On Tuesday night, all of the skiers and snowboarders competing in this week's Freeride World Tour contest at Kirkwood, Calif., will gather in a room in Kirkwood's Red Cliffs Lodge for a mandatory athlete meeting. The one-run finals—the only American stop of the 2013 Freeride World Tour—are scheduled for Wednesday and this will be the pre-contest briefing. In addition to the usual safety, rules and schedule discussions, a special guest will be invited to speak.
Peter Hawks is 74 years old and tonight, he will walk slowly to the front of the room. He will be wearing a t-shirt printed with his son's nickname—Flyin' Ryan—and the words "Live Every Day, All Day." Although his eyes will water when he talks, he will not break down. He has promised himself that he won't cave in.
He will stand up in front of a room full of professional athletes and he will remind them all why they are here in Kirkwood this week. He will encourage them to leave their egos at the base lodge and to ski and ride for the right reasons. "Ski for joy, love, passion and respect," he will say. He will hold notes for his speech in his hands, but he will not need them. He knows what he came here to say.
This man has traveled thousands of miles, from Burlington, Vt., to northern California, to deliver this message. As he will tell you, he is just a messenger for his son's spirit. "We lost his body," he will say. "But we did not lose his spirit."
Peter Hawks has never been to Kirkwood before. Never stepped foot on the mountain that took his son's life two years ago this week. It was February 27, 2011, when 25-year-old Ryan Hawks, who grew up in Vermont and was a strong and well-loved competitor on the Freeskiing World Tour, did a routine-for-him backflip off a cliff during the first day of the Kirkwood contest. He landed on a hidden rock and the injuries he sustained killed him three days later in an intensive care unit in nearby Reno, Nev. Had he landed six inches in either direction, he may have avoided the rock and skied away unharmed.
But Peter Hawks is not here to reflect on the tragedy. Or to think about what could have been. As the founder of the Flyin' Ryan Foundation, which launched in April 2011, a month after Ryan's death, Peter is here, as he says, to recognize and extend the impact of his son's life by sharing Ryan's core principles.
After he died, friends found a document on Ryan's computer titled, "Principles for Living." As far as anyone can tell, it was a private note, written by Ryan, for Ryan. Listed below were the core values that Ryan aimed to achieve in life: Live every day, all day; Never stop exploring life; Never lose my adventuresome attitude; Be the best friend I can be; Be the best brother, son, uncle I can be; Look out for others; Look out for myself; Look out for my surroundings; Be self-sufficient; Don't be afraid to ask for help; Work hard; Live easy; Live simply.
The foundation set up in Ryan's honor helps to spread these core values and inspire people to live to their fullest through scholarships, educational outreach, mentorship, and more. So far, there are 6,000 members of the foundation, 23 young people have been granted scholarships, and there are 25 so-called centers of influence, which include ski areas, ski shops, gyms, high schools and more.
Before he arrived at Kirkwood, Peter Hawks sat down at my dining room table. I had never met him before, but I was there the day Ryan crashed, and I was there at the hospital in Reno while the athletes on the tour stood vigil in the ICU waiting room. When I meet him, Peter gives me a hug like he's known me for years.
"I wanted to come to Kirkwood because everything I do now, the central thesis in my mind, is that I'm trying to earn Ryan's respect on a daily basis," Peter tells me. "I feel a very current connection to Ryan and Kirkwood is part of that connection."
He continues, "I know what Ryan would say if he were here to actually say the words. He'd say, 'Hey dad. I knew the risks, it is what it is.' He would not say, 'That was crappy luck. Woe is me.' He'd move on. I have tried to hold onto that attitude."
After he died, Peter spent a lot of time with Ryan's friends, sharing stories and shedding tears. "I told them that every one of us has a big black hole now and it's not going to go away, it's permanent," Peter says now. "But I said, 'You can't fall into it. You can't get trapped by it. Do what Ryan would expect of you: He would expect you to carry on and recognize his positivity.'"
Tonight, during his speech to the athletes in Kirkwood, Peter doesn't want to bring sadness or regret or fear into the room. He wants to show them support, encourage their passion, and most of all, remind them to live every day, all day, just like his t-shirt says and just like his son did for the 25 years he was given.
"Get rid of the idea of conquering the mountain, concentrate on cooperating with the mountain," Peter will say tonight. "Understand that the only person you have to impress is you."
On Wednesday morning, the best big-mountain skiers and snowboarders in the world will hike to the top of a permanently closed venue at Kirkwood called the Cirque—a foreboding, rocky face and the very venue where Ryan Hawks skied his last run. They will be competing for a world title, a hefty prize purse, and the glory and fame that allegedly come with victory.
But perhaps, while standing at the top waiting for their chance to drop in, those athletes will take a moment to pause, to look around them, to soak it all in. Perhaps they will think of Ryan Hawks and the values he committed to. Perhaps they'll simply smile and be thankful.
Far below, at the finish corral, a man who traveled all the way from Vermont will be standing there and cheering.
[To find out more about the Flyin' Ryan Foundation, please visit www.flyinryanhawks.org.]