I’m speechless. After watching McConkey You have one life. Live it. the new film from Matchstick Productions that digs into the life and death of snowsport megastar Shane McConkey, I tried to put together my feelings into a tidy blog post about passions, innovation, adventure, life, and risk. But my feelings wouldn’t cooperate. I am torn, inspired, blown away, and don't really know how to begin.
The world’s most influential skier.
Those are some of the words his friends and the media used to describe Shane, and with innovations like the rockered ski to his credit, and a background going from pizza delivery boy to ski superstar, those words ring true. But there’s more to it than that.
Shane was one of those human beings that experienced the cultural and technological equivalent of the rogue wave that happens in storms at sea when one wave builds on top of another to create a single wave that is massively out of proportion to the rest of the swell.
Shane’s wave was so enormous (he was the first North American athlete sponsored by Red Bull) in part because his father, Jim McConkey, was part of a cultural and technological wave that launched what became known as Heli-Skiing half a century ago. McConkey begins with footage of Jim skiing in the Bugaboos and Cariboos in the 60s where he helped Hans Gmoser develop what became CMH Heli-Skiing, a recreation icon that today parters with Shane's sponsors Red Bull and K2 to help everyday skiers and superstars alike savor the ultimate skiing experience.
The movie follows the highlights of Shane’s life, benefitting from an incredible collection of home video and GoPro style footage from Shane’s own camera, shot decades before the GoPro was invented. Born in Vancouver, Canada, Shane started skiing when he was 23 months old, and he began with a fairly predictable trajectory of a ski icon, from joining the local ski team at 7 years old to attending high school at the Prestigious Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont where Olympic racers are made, to a ski scholarship at CU Boulder in Colorado. When Shane didn’t make the cut for the US Ski Team because he was too small, he was shattered and his predictable trajectory was interrupted.
He jumped on the wave left by the likes of Glen Plake and Scot Schmidt who’d shown a new generation of brilliant skiers that skiing wasn’t just about racing. He left ski racing with one last memorable slalom run (also caught on film) where he bashes his last gates in his birthday suit. Yup. Buck naked.
You’ll have to watch the film to get the whole story, but the bottom line is that Shane didn’t just raise the bar a little; Shane raised the bar by an order of magnitude. He didn’t just ski off the biggest cliffs, he hucked backflips of the biggest cliffs. Shane was a staple of cutting-edge ski films for two decades, and McConkey highlights many of his best moments (and some of his worst) but it wasn’t the mind-blowing lines he chose, or the committing tricks he pulled in the midst of them that really left me speechless.
It was the fact that Shane always came across as a regular guy. A regular guy who just liked to see how big he could go if he did everything right. And big he went. He didn’t give a whit about the latest snow-gangster fashion or what his fellow skiers did. He just went out and figured out how to make something outrageous into something that was for him normal and repeatable. In 1996 he founded the IFSA, International Free Skier’s Association (also known as I F&$#!$g Ski Awesome) helping boost the prestige and mainstream appeal of creative free skiing.
He discovered BASE jumping in the early years of the sport, and mastered it, logging close to a thousand jumps all over the world, with and without skis and was a veteran of BASE jumping's thrill and tragedy. He was there when a woman’s chute didn’t open properly on a demonstration jump off of Yosemite’s El Capitan. Shane stood next to her husband, watching his face as it happened. (Perhaps one of the reasons the film hit me so hard is that I was sleeping on El Capitan that morning, and awoke to the sound of her hitting the ground - a sound I'd buried in my memory for years until they talked about that sound in the film.)
Shane didn’t just try ski BASE, he mastered ski BASE, which allowed him to ski lines that ended on massive cliffs and did it so well that it seemed almost normal – at least for him – and did it successfully for years. We all know this was what cost him his life in the end, but one of the things that I hadn’t realized was that it wasn’t ski BASE that got him, it was ski BASE with a wingsuit, which added to the complications and risk. As usual, Shane was raising his own bar.
Perhaps the details of his final jump don’t really matter. What matters is that “everyman’s superman” did a lot more than be a superman – he helped the rest of us feel like superheroes. When I’m slashing down a face of steep powder, feeling like a hero instead of the hack skier I am, it is thanks to Shane McConkey who walked away from his ski racing pedigree and even his extreme skiing peers to create both technology and a mental approach to skiing that makes many thousands of everyday skiers all over the world feel like superheroes.
McConkey does about the best possible job of doing the impossible: capturing the beauty, the tragedy, and the brilliance of Shane McConkey’s life in under 2 hours. From intimate interviews with his loved ones, to footage of his journal where he drew pictures of the first rockered skis and mused on the potential of ski BASE, the experienced team at Matchstick Productions deserve all the accolades they will certainly get. Order it here.
McConkey premiered in London on October 1st, and the story of the premier was captured by Pure Powder. I’m sure the tears and beers flowed freely.
Photo of Jim McConkey jumping a plane in 1962, during the first explorations into the Columbia Mountains in what is now CMH Cariboos Heli-Ski terrain, with CMH Heli-Skiing founder Hans Gmoser. Courtesy CMH Archives.