When Shane McConkey combined wingsuit BASE with freeskiing, the results were inspiring, beautiful and ultimately tragic. Four years after his death we are still in awe…
By Trish Medalen
October 5, 2013 was another beautiful Saturday night in Squaw Valley. As the sun dropped behind the towering Eagle’s Nest summit dubbed “McConkey’s,” something special was in the air. Nearly 5,000 people gathered in front of a movie screen set up at the base of the mountain – blankets, sleeping bags, and lawn chairs staked a claim on the grass while everyone waited for the film to start. The mood was anticipatory: old friends and neighbors greeted each other, kids ran in circles, and the overall happy murmur was punctuated by laughter. Smartphone cameras flashed into the growing darkness, catching here and there famous faces from the winter sports world like Travis Rice, Bobby Brown, and Grete Eliassen, as well as other top athletes. But on this night, everyone had come to see one man. As the daylight dimmed, white letters projected high onto the bare rockface became clear: THANK YOU SHANE
An Epic Everyman
By rights, Shane McConkey should have been a surfer. Or maybe a mountain biker. Although born in Vancouver, Shane’s childhood home was Santa Cruz. But while boards and bikes would always be part of his life – like hiking and climbing and just about anything else you can do in the great outdoors – Shane’s true passion was skiing. And the way he followed that passion would eventually earn him recognition as “The Most Influential Skier Ever.”
McConkey’s parents Glenn and Jim were both highly accomplished skiers (his father, considered one of the original “extreme” skiers, is in the Canadian Skiing Hall of Fame), and Shane was on his own tiny skis at 23 months old. When the couple divorced, Glenn moved with Shane to Santa Cruz, and her little guy loved the cold and the powder so much that she started taking him to Tahoe on weekends.
Shane’s skills were so promising that by age 11 he’d enrolled at Vermont’s famed Burke Mountain ski racing academy. He was on track for his dream, the U.S. Ski Team; yet despite enormous gifts (the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame refers to Shane as “technically perfect”), in the end he didn’t make the cut. The University of Colorado ski team followed; Shane wasn’t cut out for the strictures of academic life either. With the dream he’d always aimed for – a career as a competitive skier – seemingly out of his grasp, Shane was adrift.
All he wanted to do was keep skiing down mountains. It was the only part of his life that made sense. Eventually, he found a way.
Shane’s skills, innate audacity, and huge sense of adventure made him even more comfortable in the backcountry than he was on a racecourse. And the gymnastics training he’d had as a kid didn’t hurt either. He didn’t just ski off jumps: he backflipped the gaps. He was made for the nascent sport of freeskiing – a term he himself helped to popularize. “What we were doing was free-form skiing, free of rules and most any kind of boundaries,” he once explained. “Free to ski our own style on our own terms.”
Shane had success on the moguls circuit and also won the European, South American, and U.S. freeskiing championships. In 1996 he not only founded the International Freeskiers Association but went on to win its inaugural world title.
Where Shane ultimately shone brightest, though, was in videos. Ski movies were just starting to take off, and releases like The Blizzard of AAhhhs (with Glen Plake and Scot Schmidt launching into the air and slicing gnarly lines) were lighting a fire under athletes who wanted more from their sport than the same old ski runs. Shane saw his future.
Over the course of his career, Shane filmed shoots and did video work with companies including Nick Nixon Productions, Scott Gaffney Pictures, Rob Bruce Films, Real Adventure Films, Real Action Pictures, TGR, Warren Miller, The Documentary Group, Matchstick Productions, and Red Bull Media House. Irreverent without being aggro, phenomenally talented yet self-deprecating, and able to make seemingly impossible lines look easy, he was at once epic and everyman. Shane put the joy back in skiing, whether he was stomping a technical descent, spoofing James Bond, or inventing a ski-parody character named Saucer Boy. The camera loved him. And, with each new movie release, so did more and more fans.
What followed was a success story for the sport as well as Shane. Thanks to the innovation and progression that he and a steadily growing number of exceptional athletes brought to the table, freeskiing became the most popular form of skiing, reinvigorating a sport that had seemed outmoded with the advent of snowboards.
