Ten years ago, on Feb. 27 2011, Ryan Hawks, a 25-year-old freeskier from South Burlington, Vt., launched into legend. Hawks was competing in the North American Freeskiing Championships at Kirkwood, Ca., an event that pitted some of the best freeskiers in the world against each other in the rocky terrain of the High Sierra.
Hawks had his run planned as he skied off a cliff estimated to be between 50 and 70 feet high. He went all-in, did a mid-air backflip and “stomped the landing” in the words of his father. But rather than landing in soft, forgiving snow, Hawks came down hard on a patch of ledge hidden just below the snow. He was airlifted by helicopter to a hospital in Reno, N.V. Two days later he succumbed to internal injuries.
But part of Flyin Ryan – the most important part, according to many who knew him – took flight during that jump and has been soaring ever since.
“We lost his body, but his spirit is as strong as ever,” said his father, Peter Hawks, during a break in skiing at his home mountain of Sugarbush a few days before the tenth anniversary of his son’s passing. “Ryan is very much a current event.”
Shortly after his death, a relative found on Ryan’s computer a list of “core values” that provided a kind of roadmap for navigating life. They ranged from basic principles (Work hard … Live Easy … Look out for others) to a strategy for fulfillment (Never stop exploring life … Never lose my adventuresome attitude … Play like I’m 13).
“People were visibly moved and favorably impacted by exposure to this collection of values,” Peter Hawks said, “but that wasn’t really changing anything. We needed an action plan.”
That plan took shape as the Flyin Ryan Decisions Program, an exercise in reflection and self-discovery that culminates in participants composing their own personal list of core values. It was also the start of the Flyin Ryan Hawks Foundation, a nonprofit launched a month after his death.
The foundation’s logo – a silhouette of its namesake soaring against a red, yellow and green “rasta” backdrop – is seen on helmet stickers and hoodies all over the Green Mountains, anywhere skiers and riders drop into lines in search of the kind of adventure that Ryan was constantly after.
“The foundation is designed to serve one purpose: To extend the impact of the life of Ryan Hawks,” Peter Hawks said. “He just had such a positive impact on everybody, far and near, with whom he came in contact.
“He had the rare capacity to move people – all kinds of people. That’s one of the great traits that led us to put the foundation together. We wanted to keep that vibe in place somehow.”
The Flyin’ Ryan foundation accomplishes that goal in numerous ways, all of which stem from Ryan’s character and resulting approach to life.
“It gives students, athletes and adventurers the opportunity to connect with their hearts and minds and really engage with their core spirit, and bring that spirit to life,” Peter Hawks said. “[They] use that spirit to provide themselves with an answer to the question: Who am I?”
The foundation’s aim was to get the Decisions Program implemented in Vermont schools as a valuable exercise for students to explore their identities and build a solid foundation of values for decision making. The logical inception point was Ryan’s high school alma mater, South Burlington. His former math teacher – John Painter, who is also a passionate skier – embraced the idea and became one of the foundation’s strongest advocates.
“The two words that come to mind are honor and responsibility, and neither are things that I carry lightly” said Painter of his role with the foundation. “It’s been a privilege to work alongside Peter and be a part of his vision for this, and it’s also been a pretty big responsibility to maintain this high level of engagement that we’ve started.”
The inclusion of the Core Values program into the Vermont Department of Education’s Personalized Learning Planning Process in 2013 paved the way for more widespread participation, though Peter Hawks admits the pace of that growth has been somewhat frustrating.
“We’d like to see it in all 70 schools [statewide],” he said. “We have metrics that demonstrate that for one in five students, it’s a game-changer – setting that compass for how you engage in life and shape your attitude, so you don’t get distracted by all the nastiness that’s out there that can knock you off course.”
The second phase of the foundation’s work is its Adventure Scholarships, awarded regularly to “acknowledge and encourage the pursuit of passion grounded in Core Values,” according to the Flyin Ryan website. To date, the foundation has awarded more than 120 Adventure Scholarships, with amounts typically ranging from $500 to $1,500.
