Shane McConkey died last week in a ski/BASE-jumping accident in the Italian Dolomites. He was filming with his long-time buddies at Matchstick Productions. He was 39 years old.
You can’t say his death was unexpected, given all the crazy stuff McConkey had done in his life. Maybe we dreaded its inevitability without ever allowing ourselves to think the thought outright. Still, it comes as a punch to the gut to anyone who hangs it out on rock, or in the air, or in avalanche country.
McConkey’s exit – in action, at the height of his powers – puts him in good company. There was Buddy Werner, dead at 28 in 1964 under a mountain of Swiss snow. Extreme pioneer Patrick Vallencant, 43, rappelling off a French cliff. Alex Lowe, snuffed at 37, ten years ago in Tibet. Doug Coombs, 49, looking to help a fallen friend, slipping, falling himself.
And there were certainly intimations that McConkey was using up his nine lives. Over the last ten years, he had suffered six season-ending injuries, including a dislocated hip, cartwheeling at speed, down a big Alaskan peak. He did an interview with Skiing magazine last fall in which he assumed his ski-movie alter ego, Saucerboy. “You can’t kill Saucerboy,” he said, equal parts jester and desperado. “I’m like Kenny in ‘South Park.’ I’m too damn tough.”
It’s amazing that Shane’s dad, Jim McConkey, survived his own brazen youth. A lot of people think that Jim was more talented and did crazier stuff on skis than his son did. In 1948 when he was 22 he skied into a crevasse on the Columbia Ice Field and nearly died of his multiple fractures. He was a legend at Alta and Whistler in the 1960s – skiing “impossible” chutes, jumping over airplanes, jumping off anything – extreme before the term was coined. Squaw Valley Olympic gold medalist Ernst Hinterseer claimed that “McConk” was “the best all-around skier in the world” during that era.
Shane picked up his father’s mantle in the 1990s, when snowboarding’s skate-rat culture had made skiing on two sticks look moribund. He didn’t do it alone, but he helped define a skiing Renaissance fueled on daring and irreverence. And innovation. He championed wide, beefy skis and hitherto unimagined big-mountain lines. He threw back flips off the Palisades at Squaw. He set the bar for a generation of insanely talented ski-film stars.
In the mid-1990s he convinced Volant to build him a reverse-camber, reverse-sidecut powder ski, a ski that owed more to water skiing than to anything in the mountain realm. The Spatula, he called it, was derided initially as a stunt. But now “rocker” skis are built by every major ski manufacturer and are generally regarded as brilliant tools for deep snow.
Restive on the ground, he took up BASE jumping. A parachute allowed him to ski down huge, aesthetic lines that had never been skied before – because they ended in impassable cliffs. McConkey would ski down them, drop his poles near the edge, and swan dive into space. Eventually, he’d throw his pilot chute, then paraglide to safety. Other skiers followed; McConkey was the imagineer.
He’d done about 700 successful ski/BASE jumps before last week. On his fatal leap, he was again trying something new. The plan was to jettison his skis mid-flight and sail down the 2,000-foot high cliff in his wingsuit. But, following his signature flips off the lip, the ski bindings didn’t release as planned. McConkey struggled upside down to release the bindings manually. Twelve seconds into his fall, he got the skis off, but too late to fully deploy his chute. He died on impact with the snow.
McConkey leaves behind a wife and 3-year-old daughter, in Truckee, Calif. It breaks your heart to look at the pictures. But you have to think that families of extreme athletes have entered into some kind of understanding, some kind of pact with one another about the possible consequences. Alex Lowe was, like McConkey apparently, a loving father to his three sons. And yet he kept going back, taking risks in the big mountains. He just couldn’t “shake it off,” he wrote. “That’s what I am.”
McConkey was that way. He was asked in one video whether all the injuries were worth it. “Yes,” he said without hesitation. “To keep doing what we do. Nothing better than sliding down snow, flying through the air.”
After hearing the news, an online fan wrote: “It feels like Superman died.”