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 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.”
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 co-founded 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 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. 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 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.”
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