THE BUZZ: Gone Too Soon

By on October 13, 2015

Remembering the bright light of Billy Burke.

Soaking up the rays in Lake Powell last week, Billy Burke was loved by many. He will be remembered for his unbridled warmth, compassion and a voracious zest for life. (Photo: Scotty Dixon)

Soaking up the rays in Lake Powell last week, Billy Burke was loved by many. He will be remembered for his unbridled warmth, compassion and a voracious zest for life. (Photo: Scotty Dixon)

Jackson, WY – Reporting death is a bleak undertaking. To tell the story, reporters attempt to extricate themselves from the thorny grips of tragedy. Trudging through other people’s grief and anguish, we uncover the details that paint a grim tale for public consumption.

Oftentimes, when people die in Jackson Hole, The Planet seeks out the victims’ friends interested in paying tribute to the fallen. I tend toward this narrative because it provides readers with a raw perspective that the dry facts of a fatal accident cannot. For the writer, it is cathartic – to bring new life to death through the act of writing. And it is this type of heartfelt tribute that stirs a sincere response in each of us, acquainting us with the recently departed and allowing us to see them as people, not just cautionary tales.

But even with the tragedies I have narrated as a Jackson Hole journalist, I somehow had managed to escape reporting the untimely death of a friend, until now. As an eight-year Jackson resident, I find myself grappling with the notion that perhaps this is a cruel rite of passage for members of the valley populace – to lose someone young and exuberant who was in the throes of adrenaline-tinged antics.

After learning the news of Billy (William/Bill) Burke’s fatal cliff diving accident in Lake Powell, I relinquished any notion of writing about him. Until, in the midst of my sorrow, as I stared blearily at a computer screen with a pit of sadness swelling in my stomach, I pondered his contagious vivacity and warmth. His devastatingly luminous smile. The endless determination the 10-year Jackson resident practiced on the river, in the mountains and when he hit the books. So to remember Billy the way that I, and the legion of people who cared deeply for him will, it’s important other folks know some of his wonderful qualities, too.

Billy’s insatiable appetite for adventure and lust for life meant that one day he was climbing the Grand Teton (in one push, of course) and the next he was embarking on a road trip to see Phish, followed by a full moon kayaking caper. It meant that he blazed through nursing school at Central Wyoming College while juggling jobs as a ski and kayak instructor (his adoring ski school clients were already contacting him this summer about lessons for the upcoming winter). It meant that on the way to the river, his favorite place, Billy would cram in study sessions, and that he needed little sleep, staying awake to imbibe on every ounce of excitement, which he was often the architect of. And it meant that if you were new to town, Billy would immediately welcome and befriend you. But it also meant that more than one week ago, Billy decided to escape the valley’s drizzle with an impromptu trip to Lake Powell and that he would not return.

When a friend texted me Sunday morning to offer her condolences, I had yet to learn that Billy, 29, had surprised friends by attempting a gainer off a 90-foot cliff into Lake Powell on Friday and failed to reappear at the surface. Billy’s friends, including Jackson resident Scotty Dixon, sprang into action, scouring the area for him. After two members of the group dove multiple times more than 30 feet into the water and could not detect any sign of Billy, the crew called search and rescue. Searchers located Billy’s body using a remotely operated vehicle at approximately 9:40 a.m., Wednesday, Oct. 14, at the base of the cliff where Billy’s friends reported that he entered the water. The search for Billy spanned six days and involved vessels, a dive team, remote operated vehicle specialists and law enforcement.

Perhaps the best testament to Billy’s magnetic personality is the abundance of loyal friends he kept. “Billy could make doing nothing awesome,” Dixon said. “He was just so fun to be around and refused to let anyone be down. Just the best friend anyone could have.”

During their time in Lake Powell last week, Dixon said Billy was looking forward to returning to Michigan this fall to take his registered nurse licensing exam and begin carving a path toward becoming a life coach while still instructing skiing and kayaking. “He wanted to dedicate his life to helping people,” Dixon said.

Michael LaRosa met Billy in 2003 in their hometown of Haslett, Mich., near where Billy’s mother Deb, father Bill and sister Melissa still reside. “That’s when he started dating my sister Angie, who would from then on be the love of his life,” LaRosa recalled. “I was a freshman in high school and he took to me like I was his younger brother. Bill was a world-class wrestler and coached me as I tried my hand at it.”

LaRosa watched Billy train his way to the state championship mat in wrestling.

There, “Billy always gave 110 percent, much like he does with everything in life. He’s always been patient, and willing to help others, particularly if it was a subject he was passionate about.”

When LaRosa was a sophomore in high school, Billy, a freshman in college, introduced him to “the world of tricks.”

