At times one can only shudder with the evidence that time is not just passing, but that it is going in a circle.
For Squaw Valley’s Shane McConkey, his life came full circle March 26 when he was unable to deploy his parachute during a 12-second freefall from the Sass Pordoi cliff in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains.
Matchstick Productions released a statement on March 26, describing the tragic event from eyewitness reports: ‘J.T. Holmes, a close friend and long-time jump partner of McConkey who had jumped the 600-meter [1,968.5 feet] cliff moments before Shane, said McConkey performed a double backflip from the cliff and planned to release his skis and then fly in his wingsuit, a stunt he’s executed a number of times. But when both skis failed to release upon tugging on straps leashed to his legs, McConkey went into an upside down position as he manually attempted to release his bindings. Because throwing a chute while inverted poses the likelihood of the canopy and lines becoming entangled in the skis, McConkey used valuable seconds to focus on removing both skis and succeeded. He quickly turned into a classic, face down BASE jumping position to throw his pilot chute (which pulls out the main canopy), but after 12 seconds of freefall he struck snow immediately before there was time to react. He was killed upon impact.’
He was 39 years old.
McConkey leaves behind his wife, Sherry, and three-year-old daughter Ayla.
‘He traveled a lot and whenever they could, they would go together,’ said Glenn McConkey, his mother. ‘Shane was a terrific family man. His family came first and he would have traveled less, but that’s how he made his living.’
McConkey’s death immediately sent shock waves throughout the international ski community.
‘McConkey’s vision was a step ahead of the crowd,’ said close friend and filmmaker Scott Gaffney. ‘Shane showed how to straight-line, billy-goat and get inverted anywhere on the mountain, often in places where the most skilled skiers were nervous just to drop in. He opened our eyes to what was possible on a mountain, and he was the match that ignited a revolution.’
‘I once asked him, ‘Why are you doing these things?,’’ says Hank de Vre, a notable adventure photographer who documented many of Shane’s exploits. ‘‘Don’t you want to record my demise?’ Shane said. I can’t help but admit I always scratched my head and worried.’
‘This was a worry that we always shared in the back of our minds,’ said Bob Greer, McConkey’s stepfather. ‘It’s not natural for parents to outlive their children. It’s not how things are supposed to be.’
Proponent and inventor of reverse side cut and reverse camber skis, McConkey’s resume reads much like a Homer Odyssey. He won nearly every serious big mountain event that ever existed. In the park he was arguably the first to pull a switch front. He had skier cross victories, pro mogul victories. His magical mystery tour ran a gauntlet of accomplishment like few others; 2000 Gravity Games Big Mountain Champion; 2000 Japan Core Games skier cross champion; second place 1999 ESPN X-Games skier cross; 1998 World Tour of Freeskiing champion and European Freeskiing champion; 1995 and 1996 South American Freeskiing champion; 1995 US National Freeskiing champion; 1994 second place World Extreme Skiing Championships.
It’s easy to admire someone who isn’t afraid to love their dreams, but McConkey’s dreams crossed over into Oz. In 1997, his late friend Frank Gambalie introduced him to BASE (Building, Antenna, Span, Earth) jumping, a venerated and radical sport inducing a personal euphoria comparable to having groovy sex and nosebleeds at the same time.
In 2003, Shane began to incorporate BASE-jumping into his ski film segments, launching a double-front flip from near the summit of Switzerland’s Eiger.
His life quickly became obsessed with BASE-jumping missions around the globe. He jumped about every type of object, from cliff to antennae tower, bridges and skyscrapers. As his descents became riskier and more eye-popping, so too did the money and accolades.
‘Shane became this one of a kind icon,’ explains Chris ‘Uncle E’ Ernst. ‘His accomplishments were beyond legendary. He was a god. And as god’s do, they treat everyone with equal respect. That is what made Shane a cut above the rest and god-like.’
Free to roam, whether flying through canyons in Norway, dropping off towers in Korea, sticking it off the Eiger, or Rocky-the-Squirreling into Chinese sinkholes, Shane became the first to complete a triple back flip while BASE jumping with skis on, a feat he accomplished near Echo Summit off Lover’s Leap, a 600-foot sheer granite cliff located about 20 miles southwest of Lake Tahoe.
This winter, always scheming about new projects, he was allowed to BASE jump Whistler’s new Peak-to-Peak gondola that joins Whistler to Blackcomb. (According to Squaw Valley, CEO Nancy Cushing had called McConkey in Italy about two weeks before he died to inform him that his dream of BASE-jumping off the Cable Car would finally be allowed to come true next season as a way to kick-off the resort’s 60th anniversary celebrations.)
‘I’m really lucky, incredibly fortunate, to live out my dreams. I’m not saying to anyone that this is the way to go. But I am into the ‘seize the day’ concept. Don’t save anything for later in life, go do it right now,’ Shane told me one time.
Yet, at the same time, there became something eerie, almost creepy about his bopping around in space wearing a high-tech flying squirrel suit and screaming around the wild blue yonder, picking flowers off forbidding monstrous rock walls and such.
‘I tried to be the voice of reason and often said, ‘Shane, you’ve got to chill on this stuff,’’ said Mike Douglas, a Whistler-based friend who often traveled on location with Shane.
Shane was the throne of cool, charged and peaceful at the same time, so good, so Superman-like in every aspect of his life – he made these face-melting exploits seem almost routine – he was so smooth that we all forgot about the haunting tale of Icarus who flew too close to the sun. We never heard about the season-ending injuries or the close calls like the time he struck the wall near Vancouver. He was the Michael Jordan of his culture and damn if he wouldn’t always hit that game-ending hoop.
