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15 People Who Died Doing What They Loved Most

by David Miller Feb 17, 2012
In a tribute to Sarah Burke, Matador looks at 15 individuals who died doing what they loved most.

“IT’S WHAT OUR LIVES ARE; it’s being on the hill,” said Sarah Burke on the Ski Channel’s feature film Winter. Sitting beside her husband Rory Bushfield, she continued, “It’s amazing. It’s where we met, where we play, where we live,” as Rory finished, “and hopefully where we die.”

Almost by default, once someone — an athlete, adventurer, or even just an individual committed to a certain field like journalism — reaches a certain level, the separation between their work and their life disappears.

While high profile athletes I’ve interviewed rarely, if ever, seem to think in terms of “giving their lives” to a sport (that seems more a notion constructed by those of us around them), there is — as hinted to in Sarah and Rory’s words above — a sense that by virtue of who they are, they simply have no choice but to continue their progressions wherever (and however dangerously) they lead. Being “on the hill” is the only place they’re truly themselves.

Last month Sarah Burke, the most storied female freestyle skier in history, died from injuries sustained in a superpipe training run. In paying tribute to her and the community that supported and loved her, here is a short roundup of those many of us at Matador look up to for having followed their dream as far as they could take it. Respect.

Sarah Burke

Sarah (September 3, 1982 – January 19, 2012) was a Canadian freestyle skier and pioneer of the superpipe event for women. She successfully lobbied the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to have superpipe added to the 2014 Winter Olympics. Sarah resided in Squamish, British Columbia, and is survived by freeskier Rory Bushfield. A fund has been set up in her honor and to help cover Sarah’s outstanding medical costs and related expenses.

Shane McConkey

Shane (1969 – 2009) was a champion freeskier and pioneer of ski-BASE jumping. By utilizing BASE-jumping techniques and equipment he was able to access lines that previously existed only in people’s imagination. We reported on his death in 2009. He’d been working on a new line variation off the Val Scura couloir on Sassongher with JT Holmes and a film crew from Matchstick Productions when an equipment malfunction prevented him from deploying his pilot chute. Shane is survived by a wife and daughter and a large community of friends and family in Squaw Valley, California. A foundation carries on his legacy “through random acts of kindness and charitable giving and to inspire others to make a difference in the world at large.”

Daniel DeLaVergne

Daniel (1977 – 2006) was an expedition filmmaker, kayaker, and co-founder of Lunch Video Magazine (LVM), which revolutionized whitewater filmmaking and video production over the last decade. Daniel was camped in a tunnel near Asheville, North Carolina as part of a photo / video scouting mission, when he was struck by a train, and died the next morning from his injuries. Daniel had been named one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year in 2005 for his participation in the first ever single day descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine river. The Media Arts Project honored Daniel with the creation of a yearly grant, The Daniel DeLaVergne Media Arts Advantage Fund, for filmmakers.

Allison Kreutzen

Allison Kreutzen (1969-2011) was an ER nurse at Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee, CA, as well as an accomplished climber (the first woman to free climb Torres del Paine’s Central Tower in Patagonia), paddler, skier, and all around athlete. Allison was killed alongside her partner Kip Garre in an avalanche on Split Mountain in the eastern Sierra.

Jean-Christophe Lafaille

Jean-Christophe Lafaille (1965 – 2006) was a French mountaineer noted for the boldness and difficulty of his ascents. Among his famous moments was a solo descent of Annapurna with a broken arm after his climbing partner had been killed in a fall. Lafaille had vowed never to climb again after the incident, but returned to mountaineering, climbing several new routes without oxygen in the 8,000+ meter peaks of the Himalaya. In 2005 he disappeared on Makalu, the world’s fifth highest mountain, while attempting the first winter ascent.

Steve Fossett

Steve Fossett (1944 – 2007) was an American commodities trader, pilot, and adventurer, perhaps best-known for being the first person to fly around the world solo, nonstop, without refueling. A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers Club, Fossett set 116 world records, many having to do with the endurance and speed of glider and balloons flights. He died in September 2007 after his single engine plane crashed in the Eastern Sierra Nevada.

