Rory said, es­sen­tially, ‘I prom­ise I will al­ways make it home.’ That’s what Sarah did for him. He could stay rad­i­cal but he wouldn’t do any­thing that would pre­vent him from mak­ing it home to her.”

Bush­field’s hands were steady on the con­trols; his voice was calm on the ra­dio as he nav­i­gated the sky. He was at once a fo­cused, cal­cu­lated, and dis­ci­plined pi­lot at the helm.

A year of marriage passed when on Jan­uary 10, 2012, Burke fell dur­ing a su­per­pipe prac­tice run in Park City, Utah. She went into car­diac ar­rest on the snow be­fore be­ing air­lifted to Salt Lake City where she went into a med­i­cally in­duced coma. With Bush­field and her fam­ily by her side, Burke died of her in­juries nine days later. She was 29 years old.

“My life changed dras­ti­cally,” Bush­field said in a tele­vised in­ter­view he gave shortly af­ter the tragedy. “I lost my wife. I had it all. I still have a lot. I’m thank­ful for ev­ery­thing I have, but I had it all. Sarah was my dream girl be­fore she knew who I was. A lot of the cra­zi­est things I ever did were just kind of to im­press Sarah.”

Her death didn’t change that.

“His new mantra af­ter that was to never say no. He wanted to try ev­ery­thing once. Or twice,” says Elanor.

He signed on to Travis Pas­trana’s Nitro Circus Live Tour, work­ing in­ter­na­tional crowds into a fren­zied roar by hit­ting mas­sive in­door jumps on roller skis. He also com­peted against Ka­reem Ab­dul-jab­bar and Play­boy bunny Ken­dra Wilkin­son in the re­al­ity div­ing com­pe­ti­tion, “Splash,” which he won.

“Rory stayed as solidly true to him­self as you could. He knew Sarah would have wanted him to live his life,” says Sher­pas Cin­ema di­rec­tor Dave Mos­sop, who was film­ing with Bush­field sev­eral months af­ter Burke’s death.

Bush­field also co­founded the Sarah Burke Foun­da­tion with her par­ents, and ev­ery year since 2012 the or­ga­ni­za­tion has awarded two $7,500 schol­ar­ships to young win­ter sports ath­letes.

“Sarah touched so many peo­ple and it’s a chance to give back in her name,” says Bush­field. “It makes a huge dif­fer­ence and it’s a turn­ing point in their life. Sarah would want it.”

Last Fe­bru­ary, Bush­field and I stood at the top of the Horstman Glacier at Black­comb, next to a small plaque hon­or­ing Burke. The gray­ness of the morn­ing had given way to a blue sky. “It’s al­ways with me, that feel­ing of her pres­ence,” he says. “It’s nice, and it’s also sad some­times, but I try to think about it in a pos­i­tive way. It still hits me all the time.”

Like the sig­na­ture ‘Sarah’ sticker on his hel­met or the white rib­bon with her name on it tied to his back­pack, the plaque is just one of the ways Bush­field keeps her close while still mov­ing for­ward. Their dog, Dex­tor, who Burke found aban­doned as a puppy, is al­ways by Bush­field’s side and he never shies away from talk­ing about his late wife in ca­sual con­ver­sa­tions. When we met his friends for din­ner at Sushi Vil­lage, he or­dered a pitcher of sake mar­gar­i­tas be­cause that’s what Burke al­ways did. “She thought there was al­ways some­thing to

“Rory doesn’t do things he doesn’t want to do. He does what he’s pas­sion­ate about. I’ve called it self­ish at times, but re­ally, he’s just liv­ing the way we all as­pire to.” —Elanor Bush­field

cel­e­brate,” he says.

“He’s do­ing bet­ter than most of us at liv­ing life,” says Elanor. “Rory doesn’t do things he doesn’t want to do. He does what he’s pas­sion­ate about. I’ve called it self­ish at times, but re­ally, he’s just liv­ing the way we all as­pire to. When you’re in his pres­ence, you come into his world.”

Three years ago, af­ter mov­ing out of the house he shared with Burke, Bush­field bought a heav­ily wooded plot of land in Squamish that is marked by crum­bling fenc­ing cov­ered in char­treuse moss. He has two cam­pers parked there. One be­longed to his grand­mother and the other has a gen­er­a­tor that sup­ports a Wi-fi sig­nal. He has plans to build a house made of ship­ping con­tain­ers stacked high enough to have a view of the glacier.

