Shane McConkey would have turned 42 years old today. Friends climbed to the top of KT22 to sit beside the eagle and celebrate his life. Nearly three years since his passing his spirit seems stronger than ever. We’ll never forget you buddy.
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.
We will not soon forget what a crazily amazing month March of 2011 was. Copious amounts of snowfall, endless pow turns and a super fun tribute weekend celebrating the life and legacy of Shane McConkey. Here’s a look back at the monster month of March 2011.
On Friday evening, March 24, the PlumpJack Squaw Valley Inn hosted the swankiest, sexiest, classiest event the Valley has ever seen. Two years after the passing of ski legend Shane McConkey, his wife Sherry created the Shane McConkey Legacy Gala to honor his memory and raise money and support for protecting the environment. Shane was a huge James Bond fan and the Gala followed suit with a 007 theme in which attendees dressed to the hilt in tuxedos and lavish cocktail dresses.
Exotic fire dancers performed outside as guests stepped onto the red carpet leading into the event during of course, a raging snowstorm. Once inside guests relaxed and sipped martinis (shaken, not stirred) to sexy downtempo beats courtesy of dj Patrick Mulligan. Dual tapestries featured silhouettes of live dancers that perfectly recreated classic images featured in James Bond films for the last fifty years. The space also had a lounge for relaxing, ice sculptures, sultry mood lighting and a foyer stacked with gorgeous silent auction items.
As the evening progressed so did the pace of the entertainment. About halfway through the night a burlesque dancer dangled from the ceiling performing a heart racing routine to “Goldfinger”. Shortly after, a live auction began in which spectacular items went for thousands of dollars. Sherry McConkey, looking like the quintessential Bond girl herself, took a moment to thank all the volunteers involved with the event.
The Shane McConkey Legacy Gala was a very special evening that kicked off a weekend of excitement and fun in Squaw Valley. The 80’s cover band “Tainted Love” played at Bar One on Saturday night and Sunday featured the long awaited return of the Pain McShlonkey Classic, an outlandish contest that pokes fun at the serious world of ski competition. The Classic was comprised of two main events including a Snowlerblade Small Mountain Competition and a Snowlerblade Chinese Downhill. Kudos to Jessie Hall for winning the Small Mountain Comp, and Cody Townsend for taking the Chinese Downhill. Most importantly thanks to everyone who participated in, watched or supported this magical weekend long tribute to the skier, the father, the husband and the friend we called Shane McConkey.
My first year at Burning Man was 2002. I had no idea what to expect, except that I was supposed to bring all of my own food and water for a week – and that I was going to camp with Shane McConkey. I had recently moved to Truckee from Vermont where I went to classes during the day and watched Sick Sense over and over at night. Shane was a celluloid hero to me, not a real person whom I could possibly be meeting at Kmart in 20 minutes to get supplies.
We met in the parking lot and stocked up on batteries, Gatorade and Cheeze-Its. We landed in Black Rock City that night and after pitching our tents, the sun went down and we were off. I had a tiny, little girl’s bike and Shane was on his mountain bike, with a tall flag on the back. My main memory from that night was racing after that flag. Shane wasn’t waiting for me to catch up and I didn’t want to lose him and miss out on the tour. I managed to keep up. We crawled into a whale and cracked a Red Bull. We wandered into a large art piece that turned out to be someone’s RV and got rudely and comically kicked out by the owner. I crawled into a club behind Shane through a vagina-shaped hole. Shane had promised Sherry that he would be on his best behavior and so he took it easy, but he still managed to lead the way to all of the best art and parties.
The next fall I stopped by Shane’s Squaw Valley house, handed him some cash and walked out with a pair of Spatulas. They were 186cm – the only size they came in – and I was worried that they would be too big for me. Shane quickly disabused me of that notion. “They’re made for middle-aged weekend warriors,” he said.
I got them mounted and skied them almost every day. They were the sickest skis I’d ever had and the most annoying conversation piece. I considered making a sign, or lettering the back of my jacket to read: “Yes, they’re great in powder. No, they don’t ski that well on the groomers.” The questions never stopped coming from the first day I got on them until the last pow day I skied them last season. They weren’t the greatest hard-pack skis, but Shane had given me a tip that made them not all that bad. “Ski them like snowlerblades,” he told me. “The only part of the ski that is making contact with the snow is the short, fat part directly under foot, so carve with that, don’t try to use the whole ski.” I never cursed them on the groomers after that.
Shane became a friend. We went camping, and I went to his white elephant birthday parties. I got into the ski writing industry and interviewed him often for my stories. He was, by far, the best skier to interview, because he was more serious and articulate about the sport than any other pro. He was always questioning, experimenting and inventing, and he never let attitude or appearances get in the way of the progression of the sport.
Shane’s death last spring was a tragedy that continues to sadden us. While the initial shock has faded, the sense of loss is deepening.
I retired my Spatulas at the end of last season. After taking a year off, I decided to go to Burning Man again this year, along with the Spatulas. I took the bindings off and separated them. One was to be hung in the temple, an ornate sanctuary of sadness, loss and appreciation that is a cornerstone of Black Rock City. The other was to become a shot ski, with stainless steel shot glasses welded to it, for use at camp to celebrate Shane’s life and his spirit.
We took the skis out to Black Rock City and managed to use them as planned. On Wednesday, a group from our camp, including several very close friends of Shane, rode one Spatula out to the temple. We hung the ski, signed by Sherry, J.T. Holmes and other close friends, on the top floor of the temple, with two photos of Shane below it. Throughout the week, people added their own notes to the ski, along with bows, clippings and other memories. We rode back to camp and within the hour we were pouring shots and lining up takers for the shot ski. On Sunday the temple went up in flames along with the tokens of our love and loss. We all miss you Shane. As I wrote on the ski, I’m still following your flag.
We are devastated to learn that Shane McConkey was killed while ski BASE jumping in Italy. This article from ESPN gives some of the details. We are thinking of his wife and daughter, remembering his amazing achievements and his defining sense of humor and missing him deeply.