And Shane didn’t just inspire skiers to think outside the box, he gave them the tools to pursue their dreams: he played a key role in convincing ski companies to develop “fat” pontoon skis that make it possible to handle big mountain powder. (He even skied down a mountain on a wide pair of 1970s water skis to prove that the concept made sense.) Shane also innovated the ideas of reverse camber, rocker, reverse side cut, and tail-tapered skis made specifically for powder skiing, a landmark evolution that has influenced snowboard design as well. Shane said that this design innovation was the aspect of his career that he was “probably most proud of,” and noted that “it has been incredibly fun discovering these huge improvements to powder ski design.”
Shane also had incredible fun discovering love, in the form of a tall, funny, straight-talking blonde from South Africa named Shahrazade – Sherry – Smulders. They met in Squaw Valley, the town they each had made home, and although the union of a snowboarder and a skier seemed vaguely unholy at the time (the 90s), the two shared such a love for the outdoors, for laughter, and for each other that in 2004 they got married. Their daughter Ayla was born in 2005.
For Shane, settling down didn’t mean, well, settling down, exactly. While friends sensed that his family brought him a new inner peace, he still had so many ideas he wanted to try out that he just couldn’t slow down. That list had gotten even longer when he discovered flying. He started with skydiving and then added BASE jumping – launching from a building, span, antenna, or earth formation with nothing more than a small parachute. In 2003 – two years after he was named ESPN Action Sport Awards Skier of the Year – he made his first ski-BASE jump: skiing down a slope and off a cliff to deploy a parachute and land safely. The maneuver enabled him to take tantalizing lines that had previously been inconceivable because they ended in oblivion.
Ski-BASE jumping opened a whole new world of possibilities, and the possibility that obsessed Shane the most was adding a wingsuit to the mix. Wingsuits – or squirrel suits, as they’re known because of their resemblance to a flying squirrel – enable skydivers and BASE jumpers to master flight that’s much more sustained than a freefall. Skimming mountain faces and treetops at 120 miles per hour is exhilarating but also extremely dangerous, and Shane knew that the risk would be heightened if he launched on skis. But that’s exactly what he wanted to do. Unlike a “simple” ski-BASE jump, in a wingsuit-ski- BASE he’d have to shed the skis in the air in order to use the suit. He’d need to figure out how to release the bindings in a split second. And with only seconds from the jump to the ground, the margin for error would be infinitesimal.
Shane wasn’t only one of the top skiers in the world, he had also become one of the top wingsuit flyers. He knew he could do it. A wingsuit-ski-BASE jump was his dream project. In 2007, he did it, soaring off a cliff, releasing the skis, and zooming away with the freedom of a bird. He was sure wingsuit-ski-BASE was the next stage in the progression of the sport. Over the next two years, he kept on skiing, kept on BASE jumping, kept on flying wingsuits, and was always stoked when he could combine all three. Nearing 40 years of age and with a family he cherished at home, Shane planned each project more carefully than ever. He was at the top of his game.
Then suddenly, unbelievably to those who knew him, it all came to an end on March 26, 2009. Shane’s ski didn’t release during a wingsuit-ski-BASE in the Italian Dolomites. By the time he got it off, it was too late to use the wingsuit, too late to deploy a parachute. He was gone.
A Life Documented
Nearly five years later, Sherry McConkey acknowledges that losing her soul mate has been hell. Yet she also feels blessed. She takes joy in their daughter Ayla every day, and when she looks back on her life with Shane, she marvels on how full their time together was. “Life with Shane was like a movie – adventure and constant laughter,” she says. Still, it took a lot of soul-searching before she agreed to production of the feature documentary that the crowd in Squaw was cheering on October fifth.
The idea of a movie had crossed Sherry’s mind from time to time, and friends and professionals suggested it, too. There was so much to Shane that the world didn’t know: The anti-Saucer Boy who studied each ski line or jump site obsessively before pushing off. The man who often worked until the wee hours of the morning on the business end of being a professional athlete. The die-hard skier who would choose to skip a day in the powder if it meant he could watch his three-year-old’s ballet class.
Finding the footage wouldn’t be hard. Besides all the spectacular sport clips that existed, Shane had been documenting his own life – public and private – since he first got a video camera as a kid. But Sherry had doubts. Did she want to put herself through the emotional wringer of reviewing all that material? Would a film help people to understand Shane’s life or merely exploit the legend? If a film was going to be made, she wanted it to show all facets of the man she loved – what he went through to become not only the man everybody thought they knew, but the man he really was.