At the prop­erty one morn­ing, Bush­field and I met with his friend, pho­tog­ra­pher Ma­son Mashon, who was prep­ping a pile of downed lodge­pole pines they would use to build a teepee on the glacier, where they would ski from all win­ter. Mashon was metic­u­lous about the way he sep­a­rated the bark from the trees, peel­ing back long curls of wood with a sharp knife un­til the wood was left bare and white. Bush­field didn’t have the same pa­tience. Us­ing a ma­chete, he hacked at the wood, mak­ing fast work of his stack of logs, though less pre­cise.

Mov­ing slowly doesn’t come easy to Bush­field. In­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion feels bet­ter. “It’s a bal­ance for me,” he says. “It’s a fine line. I can’t just go all the time. I’ve got to rest, but I’m hor­ri­ble at it. I need to trick my­self into it with a project.”

It took a knee in­jury in 2007 to slow him down long enough so he could study for his pi­lot’s li­cense. Af­ter we met Mashon, we made the two-hour drive (it takes most peo­ple three) to the Lan­gly air­port to pick up Bush­field’s plane, the Seag­ull Feather. His grand­fa­ther was a bomber plane nav­i­ga­tor in World War II, and fly­ing al­ways seemed to Bush­field as the best way to ac­cess re­mote places to ski.

At Lan­gly, he had re­tractable skis in­stalled near the land­ing gears so he can take off and land on snow­fields oth­er­wise nearly im­pos­si­ble to ac­cess. But first he had to pay the me­chan­ics. And to do that, he had to find a blank check he hoped he had some­where in his truck. The truck’s dash­board was lit­tered with un­opened mail, re­ceipts, and a Cana­dian ski mag­a­zine with a photo of Bush­field on the cover. He hadn’t read it. A glass bong he’d hit sev­eral times al­ready that morn­ing rested in a pa­per bag on the floor­mat. He found the check af­ter 15 min­utes.

Walk­ing out to the run­way, Bush­field re­al­ized he had re­moved the bench seat for a re­cent trip, so he wedged an in­ner tube in its place, and I buck­led my­self in around it. A me­chanic helped him prop start the Cessna on the run­way.

Soar­ing over the Howe Sound, Bush­field ma­neu­vered his bird through a light snow squall and to­ward the rays of light, splin­tered by the clouds, danc­ing mys­ti­cally on the wa­ter. The white noise from the hum of the mo­tor was deaf­en­ing, yet peace­ful.

Bush­field’s hands were steady on the con­trols; his voice was calm on the ra­dio as he nav­i­gated the sky. He was at once a fo­cused, cal­cu­lated, and dis­ci­plined pi­lot at the helm.

“I’ll al­ways be a skier. That’s who I am, but ski­ing has given me a plat­form to do so many other things, like avi­a­tion,” he says. “I worked so hard to be able to land my plane on the snow with my skis. Now I can get into the back­coun­try in 20 min­utes in­stead of 90 hours.”

When it snows, he’ll be able to fly 50 miles into the back­coun­try where he will hang the can­vas tent around the teepee poles to cre­ate a pri­vate base­camp. So long as he doesn’t run out of fire­wood or wa­ter (which has hap­pened), he will ski out of the teepee for days at a time.

“I’ve got all th­ese ideas and there are a lot of crazy ones on the list, some sane ones too, but most of ev­ery­thing on there scares me,” he says. “If you’re strong enough and healthy, you can al­ways find some­thing to bring you to your edge. As long as I can find some­thing that gives me that same feel­ing with­out pain, that will be my path. That’s how long I’ll last.”

Above: More than 50 miles into the back­coun­try, Bush­field catches some fresh air near Teepee Town on a slope he named Burke’s Bumps. Pho­tos: Ma­son Mashon

Op­po­site: Whether in his plane named Seag­ull Feather, or his truck named Ma­chete, or on his bike named Ja­far, or in his boat named Yeah Sure, Bush­field is on an end­less ad­ven­ture. Pho­tos: Ma­son Mashon

A typ­i­cal day for Bush­field is like a bach­e­lor party themed episode of “Jack­ass” star­ring Peter Pan and the Lost Boys.

Pho­tos this page: Ma­son Mashon Photo op­po­site: Jussi Grz­nar

Il­lus­tra­tion by Alelli Tang­hal

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