Shane McConkey 1969-2009 Dying To Fly
Fragment of story that appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Men’s Journal, by Bill Gifford
Shane McConkey spent his life redefining what is possible on skis, and at age 39, he still went bigger than everyone else. But when he died in an over-the-top stunt on March 26, even devoted fans wondered: Have extreme athletes pushed too far?
That last morning, they rode the Sass Pordoi cable car to the summit. Deep in the Dolomite Alps of Italy, Sass Pordoi, at 9,685 feet, is more for tourists and hikers than for skiers; its table-like summit is almost completely ringed by cliffs. But Shane McConkey and JT Holmes had no interest in marked ski runs. They were there for the cliffs.
Clipping in, they skated across the plateau and skied down about 300 vertical feet before traversing a slanting ledge. The snow was firm, verging on icy, so they switched their skis for crampons. It had snowed during the night, and they had already managed to trigger a small slab avalanche, which slid away from under them and roared over the side, falling hundreds of feet. They paused to collect their wits, then kept going, reaching their destination just before 2 pm.
Shane McConkey had jumped this cliff before, in summer, and ski-BASE-ing it had been on his to-do list ever since. Now that he was pushing 40, he was checking items off that list as fast as he could.
To gauge the height of the cliff, they threw stones over the side and timed the drop. Eleven seconds later, Holmes heard one smack the scree field at the base. They guessed the cliff was about 1,400 feet tall, maybe more. Holmes remembers that the trees down in the valley looked really small, and he took comfort in that; it suggested they were high enough to pull off a stunt nobody else but them had ever done: a combined ski-wingsuit-BASE jump.
Shane McConkey and Holmes would ski down a steep, hanging snowfield and launch themselves straight off the edge of the cliff; jettisoning their skis, they would then spread their arms and legs to open a wingsuit, a high-tech fabric garment that would allow them to fly. Steering the wingsuit with their arms, they would swoop out over the valley like flying squirrels before finally throwing their chutes to land. Two camera crews would film the whole thing for Matchstick Productions, the world’s leading maker of ski movies.
On paper, the stunt sounds insane, but it was something Shane McConkey and Holmes had been carefully developing for years. They had both done ski-wingsuit-BASE jumps before; JT had pulled one from a nearby cliff the day before. After sizing up the line and choosing the best takeoff point, Shane McConkey and Holmes used their avalanche shovels to pile the thin, windblown snow onto their run-in, building a small kicker jump at the edge to carry them well clear of the wall.
Finally, at 5:30 pm, the light was perfect for filming. The men tested their bindings one more time, pulling on the release straps they had designed. Both sets released perfectly. JT radioed the film crew: all set. “Dropping!” he called, and leaned down the slope, arcing six strong, graceful turns before pointing his skis toward the edge and launching himself off the kicker into open air.
Holmes turned two quick backflips, then yanked on the straps that jettisoned his skis, arching his back and spreading his arms and legs so the wingsuit could catch the air. He flew away from the wall for 15 to 20 seconds before the sharp report of his chute banging open echoed across the valley and up the cliff. As he dropped to the snow, Holmes noticed that the trees in the valley really were small, but he didn’t think much of it; turning, he pointed his helmet cam back up the cliff, waiting to film his best friend’s jump.
But McConkey never came. Later, when Holmes forced himself to watch his friend’s helmet-cam footage, he saw exactly what had happened. Shane McConkey had jumped not long after him and hit the kicker perfectly. But when he came out of his flips and yanked the release straps, only his right ski came off; the left one stayed fixed to his boot. Worse, the right ski had gotten snagged on the left, leaving both skis attached to his body. As McConkey picked up speed, his free fall became more unstable. If he threw his chute, it would go straight up into his skis and get tangled.
But JT could see that even in this desperate situation, Shane didn’t panic. They had talked about this scenario. Shane calmly, methodically reached down to manually release the binding, working to get the right ski off as he plummeted to Earth. Finally it popped free: Both skis flew clear from his body, and Shane McConkey was able to quickly flip over onto his belly to throw his chute. But he was already nine seconds into free fall, and the ground was right there, rushing up to meet him at 110 miles per hour.
It was fitting that Shane McConkey went out with his ski boots on. Whether or not it was inevitable is subject to debate. A once-in-a-generation athlete, Shane McConkey had not only influenced the way people skied; he actually altered the skis themselves, first by jump-starting the fat-ski revolution in the mid-1990s, and then by inventing pontoon-style powder skis, based on water skis, that are fast becoming standard for soft snow.
In a sport where 60-foot cliff-hucks are now common ski-movie fare, Shane McConkey was still pushing at the boundaries. Year after year, in film after film, nobody went bigger than Shane and JT. They were already the acknowledged masters of ski-BASEing, having skied off the world’s most spectacular cliffs, from the north face of the Eiger to Norway’s Trollstigen Wall. It was there that they filmed a shot-for-shot re-creation of the opening scene of The Spy Who Loved Me, with McConkey as Bond leaping off the 3,000-foot precipice, pursued by Holmes.