She found the answer in a team that Shane himself had trusted. McConkey was produced by Red Bull Media House in association with Matchstick Productions. Launched in 2007, Red Bull Media House is an independent media production and distribution company focused on telling compelling, authentic stories with the highest production values. Shane had been one of the very first Red Bull athletes in North America, and he had worked closely with Red Bull Media House. And Matchstick (MSP) is the most award-winning ski movie company in history – in significant part due to Shane’s longtime collaboration. With Sherry on board herself as an executive producer, the McConkey team got to work.
Five directors shared the duties: MSP co-founders Steve Winter and Murray Wais, who had worked with Shane for years; Rob Bruce, a filmmaker who had known Shane since their teenage days on the U.S. Development Ski Team; Scott Gaffney, a regular MSP collaborator who directed the breakout “There’s Something About McConkey”; and David Zieff, an award-winning filmmaker outside the ski genre with serious chops in documentaries and sports. The task was formidable: Not only were there countless hours of footage to look through, but there were interviews to conduct. Many people that Shane had touched wanted to share their side of his legend—his parents, Sherry, and close friends like skier JT Holmes, snowboarder Jeremy Jones, and BASE jumper Miles Daisher, as well as industry game- changers like Scot Schmidt, Olympic Gold Medalist Jonny Moseley, and even freestyle motorcycle rider (and avid parachutist) Travis Pastrana.
McConkey was an official entry at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, where additional screenings were added due to high demand. The Squaw premiere this fall was the start of a North American tour that stretches coast to coast and up to Alaska. The film has also been a success in Europe, including festivals and screenings in Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Austria, and more. Blown away by the audiences she has encountered, Sherry says, “I never knew he was so famous. I mean, I realized he was well known in the industry, but at home he was just my sweet dorky husband. The response has been incredible.”
Critical reviews have credited that response to the quality of the filmmaking and, most essentially, to Shane himself. A true documentary, McConkey doesn’t shy away from its subject’s struggles to find his way in life, and according to Sherry, Shane wouldn’t have wanted it to. (“He was always the first to call himself out,” she notes.) But it also shares his goofball sense of humor and his infectious enthusiasm for living life fully.
The astounding variety of material that the team unearthed as they researched the movie led to the production of a book, That Was Neat, which tells at its essence Shane’s life story in Shane’s own words. Rather than a straight-ahead narrative, it’s a collection of Shane’s own artifacts – photos, school assignments, ski design sketches – that goes deeper than a mere tribute piece. Through his thoughts and images, the themes of his life emerge: how he felt about family, friends, sport, the ski industry, nature, and, by implication, himself.
Ultimately, McConkey and That Was Neat make no judgments on high-risk sports: they’re an effort to understand why one man chose to pursue them. Sherry and the team hope that the takeaway is an understanding of what Shane felt made life worth living.
Sherry is thrilled that Ayla has this film to remember her dad – the movie’s clips of father and daughter playing together show just how devoted he was to her. And Sherry had been glad to see that audiences around the world seem to get out of the film what she’d hoped.
“I don’t want people to feel sad after seeing this movie,” Sherry says. “I hope they’ll feel the joy of Shane’s life and that they’ll be inspired to find the joy in their own – that they’ll want to make each day count.”
For more on how to watch McConkey on tour or available 3-in-1 collector’s edition DVD/Blu-ray or digital download, as well as how to find That Was Neat, visit mcconkeymovie.com.
A Legacy that Inspires
Where the movie leaves off, Shane McConkey’s legacy begins. Not only have his innovations in skis and skiing expanded the possibilities for winter sports athletes today and in the future, but the generosity of his spirit is inspiring a new generation in ways that go far beyond sport.
“As a young skier, every time I saw Shane, I was starstruck, but what eventually impressed me even more was how giving he was,” says Roy Tuscany, founder of the nonprofit High Fives Foundation. “That’s something people don’t realize if they only know him from videos and magazine spreads.”
After Shane’s death, Sherry kept hearing the same thing from those who loved and respected him. They wanted to do something – something meaningful – to celebrate and extend his legacy. She decided to honor that wish in truly McConkeyesque fashion by renewing the “Pain McSchlonkey Classic.”
