Shane McConkey was already recognized as one of the most influential skiers of all time when he died at 39 in a BASE jumping accident in the Italian Dolomites in 2009. One of the driving forces behind the birth and popularizing of freeskiing and the hybrid sport of ski-BASE jumping that ultimately took his life, McConkey was a gifted athlete, an innovative thinker, a charismatic leader, and also a complete goofball. Four years after his death, his spirit lives on in the new film McConkey, a documentary chronicling the full scope of his life that is kicking off its wider release with a premiere on Saturday at McConkey's home mountain, Squaw Valley. For anyone with even a passing interest in skiing, adventure, and a life lived with passion and purpose, it's worth seeing.
I was fortunate enough to attend the film's debut at the Tribeca film festival last spring, with a crowd that included Shane's family and closest friends, as well as his former co-conspirators and colleagues, a rogue's gallery of world-class athletes and people whose job it is to ski down steep things and jump off high ones, as well as those whose job it is to film them, come what may.
I am well outside of that inner circle, but I count myself as one of the many whose lives Shane touched in a small but meaningful way. In 2005, he and his friend Miles Daisher taught me how to BASE jump off of the Perrine Bridge in Twin Falls, Idaho. I remember the minute before I jumped, so nervous I could barely breathe, looking to my left and seeing Shane sticking his tongue out and going cross-eyed. Tension broken. A moment later, he dropped the clownish face, clapped his hand on my shoulder, and said I was about to have the experience of my young life. He was not wrong. I bumped into him a couple times subsequently, but it was in researching the story I wrote about his life and death for Outside in 2009 that I truly came to appreciate everything Shane had been and the scope of what had been lost. So I watched McConkey with a lump in my throat, cringing while jotting down notes, like this quote from a 20-something goofy-grinned Shane: "I'm getting maximum enjoyment out of life and I'll never stop."
It's not unusual for hyperbole to follow in the wake of any death, much less that of a public figure who dies in the prime of life. But Shane was more than a reckless thrill-seeker or an "adrenaline junkie," as some articles after his death labeled him. He was the inveterate tinkerer who came up with the idea behind the kind of skis that are now standard-issue for big-mountain skiing. He was the relentless, restless visionary who was always trying to see around the next bend, always driven to push his sports, and himself, forward, showing his compatriots how to fly ever higher, right up until he came crashing tragically down to earth. But beyond his accomplishments, he was charming as hell, a born troublemaker and wiseass, the class clown but also a charismatic leader who inspired followers.. It's no surprise that McConkey attracted five directors, three of whom would likely have called him their "best friend."
Even in death, those friends were following Shane's lead. The first questioner during the post-screening Q&A wanted to know whose idea the film had been. "Really Shane's," said co-director Steve Winter, who filmed McConkey's final jump from a nearby helicopter. "I mean, his entire life he was walking around with a camera filming."
Winter's ski film company, Matchstick Productions, was a frequent McConkey collaborator, its archives stocked with thousands of hours of skiing footage, but it is Shane's personal archive that gives the film its voice. Because as gorgeous and impressive as the ski porn may be, it is just htat: porn, and you can only consume so much of it before you go numb. "The professionally shot ski footage we had was clearer," Winter told me after the screening. "But the personal stuff, the home movies, that's where the film really comes alive."
Indeed, it is Shane's own exhaustive self-documentation that allows the film to reveal the person behind the persona: Shane, not McConkey. Young Shane. Goofy Shane. Rebellious Shane. Stupid Shane. Heroic Shane. The home movies make this tear-jerker of a film that much more poignant, especially when it arrives at Adult Shane, the competent and focused businessman and ambassador for his sports, the one with a beautiful wife, Sherry, and daughter, Ayla. And yet Family-man Shane, the one who had it all together, was still seeking out stranger iterations of sports -- wingsuit ski-BASE, anyone? -- with risks that, no matter how well managed, remained substantial. It made the film almost harder to watch, because there was no suspense: everyone in the packed theater knew that, at the end of this movie, the hero dies
Most of Shane's friends will tell you that he died doing what he loved, which is true. Yet during the film I found myself thinking back to the tagline of the posters in the theater's lobby: "You have one life. Live it." "One life. Live it." While Shane's carpe diem life was undeniably inspirational in some ways, I wondered if for family and closest friends, the phrase's emphasis might have shifted. One life, live it. But you only get the one.
On screen, Shane's final jump is treated as tastefully as it could be. But the unasked and unanswered questions lingered in the background. Could a man like Shane have grown old gracefully? And, as one audience member asked during the post-screening Q&A, was it worth it?
First to answer was JT Holmes, a professional skier and BASE jumper and McConkey protégé. It was JT who had been with Shane and jumped just ahead of him on the day he died. "The question was if it was worth it, and the answer is absolutely not. If Shane could take back that jump or that trip, there's no question that the most important thing in his life was Ayla and Sherry, so in that respect no. But human beings, they have certain things in them that are just innate and adventure and exploration and pushing what's possible was innate in Shane, and it was certainly something that couldn't be changed."
Next up was Scott Gaffney, one of the film's co-directors and one of Shane's best friends, as well as his former roommate and frequent collaborator. "You know," he said, "shortly after Shane died, there was tons of feedback about how selfish he was, but what I've learned is that people tick in different ways, and I don't think the people who question 'was it worth it' are ever quite going to get what it is.... People just live for different things, and for some people they almost need this to feel fulfilled." He paused a beat. "Or they do need it."
After the screening, there was a reception at a nearby bar, with a photo-booth near the front that printed postcards with your image superimposed onto the movie poster. There were appetizers circulating -- shrimp and stuffed mushrooms and quesadillas -- and the bar's dozens of TV screens were running a constant loop of the film's trailer and assorted shots of Shane skiing and jumping and goofing around. His face was everywhere, and as the beers and stories and toasts flowed, it began to feel like an Irish wake. It began to feel like closure.
I had walked from the theater to the party with Daisher and Holmes and a few others. "I was flexing my abs the whole time to keep from bawling," Daisher said of his experience watching the film. But the big question on everyone's minds was voiced by Holmes. "I wonder how it's going to appeal to a bigger audience. I mean, we all loved him, we all know the story, we all know what he meant. But for a bigger audience who doesn't know anything about Shane, it's hard to say."
That question -- whether they had succeeded in taking this story about their friend and their subculture and making it relevant to a wider audience, in turning the personal into the universal -- coursed through the after-party. But this partisan audience was the wrong place to go looking for an indifferent observer. For us, of course it resonated; and for us, the question of "was it worth it" simply didn't compute: this was something Shane had to do. But would other people understand?
Those conversations kept circling back to the end of the Q&A session, when a 60-something woman seated towards the back of the theater with a tote bag in her lap was called on and delivered what turned out to be the screening's final statement. At a glance -- and perhaps unfairly -- I surmised that she was not a skier and had likely never heard of Shane McConkey before. Her voice was a little strained and she had to stop and clear her throat as she struggled to be heard. "Well," she said, after she'd composed herself, "I wanted to thank you for making such an incredible film, and a film that shows that life without passion for something really isn't life."
McConkey would have agreed. His friends certainly did.
(A version of this post originally appeared in the online magazine Frontier Psychiatrist. Thanks to them for permission to republish.)