ASPEN, Colo. -- Caleb Moore releases from the handlebars of a 450-pound snowmobile, 35 feet off the ground, with the possibility of being crushed if his high-flying stunt goes wrong.
"This is awesome!" Moore yelled at the Winter X Games on Buttermilk Mountain, where tricks keep getting bigger, despite the recent death of one of the event's household names.
The uncontrollable rate of progression hasn't slowed since Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke was killed this month in a practice crash, and with a chance to shine in prime time on ESPN, nothing about Winter X is dialed back. In fact, the risk level has been raised.
Moore's younger brother, Colten, overcame a nasty qualifying mishap to win Thursday's snowmobile freestyle final with a pair of back flips, and when Canadian Mark McMorris won Friday's snowboard big air, he became the first to execute a triple cork 1,440, a four-rotation jump off an 80-foot ramp. Triple flip 1,260s were common Saturday in skiing big air, and Justin Hoyer is planning a double back flip Sunday in a snowmobile trick contest.
"I don't think about the danger," said Caleb Moore, who performed a never-before-seen tandem back flip with his brother last year at Winter X. "I just have fun and try to push it as hard as I can. When fellow athletes get hurt, it kind of brings the reality back to you a little bit. But I would much rather be taken out while doing something I love."
A four-time Winter X winner, Burke, 29, died Jan. 19 from injuries in a Jan. 10 wipeout in Park City, Utah. She suffered bleeding on her brain after she ripped a vertebral artery in her neck, and a lack of oxygen and blood from a heart attack she had in the pipe caused irreversible damage to her brain. It was the same pipe in which now-retired snowboarder Kevin Pearce endured a traumatic brain injury in 2009, halting his Olympic aspirations.
The halfpipe historically has been safe, with helmets now mandatory for competition and air bags often employed on the sides during training. The walls in Aspen measure 22 feet, an increase of 25 percent over the past five years, however, two-time Olympic medalists Shaun White and Kelly Clark continue extending the limits -- Clark winning Friday with a frontside 1,080 and White banking Sunday on his trademark double McTwist 1,260.
White conceded that he might not have advanced to a 1,260 if he hadn't "kept hitting my face doing a 1,080. I was like, 'I should just keep going.' ... Once you start on that path, you never really know what it's going to be." Clark insists a 22-foot halfpipe is "actually safer than an 18-foot halfpipe. If you were to make an error in an 18-foot pipe, there's not a lot of transition to land on, and you're going to end up in the flats pretty quick."
A drive to pull off the unthinkable hardly has subsided. Snowboarder Pat Moore last year tried to ride a Red Bull-sponsored halfpipe at Copper Mountain that soared to a record 35 feet, and after he hit the lip, he was hospitalized. And McMorris was serious when calling for the big air ramp to grow larger. "I didn't think the jump was big enough," he said.
Canadian snowboarder Sebastien Toutant never envisions a ceiling -- not in a sport that's "always going to progress," he said. "They're going to build bigger jumps. You're going to do bigger tricks." Skier Sammy Carlson said, "All of us are really comfortable doing what we do." Plus, "you can get hit by a car. You can get hit on a bike," Canadian skier Kaya Turski said. "Sure, maybe (Winter X) is a little riskier. But this is in our DNA."