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Air Apparent

Features
posted: 04/28/2004

Shane McConkey stands atop a snow-soaked peak in Bella Coola, British Columbia, preparing to make a run for the cameras as he has hundreds of times before. Only this isn't an ordinary run. On his feet is a pair of Stinger Graphite water skis-170 millimeters wide-with Marker Comp 1400 bindings drilled into the bases. He pushes off, makes four perfect turns down a 45-degree, runnel-covered face, and then inexplicably throws the boards sideways, executing an 11-second, 2,000-foot spine-slide that includes navigating a slight turn to the right at nearly 40 miles an hour. He straightens out his skis just before leaping the bergschrund at the bottom.

It's another McConkey moment, captured on film by Matchstick Productions (MSP) co-owner Murray Wais, who says that after eight years of filming together, McConkey still finds ways to surprise him. "It's funny enough that he'd even try the water skis to begin with," Wais says. "But then he uses them to do that on a big spine of a burly mountain."

Despite a habit of pushing the envelope almost to obscurity and a rash of injuries that has kept him in and out of the spotlight for the last decade, Shane McConkey, 33, has retained his position at the top of the cool-guy roster in the ever-evolving world of extreme sports. He's fast, he's funny, and he has the hot girl. He's renowned for his aggressive style, from technical billy-goating down uncharted lines to buck-naked spread eagles-and it has won the respect of both the industry and the athletes that fuel it. He may not have the edge in life expectancy, but he squeezes so much living out of every day that he'll probably come out ahead in the end.

The man is obsessed with air-the kind that exists between the top and bottom of really high places. He likes bridges and buildings and huge granite cliffs, spots where a person with the balls to jump can experience what he calls "the ultimate feeling of flight." He can ski off a 600-foot cliff with a parachute and stick the landing. And with this obsession, he continues to push the limits of possibility between man and mountain.

I am sitting with McConkey in his living room on April Fools' Day as the sky above Squaw continues to unleash the biggest dump since December. He sports bed head, the freckles of a nine-year-old, and a T-shirt bearing the IFSA logo. Despite what's printed on the back (i fucking ski awesome), IFSA stands for International Free-skiers Association, an organization he founded in 1996.

Two malamutes wander about the room, the young one stopping to sit in the lap of McConkey's live-in girlfriend, Sherry, a South African candle maker who is largely responsible for the kitchen's current remodeling. ("She's got skills I don't," McConkey says.) He and I have spent the morning on the mountain together, though we didn't exactly ski together because James Shane McConkey, a.k.a. Cliff Huckstable, a.k.a. Pain McShlonkey, a.k.a. Saucerboy, has a simple powder-day protocol, and waiting around for some ski writer ain't part of it. By the time I look up from buckling my boots at the top, McConkey has dusted me, disappearing into the depths of G.S. Bowl, a trail of Sierra smoke billowing up behind him.

Saucerboy is McConkey's snowler-blade-wearing, Jack Daniels-drinkin', pink-saucer-toting alter ego. And he's legendary. The persona first made an appearance in MSP's 1997 movie Pura Vida. "Murray came up with the idea of riding a saucer around," McConkey says. "At the time, snowlerblades were just starting to get popular and we were like, 'Man, this definitely needs to be made fun of.' So we took a couple things that little kiddies ride around on and then added it to this asswipe adult character."

The affinity for all things infantile-plastic sleds, snowlerblades-is hallmark McConkey. He was kicked out of Vail for life because he once ran a bump course naked. In his movie, There's Something About McConkey, he is shown sucking a noodle into his nose until it comesut his mouth. In the next scene, he is on all fours in his living room being humped by his own dog. "Shane has made a career out of having fun," says ski partner and filmmaker Scott Gaffney, "and he blends it well with being a supernaturally talented athlete, whether he's skiing or juggling or bowling between his legs."

"I definitely have an issue with people being too serious," McConkey says. "I mean, look at all the guys in the jib flicks-making some face at the camera, trying to look tough. Why do they have to try and act like a gangster? We're a bunch of white fucking skiers who go down mountains for cryin' out loud."

But what McConkey does on snow is serious. "What really separates Shane is not so much how he skis but where," says freeskier Brad Holmes. "He'll be standing there laughing on the side of a cliff that would give the rest of us chattering knees and sweaty palms." He has the uncanny ability to make ridiculously sketchy situations seem La-Z-Boy comfortable.