‘He just loved the outdoors and loved being an adventurer,’ Glenn said about her son. ‘I didn’t worry. I believed that he should take advantage of every day, and make the best of it.’
Talk about ultimate cool – McConkey shrugged it all off, kept his sanity and sense of humor. He knew death was a tall order, and that you don’t pull its teeth so easily.
Instead, he became known for his oddball sense of humor as much as his ability to leap off mountain cliffs.
The star of over 20 ski flicks, including Warren Miller’s ‘Higher Ground,’ at age 31 Shane garnered acclaim by starring in the Scott Gaffney film spectacular, ‘There’s Something About McConkey.’ The 35-minute film, produced by Matchstick Productions, documented McConkey’s career and his rather zany ways in a kind of VHI ‘Behind the Music’ manner. Footage contained everything from McConkey going big in British Columbia to sucking a spaghetti noodle up his nose. Around the same time, Shane began developing alter egos such as ‘Cliff Huckstable’ and ‘Saucerboy,’ a character that teased the too-cool-for-school, smug, hip ski set. For Saucerboy he wore tacky neon clothing, moonwalker on super-short ‘snowlerblades,’ and shredded everything from terrain parks to far-away peaks on a plastic flying saucer toy.
‘Shane had a more diverse and varied career of any skier today,’ Gaffney said. ‘He’s not only a world champion, but a natural ham in front of the camera.’
From the beginning, the world was his stage. Born December 30, 1969, McConkey’s mother, Glenn, recalls the time as a 10-year-old living in Santa Cruz he auditioned for the lead in ‘Peter and The Wolf,’ an event to be filmed for television with the Santa Cruz Symphony. Out of 1,000 boys who auditioned, McConkey was one of two chosen for the role of Peter.
‘I was actually against him becoming involved. I didn’t like the environment with all these parents pushing their kids to become some star in Hollywood,’ remembers Glenn. ‘But Shane was insistent. It became clear to me then and there that when he really wanted something it wasn’t my role to stand in his way.’
If his genetic make up from two exceptional parental athletes didn’t make him a champion of sorts, his environment helped.
An only child, he grew up in strict surroundings, but one that had the mountains as a playground. Glenn is a renowned ski racer and two-time Masters skier-of-the-year who still regularly wins age-category competitions. His father, Jim McConkey, taught for famed skimeister Luggi Foeger at Gray Rocks in Quebec and at Badger Pass in Yosemite. He also worked for Alf Engen at Alta, Junior Bounous at Sugar Bowl and was the first ski school director at Park City Mountain Resort and the namesake for the resort’s McConkey chairlift. Personable and well mannered off the slopes, Jim was an ‘enfant terrible’ in the air and on the snow. His penchant for skiing steeps and launching off rocks were beyond the rational thought of the era.
‘‘Crazy McConkey,’ that’s what Luggi called him,’ recalls Bill Klein of Sugar Bowl. ‘There wasn’t a rock he didn’t jump off. He was a very powerful skier. I used to ski with him and he was crazy.’
In 1968, Jim helped open Whistler ski area in British Columbia. He ran their ski school until 1980.
‘Shane’s had a tremendous advantage. He began skiing before he was one year old,’ says mother Glenn. ‘Whistler was a very small village and lacked babysitters. As a result I’d place him in my backpack and he’d cruise around with me on the slopes.’
Under his parents’ tutelage, McConkey learned the dynamics of skiing; balance means leverage; leverage means speed; speed means power, because balance and leverage are behind the speed, not muscle. McConkey’s pedigree would be fine-tuned at Burke Academy, a ski race prep school in Vermont. At age 16, while racing in Alaska at the Junior Nationals, he broke his back. Injury and disinterest by U.S. Ski Team officials kept him from pursuing an amateur race career so he jumped out of the gates and joined the Pro Mogul Tour. (By denying him his first dream of being on the team, Glenn says she believes the U.S.
Ski Team probably has no idea how much they motivated her son to go out and live the dream in other ways.) In his first year of competition, he finished eighth overall and won a tour event at Copper Mountain. He moved to Boulder, Colorado, to attend university, but dropped out to compete in the nascent world of big-mountain freeride skiing.
‘Shane just stepped in out of nowhere and won an event. It was incredible,’ remembers Miller Pro Mogul team member Brad Holmes. ‘I think that was the first time people really noticed him, but he became one of the best in the world.’
That’s how it goes. One can question how at the height of so much success and popularity, with a gorgeous wife and precious child, and with a lot of untapped potential to go, this man could be taken from this world.
‘It’s an ultimate goal for me to ski off a cliff and parachute. There’s nothing better than sliding down snow, flying through the air. I’m trying to put a creative twist on BASE jumping and skiing and do something no one’s seen before,’ Shane told me this past Christmas. ‘I just want to keep the interest flowing and ride this wild horse.’
Most would have carried the solemn, even stolid expression of a man who has gone through a number of doors in his life without absolute certainty that he would walk out again. This time, much to our utter disbelief, he did not.
Shane McConkey will always remain as he lived, both friend and human spirit, and maybe this is the real integrity and the truest belief: The belief in the self as something that endures through time, despite affectations and crushing tragedies.
~ Visit http:// shanemcconkey.org to share your memories and send your wishes and support to Sherry and Ayla. See Shane’s blog the day before he died at http:// redbullairforce.com/2009/03/we-nailed-the-sassongher-line-today.