Shane McConkey, the man who found ways to ski off skyscrapers, was able to “slip the surly bonds of earth”, as poet John Magee put it, and enter an exhilarating and giddy world where few mortals could venture.
Having helped pioneer what came to be called ski base-jumping – leaping from mountains or cliffs using a parachute to land safely – he moved on to something even more exotic: wingsuiting. He used a special suit that shaped the body into a human aerofoil with fabric sewn between the legs and under the arms. This enabled him to become a self-powered “birdman” before finally opening a parachute – a technique one observer likened to a “flying squirrel”.
“Wingsuiting blows people away – it blows me away every time I do it,” McConkey said. “There’s no joystick, no bar, no steering wheel – you’re flying your own body. It’s so damned fun. You ski off a cliff, pull your skis off and you’re flying – you’re a bird. You open your wingsuit and you’re off. It’s the greatest feeling ever.”
He once astonished onlookers by jumping from Switzerland’s notorious Eiger, performing a double forward flip and opening his parachute before landing safely in the valley. Last December, to help promote the new Peak 2 Peak lift between the Whistler and Blackcomb mountains near his native Vancouver, he skydived from the roof of one of the gondolas to the ground 1,400ft below. Yet far from seeing himself as an intense machismo figure, he always liked to mix a dash of humour with his derring-do. In 2007 he starred in an entertaining and ambitious film pastiche of the ski chase in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me in which 007 escapes the villains’ gunfire by skiing off a precipice before opening his parachute.
McConkey’s death at 39, while filming in the Italian Dolomites, exposed an unexpected danger in a sport already fraught with peril. A mid-air problem getting the bindings of both skis to release before being jettisoned meant that vital seconds were lost between the initial launch and the smooth transition into “birdman” mode. After jumping and carrying out a “routine” double back-flip from a 600-metre cliff near the ski resort of Corvara, he was still desperately grappling to release the second ski when he hit the ground, his wingsuit not yet deployed. The unreleased ski would have flipped him upside down and probably sent him into a spin. Had he tried to use his parachute in this position it would have become tangled around the remaining ski and failed to deploy.
After his death one website noted: “There are 42,500 page results for Shane McConkey. Within those pages you won’t find a bad word uttered about him.” One comment posted was: “It feels like Superman died.”
McConkey had started skiing almost as soon as he could walk. Born in Vancouver in 1969 to parents who were passionate skiers, he started skiing on his own when he was only two. He moved to Truckee in California with his mother at the age of three when his parents separated, making the Olympic resort of Squaw Valley his skiing playground. He was based there for the rest of his life.
He was in the US junior national ski squad as a child but failed to make the full team. This helped spur him on to an alternative career as a professional competitive freestyle skier. He won several extreme skiing titles including the World Extreme Skiing Championship, both the European and US Freeski championships and the South American Freeskiing championship. He always pursued the latest technology.
In the 1990s he helped pioneer the use of “fat” skis, which make skiing on powder snow faster and easier. Later he promoted the controversial concept of skis with reverse camber and reverse sidecut when he was filmed skiing a Canadian mountain on a pair of 1970s water skis.
Modest and universally popular, he became a household name in international skiing circles for his subsequent daredevil feats. He starred in at least 20 extreme ski films – 15 for the Colorado film company Matchstick Productions. From 2000 he was sponsored by Red Bull, the drinks company, and was a key member of the so-called Red Bull Airforce. Even the birth of a daughter, Ayla, to Sherry, his wife, failed to bring him to heel and the addition of the wingsuit option to his chosen sport simply drove him to even more breathtaking extremes.
“It’s just when you think you understand the risks that it’s most dangerous,” said fellow extreme skier Chris Davenport. “It would be unfair to say he was irresponsible. He thought everything through. He had discussed death with his family and friends. It’s a great shame he’s gone, but he knew what could happen.”
“Very few people have ever tried ski base-jumping with wingsuits – you can count them on one hand or possibly two. A few years ago he took me and a few friends to what he jokingly referred to as a “plunge-to-your- death” camp at Twin Falls in Idaho and threw me off a bridge with a parachute. I did it three times. He was the only person in the world I would have trusted enough to let him do that to me. Because of his films he influenced an entire generation of skiers. And that’s the measure of the man.”
In an interview shortly before his death, McConkey acknowledged that many people thought what he did for a living was reckless. “We ski wherever we want,” he said. “People think we have a screw loose, that we’re crazy and have a death wish and all that stuff – that we’re going to kill ourselves.
“Yes, what we do is dangerous, but I’m lucky – I know how to do it. It’s changed the way we look at mountains. We’re not crazy – not totally! For me it would be crazy to live in a big city and work on Wall Street. That’s insane. I would never do that. I’m living the dream. It’s the greatest job ever.”
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