February 25, 2016 Features & Images » Feature Story

Lives and legacies 

The spirit of legendary locals lives on as Whistler remembers Trevor Petersen on the 20th anniversary of his death

click to flip through (10) PHOTO BY BRUCE ROWLES - Trevor Petersen and Johnny Chilton on top of Blackcomb Mountain.
  • Photo by Bruce Rowles
  • Trevor Petersen and Johnny Chilton on top of Blackcomb Mountain.

Riding up the lift in Chamonix last spring, pro skier Kye Petersen came to an old tram station at the top of the line and something caught his eye.

It was a faded old sticker plastered on the lift, a little worse for wear after years buffeted by rain and snow and sun, but he knew exactly what it said: "Trevor Would Do it."

He smiled. His dad Trevor Petersen died on this mountain in France 20 years ago. And yet, his spirit lives on

Though many of those original stickers are long gone, stuck on forgotten skis and snowboards, on old bike frames, on the back of cars, a few remain — steady reminders of the legend of Trevor Petersen. He was a pioneer of big mountain skiing who was charging into mountains that no one had ever skied before in search of long, steep and deep powder lines, giving new meaning to the words "ski mountaineering."

There's one on his ice axe, bolted into a rock on the peak of Blackcomb Mountain, where he loved to ski. His friend has one on his bike, a silent source of strength. And two decades after Petersen's death, Toad Hall Studios in Function Junction still gets requests for the evocative 'Trevor Would Do It' stickers every year.

"I think it's got the whole mystique," says Jorge Alvarez of Toad Hall Studios, of why people still ask for the stickers.

"It perpetuates Trevor's raison d'etre."

So much of Petersen's "reason for being," adds Alvarez, is wrapped up in that old-school spirit of Whistler — adventure in the mountains, pushing the limits, feeling alive.

That's one of the reasons why Alvarez has asked for, and been given, permission to reprint the stickers and make T-shirts.

"Trevor would do it, yeah," says his friend and long-time ski partner Eric Pehota. "He'd step up to the plate. Yet, he was very calculated. On many occasions we turned around on things we didn't feel right about. But if it felt right, it was game on for sure. Living on the edge, right?"

But there was more to Petersen than his unrelenting and deep-seated desire for taking on the mountains, for his ability to stare fear in the face. At his core, there was a person who drew people to him with his passion. He was, quite simply, larger than life.

Dying in the mountains is, in many ways, part of living in the mountains; people in Whistler know that all too well. Too many have gone — good, decent, special people who lived more in their shortened lifetimes than most.

Trevor Petersen was one of the first.

Pique pauses to remember him on the 20th anniversary of his death on Friday, Feb. 26, along with Jim Haberl and Sarah Burke. They are unconnected save for one fact — their legacies transcend what they did for their sports.

They are remembered not because of a first descent or a mountain conquered or because they took their sport to greater heights.

Rather, it's their spirit for life that keeps them alive in the collective conscience — it's about who they were and how they made people feel far more than what they accomplished.

'Trevor Would Do It'

"That sticker was not really ever my favourite saying," muses Pehota of the four words that have come to encapsulate his old friend.

"Trevor Would Do It" has become a mantra of sorts for skiers, particular in Whistler, born of another saying "Eddie Would Go."

Eddie Aikau was a Hawaiian surfer and lifeguard who died in 1978 (See sidebar). Petersen, also an avid surfer, had one of those Eddie Aikau stickers.

Like "Eddie Would Go," "Trevor Would Do It" was meant to convey Petersen's go-getter spirit, his zest for life on a path less ordinary, a life rather extraordinary, a life lived to the fullest.

"A lot of people don't take advantage of every moment like he did," says Petersen's son Kye who was six years old when his father died.

"He lived in those moments. That was what he lived for."

He died in one of those moments, too. Of all the things that Petersen had done, scaling frozen waterfalls with his ice axe, skiing mountains no one had ever skied before, this should not have been that moment.

"By no means was he reckless or careless in his approach to anything in life... Like most professional athletes," says Pehota.

