Rachael Burks is wearing purple pants, sparkly shoes, and cherry red nail fingernail polish. In between bites of Greek salad, she's talking about studying literature at Oxford and how rosé wines are going to be the next big thing. Yes, this is the same Rachael Burks who charges huge cliffs in the latest Teton Gravity Research film, "Light the Wick." The same girl who the Ski Journal magazine described as "Half Animal, Half Woman." And the same one who wrote about farting and beer drinking for Powder magazine.
We're at the Cottonwood Café in Salt Lake City, Utah, and although I've never met Burks before, I've heard all about how she can out-drink and out-backflip anyone who dares to challenge her. I've heard about when she signed up for her first big-mountain comp, the U.S. Freeskiing Championships at Snowbird, Utah, in 2003, that she went so big, she was nominated for the Sick Bird award for her gutsy maneuvers. This is the girl who spent 11 minutes buried in her own bombhole last winter after launching a 50-footer at Grand Targhee and landing on the flats -- and then as soon as she was dug out, she went right back up and hit the cliff again. So when she shows up for lunch, I'm not exactly expecting nail polish.
"The red nail polish is from the University of Utah football game last night," Burks explains, even though I haven't asked.
Instead, I ask her about her segment in "Light the Wick," which is touring theaters now. She moved from her home in Salt Lake City to Jackson, Wyo., last winter to commit to filming with TGR. "I showed up in Jackson and I said, 'I'm going to give this everything I have, with the goal of getting a good segment,'" Burks says. "I showed up early every day, I went to bed early, I went to the gym and I felt more fit and prepared than I've ever been." Unfortunately for her, the snow conditions in Jackson weren't ideal for filming -- there either wasn't enough snow or when it did snow, the avalanche danger in the backcountry was too high. "I was in that constant state of standing on the edge of a cliff ready to dive in, but the snow never gave me that opportunity to step off," she says. "It was a lot of anticipation."
In the final edit, Burks' segment (see highlights of it in the video below) is short but powerful -- filled with powder turns and cliff hucks. "I still got some shots, so I'm pumped. I mean, I'm in a TGR movie, and that's a dream of mine," she says with a huge, contagious grin.
She is the token female in the film, but don't you dare call her that. "When I first started filming with TGR, they said, 'We're not going to put you in this movie because you're a girl.' And I said, 'That's great. I don't want to have some lame, half ass powder shot with my hair blowing in the wind and a cute shot of me waving in a hot tub. If I don't get in the movie, it's not like women are being discriminated against, it's because I didn't ski on the same level as the other athletes in the film."
You can tell by her body language that this topic -- women in freeskiing -- is one she's passionate about: She moves her hands a lot and she breaks out into a deep, throaty laugh. Occasionally, she bursts into an accent -- Italian, French, Austin Powers, whatever suits the moment.
I ask her about her profile in the most recent issue of The Ski Journal, the one that calls her "Half Woman, Half Animal." Quoting a line from Rocky IV, she jokes, "I am not a machine. I am a woman!" Then, more seriously, she adds, "I mean, I would never say that about myself -- that I'm half animal. Look at my shoes -- they have sparkles on them. The softer side of Rachael totally exists."
But then she catches herself, as if she doesn't want me to think she's a total girly girl. "My mission, truthfully, with skiing is to give the next generation someone to look up to who has not exploited her femininity. This is extremely important to me," she says earnestly.
And the truth is, she's already accomplished her mission: She competed on the Freeskiing World Tour for four years, where she was known for going huge, crashing big and never taking cautious, safe lines. She's filmed with TGR for two seasons -- and she's made the movie twice. Photos of her flinging off 50-footers have been published around the world. And there hasn't been a single published shot of her donning a bikini in a hot tub.
Others in the ski industry agree. "Rach is one of, if not the most fun person in the ski industry. Seriously, hang out with her for 20 minutes and she will have you pissing your pants," says Matt Rihm, her team manager at Dynastar. "Top that with the fact that she has a segment with TGR, and that she literally is foaming at the mouth to hit big burly lines, ones that most dudes won't even go near. She is determined to work 10 percent harder then anyone else out there, and that attitude will land her with female segment of the year, I'm calling that right now."
Toward the end of our lunch, Burks tells me that she looks up to skiers like Seth Morrison. "I don't care about Hollywood celebrities," she says. "But I think Seth Morrison is the best skier on the planet."
Then she looks a little guilty and embarrassed and I'm not sure what to expect from her next. "Actually, I do look at US Weekly every day," she confesses, "when I'm sitting on the toilet."
And then she releases that throaty laugh again.