Skiing has always been in McConkey's blood. His father, Jim, made a name for himself as one of the first powderhounds at Alta in the early '60s. He then moved to Park City-McConkey Bowl is named after him-and then on to Whistler, where he founded the resort's ski school. Shane made his first turns at Whistler shortly after his second birthday. While Jim contributed to the genes, it was Shane's mother, Glenn, who took on the ski-mom role after the two divorced and she moved to Santa Cruz. "She'd drive me up to Squaw on the weekends because she was a master's racer," Shane says. "So it's fitting that I'd end up here because this is really where it all began."

After more than a dozen years of structured racing, at the tail end of training stints at Burke Academy in Vermont and University of Colorado in Boulder, McConkey saw a film that he says changed everything. "In 1988, the Blizzard of Aahhhs came out, and I was like, 'You can do that and make a living?' Greg Stump sensationalized the hell out of how rad it was to be an extreme skier, and I fell for it as hard as anyone."

Though he was finished with FIS racing, McConkey switched to moguls in the early '90s and won a pro event at Copper in 1993. That same year, while he was delivering pizzas in Boulder, his roommate Kent Kreitler returned from the second annual U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships in Crested Butte-which he had won. "I was like, 'No way. You won?' thinking, 'I'm as good as he is. I should go try one of those.'" So he did, competing in the World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, Alaska, in 1994. He finished second-and went on to take the South American Extremes in Las Leñas that summer and the U.S. Nationals a season later. He soon became so involved with the freeskiing circuit that he founded the IFSA in order to give some semblance of order to the competitions.

Criticize freeskiing events and you'll send McConkey on one of his impassioned tirades. No other two-plank discipline, he says, compares to freeskiing. "The competitions show more about what skiing really is than any of those specialty events-moguls, jumping, aerials, racing, freestyle. None of those mean shit as to how good of a real skier you are. Freeskiing comps are the most intense by far, because not only are you nervous as hell in the starting gate, but you could also fucking die."

Ironically, this love for risk-taking is what would eventually take time away from McConkey's skiing schedule. In 1995 Crested Butte-based filmmakers Murray Wais and Steve Winter were shooting a BASE-jumping segment for their upcoming ski film, The Tribe, and it was during this shoot that McConkey got to know BASE-jumper and skydiver extraordinaire Frank "The Gambler" Gambalie.

"When I saw what Gambalie was doing, I was like, 'Oh, my God, that's the coolest thing ever," McConkey says. In June 1999, Gambalie drowned trying to outrun Yosemite Park rangers after a BASE-jump from El Capitan, but his death didn't deter McConkey. Cliff Huckstable has since completed more than 400 jumps, including plunges off the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas and a large building in Vancouver, British Columbia, using Jonny Moseley as his getaway driver.

But now the pendulum of taking airborne chances is swinging back to the world of skiing. McConkey has figured out a way to mix skiing and BASE-jumping to form an entirely different discipline: ski-BASE-jumping. A handful of people have performed BASE-jumps with skis, mostly French extremists in the '70s and '80s, but they were more BASE-jumpers than skiers. They usually did it as a one-time stunt, not as a way of stitching together an otherwise unthinkable line.

McConkey, on the other hand, sees the possibility to integrate the two sports and, as he puts it, "make it an actual part of skiing." He did his first this winter, with freeskier J.T. Holmes. They built two kickers by Tahoe's South Shore, one 100 feet above a 400-foot cliff, the other just on top of the cliff. McConkey threw a back flip off the first ramp, landed, ditched his poles, then threw a front flip off the cliff, ripped his parachute cord, and sailed back down to earth. He also launched a 170-foot ski-BASE-jump off the Palisades at Squaw ("It was a two-year wait for that one," Shane says) and nailed six jumps in Bella Coola last winter, which will likely appear in MSP's new flick, Focused.

"It has opened up this whole new world," he says. "I'm starting to look at all these huge lines now that, normally, you wouldn't ever consider because you'd die. But now you have the option of just airing it out."

McConkey's innovation in skiing goes beyond just how you ski a mountain but what you ski it on. He was one of the first freeskiers to adopt fat skis for big mountain skiing, and of course there's the whole water-ski thing. "Shane has managed to find continuous creativity in skiing where others have just got bored and been forgotten," says Holmes. Take for instance his latest signature ski model: the Spatula.

"I remember years ago in Las Leñas, scribbling these skis with reverse sidecut on a bar napkin," McConkey says. "It was sort of a joke at the time, but the more I thought about it, I was like, you know, those would totally work in soft snow."