"You don't accomplish that much by not being calculated."

A B.C. boy, living in Whistler, Petersen was on the cover of every ski magazine in the '90s, already a legend in his day, before his untimely death.

He was skiing in Chamonix on Feb. 26, 1996.

Though he pushed it, Petersen played by the rules, what few there were back then.

He was freeskiing with friends that day and was the only one who wanted to do one last run.

There was nothing terribly unusual about it. He headed to the Exit Couloir — a 55-degree chute on the Glacier Rond.

No one will ever really know exactly what happened next, how the avalanche struck. Petersen's body was found the following day.

As the news spread back across to the West Coast of Canada, Whistler was wholly unprepared to learn it had lost one of its heroes.

"Trevor was kind of a surprise because he was pretty indestructible," says friend Bruce Rowles.

Rowles first met Petersen in Grade 10 English class.

The seat behind him had been empty for most of the year until one day a kid appeared, dark tan and hair down to his butt. It was Petersen, back from skateboarding in California. Gregarious. Confident. Friendly. Marching to his own beat.

Years later Rowles was sitting in the backseat of Petersen's truck. Pehota and Johnny "Foon" Chilton sat beside Petersen on the bench seat ahead. They were heading deep into the Tantalus, getting ready to ski the east face. No one had ever done the east face before and Rowles was going to capture it behind the lens. He remembers the mountains getting closer.

Pehota was quiet; Chilton analytical, looking at the different approaches. And Petersen was all charged up, raw excitement barely contained, that "driven look" in his eyes, telling them he had "butterflies in his stomach" thinking of the task ahead.

These were the best skiers he knew, says Rowles, all facing this mountain in their own different ways.

It also gave insight, adds Chilton, about how they all dealt with their stress.

"It's pretty stressful," he says. "You know you're going into the danger zone."

They didn't make it down the east face that day — bad weather, tricky conditions, fading light. The mountain would have to wait for another day.

Petersen, adds Chilton, put his own flavour on the kind of skiing they were doing. He was aggressive, always charging.

Just like when he was ice climbing. In the early '90s no one was ice climbing in Whistler. Petersen noticed that there were quite a few waterfalls up on the Duffey Lake Road and during long, cold, high-pressure systems, when the skiing wasn't very good, he found another part of the mountains to tackle.

Chilton recalls: "He would come home on fire! 'Oh man, it's so beautiful, these huge frozen, blue pillars. You're out in nature getting freaked out. It's like skiing a rad line, only you're going up instead of down.'"

He was infectious. Soon, the others were doing it.

Petersen, says Pehota, could read the mountains like no one else; he could see the lines he'd want to ski down. They used to scour Canadian alpine journals, looking for places to go.

They were the first to ski the north face of Fitzsimmons; Petersen was the first to ski Cleverest Couloir off the peak of Blackcomb Mountain, now permanently closed; they were the first to ski in the Tantalus Range.

These places had been climbed before but never climbed and skied down.

"That's kind of what we were always chasing after," admits Pehota.

Not for fame, not for money, not to have their names in a history book. Often times they didn't even take photos to document their feats, much to the dismay of their sponsors, chuckles Pehota.

They were out there just to "do it."

Beyond the sticker

What you saw with Petersen was what you got.

"He didn't have any bends and creaks in him," says his mom Beth Stewart. "He always looked for the best in everybody."

She knows there was something special about her son.

"He was unusual," says Stewart. "He was indeed an outstanding skier, we know all that. But he was an outstanding human being. I mean that sincerely. The biggest quality he had, he was non-judgmental."

And that, she adds, is not always the case with a lot of high-flying skiers.

In the wake of Petersen's death his mom started an organization to help others in her situation, to help others navigate the grief. It was called POLS — Parents of Lost Skiers.

Skiing, she says, has two sides — the glossy, slick, bright pictures in the magazines and the dark side. She has lived through that dark side. For 10 years she helped people all over the world try to wade through their darkest moments.

