It’s a sad, tragic day for skiing: Shane McConkey, one of the sport’s brightest stars of the last 20 years, was killed today in a ski-BASE accident near Corvara, in Italy’s Dolomite Mountains.
Ski-BASE is like BASE-jumping, i.e. parachuting off fixed objected like cliffs, buildings, and bridges, but on skis, and McConkey was one of its best-known adherents and, indeed, pioneers. The 39-year-old Red Bull athlete was filming with fellow skier J.T. Holmes and Matchstick Productions in Europe and working on a project that had been brewing for a couple of years: scouting the perfect location and preparing for a double ski-BASE jump.
“Shane’s been working on this project for two or three years,” said Scott Gaffney, an MSP filmmaker and close friend of McConkey’s. “It’s where they ski-BASE off a cliff and then fly down to another patch of snow, cut away, land, ski again, and then ski-BASE again. It’s a double BASE all in one run. That’s what they were filming for. And naturally, with those guys, if they aren’t working on that they’re going to be jumping off something else.
“So he and J.T. had built a jump on top of another cliff. I think Shane had done it the day before without a wingsuit and today he was trying it with a wingsuit.”
Gaffney spoke with Holmes immediately after the accident. The other ski-BASE jumper went off the cliff first, with MSP’s Steve Winter shooting video from a helicopter and two other cinematographers shooting nearby, and was landing when the accident occurred.
“Shane did a double backflip and then had some difficulty,” said Gaffney. “He uses these old-school Tyrolia bindings, which release upwards, and they have straps attached that he pulls on to release the skis. So he pulls the bindings, the skis release, and then he flies away in the wingsuit.
“He got one ski off, but then was fighting to get the other one off. In the whole process, he went upside down and had one ski above him, which caused him to spiral. And then he got into a high-speed spin. He was still fighting to get out all the way down. J.T. watched the footage again because he wanted to know what happened. It was hard to see, so this is speculation, but it looked like he was going for his pilot chute. Maybe he couldn’t get to it—he’d complained before that the wingsuit was tight. But we don’t know for sure.”
McConkey, from Olympic Valley, California, made his first ski-BASE jump in 2003 and had over 700 under his belt. Just yesterday, he completed a dramatic ski-BASE in/near the Val Scura Couloir and posted an excited entry on Facebook and his Red Bull page, where he posted a gripping description of the descent and jump. “We nailed the Sassongher line!” he wrote. “This was extremely satisfying getting to ski such a unique line.”
McConkey was one of the most charismatic skiers the sport has ever seen, with a twisted and contagious sense of humor that seeped into nearly everything he did. His Red Bull bio says, “Being remembered as an athlete is nice, but I’d rather be remembered as that guy who helped us all ski better and faster by inventing skis with rocker and reverse sidecut shapes, and who convinced us to use fatter skis — and most importantly, to never take yourself too seriously.”
McConkey is survived by his wife Sherry, and three-year-old daughter, Ayla.
Corvara is located in the Italian Dolomites, just east of Val Gardena and west of Cortina d’Ampezzo. Click maps to enlarge.
McConkey’s segment from MSP’s Push.
If you haven’t seen K2’s tribute page, make sure you do. The photos are vintage McConkey.
A few years ago, well, 11, Leslie Anthony wrote what remains the definitive Shane McConkey profile. It ran in POWDER Magazine and was titled, simply, “The Man”. These excerpts appear courtesy Anthony.
Last March, atop a permanently closed face at Kirkwood ski area, a group of judges in the free-skiing contest taking place that day stares down over the steep, firm snow and rocky chutes, pondering the various lines and looking for a way down.
Naturally–as naturally as a farmer scans the sky for rain–all eyes turn to the man with the sloppy 40-pound duffel slung over his shoulders, an ill-packed bag crammed with shovels, sleeping bag, and judging cards. If anyone can deliver a quick judgement on this ponderous precipice, then surely it will be the steely-eyed 28-year-old with the duffel, even if he is under strict doctor’s orders not to be on skis after tearing his left ACL in January.
But there, leaning over the edge, pointing out what would be considered 3-line, 4-line, and 5-line routes under International Free Ski Association guidelines, is one James Shane McConkey, kingpin of the free-ski underworld, a man whose very name is synonymous with backflips, nude spread-eagles, crotch-grabs–an entire glisse revolution–not to mention killer answering machine imitations of Beavis and Butthead.
Finishing his explanation, McConkey suddenly hitches up the duffel, rips three perfect turns and freefalls into the 5-line, a steep, tight chute with a little drop off in the middle. He’s at the bottom, bag open, sleeping-bag spread, shovel out, and setting up before the others even have a chance to think. But now there’s nothing to think about: the gauntlet has been thrown and they’ll all have to sketch down the 5-line to save face with the gimp.
If you’re shocked to discover Shane McConkey was a precocious child, stop reading here. Born in Vancouver, his Can-Am parents separated when he was three and he and his mother, Glen, moved from Whistler to Santa Cruz, California. His mother was “the best mom in the world–which anyone would say, but mine really was.”
Indeed Glen, a strong skier and now four-time National Masters Skiing Champion, made numerous sacrifices and turned aside opportunities for herself in order to create more for her son. Naturally, according to McConkey, the greatest gift his mother gave him was skiing.
When Shane was very young and still living in Whistler, Glen skied with him in a backpack, where he loved moguls. On groomers he’d shake the pack and scream “bump, mommy, bump!”
POWDER Assistant Editor Keith Carlsen–who has been forced into nude acts of depravity at the hands of McConkey–perhaps sums it best, “Shane is more than just a leader–he’s a ringleader.”
Like a dog who’s been caught with his head in the kitchen garbage–a place where canine instinct drove him without any cognation over the consequences–McConkey is often sheepish and deflective about the legendary impulses of his adolescent id.
“How about the time you threw a backflip in a mogul course at Vail, had your pass yanked by patrol, then rushed the course naked and got permanently banned from the resort?”
“You must be talking about someone else.”
“Didn’t you get beat up in a Whistler bar this spring by some redneck who thought you were eyeing his girlfriend?”
“I don’t think I understand the question.”
“What do you think now when you see that old Volant ad where your hair looks like you stuck your finger in a light socket?”
“What Volant ad? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”