“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.
Scott Gaffney, a roommate and a fledgling filmmaker at the time, remembers seeing one of Jim’s old ski movies the rare time Shane put a copy on. “He didn’t talk about his dad a whole lot,” says Mr. Gaffney, who was filming at the time of Shane’s death and is a co-director of the new documentary. “There didn’t seem to be much of a relationship there.”
Shane quickly gained renown for his ability to ski near-vertical slopes and off huge cliffs. His effervescent and often-adolescent personality added to his appeal. In 2000, Mr. Gaffney made a film about Shane called There’s Something About McConkey, a blend of goofy comedy and incredible skiing. But the puzzle of how to go bigger was always on Shane’s mind. Perhaps inevitably, he turned to BASE jumping, the fringe and generally illegal sport in which participants leap off buildings and bridges and feel the rush of a brief free fall before deploying a parachute. For Shane, it paired perfectly with skis, making once-impossible slopes suddenly accessible. A 600-metre cliff was no longer out of bounds.
Shane soon also learned to use a wingsuit – a webbed body suit with webbed fabric between the legs and the arms and body that makes soaring flight possible before a parachute is pulled. In the faraway places – Baffin Island, the fjords of Norway – he would search out cliffs from which he could launch himself. It made for otherworldly scenes in movies, no digital trickery required. It became his standard mode: Shane had a wingsuit on for his final jump in Italy.
As his fame in the niche world of extreme skiing blossomed, Shane’s relationship with his father began to heal. He met the woman whom he would marry, Sherry (their daughter Ayla was born in 2005), and she helped to bridge the gap of time and distance. The couple joined Jim on a ski trip in the late 1990s, and the two extreme skiers, father and son, bonded.
“Talking about relationships, about sons and fathers, I said it’s a waste of time to be angry at somebody for something,” Sherry says. “[Shane] really took that in. He saw it: It is a waste of my time. My dad is awesome.”
Jim understood the skiing and the danger, having scraped the edges of death on his 22nd birthday when he plunged 25 metres down a crevasse on a glacier. It was the BASE jumping he feared. He always hoped Shane would give it up but, deep down, he knew what the allure was. Jim remembered when he was in his 20s, living in Yosemite in California, looking up at the towering granite face of El Capitan and thinking, “God, wouldn’t it be great to ski down and take off?” He and his wife, Paule, would prod Shane when he would visit in the years before he died, talk about easing back, giving up the most dangerous elements. But Shane wasn’t ready to leave it behind.
“He loved it,” Jim says. “Absolutely loved it. They say [he was] addicted to it. Adrenalin rush – you’ve heard that story. I guess that perhaps he was. He’d get kind of angry if you started pushing him on it.”
‘I don’t know the answer’
The news of Shane’s death was paralyzing. “Jimmy just froze. He just froze,” Paule remembers. Several weeks later, reeling, Jim suffered a slight stroke.
Four and a half years after Shane crashed in Italy, his father has no answers. The mountains of sponsorship money make it possible for someone like Shane – and many others – to make a living risking his life. The tag line for the McConkey documentary is: “You have one life. Live it.”
Jim is, has always been, inspired by his son. He remembers the little boy he didn’t see enough of. He remembers the man who came close to flying. But sitting in his home, on a cool and wet late-summer day, the inspiration and awe are permanently entwined with loss.
“It comes with a cost. It comes with a hell of a cost,” Jim says. “He did well. When I think of what he accomplished in his lifetime, he lived 10 lifetimes. A lot of these kids can make good money but it’s the, you know, like Sherry, and little Ayla, and us, we’re paying the price. I mean, Shane did what he wanted to do.”
Jim pauses. His voice is quiet, and his eyes turned downward. “When you have a family …”
He pauses again. “It’s tough. He accomplished a lot. I don’t know the answer. I don’t know the answer to that.”