By the time Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle figured out they were kindred spirits, their contrasting backgrounds didn't matter.
They fell in love with ski racing on different sides of the United States. Berlack grew up at a ski academy with a ski coach for a father in the same town, Franconia, New Hampshire, where Bode Miller grew up. Astle was a powder skier in the powder capital of America, Alta, Utah, and didn't carve around a gate until he was 12. But when their paths merged in their late teens, they were bound by a common pursuit.
"They were two peas in a pod," says Steve Berlack, Ronnie's father. "They looked at life in a very similar way and recognized that immediately."
The skiers' relentless work ethic also seemed to position them on the fast track with the U.S. Ski Team. As two of the most talented prospects, they earned a place on the development roster, with the World Cup circuit and the 2018 Olympics as the ultimate goals. Berlack and Astle fit in well with the tight-knit team: They were fixtures in the gym and studied video of World Cup racers for hours on end, eager to meet their potential. Astle's "good vibes only" mantra fit both of their personalities.
So, when Berlack and Astle made their way to Soelden, Austria, in early January for pre-event training, after strong finishes in their respective North American Cup races, it seemed to be another stop on their road to skiing stardom.
On Jan. 5, the team went powder skiing after training was canceled due to a storm in the area. A group of six formed, including Astle and Berlack, and they left a groomed catwalk to ski a steep, powdery slope on the north face of the 10,026-foot Gaislachkogel peak. Tracks from prior skiers led into the area, but as with most ungroomed terrain in the Alps, the slope was not patrolled or marked for avalanche danger.
During the skiers' descent, a large slab of snow broke free from the mountain above and around them, and began sliding downhill. All of the skiers were caught by the avalanche, which measured 70 feet wide and 3 feet deep at the crown. According to the accident report filed by Tirol avalanche forecaster Patrick Nairz, four skied out of it, but Berlack and Astle were swept away and buried 10 to 12 feet deep on a flat plateau, 1,200 feet below where the avalanche fractured. Neither they nor their partners were equipped with transceivers. By the time searchers found Berlack and Astle with probe poles, it was too late. Berlack was 20, Astle 19.
The avalanche was part of a horrific stretch in the Austrian Tirol region, where snow slides claimed eight lives in 17 days.
Family, friends and fellow racers say the accident revealed the fragile heart of a sport whose ideals Berlack and Astle embodied better than anyone. U.S. Ski Team men's head coach Sasha Rearick says the past three weeks "have given us a deeper understanding that life is precious and what we do is precious, and we're very fortunate to do what we do."
The sport is trying to move forward this week in Colorado, as athletes who share the same aspirations compete at the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships in Vail/Beaver Creek. And the U.S. team will honor Berlack and Astle on Thursday by letting the clock run for a ghost forerunner before the men's super-G, which Berlack was slated to forerun. Their images will be shown on the big screen. Both families plan to be in attendance.
Balancing pain and privilege has proved difficult for teammates leading up to the world championships. U.S. slalom racer Will Brandenburg, who trained extensively with Astle and skied with the survivors the week after the avalanche, said he will try to block out the accident and focus on the competition.
"I just want to have fun ski racing," he said, "because that's what those guys loved to do."
Mikaela Shiffrin remembers the first time she met Ronnie Berlack. She was 11, he was 12. The Shiffrins had come to Burke Mountain Academy in East Burke, Vermont, to tour the school and ski area where students trained. Ronnie's parents worked at the school (his father, Steve, has been a coach there for 16 years) and he was always around. "I was like, who is this little pipsqueak who's so incredibly outgoing and looks like he wants to go so fast on the mountain?" Shiffrin recalls.
Within a year, Shiffrin was training at Burke in Berlack's group. The girl who would go on to win slalom titles at the worlds and Olympics by age 18 was still building speed in those days. To motivate herself, she wrote "ABFTTB" on her skis -- Always Be Faster Than The Boys -- but kept the meaning a secret for years. When Berlack found out what the acronym stood for, he cleared the air as only he could.
"You want to be faster than me?" he said to Shiffrin. "I'm not going to let you be faster than me."
Their friendly rivalry played out each afternoon on the icy slopes. If Berlack lost, Burke headmaster and coach Kirk Dwyer would be sure to tell him. "Well, Ronnie," Dwyer would say, "Mikaela beat you today. She had the fastest time."
"Ronnie would just get so huffy," Shiffrin recalls with a laugh. "Like, 'Yeah, well, tomorrow I'm definitely going to beat her. I'm going to go so fast. She has no chance. No chance.'
"I think I gained a lot of speed just by trying to beat Ronnie Berlack."
Shiffrin, who remained close friends with Berlack after high school, was sitting in a team meeting led by U.S. Ski Team alpine director Patrick Riml in Zagreb, Croatia, when she received word of the avalanche. It may have involved the D-team boys, Riml said. That was all he knew. Shiffrin asked Riml to keep her updated, then got in a car to begin the long drive to her next race in Austria. While on the road, she searched the Web and found a story that said two people had died in the Soelden avalanche.
