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?
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?
By Bill Gifford
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.
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.
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 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, 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. 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 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, 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, 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 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 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 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.
It was also a rough time for Red Bull, which had lost another athlete, Chris Muller, in a 2005 hang-gliding accident as he dove to snatch a sack of prize money off the ground. Shane’s death made the company’s slogan — “It gives you wings” — now seem unfortunate at best. And just one month before McConkey’s accident, Rock Star energy drink–sponsored motocrosser Jeremy Lusk was killed in a backflip attempt in Costa Rica (see sidebar, page 93).
Beyond the energy drink world, the death toll among adventure athletes over the past decade is truly sobering, with a new obituary appearing every few months. Climbers Todd Skinner and Dan Osman. Mountaineers Charlie Fowler and Jean Christophe “JC” Lafaille. Swedish adventurer Göran Kropp, who, the year of the Into Thin Air disaster, cycled all the way to Everest Base Camp, summited solo, and rode his bike home, only to die in a rock-climbing accident six years later. Then there was big-mountain skier Doug Coombs, who died in a fall in April 2006, leaving behind a wife and young child.
“Man, I miss Doug Coombs,” McConkey told ESPN the Magazine in 2007. “When I found out he died doing the same stuff I do, it was a reality check. I think about him every time I’m in a dangerous situation. It’s a reminder: Be careful.”
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 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 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 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 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 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. 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.
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.
Red Bull is an adventure athlete’s dream sponsor. From the beginning, it has eschewed the wholesome, Wheaties-box type of jock in favor of a bolder, edgier breed; the company’s burgeoning stable now includes everyone from Shaun White to surfer Bruce Irons, mountain biker Jill Kintner, and skiers Daron Rahlves and Chris Davenport, plus a rowdy posse of skateboarders, BMX vert riders, kayakers, climbers, motocrossers, and paragliders — all of whom share one common trait: a total disregard for the law of gravity.
McConkey was Red Bull’s Athlete Zero. Instead of having him sit in front of cameras and recite some ad agency script, the company paid him to travel the world to ski and BASE jump with his buddies — including one epic trip to northern Canada’s Baffin Island in 2001, where he, Miles, and three other Air Force members jumped off cliffs a mile high. His chief responsibility was to make sure he wore his silver-and-blue Red Bull helmet whenever the cameras were rolling.
“It’s sort of like having a rich uncle who thinks these sports are cool,” says Red Bull–sponsored ice climber and explorer Will Gadd. “But we’d all be doing these things anyway, with or without Red Bull.”
The “rich uncle” is Dietrich Mateschitz, the company’s reclusive founder. Mateschitz had been a marketing executive in the 1980s when he discovered a Thai energy drink called Krating Daeng; he secured the distribution rights, tarted it up for Western palates, and proceeded to create — and dominate — the energy-drink market. (Red Bull’s 2008 sales topped $4.3 billion.) One way he did that was through savvy, nontraditional marketing, sponsoring athletes like McConkey to push the limits of their sports. The more radical (and dangerous) their exploits, the more media coverage they would draw — and the more exposure Red Bull would get.
“If the whole world thought that we were totally sane and understood the sport we do the way we understand it, then people wouldn’t be as interested,” McConkey said in a Fox interview weeks before he died. “And I wouldn’t get paid to do it. I think it’s great that people think we’re nuts. It’s on TV right now because people think it’s nuts.”
McConkey worked tirelessly developing new projects for Red Bull, all of his own devising. “Part of our relationship with him was to say, What ideas do you have?” says one Red Bull employee who worked with McConkey. “He would come back with, on paper, the scariest-sounding trips ever. But that was Shane.”
The answer from Red Bull was almost always the same: Go for it. Mateschitz is particularly obsessed with flight — he maintains an aviation museum in Austria, not far from Red Bull’s headquarters — and McConkey’s quest to fly was right up his alley. Just before his death, McConkey had filmed a TV spot in which he performs a spectacular ski-BASE, lands it, and says to the camera, “Welcome to my world. The world of Red Bull.”
The spot was shelved after he died (“which sucks, because Shane would be pissed,” the Red Bull employee says). A famously closemouthed corporation, Red Bull issued a brief statement on McConkey’s death, but said little else until two months later, when the company’s head of sports marketing, Chris Mater, told Men’s Journal, “He was a member of our very tight family, and we were devastated when we heard about his accident. Working with Shane over the years was truly inspirational. An innovator that always followed his own path no matter what, Shane lived on a different plane, and his enthusiasm for life was incomparable.”
