Shane McConkey obit (long)

I wrote a shorter version of this obituary that appeared in yesterday’s Globe & Mail. Here is the unedited version.

Lives Lived: Shane McConkey, Extreme skier, BASE jumper, Goofball.

In the Scott Gaffney directed ski movie, “There’s Something About McConkey,” Shane McConkey’s mother Glenn says that ” When he was 3 or 4 years old, he was definitely very afraid of heights, but it seems like he’s gotten over it.”

Smiling impishly, the extreme skier/BASE jumper begs to differ.

“Unh-uh. That’s what makes it fun.”
Shane McConkey, who once said, “There’s something really cool about getting scared. I don’t know what” experienced his final thrill last Thursday when he died during a BASE jump mishap in the Italian Dolomites.

Word about his death was posted almost instantly on the Teton Gravity Research website internet forums, where McConkey occasionally contributed under the alias “Cliff Huckstable” (“hucking” is a ski term that describes jumping off a cliff).

Jim Sloves, McConkey’s friend from Lake Tahoe, succinctly wrote “It’s like hearing that Superman died.”

Superman might have died, but in McConkey’s case his alias was Bart Simpson, not Clark Kent. McConkey was known for his oddball sense of humour as much as his ability to leap off mountain cliffs in a single bound.

The 39 year-old from Olympic Valley CA was the product of a brief marriage between Whistler Mountain ski school director and heli-skiing pioneer Jim McConkey (there is a ski run on Whistler named after him) and his second wife Glenn, a renowned ski racer who still regularly wins age-category races. Ms. McConkey once said that “Shane did so many flips in the womb that he got the cord wrapped around his neck and wouldn’t come out.”

Though born in Vancouver, Shane McConkey was raised in the United States and attended the prestigious Burke Mountain Academy, a breeding ground for some of America’s top racers. He moved to Boulder, CO, to attend college and ski race, but dropped out to compete in the nascent world of big mountain freeride skiing in Squaw Valley, CA and Alaska. “He set out to create his own future,” says filmmaker Scott Gaffney, who became McConkey’s muse.

Though schooled in both racing and freestyle mogul skiing, McConkey’s fame shone at this farthest fringe of adventure sport, skiing near-vertical faces and couloirs in Alaska, South America, and Europe.

Jake Bogoch, editor of Skiing magazine, says, “I first met Shane when I was 17, when   I drove all the way from Calgary to Alaska to watch the 1994 World Extreme Skiing Championships. As you might expect, there was a lot of swagger and testosterone among the competitors. Shane, though, was super-friendly and really impressed that someone had driven all the way from Canada just to hang out. He was a funny, self-deprecating guy.”

McConkey was instrumental in forming the International Free Skiing Association tour and was twice crowned tour champion.

During this time, videos were proving to be a popular way for ski and accessory manufacturers to promote their products to an eager, testosterone filled audience. Though he placed highly in several freestyle and extreme skiing competitions and even dabbled in the new Olympic sport of ski cross, McConkey’s fame will forever be linked with fifteen skiing movies produced by Matchstick Productions, an insurgent film company based in Crested Butte, CO, and directed by Mr. Gaffney. When MSP released the feature documentary There’s Something About McConkey in 2001, his career was really only getting started. McConkey’s reputation was not just as an adventure skier, but as a free-spirited personality who loved nothing better than having a few good laughs at his own expense.

Creating his alter-ego “Saucerboy,” McConkey chugged Jack Daniels bourbon straight from the bottle, wore tacky neon clothing, moonwalked on super-short ‘snowlerblades’, and shredded everything from snow banks to Alaskan peaks on a plastic flying saucer toy. Bogoch says, “Shane was not afraid to send up the whole ski film/sponsorship industry. He had little time for people who took themselves too seriously.” McConkey’s segments were often the ‘grand finale’ of the annual MSP movie.

Yet there was genius in his goofy stunts. He became the first extreme skier to embrace “fat skis.” Nominally designed for beginners so that they could ski powder more easily by skimming along the surface, McConkey pointed his fat skis straight down the fall line and arced out super-fast, high speed turns while surfing on top of the snow.