Though the recipient section of the Flyin Ryan website reads like a who’s-who of the most talented up-and-coming skiers, snowboarders, rock climbers, kayakers and other outdoor sports enthusiasts on the scene, Peter Hawks insists that the awards are not based on athletic ability. Instead, the foundation looks for reflections of Ryan’s character in its applicants: A willingness to explore one’s self-identity and pursue interests and passions with the help of a strong moral compass.
“All we want to do is stimulate passion that’s faced with a financial shortfall. Regardless of what the activity or pursuit is, as long as they’re really passionate and committed, we’re all-in,” Peter Hawks said, noting that the foundation has never summarily rejected even a single application. “There is always a finish line, as long as you want it.”
Recipients don’t only receive a check and handshake; they find themselves welcomed into the Flyin’ Ryan family. Aaron Rice, who used the award to finance an avalanche safety course before going on to set the world record for self-powered vertical skiing in a single year (more than 2.5 million feet) in 2016, said that he still feels that bond five years later.
“It’s a really special organization in terms of how much Peter invests in each person and wanting to know who they really are,” said Rice, who now guides the Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Awareness program at Ryan Hawks’ college alma mater, the University of Vermont. “Whenever I see him, we pick up right where we left off.”
Rice said that even though he didn’t know Ryan Hawks personally, he sees himself reflected in the Core Values that form the backbone of the organization.
“One of them is ‘Live Every Day to the Fullest,’ and that’s something I’ve embraced,” said Rice, noting that he has only missed two potential ski days since the calendar flipped to 2021.
The final piece to the Flyin Ryan Hawks Foundation puzzle is its involvement in freeskiing competitions, of the same type where Ryan Hawks made his fateful jump 10 years ago. The leaders of the International Freeride Ski Association have allowed Peter Hawks to speak to participants on the eve of events, to encourage a more introspective – and ultimately, safer – approach to competitive freeskiing.
Peter Hawks will give just such a talk on Feb. 26 at Mad River Glen, just before the kickoff of the Ryan Hawks Memorial IFSA Junior Regional Competition.
“The goal is to help kids make good, sound risk management decisions,” he said. “Kids who know who they are and how they’re composed aren’t going to be caught up in the competitive pressures and blindly hucking off cliffs that might be outside of the realm of reason.”
Standing so close to the proverbial edge of the precipice that claimed his son’s life would seemingly be uncomfortable – even unbearable – for a father, but Peter Hawks has never backed away from it. He says risk management was something he discussed with Ryan from a young age, and that even at that final competition – indeed, right up until that ultimate jump – his son understood and respected the mountain and all that it could give and take away. Ryan Hawks saw himself as a guest moving through that vertical space, guided by his core principles to stay true to himself. Peter Hawks conveys that same message to the competitors he addresses.
“I tell them that there’s only one way you can win the event: By impressing yourself,” he said. “This is not about the judges, or a score, or the crowd. This is about you and the mountain. You’re the artist; you’ve got the paintbrush and the mountain is your canvas. Put down a line that is within the realm of reason and brings you joy and self respect. How the judges rate it is incidental.”
Now 82, Peter Hawks has welcomed six grandchildren into the world and still gets out for plenty of his own adventure, whether on skis or his mountain bike. He remains steadfastly committed to keeping his son’s spirit alive through the foundation and using incremental change to achieve something monumental in Ryan’s memory.
“We want to make the world a better place, one person, one day, one event, one core value, one decision at a time,” he said. “I call it the power of one.
“All Ryan had to do to have a significant impact moving forward was to live – there is no question about it. Now, it’s up to us to keep the stoke going on his behalf. It’s been an absolute privilege to have an opportunity to extend that legacy in a meaningful way.”
On the web: http://flyinryanhawks.org