But not all of McConkey’s sponsors were quite so enthusiastic about his aerial pursuits. “To me, frankly, BASE jumping is just the dumbest, wackiest, most ridiculous thing,” says Tim Petrick, VP of global sales for K2 Sports, McConkey’s ski sponsor. “I can’t find the words to describe how much I think it’s really a bad idea. And Shane got zero encouragement from us to do those things.”
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, 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 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. 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,” 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, 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 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.
On the back deck of their modest cedar-shingled home in Squaw, just around the corner from the old Trampoline House, Sherry McConkey swings gently in an old chair from KT-22, Shane’s favorite lift. Right above her head is a signature: “Frankie G. III,” their late friend Frank Gambalie.
Sherry is 41, two years older than her husband, wiry and strong thanks to daily yoga. She left her native South Africa in 1988 with a backpack and a few hundred dollars, and gravitated to Tahoe because she loved the outdoors. Mountain biking introduced her to Shane in 1998; after they got married in Thailand in 2004, their honeymoon was a three-day trek into the jungle, where they camped with a primitive tribe and plucked leeches off each other. “It was the most awesome experience ever,” she says.
Their dog Pedro, a tubby mutt that Shane rescued off the beach in Costa Rica and insisted they bring home, wanders in and out through the sliding glass door, unsure of what to do with himself. He studiously ignores the brand-new kitten, Princess, fresh out of the Reno animal shelter. As Princess climbs fearlessly up my trouser leg, claws pricking my flesh, I can’t help wondering if she isn’t connected to Shane on some reincarnatory level.
After the memorial service, 23 of McConkey’s closest friends pulled off a clandestine memorial BASE jump from the Squaw Valley tram — a favorite jump of Shane’s he’d always hoped to do officially. Every night, a dozen or more friends show up for dinner, crowding around the narrow, rustic dining table, telling stories. Some of them leave with a scoop of Shane’s ashes, kept in a forged-steel urn made by a blacksmith friend, to scatter from some favorite cliff.
Next season K2 is planning to put out a special edition of the Pontoon skis, with part of the proceeds going to Sherry and Ayla. Matchstick has rereleased There’s Something About McConkey, and Gaffney says the company also plans to make an updated McConkey documentary to benefit his family. There is talk of a memorial photo book from Red Bull, which paid to fly Shane’s body home, just as they had funded so many of Shane’s trips over the past decade.
McConkey hated being away from home, but his job had him traveling three to four months of the year. His way of showing remorse was typically backhanded: He set up a competition he called “King of the Douches” with a half-dozen athlete-dad friends, including Daisher and Gaffney. At the end of each month, they had to report how many days they’d been away. McConkey kept track on a spreadsheet and crowned the King Douche at the end of the year. Last year, he beat snowboarder Jeremy Jones by one point.
Another, grimmer bet he called “Last Man Standing”: A group of guys, athletes all, put $100 into a pot at the beginning of each year. The last one left alive keeps the whole thing.
Shane and Sherry had talked about what they’d do when he was done skiing, making plans for running steep-skiing camps and tending the rental properties Shane had bought years ago, before the market spiked. “It would have been easy,” Sherry says. But despite knee surgeries, a dislocated hip, and other injuries, Shane wasn’t ready to quit. If anything, ski-BASEing actually extended his career, sparing his knees and back the hard impacts off 40-foot cliffs. But it also meant he couldn’t get life insurance.
Should Shane have slowed down at his age? Should he have given up his passion because he had a child? Could he have at least toned it down a little, skipped the ski-wingsuit-BASEing? Sherry dismisses the notion outright. “People are constantly asking me how I ‘let’ Shane do what he did,” she says. “It just floors me. To me, it would have been like putting an eagle in a cage — a tiny cage.”
She had that in mind when she chose the quote for Shane’s memorial program, from Leonardo da Vinci: “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
Later in the afternoon, Ayla wakes up from her nap and walks down the hall, rubbing her eyes, still in her ballet clothes, blond hair falling across her forehead in bangs as she chases the kitten around the living room. “I got a kitty,” she says proudly, finally snaring the creature. “Her name’s Princess.”
Ayla’s like any three-and-a-half-year-old, concerned with snacks and books and dancing and toys, living a life of constant discovery and play. Like her father. She’s already used to him being away for long periods of time.
Sherry leads me into Shane’s office, which is cluttered and lined with books: Eat, Pray, Love next to Ben Franklin’s Fart Proudly. On a shelf sits a photo of his old dog, Gage, a malamute who died a year and a half ago. That’s when Shane and Sherry had to explain the concept of death to Ayla, which turned out to be a good thing. Now that Shane is gone, she knows right where he is. She knows that Daddy is with Gage now.
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 — to donate, spread the word, or lend moral support, go here.
To read Todd Lappin’s tribute to Shane McConkey from the June issue, go here.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Men’s Journal.