Jim McConkey watched his son nearly die.
It was a blustery day in 2003 when Shane McConkey leapt off the edge of Stawamus Chief, the iconic 700-metre granite face that stands above Squamish, B.C.
As Shane hurtled toward the ground in swirling wind, he had a “wall strike” – whipping into the wall of the mountain he was trying to jump away from, not once but twice. In his own words, he “almost died.”
“We were hoping he'd get out of that,” Jim said of his son's fascination with the extreme sport of base jumping, the act of skiing or otherwise plunging off a cliff and then parachuting to the ground. “You know, you can't force people. I was always worried when he'd go away on those trips and always be so thankful when he'd come back and he was okay.
“He wasn't ready to give it up. Maybe in another couple years, he probably might have been. But he didn't survive it. He died flying. He died doing what he loved to do.”
Shane McConkey, 39, one of the world's best skiers, died March 26 after taking another leap off another mountain, half-a-world away from his wife and three-year-old daughter in California, while being filmed for a movie. He did a backflip after skiing off a craggy peak in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy. But when he tried to release his skis so he could glide away in a wingsuit and parachute safely to earth, something went wrong. One of the bindings didn't release, sending him into a brutal 12-second spin. He died on impact.
Ski base jumping and other forms of “base jumping” – throwing oneself off structures such as buildings, bridges and mountains in a freefall before releasing a parachute – are more than just risky sports. So in the days after Mr. McConkey's death, it didn't take long for a familiar debate to begin.
His infectious personality, his easy smile and laughter, and his amazing feats, made him widely loved and celebrated. “It feels like Superman died,” one person said on a tribute website. But on another site, someone else called Mr. McConkey's life work “quite stupid useless acts.”
“If he really valued his family he wouldn't have jumped off a perfectly good mountain,” the commentator concluded.
His friends, fans and co-workers defended him as a professional athlete, living the life he chose: unconventional and full of risk.
In extreme sports, participants obviously believe the thrill is worth the risk. But is the risk also the thrill? And what exactly is a risk taker – someone who puts his life on the line or someone who simply feels the need to break free of convention? What makes a person take risks and do dangerous, even life-threatening things?
Jim McConkey, of anyone, has the best perspective. He's a Whistler Mountain legend who ran its ski school in the late 1960s and 1970s, starred in vintage ski films and helped launch the area's helicopter ski business. He was a pioneer of what's now called big mountain skiing – skiing far away from in-bound areas on slopes with extreme angles of 45 degrees or more, where a fall has severe consequences.
Now 82, Mr. McConkey has chased the highs and skirted death himself. He has felt what it is like to explore new frontiers in a world where everything's been discovered.
“I skied a lot of runs no one had ever skied before,” Jim said. “It's the feeling of freedom, of being able to go up and ski down these big open slopes and through the trees and being able to handle it. I really loved it. You feel it. And you simply have to do it.
“That was the thing with Shane. He loved doing what he was doing. He took it to the pinnacle. He took skiing to the ultimate.”
Shane McConkey was born in Vancouver but grew up with his mother in California. He ski raced as a teenager but yearned for more than just banging through gates. In the 1990s, as all things extreme began to percolate, Mr. McConkey was a ringleader. Virtually unknown in the mainstream, he starred in ski films for a decade and was all over magazine covers. He made skiing cool again after snowboarding stole the spotlight, and the fat skis every skier is on these days were popularized by Mr. McConkey. Ever inventive, always looking for a new thing, early this decade he married his passion for base jumping with extreme skiing.
In an interview two weeks before he died, Mr. McConkey distilled his passion in three takes: One: “For me, it's crazy to think of living in a big city and working on Wall Street.”