Such exploits cemented Shane McConkey’s iconic status. Best of all, he was getting paid to live his dream, by Red Bull, K2, and a handful of other sponsors. Even at 39, with a wife and three-year-old daughter back in Squaw Valley, he wasn’t ready to give it up.
“You step off the edge, and everything goes away,” an emotional McConkey explained to an interviewer in early March, days before he died. “You’re flying now. You’re a bird.”
McConkey was just as well known for his shaggy, approachable persona, freckle-faced smile, and sense of humor apparently on loan from Beavis and Butthead. He was always playing a joke, often as his alter ego, Saucer Boy — a neon-Bogner-jacketed, Jack Daniel’s–swilling, saucer-riding, ass-grabbing caricature of, well, Shane Shane McConkey. Even if you’d never met McConkey, you felt like you knew him. More than 2,000 people packed his memorial service at Squaw in April, and countless tribute videos appeared on YouTube. Online donations poured in for Shane’s widow, Sherry, and daughter, Ayla. He was mourned in ski towns from Chile to Bulgaria; one friend, snowboarder Jeremy Jones, christened an unnamed Alaskan peak “Mount McConkey,” and another friend commemorated him by dropping into one of Shane’s favorite steep runs naked.
“He was adored,” says filmmaker Scott Gaffney, one of Shane McConkey’s oldest friends. “He was the clown prince of the ski industry.”
In the raw weeks after his death, friends and fans wavered between sadness and denial. “I keep thinking he’s playing a joke, and he’ll pop up somewhere,” one close friend said. Death was certainly no stranger this year to the tight-knit community of Squaw locals: A well-liked patroller had been killed in a slide, and a promising 21-year-old freestyle star had died in a rare in-bounds avalanche.
McConkey was careful — meticulous to the point of neurotic, friends say. “Shane’s one of those guys that’s so talented you never expect something like this to happen,” says Holmes. “He really thinks things through, and he has so much talent to fall back on. Nobody thinks Superman can die, you know?”
But when news of Shane McConkey’s death hit the mainstream media, the reaction was somewhat different: How could he not have died? And what was the risk taking for? A vicious debate broke out online between McConkey’s fans and anonymous posters writing things like, “Sorry, but I don’t feel sorry for him. He HAD to know that this sport would kill him someday, he just didn’t know what day. When you get bored with life and push the envelope, your number will come up sooner than later.”
But “bored with life” is hardly a phrase friends would use to describe Shane Shane McConkey. And he was far from reckless: His stunts were the result of a decade of careful progression, beginning with skydiving in the late 1990s and including hundreds of BASE jumps, ski-BASEs, and wingsuit flights, each one carefully logged and analyzed. Holmes and others say Shane was the first to back out if conditions weren’t right. He’d whittled the odds down as much as he could, but the odds caught up with him, as they do in blackjack. The house always wins.
“My mind goes to the people left behind,” says film director Mark Obenhaus, who interviewed both Shane McConkey and Coombs for the documentary Steep. “I saw these guys as heroic in some way; there’s something amazing and wonderful about what they were doing. But gosh, there’s been a lot of tragedy.”
Says Glen Plake, whose 1980s ski movies inspired McConkey’s career: “When people are passing away on a monthly basis, you gotta wonder: Have we gone too far here? Have we gotten to the point where the human body doesn’t bounce that good after all?”
“Dude, this is a real kick to the soul for me,” Miles Daisher says, looking up from his Red Bull parachute canopy, which lies bunched on the floor of his hotel room near Puget Sound. Normally energetic to the point of hyperactivity — he once BASE jumped 57 times in 24 hours, setting a world record — Daisher is somber and subdued. “Shane was my best friend,” he says.
It’s mid-April, barely three weeks after Shane McConkey’s death, and a few members of the Red Bull skydiving, paragliding, and BASE-jumping team — the Red Bull Air Force — have gathered at an airfield near Renton, Washington, for a few days of intensive free-fall practice. Shane was supposed to be here too. He was a key member of the 12-flyer-strong Air Force, and arguably the most important: In 1998, before the Austrian energy drink even went on the market in the U.S., he became the first North American athlete Red Bull sponsored.
At the time, McConkey was known primarily as a skier, but he was beginning to get into BASE jumping. Daisher was living in the Trampoline House, a legendary Squaw ski-bum hangout that was also home to skier Kent Kreitler and an accomplished young BASE jumper named Frank Gambalie, who began teaching Miles and Shane his sport.