For the movie Focused, (2003), McConkey mounted a pair of bindings onto an old pair of water skis and tackled a near vertical Alaskan mountain face – and they worked wonders. McConkey developed the Volant Spatula, a super-fat powder ski that challenged not just conventional ski design wisdom but also the way that people skied. The owner’s manual (authored by McConkey) encouraged skiers to slide their turns (a ski instructional heresy) for maximum thrills. A decade later, virtually all mainstream ski companies manufacture reverse-camber skis for deep powder.

“Catching air” was McConkey’s favourite aspect of skiing, which led to embracing parachuting and later BASE (Building, Antenna, Span, Earth) jumping. In 2003, McConkey began to incorporate BASE jumping into his ski film segments, launching a double front flip from near the summit of Switzerland’s Eiger and then deploying his parachute for the ride back to terra firma.

Two of McConkey’s most infamous BASE jumping stunts took place in Canada. In August, 2004, high winds slammed McConkey’s chute into the granite wall of the Squamish Chief, 45 kilometres north of Vancouver, while his father Jim looked on from below. (Father and son reconciled several years ago, and regularly visited when Shane was in BC on film shoots). After his rescue, McConkey sheepishly admitted that he should have been better prepared.

Whistler-based freeskier Mike Douglas often accompanied McConkey on photo and film shoots throughout North America, and every year they teamed up with Chris Davenport, another extreme skier, to go to South America and coach “fantasy skiers” in Davenport’s Ski With the Superstars camp.

“Shane was always scheming about new projects to try, which is what attracted him to BASE jumping,” Douglas says. “When rumours first swirled about this gigantic gondola joining Whistler and Blackcomb, Shane immediately said he wanted to BASE jump from it. We approached Whistler-Blackcomb General Manager Stuart Rempel and he gave Shane the green light to do it.” Two years earlier, McConkey had filmed a parody of James Bond ski films on Whistler’s slopes for Seven Sunny Days which ended with a BASE jump above Garibaldi Lake.

“He was always on us to get us to try BASE jumping, but my wife would kill me if I did,” Douglas says. “I tried to be the voice of reason and often said ‘Shane, you’ve got to chill on this stuff.’ He had suffered through a lot of skiing injuries over the years and BASE jumping wasn’t as hard on his body.”

Douglas says, “though he had this really goofy personality, he was never careless. He really was Mr. Detail when it came to packing his chute and safety equipment.”

Gaffney concurs that McConkey was a BASE jumping zealot; indeed, one of the first people he got to try the sport was his wife Sherry. Gaffney says, “He started something he called “Plunge to Your Death Camp” which entailed taking friends and acquaintances to the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho (the only legal BASE jumping bridge in the US) and sending complete novices BASE jumping off the 500′ high structure spanning the Snake River. He always boasted about having a 0% success rate – no one plunged to his or her death.”

BASE jumping, though, is not a sport to be taken lightly. Will Gadd, a Red Bull sponsored paraglider pilot and ice climber from Canmore, AB, says, “I peered down the rabbit hole of BASE jumping with Shane a few years ago and decided to let him have it. I’d watch Shane jump and say “Wish I could be like Shane,” but I couldn’t. He was always trying to keep his passions fresh and interesting – you look at how he died, combining three sports – extreme skiing, wing suit flying, and BASE jumping – any one of those sports present serious technical challenges. He was at the ragged edge of a ragged sport where you have to be one hundred percent right, every time.”

McConkey made a return to skiing in last year’s movie, Claim. Tinged with a sense of his mortality, McConkey’s opening monologue seems oddly prophetic. “At 38 years old, I was beginning to wonder if I could keep up with these young whippernappers.”

Douglas explains, “Around the time we turned 35, we realized that we were the oldest guys still in this game so we placed this bet about who would be the first person to get too old to have a film segment in a skimovie. We started out by betting each other’s houses. but got it down to the more sensible amount of one dollar.” The segment in Claim features the long-running bet between McConkey and Douglas going public.

Sadly, Mr. Douglas can now collect his dollar. With Saucerboy on it, instead of George Washington.

Shane McConkey, 39,  is survived by his wife Sherry, of Olympic City, CA, and their three year-old daughter Ayla, his father Jim and his mother Glenn.

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