POLS no longer exists; Petersen's memory, however, lives on as strong as ever.

Pehota remembers a friend that could suck in any audience with a story; it was the way he told it, the passion, the intensity. People leaned in to Petersen, wanted to be closer to him.

Petersen never got to see how his first steps deep into the mountains on his skis, searching for more, paved the way for those to come after him. He never got to see how skiing evolved and changed.

"He never got to ski on the big fat rockered skis that we ski on now," says Chilton, his comment laced with disappointment.

It's difficult talking about him, he says. But also kind of wonderful too.

"I like to keep him as forward in my mind as possible," he says.

The Jim Haberl Hut

There are those, says Sue Oakey-Baker, who inspire greatness in others, who have a gift for great things. Jim Haberl was one of them. Oakey-Baker knows; she was married to him.

You can feel that inspiration, that feeling of reaching for the stars, high in the Tantalus Mountain range under the dome of the endless sky. There, a small green cabin is perched in the Serratus-Dione Col.

This is a place of peace and wonder, the perfect spot for a cabin with Jim Haberl's name, a place to come in from the cold, offering shelter to mountaineers.

"He was always striving for excellence," says Oakey-Baker. "He was not a half-way sort of guy. He always did things as best as he could and not climbing on top of other people. He always had time for other people, wanted to mentor other people. He didn't want his striving for excellence to mean that someone else had to go lower."

In 1993 Haberl, a well-known local mountain guide, was one of the first two Canadians to climb K2, the world's second highest peak. He was at the top of his game, both literally and figuratively. On that fateful descent down from K2, his climbing partner and close friend Dan Culver perished.

Haberl made the conscious decision that he wouldn't be climbing any more big peaks.

After he wrote his second book, Risking Adventure, a collection of five stories from climbs and expeditions around the world, including K2, Haberl said: "The theme through all the stories is one of following the passions of your heart, trusting that — going with the feel."

Oakey-Baker believes that listening to your heart, as well as your head, is a key part to surviving in the mountains. Your heart is what you have to live for.

"I think Jim epitomized that," she says. "He had a huge heart. He had a lot to live for and he made his decisions based on that as well — with his head and his heart. And I think people really gravitated toward him because of that, because they felt safe with him. He was also a safe haven for people to be who they were. He was comfortable with himself and he was very non-judgmental of others so he drew people to him that way. To me, his biggest legacy actually is how he made people feel."

Six years after climbing K2 in the Himalayas, Haberl died in an avalanche on an unnamed peak in the University Range in Alaska.

He was climbing with two friends. The hazard was high but the trio had modified their plans to deal with the conditions.

The friends struggled for a few days, trying to go up different ways, trying to minimize risk with all their training and knowledge and experience in full effect.

Haberl was in the wrong place when the avalanche hit. They were crossing moderate 20-to 30-degree slope when the deep slab of snow let go taking Haberl over a cliff to his death. His friends managed to swim out of the avalanche to the side and survived.

"Jim always acknowledged that going out there, you had to be good at what you did, but there was a bit of luck every time you went out there," says Oakey-Baker. "He didn't think he was infallible. He hoped he was. He did as much as he could."

People like Haberl, says Oakey-Baker, are not like everyone else. They have a gift. There is something unique and special about them, which is part of what pushes them to great things, like climb K2.

"They're part of this small percentage of the population that can do that," she says.

"I think they inspire people, inspire them to do things that seem impossible."

The thing is, she adds, their feats are only impressive if at their core they are good people.

"I think people remember a lot how others make them feel," she says. "And Jim just left people with a very strong feeling in their heart. He was just a very good man."

'Celebrate' Sarah

What can be said about Sarah Burke that hasn't been said already?

Well, there's this. Four years after her death, her spirit is growing stronger in Whistler and beyond.

The Spirit of Sarah Scholarship, created by Momentum Ski Camp in partnership with the Sarah Burke Foundation, is expanding.

The scholarship was created in the wake of Burke's death for a camper to attend the summer ski camp she was with for 11 years as camper and coach.

