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Remembering Shane

4/3/2009
McConkey sends 'er off a Retallack pillow line, 2008. Matt Murray/Oakley

Shane McConkey had a garage you couldn't believe. Hanging from the walls, piled in corners, and spread across the floor were every conceivable manner of snow-sliding and gravity-defying device. There were fat skis, skinny skis, water skis, snowboards, mini snowboards turned into mini fat skis, mountain bikes, bikes with skis instead of wheels, sleds, saucers, bungee cords, BASE jumping rigs, and various experiments in gear that looked like really bad ideas. If he who dies with the most toys wins, then Shane won.

Shane's death in a ski BASE jumping accident on March 26, while filming for Matchstick Productions in Italy, is a crushing blow to the sport of skiing and a traumatizing loss to his extended family of friends and athletes that were brought into his orbit over the years. But it would be dishonest of those of us who knew him to claim that it's a complete surprise. This is a guy who has spent the better part of the last 10 years willfully throwing himself from cliffs, buildings, bridges, helicopters—pretty much anything high enough to get him into free-fall. And as Shane liked to point out—usually with the same sh*t-eating grin that he'd crack when showing you his garage—"There are no injuries in BASE jumping."

Then again, Shane actually did have a few BASE jumping injuries. He was once blown back into "The Chief", a 1000-foot jump near Whistler. He slapped the rocks twice on that one, leaving most of the skin on his palms behind, before getting tangled in a small tree growing from a crack in the cliff. That left him on a ledge a few hundred feet from the ground, which is exactly the sort of place he used to purposely get himself to on skis. He had a knack for finding lines on mountains that no one else could see, because they weren't really there.

Even before Shane learned to fly, he had the aura of a guy who could do the impossible. Goofy and self-effacing as hell, he nevertheless inspired people to follow him, and anyone who skis follows him in one way or another today. Like your fat skis? It was Shane who proved that a tool designed for intermediates who couldn't ski powder would revolutionize big mountain skiing. Ever watch big mountain competitions? Shane organized the first regular circuit of events, along with the International Free Skiing Association to sanction them. Intrigued by the reverse camber ski and snowboard designs popping up all over the place? Shane was de-cambering his own skis in that garage of his back in 2003 to prove to his ski sponsor he wasn't just crazy—he was right.

Shane McConkey, 1969-2009

A surprising number of people followed Shane right over those cliffs he jumped off. There's a generation of BASE jumpers in Lake Tahoe who credit Shane as their mentor, and his ski BASE techniques have been adopted by like-minded lunatics in adrenaline capitals the world over. It is no stretch to declare him the most influential skier of the last 15 years.

As word of Shane's death rippled across the ski and BASE jumping communities, I sat on a couch in a lodge at the foot Alaska's Chugach Mountains—a range Shane helped uncover in the '90s. Surrounded by Tahoe locals who all have a Shane McConkey story, we watched the 2000 Scott Gaffney film "There's Something About McConkey." It's tough to say what got a bigger reaction; the ridiculous skits with Shane's alter-ego, Saucer Boy, extreme saucering at Squaw Valley and in Alaska, or the montage of big mountain lines that still hold up, a decade later, against anything being done today by the skiers Shane inspired.

Laughter and cheers echoed through the lodge until the very last frame of the film. Then we watched Shane, sh*t-eating grin bigger than ever, wave goodbye to us before casually falling backwards off some thousand foot bridge somewhere and plummeting out of the frame. It's as good an image as any to end on and, at least with this one, we get to wave back.