The Spatulas look like the water skis that McConkey rode sideways in Bella Coola. They're made by Volant, one of McConkey's main sponsors, and in addition to reverse sidecut (they're wider in the middle than at the tip and tail), they also have reverse camber-meaning both ends curve upward. While they certainly aren't made for anything but deep powder (if you try to turn them on the groomed, they actually carve away from you), McConkey believes that one purpose is enough. "It's a specialty ski for sure," he says. "But I figure if we can make a ski that works better than anything else by far for one thing, then it might as well exist." Though I met a dozen people at Squaw who raved about the Spatulas, critics of the design remain numerous (including Skiing's own all-pro test team). McConkey takes particular joy in listening to the naysayers. "I love it, because when I was preaching fat skis to everyone back in 1996, they were all just laughing, being like, 'You guys are on glue, are you kidding me?' Then I'd blast down the hill and leave them in the dust."

And that is pure McConkey. Always looking forward. Figuring out the next big thing and laughing at those who say that skiing has gone stale. He's continually driving to keep creativity and humor central. "Ten years from now, there'll be some other new aspect to the sport that we never even thought of, and I think that's totally cool," he says. "Because if you're not thinking about the next thing and what's possible, about what you could be doing, then you're bored. And I don't like being bored."nkey. Cliff Huckstable has since completed more than 400 jumps, including plunges off the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas and a large building in Vancouver, British Columbia, using Jonny Moseley as his getaway driver.

But now the pendulum of taking airborne chances is swinging back to the world of skiing. McConkey has figured out a way to mix skiing and BASE-jumping to form an entirely different discipline: ski-BASE-jumping. A handful of people have performed BASE-jumps with skis, mostly French extremists in the '70s and '80s, but they were more BASE-jumpers than skiers. They usually did it as a one-time stunt, not as a way of stitching together an otherwise unthinkable line.

McConkey, on the other hand, sees the possibility to integrate the two sports and, as he puts it, "make it an actual part of skiing." He did his first this winter, with freeskier J.T. Holmes. They built two kickers by Tahoe's South Shore, one 100 feet above a 400-foot cliff, the other just on top of the cliff. McConkey threw a back flip off the first ramp, landed, ditched his poles, then threw a front flip off the cliff, ripped his parachute cord, and sailed back down to earth. He also launched a 170-foot ski-BASE-jump off the Palisades at Squaw ("It was a two-year wait for that one," Shane says) and nailed six jumps in Bella Coola last winter, which will likely appear in MSP's new flick, Focused.

"It has opened up this whole new world," he says. "I'm starting to look at all these huge lines now that, normally, you wouldn't ever consider because you'd die. But now you have the option of just airing it out."

McConkey's innovation in skiing goes beyond just how you ski a mountain but what you ski it on. He was one of the first freeskiers to adopt fat skis for big mountain skiing, and of course there's the whole water-ski thing. "Shane has managed to find continuous creativity in skiing where others have just got bored and been forgotten," says Holmes. Take for instance his latest signature ski model: the Spatula.

"I remember years ago in Las Leñas, scribbling these skis with reverse sidecut on a bar napkin," McConkey says. "It was sort of a joke at the time, but the more I thought about it, I was like, you know, those would totally work in soft snow."

The Spatulas look like the water skis that McConkey rode sideways in Bella Coola. They're made by Volant, one of McConkey's main sponsors, and in addition to reverse sidecut (they're wider in the middle than at the tip and tail), they also have reverse camber-meaning both ends curve upward. While they certainly aren't made for anything but deep powder (if you try to turn them on the groomed, they actually carve away from you), McConkey believes that one purpose is enough. "It's a specialty ski for sure," he says. "But I figure if we can make a ski that works better than anything else by far for one thing, then it might as well exist." Though I met a dozen people at Squaw who raved about the Spatulas, critics of the design remain numerous (including Skiing's own all-pro test team). McConkey takes particular joy in listening to the naysayers. "I love it, because when I was preaching fat skis to everyone back in 1996, they were all just laughing, being like, 'You guys are on glue, are you kidding me?' Then I'd blast down the hill and leave them in the dust."

And that is pure McConkey. Always looking forward. Figuring out the next big thing and laughing at those who say that skiing has gone stale. He's continually driving to keep creativity and humor central. "Ten years from now, there'll be some other new aspect to the sport that we never even thought of, and I think that's totally cool," he says. "Because if you're not thinking about the next thing and what's possible, about what you could be doing, then you're bored. And I don't like being bored."

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