Just this month Momentum announced that two former campers and friends of Burke's, Haynes Gallagher and Tory Gossage, have offered two new full scholarships to campers who attended the camp last summer.

"They want to keep Sarah's spirit alive," says John Smart, owner of Momentum.

The scholarships are for people who have Burke's characteristics — fun-loving, spirited individuals who are talented and modest at the same time.

That was her greatest quality, says Smart. She was modest and so able to connect with everyone she met and she never forgot them — a rare quality in people with talent as big as hers.

"Her spirit is her biggest legacy and it's something that we are trying to keep alive because she was such a great person, great role model, great skier, and great coach," adds Smart.

"There aren't many people like her in the world, period."

Burke was a four-time Winter X-Games gold medallist and won the world championship in the halfpipe in 2005.

She also lobbied the International Olympic Committee to have the event added in the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, which it was.

She never got to compete.

In 2012 Burke was training in the superpipe Park City, Utah. She crashed after completing a trick. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary for the champion freeskier.

And yet...

Burke went into cardiac arrest on the hill; she died of her injuries nine days after the accident. Her death reverberated around the world.

Smart still remembers one blustery day he was camped out at the Horstman Hut on Blackcomb Mountain. It was nasty outside, cold and rainy and windy. The kind of days when campers moaned and coaches counted down the minutes.

And there was Sarah Burke, coming up the T-Bar with a bunch of kids coming after her — like the Partridge Family, jokes Smart. They were all fired up, excited to be outside and at camp with their beloved coach, making the most of their day. You could never tell that Burke had just returned from a red-carpet event in L.A., says Smart.

Burke was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame for her role in advocating for ski halfpipe's inclusion in the Olympic program.

Canada Post produced commemorative stamps honouring her as a pioneer of winter sports.

The government of Ontario announced it would dedicate Highway 93 as the Sarah Burke Memorial Highway, with its southern terminus near Barrie, her birthplace.

And so, her spirit flourishes with each passing year.

"(She was) an unbelievably happy soul... and people want to be around that all the time," says Smart.


Trevor Petersen was 33 years old when he died; Jim Haberl was 41; Sarah Burke 29.

In three separate moments in time, over the past two decades, the world became less bright. The heartache endures.

Tucked in the pages of one of Petersen's journals were these words, perhaps offering some small solace: "There comes a time when one must risk something or sit forever with one's dreams."

Kye believes these are words his father lived by.

This is why: "Trevor Would Do It."


'Eddie Would Go'

Eddie Aikau's name is the stuff of lore in Hawaii.

At 21 years old he was hired as the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay on the island of Oahu, tasked with covering all the beaches between Sunset and Haleiwa. Not one life was lost on Aikau's watch and in 1971 he was named Lifeguard of the Year.

Aikau was also a champion big-wave surfer.

In 1978 Aikau joined the Polynesian Voyaging Society for a 30-day, 4,000-km journey to follow the ancient route of the Polynesian migration between the Hawaiian and Tahitian island chains.

Five hours after leaving Honolulu the special voyaging canoe capsized, swamped in high winds and seas. The crew hung on through the night into the morning but despite launching flares, there was no sign of rescue. Aikau got on his surfboard and began to paddle towards land in search of help — 20 km away.

Nine hours after he set out, a Hawaiian Airlines flight spotted the flares and the crew was rescued.

Eddie Aikau was never seen again, even after the biggest air-sea search in Hawaiian history.

In 1985 Quicksilver sponsored "The Eddie" — a big wave invitational in honour of Aikau. The contest rules call for minimum six-metre (20-feet) open ocean swells (a wave-face height of nine to 12 metres). That first year of the contest the waves were huge and conditions dangerous. There was some debate on whether or not the contest would go on. Pro surfer Mark Foo looked at the conditions and said "Eddie would go."

Eddie Would Go. And so Eddie Aikau's story, his legacy, grows.

The event is underway now. Go to quiksilver.com/surf/events/eddie-aikau to find out more.

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