Still think that COVID-19 only hurts the elderly and infirm?
Because Walter Burkhardt is one of the fittest mountain athletes out there, and he can tell you that his version of COVID hurt. A lot.
Burkhardt has been climbing, skiing, maintaining trails, and rescuing people on Mount Hood for 25 years.
He first started skiing at the age of five in Oswego, New York, north of Syracuse, where the lake effect drops 300-plus inches of snow per year. He broke his skis when he was a teenager, then borrowed (and broke) his parents’ skis too. He moved out west for college and competed for the University of Wyoming ski team before eventually settling in Hood River.
Burkhardt is a dedicated member of the mountain rescue Crag Rat group and a founder of the Hood River high school cross country ski team. One of his favorite activities is to race all the way around Mount Hood on skis, from from Palmer to Illumination Saddle to Reid, then Sandy, Ladd and the Coe and the Elliot, Newton Clark and on back to Palmer.
The last time he counted his skis he had 53 pairs. He figures he is up to 80 pairs that he has broken over the years, mostly on the remote north side of Mount Hood, where crowds are thin and where he once witnessed six avalanches in one day.
“I just enjoy romping around and going fast and hitting lines and not having to worry about other people,” he says. “I’ll ski all the way into July or even august. Being up there on skinny skis in July, wearing shorts, that to me is just absolute freedom.”
Burkhardt was midway through a Quixotic attempt to remove chunks of airplane embedded in the snow and ice of Mount Hood (thus the landing gear on his back in the photo to the left) when he got a call to return to work if he wanted to remain employed.
Burkhardt works in the movie business for a company called Spydercam, and he was needed on the set of the new Avengers movie being filmed in Atlanta. That job led to another as the film industry began to adapt to COVID (sort of) and return to work.
It was shortly after working on the set of a western being shot in Santa Fe that Burkhardt tested positive. “We went there in October and somebody got COVID,” he explains. “We were getting paid to quarantine and then we got sent home. Then we came back two weeks later and tried it again. This time we quarantined for three days. We snuck in and got the shot, and then it just seems like all hell broke loose on that movie set. I kept on getting emails: ‘Caterers got COVID.’ ‘Cast got COVID.’ Every day.”
By the time Burkhardt tested positive he had returned to California. He decided to self-isolate in the warehouse headquarters of Spydercam. Within a few days he was dealing with some serious pain.
“My COVID was very different from other people’s COVID,” he says. “I didn’t have fever, didn’t get hot or cold, didn’t lose my sense of smell or taste. I was just in the pain room.
“I’ve broken my back three times, and my back absolutely locked up. I couldn’t stand up straight, I couldn’t walk straight, I wasn’t even sitting up straight. But I just said fuck it. I took pain-killers and got on my mountain bike and just moved the joints and moved my body. Four out of my six really ugly days, I was like I don’t care. I’m doing it. I mountain biked seven miles, and it was in the sun so I was getting vitamin D as well. But it was not pretty.”
He figured he had recovered from the worst of it by the time he was able to complete a 3,000-vertical-foot mountain bike ride in Southern California. But even as his physical pain subsided, his mental struggles continued.
“I’m dealing with serious mental fog,” he says. “My train of thought just drifts off, and it gives me the willies. I’ve heard from people where even months later they’re getting flashbacks, and all of a sudden they’ll just wake up with no idea how they got there.”
What carried him through the worst of it was Burkhardt’s strong desire and determination to get back to the place he loves. His return to the north side of Mount Hood did not bring the easiest ski conditions on the day the photo below was shot, with brutal winds and cold rain working their Pacific Northwest magic. Still, he is happy to be back in his chosen element.
The skier in the photo above, shot by Burkhardt, is Leif Bergstrom – a former high school cross country ski team member who trained with Burkhardt and recently became a new Crag Rat.
Even in the nastiest of conditions, Burkhardt finds much to appreciate in the extreme environment of the north side of Mount Hood.
“I just enjoy learning about the mountain,” he says. ““Like that day we saw six avalanches in one day on a bluebird day with only wind transporting snow onto the north side!!! Or last year, there was this glacier chunk that broke off and came down and skidded across the flats for a quarter of a mile. It was the shape of a surfboard, and it surfed all the way across this flat glacier. It came down maybe 6 or 700-feet of vertical, and with all that momentum it just scooted a quarter of a mile across the flats. That’s the kind of stuff that I absolutely love.”
Last modified: January 9, 2021