The two had recently discovered skiing. “We took a normal four-hour trip to Boyne Highlands in Michigan to ski, and it turned into an eight-hour drive in a whiteout snowstorm to catch some fresh snow and play in the terrain park,” LaRosa said. “That was where Bill and I both learned to do our first 360. He made sure I learned before we left that day.”

This uncompromising resolve, LaRosa said, was emblematic of Billy. “Ever since then, Bill, always with a smile on his face, and determination in his eye, has been pushing his body to enjoy what life had to offer – big ski runs, large tabletops, fast whitewater and inverted tricks.”

Regardless of the activity or venture, LaRosa says Billy would always try to improve his technique, sharing what he learned with anyone he might encounter, and that the two forged deep bonds.

“Bill is the older brother that I never had. Since becoming a part of my family’s life in 2003, he’s always been an outgoing, fun, exciting friend to be around no matter the activity. He introduced me to the Grateful Dead, Phish, wrestling, skiing, and had coached me through my life over the past 12 years as I grew into the man he helped mold me to be.”

After graduating high school in 2004, Billy took his first trip to Jackson Hole.
“He talked about it every chance he got,” LaRosa said. Billy made the move to Jackson after obtaining an associate’s degree in photography from Lansing Community College. For the next seven years, LaRosa found himself frequently visiting Billy, until he too made the pilgrimage out West.

There is one thing in particular that many people identified in Billy, LaRosa said. “If there was an activity he was excited about, no matter what it was, he would share it and soon afterwards it would be your favorite activity too.”

Although he didn’t climb all that often, Billy introduced LaRosa to rock climbing, and made sure LaRosa bought an inflatable kayak. “The water is his favorite spot to be,” LaRosa explained. “It is a great place for him to rest and rejuvenate as we all follow his path trying to enjoy life to the fullest extent.”

Coleman Menke met Billy in the winter of 2006. “It was the first winter in Jackson for both of us. We worked together at the Four Seasons and immediately became great friends,” Menke said. The following summer, Menke and Billy moved into the old KOA campground together with their friend, Nick Evon.

Menke says Billy “was the most genuinely nice, kindhearted, and compassionate person I’ve ever met. He loved his family so much. I remember several times over the years that he flew [back to Michigan] to take care of his mom during a time when she was sick, especially after his parents divorced, when she was alone.”

Billy possessed the same unconditional love for his friends. “He has more friends than anyone I’ve ever known,” Menke said. “He was a blast to be around on even the most mundane days – laughing, joking, making light of almost everything, and usually getting stoked for whatever was coming up next in life. There was never a boring day with Billy Boy.”

Along with Billy’s irrepressible zest for life, Menke was awed by his ability to discern the good in others and his charisma. “He made everyone feel welcome around him. He would always greet you with a big hug and an even bigger smile – a smile that anyone who spent a day with him will never forget.”

When Menke married his wife Melissa in Peru last fall, Billy stood up as his best man. The South American wedding prompted more than a few Jackson folks to make an appearance, including Sam Reece, who enjoyed an unforgettable exploit with Billy during the trip.

“Our adventure truly began the day after the wedding as we headed five hours south of Lima to an oasis in the desert called Huacachina, located in the province of Ica,” Reece recalled. “The following days proved to be a true turning point in my understanding of the human being that Billy was. I had never found a traveling companion so receptive. We made decisions together with ease, and never slowed down. The first days were filled with more ‘touristy’ activities – guided dune buggy trips which included ‘sand boarding’ on wood planks painted white with Velcro strap bindings. (Most people used these as sleds.)”

But Reece and Billy, thirsty for excitement, were convinced there was more to Huacachina than just tourist activities. And they were right.

“That evening we stumbled on the International Sand Ski School near our hostel,” Reece remembered. “After a few hours (and beers) the conversation veered toward Jackson, and what our lives entailed in the mountains that we love so much. Videos and pictures were shared, which led to them inviting us to a 5 a.m. departure (because cold sand is the best sand) for some real sand ski/boarding.”

The next morning, as Billy and Reece walked across the street, they saw the employees laboriously waxing dinosaur equipment. However, they would still have to prove themselves before the real fun ensued. After two short laps of about eight to 10 turns, the guide was pleasantly surprised. So as they waited for the buggy to be ready, the guide built them a little kicker.

“Billy dropped in for the first time and styled out the first air with ease and the guide laughed in astonishment,” Reece said. “This place was magical; Billy and I could not hold back our elation as we headed up for a second attempt at the jump. Oh man, that smile. Billy Burke’s smile was infectious to all around him, he never walked in a room without making it a better place.”