"All of a sudden, I started having a panic attack thinking it was definitely Ronnie," Shiffrin says. "I don't know why I thought it was going to be him, but 30 seconds later, Patrick called and told me it was Ronnie and Bryce."
Shiffrin called Steve Berlack back in Vermont. She wanted to offer her condolences, but instead, "he talked the entire time about things that just made me smile," she says. "I don't know how they're able to be that strong, but on the other hand, I know Ronnie and he was completely a product of Steve and Cindy -- their outlook on life, their positive mentality, their work ethic."
Berlack and Astle knew each other before last summer, but grew closer once they were both training with the U.S. team in Utah. Their friendship was evident in an email Astle sent to Steve Berlack last November to thank him for contributing to his online fundraising campaign.
"It's really inspiring to receive support from you as Ronnie was probably the primary reason for your donation. I just find it cool that your son has belief in me, though the belief is mutual. It's been lots of fun getting to know him, you raised a good kid. He and I feed off of each other like no one else."
Berlack battled back from a gruesome knee injury the prior winter and was skiing at full speed by the time he foreran the Birds of Prey World Cup races at Beaver Creek in December. Astle created his own memory on that track during a training run. He was tucking at more than 70 mph when a ski popped off, leaving Astle no choice but to lie down on the snow and hope he stopped before he hit anything. The slide dislodged his helmet, and when he came to rest, his face was burned raw by the ice and swollen like a watermelon.
That afternoon, Astle walked by Lindsey Vonn. "What happened to you?" Vonn asked. He recounted his crash.
When he got home from the trip, he told his mother the whole story.
"Mom, Lindsey Vonn talked to me!" he said. "That was the first step in getting her to marry me!"
By then, Astle had stopped looking at his results after races.
"He pretty much knew where he was going, and he figured he was only racing against himself," Astle's father, Jamie, says. "When he was 14, he and I were watching a World Cup and he was very analytical. So he was watching these guys and he goes, 'I can ski with them.' Then he says, 'I'm going to be in the Olympics.' From that time on, that kid did not get in trouble. He was so focused it was ridiculous."
Fellow Utah racer Steven Nyman, who has spent 13 years on the U.S. team and won three World Cup downhills, saw a lot of himself in the teenager. Nyman, now 32, raced for Sundance; Astle raced for Snowbird. They both grew up as the middle brother in a tightly packed freeskiing trio (Astle was very close with both of his brothers, Chris, 18, and Jason, 23).
When Nyman saw Astle at NorAm finals last year in Nakiska, Alberta, he decided it was time to welcome the kid to the big leagues. "He had this tattered German speed suit -- and he was good, too," Nyman says. "I said, 'Dude, you're good. Here, you deserve this.'" Then Nyman tossed him a U.S. Ski Team suit.
"The whole reason I gave him that suit was because, as a kid, I was him," Nyman says. "I was the one with the tattered suit. I had two mismatching poles. I won world juniors in stretch pants and a cutoff downhill suit. I was just a junk show; I made it work. And he was that guy, too."
A day after the accident, American skiers honored their teammates the only way they knew how: by racing. None of the four men completed the two-run World Cup slalom in Zagreb -- a consequence of skiing on the edge of their abilities -- but each reached new career heights. The highlight came from David Chodounsky, a middling 30-year-old from Colorado who stunned everyone by posting the third-fastest first run -- the best ranking of his World Cup career.
When Chodounsky crossed the line, he looked at the television camera and pointed to his helmet, which read: "Remember BA + RB."
Rearick had driven from Zagreb to Soelden the minute he heard about the avalanche and spent the subsequent week with a group he characterized as being "in tremendous shock." He moved the team to Innsbruck and said simply getting the skiers on the slopes again was a milestone.
"When I left those guys [after Innsbruck], I absolutely collapsed emotionally," Rearick says. "Physically I was fine. Emotionally I was exhausted. I couldn't be happy, I couldn't be sad. I don't think I've fully recovered from that, personally."
Rearick says the team's current status depends on the day. "We go up and down individually within the group -- moments of inspiration, moments of sadness, moments of questioning. I don't think the athletes have regret, but at times some of us do," he said.
The U.S. Ski Team does not train its athletes about avalanche safety or supply them with rescue gear, but U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CEO Tiger Shaw, a former Burke Mountain Academy parent, said the team's protocols are likely to change in the future. "We want to make sure that we do everything we can to ensure awareness and training are at a level to help prevent any tragedy like this from occurring again," Shaw said.
For a team that has been searching for stars to replace veteran heroes like Miller and Nyman and Ted Ligety, Berlack and Astle represented possibility. Astle had even begun to tag his Instagram posts with #roadtopyeongchang, a shoutout to the 2018 Winter Olympics host city.
That may be the toughest part -- trying to move on, knowing their potential went unfulfilled.