Hundreds attend memorial for Shane McConkey
SQUAW VALLEY USA ” Below the mountain peaks Shane McConkey used to call his home and playground, hundreds of friends and relatives gathered Sunday in the latest of a 10-day mourning ceremony that has reached around the world.
McConkey, 39, was a beloved resident of the Lake Tahoe area whose life ended March 26 while BASE jumping in the Dolomite Mountains in Italy. After completing a double back flip, McConkey planned to glide away in his wingsuit, something “he’s executed a number of times,” according to Matchstick Productions, the company whose films McConkey often starred in. In his latest attempt, he could not transfer from skiing to the wingsuit in time, and perished.
McConkey’s mother, Glenn, spoke about the first time she knew her son was a little off-kilter when compared with the traditional nine-to-fiver. In line at the ski area, a lift chair caught him by surprise and sent him tumbling into a snowbank. He cried. “Real tears,” she said. “We knew he was badly injured.” But then she tried something. She turned him around, pointed her finger at a new chair, and said, “We can take that to the top.” The crying stopped. He was a 2-year-old who had just learned how a ski lift worked, and so he continued on his way.
At age 7, and skiing, of course, McConkey questioned what was wrong with his mother after it took her so long to get down the hill. She understood. “I told him, ‘I’m getting you a coach.'” She soon put him in a ski class with Paul Arthur who, among other achievements, became the first to descend on skis from the summit of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in California at more than 14,000 feet.
During lessons, Arthur shared his “use the whole mountain” philosophy with McConkey, a classmate of future big mountain champion Wendy Fisher. Arthur’s crew, without any race training, won the California junior alpine championships that year, “because they all just wanted to have fun and they all loved to go fast,” Glenn said.
Then came high school, and Burke Academy in East Burke, Vt., where he was recruited to race. Early on, on the fast-track with the U.S. Ski Team, he suffered his first setback (other than the time he wasn’t allowed into Kindergarten because he was too small). The guy who hated to lose got philosophized out of job, when national team leaders decided they only wanted older athletes in the program. He couldn’t believe it, his mother said. “What the U.S. Ski Team doesn’t know is that they motivated him more than they could have any other way.”
Turns out, they gave the big mountain community a gift because as it turned out, McConkey could ski. The big contest champion soon got his break on the screen with “Ski Theater” in 1992, but after the ski movie boom and the turn of the millennium, McConkey never took a break, filming 10 movies in eight years, including the widely distributed “Steep” in 2007.
While filming, McConkey learned to BASE jump, a sport in which daredevils leap off fixed structures ” cliffs, bridges, buildings ” and deploy parachutes before landing safely. McConkey took it a step further, trading the parachute for a wingsuit, which allowed him to fly like a glider plane.
He BASE jumped for a Warren Miller movie near Lake Tahoe, perfecting a triple backflip with skis on off a 400-foot cliff, an event that permanently cemented his name into local big mountain folklore.
At Sunday’s ceremony, McConkey’s numerous ski exploits were left untold by every speaker on stage, but it was the unsaid that gave more gravitas to their more personal tales. Friends told tales ranging from those that described McConkey’s old T-shirt style to those that described a convincing cool.
“He taught me a few things,” said friend Scott Gaffney, who as part of his speech announced Squaw would soon name a run after McConkey. “He taught me that farting was funny. Monoskiing can be cool. And you can put a candle out with your nose if you inhale hard enough.”
Family members and friends continued the tributes, calling him in one poem an “eternal jokester … and thought provoker.” All passed their love on to his wife, Sherry, and his 3-year-old daughter, Ayla. His father, Jim, told of another tribute last week at Whistler, B.C, where the ski community boot-packed R.I.P. into a bowl packed with snow. Everywhere around the big-mountain world, people took a minute to reflect about how McConkey touched them.
Sunday’s ceremony finished with Squaw ski patrollers shelling the nearby mountainside with explosions. Little boys played near the stage, a setting his mother called “fitting,” and dogs chased each other around in the snow. A few guys drank beer. Couples watched and listened while they embraced. Then the bombs stopped. Then a bit of silence. Then a cheer.