Billy Burke trades the Tetons for sand dunes during a trip to Peru in November 2014. (Photo: Sam Reece)

Billy Burke trades the Tetons for sand dunes during a trip to Peru in November 2014. (Photo: Sam Reece)

When the dune buggy arrived, Billy and Reece spent the next three hours flying up the sand dunes of Ica, Peru, waxing relic gear with pieces of white candles provided by the guides. “Then we ripped down the 1,000-vertical foot dunes, enjoying the turns, high-fiving, laughing and standing in awe at that particular moment in life that we were sharing,” Reece said.

“Billy Burke is the most electric human being I have been lucky enough to cross paths with. I will never replace him. He was an adventurer, motivator, instructor and intended on helping people his entire life in the fields of nursing and life coaching. The absolute best guy anyone could ask for as a friend in this life.”

Friends of Billy’s will gather 5 to 7 p.m., Thursday at Mike Yokel Park. All are welcome. A memorial will be planned for a later date.

What Happened

The six-day search for Billy’s body concluded Wednesday, October 14, after he dove off a 90-foot cliff Friday in Lake Powell in Arizona and did not resurface. Billy was attempting a gainer, where the diver takes off facing forward and performs a backward rotation, on a cliff in the Coconino County portion of Face Canyon.

Dixon was with Billy for their impromptu trip to the desert. “Billy had never been to the desert,” Dixon said. “He was always amped and ready for anything.”

Meeting up with a group of four in Salt Lake City on Oct. 3, Billy and Dixon had their eyes on slot canyons, but flash flooding stalled their plans for the week.

On Friday, Oct. 9, one day before Dixon and Billy were slated to return to Jackson, the group woke up early to go fishing. “We caught three fish and went back to camp to have breakfast,” Dixon recalled. “Then we loaded up on the boat to go water skiing and went to the canyon to take a bath.”

However, while the crew bathed, Billy had something else in mind. Dixon soon discovered Billy on top of the cliff. “He said he wanted to dive off of the rock, so we took a depth finder and learned that the water was more than 150 feet deep,” Dixon said.

The group then positioned the boat and a jet ski in preparation for Billy’s dive. However, Billy’s friends were not prepared for his decision to perform a back-flip. “If any of us would have known he was going to attempt a gainer we wouldn’t have let him do it,” Dixon lamented.

Unable to make a full rotation, Billy was knocked out cold when his feet hit the water, Dixon said.

The group immediately sprang into action.

“We sent the jet ski first,” Dixon said. “We had two free divers who were a part of the crew and each dove down multiple times 30 to 35 feet looking for Billy.”

After the divers were not successful locating Billy, Dixon sent the jet skier to the nearest houseboat to contact search and rescue. Park rangers, officials from Utah State Park and Coconino Sheriff officials arrived to the scene within minutes, said Christiana Admiral, spokesperson for Glen Canyon Recreation Area.

“It is really rugged terrain – sharp hills and valleys and where they are searching is not flat bottom. This is making the search slow and challenging,” Admiral explained Monday.

At such murky depths, it is not efficient to send divers because they can only spend two minutes at the bottom and must take 20 minutes to reach the surface, Admiral said. A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) combed the area instead. Searchers used both video and sonar to capture images of the lake floor.

On Monday they completed a sweep of that area and expanded recovery efforts Tuesday, focusing on clear, shallower areas that are safe for divers but more difficult to clear with an ROV. “Divers will begin searching ledges and alcoves in the canyon wall, as well as finger ledges,” Admiral stated in a press release Monday evening.

A breakthrough came Wednesday with the addition of a 60 percent smaller ROV from Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Lake Patrol Division. More agile for navigating rugged terrain than the ROV in use for the last five days, this ROV, Admiral explained, can approach cliff walls without stirring up as much sediment, which helped searchers to discover Burke’s body.

Burke’s remains have been transported to the Coconino County medical examiner in Flagstaff, Ariz., to determine more details about the cause of death, though authorities say they do not have any reason to suspect foul play.

Admiral said the 6-day search was a “very complicated, slow-going operation thanks to the area’s rugged terrain and water depth.”

According to the Glen Canyon “fall calculator” on its website, cliff diving off a 90-foot cliff means impacting the water at almost 52 miles per hour. The last fatal cliff diving accident in Lake Powell involved a man jumping from a 70-foot cliff on Sept. 11, 2004. His body was recovered at a water depth of 273 feet. Six cliff jumping deaths have occurred in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area since the year 2000.

[The account of Billy Burke’s accident has been revised in this online version to reflect the discovery of Billy’s body in Lake Powell at approximately 9:40 a.m., Wednesday, Oct. 14.]

Contact Robyn Vincent at

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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