I never met Shane McConkey.
In the last few years of his life, when he was arguably at the top of his game pioneering ski culture and industry, I was a minor league professional quarterback playing on teams from Canada to Germany. However, I had begun spending off-seasons with my brother in a small Idaho mountain town and increasingly the winter alpine became my path, time on the gridiron my day job.
Six months after Shane’s death I played my final football game and promptly moved to Squaw Valley to officially trade cleats for ski boots. And though I knew his name, the true story of the man would reveal itself only with time.
When the first Powder Magazine of my first Squaw Valley winter hit shelves, the cover and half of the entire issue was devoted to the life and legacy of “The Most Influential Skier Ever”; it was nothing short of a biography. I was enthralled to learn of Shane’s magnetic personality, innovative spirit, and transformative skiing prowess. I devoured every word and somehow felt an innate connection to the man.
I thought it was cool that like me he grew up on the coast of California and became not surfer but skier. I smiled when I read it was a big deal for Shane to finally beat his mom down the hill, as ‘ma’ was my childhood ski buddy too.
I learned that he skied in the US Ski Team developmental program but began to prefer cliffs and couloirs to gates and bumps. He followed his passion for freeskiing with unwavering belief, disregarding those in the early 90s who said there was no future to be had in such a discipline. That really jived with me after listening to those who thought I was crazy to stop playing football at age 27 to become a bellman and a ski bum.
I laughed my ass off at his antics and exploits – fake falls, running into doors on purpose, snorting spaghetti up his nose and spitting it out his mouth. I laughed so hard on the can while reading about his naked spread eagle at Vail that my new roommate inquired with some concern to make sure “everything was alright.”
In the mid 90s Shane moved to Squaw and really began pioneering the freeskiing movement. A friend from work lent me the classic Scott Gaffney films, Walls of Freedom and 1999. I watched on repeat a ponytailed Shane tearing up Squaw and the Tahoe backcountry before my buddy politely asked for his DVDs back. I smiled through the entire G.N.A.R chapter of Squallywood. I got my hands on some footage of his character “Saucer Boy” – the whiskey-drinking snowlerblading-dimwit who Shane created for MSP to highlight the fact that professional skiing was taking itself a bit too seriously. Twelfth Night is my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies, and Shane was indeed, “wise enough to play the fool.”
He thought outside every box. He skied down AK peaks on water skis and constantly used his creativity and inner drive to further ski development. He never submitted to the naysayers who said that fat skis would never be practical. He threw back-flips off anything and skied the rowdiest lines with power, grace, and humility. He dove into base jumping, began to take flight in wing suits, and powered the sport of SkiBase. In his own lifetime, he became Legend.
Then one day he jumped off a cliff in Italy and a binding-release malfunction caused a loss of control, and Shane McConkey fell to his death. The entire ski world, shocked and heartbroken, had lost their leader.
Yet as I began to meet people who had actually known the man during his life I realized that Shane’s legend would never die. Everyone had something good to say about him, from close friends to those who were lucky enough to once ride on the same chairlift. And every time I asked folks about him they inevitably tilted their head back and smiled with sweet remembrance before answering with some unique and wonderful story. He had positively influenced so many lives – from professional skiers to the kid from The Make a Wish Foundation whose wish was merely to ski a day with Shane. “Thank you Shane” bumper stickers dotted the parking lot, and for good reason.
For this undaunted man heard his inner voice very clearly, following it with an authenticity of which most only dream. He lived a life unfettered by societal snares, and he inspired people to move beyond the ephemeral to seek Truth.
Shane McConkey’s passing has not diminished his influence. Rather, like the apotheosized kings and prophets of myth his story has become greater in death – a real life Obiwan to our Luke – guiding all of us who venture into the mountains to seek our peace.
This past March 26 while skiing Squaw on the two year anniversary of his death I gazed up at Eagle’s Nest – the 60+ degree crown of KT which now also rightly carries the moniker McConkey’s. In all of my years on this planet I had never actively communed with a member of the deceased. Yet to the spirit of this man whom I never met, I began to speak words of thanks.
I thanked him for living such a passionate life in our so often dispassionate modern world. I thanked him for the imagination, dedication, and vision he gave the sport of skiing. I told him that while I did not know his wife and child personally, I had seen them recently and that they seemed happy.
And in an immeasurable moment, I felt a deep connection to the world. Mountains, snow, and sky became indistinguishable from my own consciousness. Other skiers on the hill, my friends down in the village, a long departed coach from my youth, and my parents were all somehow the interlinked. Things slowed down – at once everything became both hazy and crystal clear – and I wept ancient tears.
Whether or not Shane’s spirit heard my words that day does not matter. The manner in which this man chose to live is what matters. The fact that he still inspires is what matters. The fact that his passion and his memory endure is what matters.
I never met Shane McConkey, but it sure feels like I did. Thanks Shane.
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