Though BASE jumping had been around for two decades, it was still very underground and experimental. Shorthand for “buildings, antennas, spans, Earth,” BASE jumping boils down to leaping off cliffs or fixed, tall structures with a parachute. But whereas skydivers could rely on reserve chutes and long-established techniques from paratroopers, early BASE jumpers were essentially learning by trial and error — with “error” usually meaning death or serious injury. Jumpers would get tangled in their lines or caught by winds that slammed them into the cliff or structure from which they’d just jumped. As Daisher puts it, “In BASE jumping, you’re constantly doing things to try and save your life.”
Gambalie was a master; he’d managed to leap off New York’s Chrysler building, steering his chute between the skyscrapers and landing on a side street, where he hailed a cab to Brooklyn. That exploit alone qualified “The Gambler,” as he was known, for immortality. Then in June 1999, after jumping from El Capitan, Gambalie fled from Yosemite park rangers and drowned in the Merced River.
After Gambalie died, Daisher and Shane McConkey started BASE jumping together, partly as a way to avenge their mentor’s death. McConkey turned into a kind of BASE-jumping evangelist, and together with Miles staged a “Death Camp” — short for “Plunge to Your Death Camp” — where they convinced total newbies to fling themselves off the Perrine Bridge across Idaho’s Snake River Canyon. The first “campers” were their girlfriends (now wives), Sherry and Nikki, followed by friends like Scott Gaffney and JT Holmes. They BASE jumped at their bachelor parties (after doing beer funnels) and pretty much anytime they had a few hours to spare. Shane McConkey liked to brag about Death Camp’s “100 percent failure rate,” meaning nobody had actually died. His sense of humor was like that: ironic, with a dash of morbid. When friends left to go on dangerous expeditions, Shane would wag his finger and recite his favorite line from Dumb and Dumber: “Don’t you go dyin’ on me!”
“He’s just the nicest guy you’ll ever meet,” says Daisher, still speaking of his dead friend in the present tense. “I honestly can’t believe this happened. As my wife said, the safety bubble just burst. Because she thought we had a magic bubble around us.”
Perhaps they did. By the time of his death, McConkey had more than 800 BASE jumps to his credit — a good number of them with Miles — with only one really close call, in 2003, when he jumped in bad conditions and slammed into a cliff called the Chief, near Whistler, as his wife and father watched. He barely managed to save himself by grabbing a lone pine tree on a ledge halfway down — then pulled out his cell phone and called Daisher, back in Squaw, for advice.
Shane McConkey also hooked Daisher up with a Red Bull sponsorship, which completely changed his friend’s life. Up until that point, Daisher had been something of a dirtbag BASE jumper, living in a tent and working as a parachute instructor. Red Bull paid him a basic retainer in the low five figures, plus additional money for appearing at demonstration events and going on Red Bull–sponsored expeditions. The money wasn’t huge, but it meant that he and Nikki could actually buy a house in Twin Falls, Idaho, near the BASE-legal Perrine Bridge — and Miles could devote himself full-time to his passion.
Over the previous six months, Shane and Miles had been on a BASE binge: They leaped into an enormous natural sinkhole in China; dropped from the Peak to Peak tram at Whistler; performed at an air show in Mexico; and wingsuited or BASE jumped off pretty much every cliff in the spectacular fjordlands of New Zealand’s South Island, where they spent three weeks this past February — normally the heart of Shane’s ski season — filming a movie for Red Bull. “We were on fire,” Daisher says. And Red Bull paid for it all.
To be fair, Shane McConkey hardly needed encouragement; Red Bull helped give him a comfortable lifestyle and flew him all over the world, but he would have been jumping off cliffs even if he were still a penniless ski bum delivering pizzas. Which is pretty much how his mother, Glenn McConkey, saw his life playing out after high school, when he was cut from the U.S. Ski Team because he was too small.
“It was catastrophic,” his mother remembers. “The biggest thing that ever happened to Shane was getting dumped by the U.S. Ski Team. They motivated him, more than anybody else, to become a well-known skier.”
In the short term, Shane McConkey floundered. He dropped out of the University of Colorado at Boulder and jumped to the pro mogul tour — where he was disqualified from a competition at Vail for throwing a backflip. In protest, he rode the lift back up and poached the course naked. When the Vail ski patrol banned him, McConkey moved back to Squaw.
There weren’t many ways to make a living by skiing in 1996, so McConkey founded the International Free Skiers Association, or IFSA (alternate meaning: “I Fucking Ski Awesome”). IFSA brought order to the underground world of extreme skiing by organizing competitions with judging, rankings, and, most important, sponsors and prize money. He also helped launch a magazine called Freeze to publicize the new free-skiing movement.
McConkey had essentially created his own dream job, with a simple business model: Sponsors would pay him to use their skis and wear their jackets; he’d make sure he got into the right movies and magazines. If he did well in competitions, great, but the real goal was exposure. “He paved the way for the next generation of skiers to have careers,” says Holmes, 10 years his junior.