The Classic is a massively irreverent ski competition that could come only from the mind of the man who created Saucer Boy. Held right in Squaw Valley, it’s a complete send-up of the sport and the industry Shane loved, with thirty amateurs and thirty pros – even stars like Olympian Daron Rahlves – throwing down their most outrageous tricks on tiny snowblades and in ridiculous costumes. Shane had put together a couple of Classics on a small scale, and with the help of friends, Sherry ramped it up to a weekend-long charity fundraiser that was so successful she decided to start the Shane McConkey Foundation and make it an annual event.
“There are so many cool causes to donate to. We don’t want to hassle people for money – we don’t even ask
for donations online. So to raise the funds that we donate, once a year we put on the Classic,” she explains.
The weekend, which includes a string of events around the competition, kicks off on Friday night with a costume gala featuring silent and live auctions. Past themes have included 007, Moulin Rouge, and Arabian Nights, complete with belly dancers. “It’s got to be outrageous,” Sherry giggles. “I know some people are like, ‘Uh-oh, what’s Sherry going to come up with this year? But that’s what Shane wanted for the Classic. He loved to shock people, you know, in a fun way.” With the help of the Foundation board and other volunteers, the consistently sold-out event has become one of the biggest – almost certainly the biggest – happening in Squaw, selling out every ticket.
“Shane was such a generous, loving person, and we’ve chosen to donate the money raised to causes that were close to his heart,” Sherry explains. “For example, our donations to Make-A-Wish were inspired by a special connection.” Eleven years ago, when Make-A-Wish asked a 17-year-old lung cancer patient (in remission) named Adam Baillargeon what his dream experience would be, he answered that he wanted to ski with Shane McConkey. Shane was all for it, and he and Adam hit it off so well that Shane put the teenager in one of his movies. Eventually Adam – who beat cancer – moved out to the Tahoe area himself, where he is director of operations at the High Fives Foundation. “He’s become like my brother,” Sherry says, “and the Shane McConkey Foundation has donated $30,000 to Make-A- Wish so far.”
Other causes the McConkey Foundation has supported include animal welfare organizations such as the local humane society and wildlife protection nonprofits. The foundation also has an initiative called “RAD” – Random Awesome Deeds. Something “RAD” might be as simple as printing up re-usable shopping bags and handing them out to encourage people to use them instead of plastic bags.
And indeed the Shane McConkey Foundation’s biggest focus so far has been on environmental causes, especially educating and engaging the next generation. “Every year we’ve donated to a different school in Tahoe; each proposes its own solution for greening the school, and our Board approves it,” Sherry explains. “Since 2011, the Shane McConkey Foundation has donated over $60,000 to schools for environmental impact projects, and it’s been really successful.”
It’s been so successful, in fact, that this fall the McConkey Foundation is collaborating with another nonprofit, the Save Our Winters organization founded by Jeremy Jones, to take school initiatives large-scale by presenting kids around the United States with a “Shane McConkey Eco Challenge.”
Sherry explains, “The idea came up because after numerous school visits to talk to kids on environmental topics, Jeremy could see that they were excited about the subject; but he was wondering if they actually turned their enthusiasm into good practice.” The Eco Challenge encourages kids to take action, working in teams (with an adult advisor) to come up with good ideas to fight climate change, and then to make those ideas reality in their very own schools. They can win up to $6,000 to keep the momentum going at their school, plus other prizes, and every team that enters will be acknowledged for its efforts. (More info is available at http://shanemcconkey.org/shane-mcconkey-eco-challenge and www.protectourwinters.org/ourtimeisnow.)
“We’re all hearing painful, hard news about the deterioration of our planet on a regular basis, and kids need to have hope; this contest is a great fit with the foundation because Shane cared so much about the world that we’re leaving to our children, and he also believed that having fun and doing something amazing are not mutually exclusive,” Sherry notes. “It’s so exciting when kids can see change – and when they take part in something like this, they can be rewarded not only with prizes, but in seeing that they made a difference.”
Steering the Shane McConkey Foundation is quite literally a labor of love for Sherry, who draws no salary. “When we started the foundation, I didn’t know it would take so much work, but it is absolutely the most rewarding job in my whole life,” says Sherry. “I think Shane would be so stoked and proud.”
For more on the Shane McConkey Foundation go to shanemcconkey.org
For more on High Fives go to highfivesfoundation.org
For more photos by Hank de Vré go to hankdevrephotography.com