Sion Milosky

Sion Milosky (1976 – 2011) was a lifelong surfer from Kauai. His story is remarkable in that he gained prominence as a big-wave surfer relatively late in life. In his 30s, and in the middle of running a business and raising a young family, Sion relocated to the North Shore of Oahu, where he began winning big wave events. He was killed in 2011 at Mavericks after being held down by two consecutive waves.

Arne Backstrom

Arne Backstrom (1980 – 2010) was a ski mountaineer and brother of storied skiers Ingrid and Ralph Backstrom. A rising star in the sport, he was killed in a fall while skiing Nevado Pisco in the Peruvian Cordillera Blanca.

Kip Garre

Kip Garre (1973 – 2011) was a ski mountaineer based out of Squaw Valley, California, and part of an extended crew that included Shane McConkey and Frank Gambalie, among several other world class athletes. Shane McConkey has been quoted as saying Kip was “the best athlete at Squaw.” Garre was a 12-year veteran guide at Points North Heli-Adventures in Cordova, Alaska, and was sponsored by K2 and Mountain Hardwear to travel the world exploring backcountry terrain. He, along with his girlfriend Allison Kreutzen, were killed in an avalanche while setting out to ski Split Couloir in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains.

Hendri Coetzee

Hendrik “Hendri” Coetzee (1975 – 2010) was a South African kayaker and expedition leader. While on a mission to document unexplored sections of the White Nile and Congo Rivers (as well as draw attention to development projects threatening the region), Coetzee was killed by a crocodile. During his last expedition, he stated, “This is my life. This is what I’m supposed to do.”

Mark Foo

Mark (February 5, 1958 – December 23, 1994) was a professional surfer based in Hawaii. Mark drowned in a big wave surfing accident in Mavericks (near Half Moon Bay, California) that, due to the seeming innocuous nature of the wipe-out, led to a reexamination of big wave surfing equipment, safety practices, and techniques. Mark had a popular television show in Hawaii dedicated to big wave surfing, and was quoted as saying, “If you want to ride the ultimate wave, you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price.”

Dan Osman

Dano (February 11, 1963 – November 23, 1998) as he was known, was notorious for his skills at high speed free-soloing (climbing without ropes or other safety gear), and pioneering deliberate controlled falls using climbing ropes instead of bungees. Dano died when his equipment failed during a new record attempt (more than 1000 feet) from the Leaning Tower rock formation in Yosemite National Park.

Alex Lowe

Alex Lowe (1958 – 1999) was an American mountaineer and skier, famous both for his endurance and humility, shrugging off praise as “world’s greatest climber” by saying “the best climber in the world is the one having the most fun!” Lowe had numerous first ascents and ski-descents across North America, South America, and the Himalaya. In 1999 he took part in a three man expedition to Shishapangma, the world’s 14th highest peak. The team planned to ascend, then become the first Americans to ski descend an 8000 meter peak. Lowe and teammate David Bridges were killed in a massive slab avalanche while searching for a route up the mountain.

Rich Weiss

Rich (September 18, 1963 – June 25, 1997) was a two-time Olympic kayaker, and the highest-placing American slalom racer in history. I met Rich while paddling in the 1990s and as everyone who knew him could attest, he was extraordinarily kind. Rich drowned in the rapid “Big Brother” on the Green Truss section of the White Salmon River in Washington State. His death rocked the paddling world, as his paddling skill and the section where the mishap occurred reinforced the notion that “if it happened to him it could happen to anyone.”

Steve Irwin

Steve (February 22, 1962 – September 4, 2006) was a wildlife expert who became world famous from his television series “The Crocodile Hunter.” He grew up in the environment that he thrived in; his father was also a wildlife expert and his mother a wildlife rehabilitator. He was given a python for his sixth birthday and wrestled his first croc when he was nine. Conservation issues were always at the forefront for Steve; he stated it was the most important aspect of his work: “I consider myself a wildlife warrior. My mission is to save the world’s endangered species.” He was killed by a stingray while snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef. 

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