Death of Shane McConkey rocks extreme skiing community
Extreme skier Shane McConkey died after skiing off a cliff in Italy
While every move is calculated in ski-BASE, there is no room for error
At some point it begs the question: Is the sport worth risking your life?
This was not the Daron Rahlves who won a dozen World Cup events, the most decorated downhill skier in American history. Returning a reporter's call a few days ago from his home in Truckee, Calif., the 35-year-old Rahlves sounded pensive, off balance, in a state of mild shock.
It had been four days since his close friend Shane McConkey had been killed after skiing off a cliff in the Dolomite Mountains in Italy. After performing a double back flip, McConkey intended to glide away in his wingsuit, "a stunt he's executed a number of times," according to a statement from Matchstick Productions, the company whose films McConkey often starred in.
But McConkey struggled to release his skis. By the time he got them off, he'd been free-falling for 12 seconds and was too close to the ground for his wingsuit or parachute to do him any good. McConkey was 39. He left behind a wife and 3½-year-old daughter.
Sad as it is, the death of a big-mountain skier -- from avalanche or high-speed impact, or some miscellaneous mishap -- lacks the power to shock. Just as the death of a NASCAR driver, big-wave surfer or grizzly whisperer certainly grabs our attention, they may not come as much of a surprise.
But the passing of McConkey, a legend and pioneer with an infectious personality and monstrous cojones even for his line of work, rocked the community of big-mountain skiers to its core.
"You can feel it in the air up here in Tahoe," Rahlves said. "People are still trying to work through it, the idea that he's actually gone."
Rahlves reminded me of Don McLean singing about the day the music died. McConkey meant a lot to many people.
A sampling of various obituaries leaves the impression of a guy with whom you would have loved to have a beer. From this inspired sentence in the Vail Daily, we learn that "McConkey lived in the Vail area for several years in the early '90s, competing on the Pro Mogul Tour and delivering pizzas for Domino's." The paper recalls the day he was disqualified from a Pro Mogul Tour event for doing a back flip on the course. After being DQ'd, "McConkey slipped back up Chair 3 and proceeded to poach the course naked, to the delight of the crowd. The stunt got McConkey banned from Vail Mountain ..."
Speaking to The Oregonian, Portland-based extreme skier Asit Rathod credits his deceased friend with rescuing skiing. McConkey, Rathod argued, made skiing attractive again to America's increasingly snowboard-leaning youth. He is "the biggest reason why skiing found its roots again -- making it cool for the next generation with one simple rule: Have fun and don't be afraid to laugh at yourself."
In addition to winning almost every different event you can win on skis -- moguls events, big mountain competitions, big-air titles, skiercross races -- McConkey was a bellwether, a visionary. As his friend Scott Gaffney writes in that Matchstick release, it occurred to McConkey in the mid-'90s that "skiing powder is more akin to floating on water."
Thus, the visionary ski bum persuaded his sponsor, Volant, "to produce a reverse sidecut, reverse camber ski he dubbed the Spatula that flew in the face of decades of ski design," Gaffney recalls. "Knowing the ski would be scoffed at by the industry establishment, McConkey illustrated his point by mounting a pair of 1970s jumping water-skis and shredding a massive British Columbia peak with ease in MSP's film Focused, which, inadvertently, gave rise to a functional sliding turn now fondly referred to as a 'McConkey Turn.' Today, nearly every reputable ski manufacturer produces a reverse sidecut, reverse cambered ski born from the Spatula."
More recently, Gaffney wrote, McConkey discovered BASE jumping, "and quickly became the forefather of ski-BASE jumping, seeing potential to ski lines never thought possible."
BASE stands for Bridge, Antenna, Span, Earth -- objects from which its practitioners leap, enjoying the rush of free fall before deploying their parachutes. Or not. The acronym was coined by Carl Boenish, an avid BASE-jumper who died in 1984 at the age of 43. You'll never guess how.
"You want to push the limit, but only to a certain point," said Rahlves, who doesn't ski-BASE, but does star in his share of ski-porn: carving lines down incredibly steep faces on mountains in places like Valdez, Alaska. "But you don't want to go over the edge" -- he intended no pun, I believe -- "and get yourself in a really dangerous position."
A reporter is forced to ask, absurdly, "Does skiing off a cliff, doing a double back flip, then planning to fly away in a wingsuit like Rocket J. Squirrel not constitute getting yourself 'in a really dangerous position?' "
"Shane is so calculating with everything," said Rahlves, whose friend's death is so recent that he's still struggling with verb tenses. "He had the plan down to a science. There's an inherent risk to what he was doing, but he limited that risk.
"These guys don't just go up there yee-hawin' it. They get it all dialed in. But ski-basing is such a high-risk sport. There's almost no room for malfunction."
It is indeed so small as to be nonexistent. McConkey had performed some variation of a ski-basing stunt more than 700 times. The problem is, in his chosen line of work, one really needs to stay undefeated. You can only cheat death so many times before it pulls a straight flush, and the valley floor is rushing up at 120 mph and you don't have time to think of the wife and daughter you'll never see again.
Check out the comments following this account of his demise. It doesn't take long for a virtual bar brawl to break out between readers who believe McConkey was an "irresponsible husband and father" and those who defend his right to take risks.
"There are definitely two sides," Rahlves allowed. "From an athlete's standpoint, a life without adventure is a life without living. You have to have a risk involved, because that's what makes you feel alive. On the other hand, once you've got a family, it's not just you you're responsible for anymore."
Rahlves has 1½-year-old twins with his wife, Michelle, who was among the friends comforting Sherry McConkey on her first night as a widow and single mother.
"Emotions were running high," said Daron, who has since been asked by his spouse, "When is enough enough for you guys?"
To find an answer, members of that adrenaline-addicted community might consider asking themselves two questions before ripping a sick line down some 50-degree face in Valdez, or skiing off a cliff in a wingsuit, or being towed into a wave with a 30-foot face: How much do I love my wife and child, or children? How long can I stay undefeated?