“It’s in his blood,” the narrator in a vintage movie intones as Jim McConkey carves turns in the snow. “The wild skiing, the high mountains, the powder and the daring that takes a skier high and wide to untried slopes – and brings him back.”
Jim McConkey, a pioneering Canadian skier who made his name cutting through deep powder on steep, remote mountains and who appeared in a dozen-plus ski films in the 1950s and 60s, always made it back. His son, Shane, who pushed skiing to far greater extremes and starred in numerous cult ski movies in the 1990s and 2000s, work that elevated him to an icon of his sport, did not. He died in 2009 in northern Italy, filming a signature stunt that involved skiing off a 600-metre cliff with a parachute. His bindings jammed, and he hit the ground before he could open the parachute. He was 39.
Four years later, Shane McConkey’s death haunts his father. Understanding the drive that carried his son off that cliff has not diluted the pain. Jim can still marvel at Shane’s career – “he took skiing to a whole new elevation, a new universe” – but there is a hole in his heart. The images of Shane’s final moments are burned into his mind. There are no answers to the question of whether such extremes are worth it.
“I can see him going through the air, working with that thing, trying to get it off,” Jim, 87 and hale, says in the living room of his summer home on Denman Island in British Columbia. “I think about that. You can’t get it out of your mind. There isn’t probably an hour a day that I don’t think about Shane.”
A pioneering father
Jim McConkey started in the ski business when there was no actual business. He taught himself the fledgling sport when he was a boy in the 1930s in Barrie, Ont. After the Second World War, he worked and taught at resorts across the continent and became known as one of the era’s most daring skiers. “His ‘gelandi jumping’ and acrobatics on skis were the precursors to free-style aerials and the free-style movement,” reads his entry in the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame.
Jim eventually settled in Whistler, B.C., in 1968 and ran a ski school and other businesses there until the 1980s. In 1969, his then-wife, Glenn, gave birth to Shane in North Vancouver.
The sport he pioneered – his picture appeared on the cover of a book several years ago called The Story of Modern Skiing – had dramatically changed by the time his son was a star. Back then, there wasn’t much money. Today, extreme skiing is fuelled by the likes of Red Bull, the energy-drink company that pours millions of dollars into dangerous sports of all kinds and was the principal backer of Shane’s exploits. The stakes keep getting higher, the stunts more daring.
The main concern of Jim McConkey’s father – who worked in life insurance – was whether Jim could make a living. Jim’s main concern for Shane was keeping him safe.
“I used to do things that people thought was crazy,” Jim says. “But these guys are able to go into places that we couldn’t do.”
‘He didn’t talk about his dad ...’
Shane McConkey’s life is the subject of a new documentary, McConkey, that frames the skier’s career and effusive personality around scenes before his death in Italy. It was a life lived in the mountains and one that inspired countless fans. “It feels,” said one after Shane’s crash, “like Superman died.” Powder magazine called him the most influential skier ever.
Shane was a toddler when Jim and Glenn went through an acrimonious divorce. Glenn and Shane moved to California, where she was from, and Jim fought in court for access. Jim would see Shane on holidays and during longer visits in the summer, in Whistler, or on trips they took together. But their relationship became distant as Shane grew up and moved east to go to school at a ski-racing academy. He came to resent his father’s absence.
Shane never made the national ski race team, but, in the 1990s, living in Squaw Valley, Calif., he began to establish his reputation among a group of young skiers whose feats were glorified in a new generation of ski films.