Like Mother, Like Son
Taken by cancer, a mountain girl's spirit shines on in her son, skier Hayden Price
WORDS: Dawn Cardinale
After watching Hayden Price ski a line in a big mountain competition at Snowbird, Utah, local Parker Cook gave him an interesting compliment. Cook said, “They skied the mountain in print, while you skied it in cursive.” If you’ve seen Hayden come down the mountain, you know what Cook means. His lines are smooth, decisive, and loopy, not a rough, labored corner in sight. He makes everything on-hill appear simple and light. When you talk to him, you see that positive flow extends beyond skiing. You see his presence and thought, but not in the banal way of turning gears. It’s more like a spacecraft zooming with easy, laser-like accuracy. And he skis like he thinks. It’s tempting to attribute this ready positivity to sanguine youth, but you don’t have to look very far to find its origin.
Hayden’s mother Brenda had always been on a journey, according to Hayden’s father Dobber. Whether it was via Deepak Chopra or Miguel Ruiz, TED Talks, or a book Oprah recommended, the self-described “mountain girl” actively sought inspiration and a way to stay “centered.” She forwarded the good vibrations to everyone around her, earning the description “everyone’s biggest cheerleader.” Hayden calls Brenda his best friend, and the term is not used liberally: he says they told each other everything, as in, everything. Many people who met them together, for instance, Kristen Ulmer, didn’t immediately recognize they were mother and son and guessed they were closer in age. Brenda’s best girlfriend Jill Stearns says, “They were kindred spirits … he’s a spiritually evolved kid.”
Hayden, 28, and his brother Benn, 23, were raised on the slopes of Alta, where Dobber and Brenda spent a combined 75 years. The first time Hayden skied Main Chute, requiring a boot-pack to the top of 11,942-foot Mount Baldy, he had just turned 8. At the time, he was the youngest to ski the chute (Benn would break the record at age 7). Brenda’s devotion to nature wasn’t lost on Hayden or Benn, who custom-designs furniture made of reclaimed materials. Brenda was benevolent, the parent the boys would go to for a “yes,” but not always docile. Hayden recounts a trip to Mammoth when Brenda went “ballistic” on someone she thought was disrespecting him. He calls this “going Mammoth.”
When Brenda was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, it marked the beginning of a softer, yet more intense Brenda. She never again went Mammoth, but her curious inclinations turned into a spiritual quest. She was drawn to Eastern philosophy and religions and pop-culture gurus, all of which served her well. Her good friend Caroline Burton says, “It felt so good to be around her … you don’t sweat the small stuff, and you’re stoked.” When she was sick, which was on and off for a decade, her level of “stoke” never waned. Burton says, “We would joke and say, ‘Don’t tell Brenda she has cancer.’”
Cancer didn’t slow down Brenda one bit. On Hayden’s 20th birthday, Brenda postponed a chemotherapy appointment she had scheduled that morning, so the two of them could go backcountry skiing. Hayden says as she post-holed up the mountain she pulled off her hat. “She didn’t have any hair, and her head was steaming.” It is an indelible image of courage and true happiness.
When Brenda approached Ulmer regarding her Ski to Live camps, she immediately suggested Brenda and Hayden be guides. “They were such an obvious match,” says Ulmer, whose camps incorporate a mindful, Zen approach to skiing. She calls Brenda “everybody’s fantasy mother,” but not for the obvious reason—Brenda was an objectively beautiful woman—but for her love and compassion. Ulmer notes the same in Hayden: “There are so few pro skiers that aren’t motivated by their demons—something else motivates Hayden—and that’s due to Brenda.”
Everyone who skis with him agrees. Pro skier Julian Carr says Hayden possesses an “attitude of making the most of anything put in front of him.” Photographer Will Wissman says working with Hayden is easy and—shooting with him in places like British Columbia and Haines, Alaska—Wissman should know. “He understands what’s best for everybody—not just Hayden,” he says.
Hayden wanted to emulate Eric Pollard after seeing the movie Stereotype in 2002. He also names Pep Fujas as an influence, as well as skaters and snowboarders, including hardcore Snowbird locals Deadlung and Benny Pellegrino. With these inspirations, Hayden hit both the big mountains and city streets for a different, sort of fusion, approach. Later, he would join the Dubsatch Collective to shoot with his buddies Sam Cohen, Thayne Rich, John Collinson, and others. Even in the company of these talents, Hayden’s style is unique.
Cohen says he plays on his skis, crushing big lines but also having fun with terrain. Wissman says you have to communicate with Hayden and ask him what he sees—that his line choice isn’t obvious—or you’re not going to get the shot. Wissman says, “Three or four athletes hit it the same way; Hayden’s gonna hit it differently.” He says it works, because Hayden is an open, easy communicator.
Choosing his own path goes beyond a ski shoot. He says, “Making your own decisions—it’s the most interesting, amazing part of existence—to be aware, to see the beauty, to decide whatever you’re going to do.” He says it as though it’s as simple as flipping a switch, but recognizes people can feel option-less. “When it’s perceived as difficult—that’s where the aha moment comes—there’s a place to grow,” he says.
Last winter, when Brenda’s condition worsened, Hayden said, “The cracks in life are to let the light shine in. There are plenty of bright moments.” It was a difficult season. There were energetic recoveries followed by sobering declines, as many people who know cancer can attest. Brenda never complained, not once. She shared her experience in her essay, Life by the Numbers: “I don’t hate my cancer; I love every cell in my body no matter how confused it might be. I have faith that everything will be perfect, whatever that looks like.” She found great comfort in Mooji, a spiritual guru who believes that people don’t own their bodies, that they’re leased out and meant to be returned. He also says that “illness can be a tremendous aid for self-discovery” and “sickness comes as a kind of healing.” Hayden says Brenda was very much at peace when she died. She passed away in February at the age of 53.
Today, Hayden remains positive. He smiles big and wide, his leonine hair askew. Dawn-patrol hikes up Mount Superior and late-afternoon climbs with Cohen pack the days. He was a strong caregiver for Brenda, which, with her, meant being happy and healthy. He calls this a “somewhat unappetizing catalyst for growth,” but clearly the lesson has longevity.
Ever since Hayden was a small child, he had this way of coping wherein he would note his surroundings in growing dimension: “I’m in my bed; I’m in my house; I’m in Salt Lake City …” Until he found himself in a frameless universe. The infinitesimal feeling was liberating for him. Things seemed uncertain or indefinite, thus full of possibility. He says he wasn’t taught by anyone to do this exercise in perspective; he came to it naturally. But what is innate is inherited.
Homepage photo: Will Wissman and Dobber Price
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