By 2001 McConkey was notorious enough to merit his own movie — something only extreme-ski legend Scot Schmidt had achieved. Filmed by his friend Scott Gaffney, There’s Something About Shane McConkey showcased Shane in all his dimensions, from mogul-skiing ace to cliff-hucking mountain ripper to Buster Keatonesque Saucer Boy. He even threw rad tricks in the terrain park, showing all the snowboard punks that skiing could be cool.
“I can’t picture him as a racer,” says former World Cup downhiller Daron Rahlves, who knew Shane well. “Not that he didn’t have it in him, but his creativity had a chance to grow in ways racing gates wouldn’t allow.”
The fat skis are a perfect example. When they came on the market in the mid-1990s, fatties were for intermediates and tourists. Shane saw it differently: The fat skis floated on top of the snow, like a snowboard, letting him ski bigger terrain with more confidence and speed — and fewer turns. Shane McConkey started using a new line of expert fat skis from Volant called Chubbs in 1996, and skis have been getting wider ever since.
A few years later, he was on a lift with Gaffney, who wondered aloud whether you could ski soft snow on water skis, which were enormously fat and cambered (or curved), the reverse of snow skis. Shane proved it by mounting bindings to old skis with a water-ski rocker and shredding a 1,500-foot British Columbia face for the Matchstick cameras. Soon Volant came out with another radical product, the Spatulas: reverse-camber, reverse-sidecut boards that broke every rule of modern ski design, yet worked beautifully in soft conditions. Now several companies make reverse-camber skis, including McConkey’s sponsor K2, and their popularity is taking off.
“A lot of people can think outside the box, have an idea or some sort of epiphany in their mind,” says Holmes. “But Shane, with his follow-through, would make it happen.”
Perhaps Shane’s biggest epiphany was that his two favorite sports, skiing and BASE jumping, could be combined. He had talked about it for years, while planning and laying the groundwork, scouting lines and perfecting his technique. Finally, on January 15, 2003, he and JT stood atop a well-known rock-climbing cliff near Tahoe called Lovers Leap. They were both really nervous, JT remembers, but when they skied off the edge, their parachutes opened perfectly and they landed elated.
Others had ski-BASEd before, notably Rick Sylvester, the stuntman and Squaw legend who performed Bond’s stunts in The Spy Who Loved Me. Sylvester made the first recorded ski-BASE from El Cap in 1972, and since then other daredevils had tried it, but JT and Shane were the first to incorporate it as a regular element in their skiing. The parachute let them ski lines no one had ever tried, precisely because they ended in giant cliffs. “We realized we could use a parachute the way ski mountaineers use a rope,” Shane McConkey explained in March. “We look at mountains with new goggles now.”
Before long, you almost couldn’t watch a ski movie without seeing Shane and JT launch off a cliff — or some other big-mountain skier who had adopted the technique, like Erik Roner. But not many athletes had the nerve. “To keep it interesting, you’ve got to do something more with each jump, to further the progression,” admits Will Gadd, who tried BASE jumping but soon abandoned it. “For me, I could kind of see how it was gonna go. I thought the timeline was kind of short.”
Having mastered the ski-BASE jump, Shane McConkey was already thinking of ways to up the ante. In Norway in 2007, while filming the Bond sequence, Shane and JT tried out something new: the ski-wingsuit-BASE. Here was a trick nobody else was doing — and looking back, this might have been a warning sign. Shane was well aware of the odds: From their own experience, JT says, they knew that in one of roughly every 100 BASE jumps, something goes wrong. The history of BASE jumping and skydiving tells a grim tale, from BASE founder Carl Boenish (died jumping in Norway in 1984) to wingsuit inventor Patrick de Gayardon (died in a skydiving mishap in Hawaii in 1998). It’s dangerous to be a pioneer.
With the ski-wingsuit-BASE, there was no one to show them the way, nobody else to make mistakes for them. They were in truly uncharted territory, but they weren’t done: Their mission on that fateful trip to Italy was to nail the first double-stage ski-BASE, where they would ski off one cliff, parachute down and land on a snowfield, then cut away and drop off another cliff using a second chute — all in one fluid shot.
As Shane McConkey said in the interview shortly before he died, “This is exploration for us.”
They were exploring parts of mountains that had never before been skied, but they were also pursuing that oldest, most tantalizing, and most dangerous dream of all: the dream of human flight.
Because of his line of work, Shane McConkey could not hold life insurance. A group has been set up on Facebook to raise money to help his wife and daughter.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.
Source: Bill Gifford, Men’s Journal article
Photo: Shane McConkey at 2008 BASE Race, source: upload.wikimedia.org author: Mcconkeyfan