In the fast-evolving universe of Shane McConkey, everything is cool—and cool is everything
Last March, atop a permanently closed face at Kirkwood ski area, a group of judges in the free-skiing contest taking place that day stares down over the steep, firm snow and rocky chutes, pondering the various lines and looking for a way down.
Naturally—as naturally as a farmer scans the sky for rain—all eyes turn to the man with the sloppy 40-pound duffel slung over his shoulders, an ill-packed bag crammed with shovels, sleeping bag, and judging cards. If anyone can deliver a quick judgement on this ponderous precipice, then surely it will be the steely-eyed 28-year-old with the duffel, even if he is under strict doctor’s orders not to be on skis after tearing his left ACL in January.
But there, leaning over the edge, pointing out what would be considered 3-line, 4-line, and 5-line routes under International Free Ski Association guidelines, is one James Shane McConkey, kingpin of the free-ski underworld, a man whose very name is synonymous with backflips, nude spread-eagles, crotch-grabs—an entire glisse revolution—not to mention killer answering machine imitations of Beavis and Butthead.
Finishing his explanation, McConkey suddenly hitches up the duffel, rips three perfect turns and freefalls into the 5-line, a steep, tight chute with a little drop off in the middle. He’s at the bottom, bag open, sleeping-bag spread, shovel out, and setting up before the others even have a chance to think. But now there’s nothing to think about: the gauntlet has been thrown and they’ll all have to sketch down the 5-line to save face with the gimp.
It’s not a comforting thought, dropping the 5-line isn’t exactly what they had in mind. For McConkey–free-ski pioneer, reticent but thoughtful organizer dude, erudite jokester, redneck punching bag, erstwhile opinion slinger, dedicated fun-hog, and legendary shit disturber–it’s just another day at the office.
It’s July, and as McConkey ping-pongs from west coast to east to west again, I catch up with him in Whistler, B.C., where he’s penciled in as a coach for both High North and Ken Auchenbach’s free-ski camps, unstructured gap-jump, quarter-pipe, table-top circuses where the only rule is that if you aren’t having fun, you have to go bash gates with the racers for a day.
In McConkey’s room at Whistler, an assembly of adolescents munching chips and readying for a swim that I take to be campers, actually turns out to be the coaching staff, led by local air sensation Shane Szocs. They’ve just spent a rainy pea-soup day bashing the terrain park features of their “lane” on Blackcomb’s Horstman Glacier, hemmed in by a half-dozen bumping and boarding camps. But these are the first real free-ski camps that the industry has seen and McConkey is more than excited. “You gotta see what these kids are doing,” he enthuses. “This one guy is spinning 900s and landing switch! It’s unbelievably cool.”
In fact, much is cool to our hero as I discover while we crowd onto the couch to watch My Way, latest in a string of snow/skate/surf/motocross/wakeboard/attitude/low comedy flicks. I count no less than 14 eruptions of the word, as in “That’s cool!” and “He’s cool.” Even during a moment’s respite from the video vacuity to field a cellphone call from a Sessions team manager, McConkey maintains his support of all that is new and rad.
“Yeah, you gotta check this guy out,” he asserts of the now almost deified switch-900 guy, “he’s cool.” But lest an observer think all McConkey’s judgements as casual as they sound, it’s clear that at least some carry weight: imagine what you will, but the next day the kid has a contract with Sessions.
The skateboarding montage peters out on the video, replaced by a huge Alaskan face. As McConkey’s attention flips back to the tube, I catch a miniature version of the flickering snow, ice, and rock reflected in his eyes. It’s entirely fortuitous, but a compelling image nonetheless. In the interplay of stare and reflection lies a McConkey I have yet to meet: Intense Inner Guy, strikingly distant from his frequently over-the-top public persona, yet at the same time intimately connected.
The next half-hour is a primer entitled Facets of McConkey, the transformations washing over the freckled, clean-shaven face like shadows from a picket fence: the curious child wondering aloud how a sick wakeboarding trick is done and whether it can be pulled off on skis; the dumbass adolescent perpetually slinging mud out of one side of his brain, making glib pronouncements about riders “pussying out” where they could have taken more air or speed—the types of inane, paradoxical comments that often end up scribbled under his more thoughtful score totals on free-ski event judging cards; the focused, post-adolescent athlete, one of skiing’s true renaissance riders mentally sizing up lines, visualizing as a racer would gates or a mogul skier a bump course; the wide-eyed, super-stoked newbie, open to all of the terrain possibilities on a face and seeing only air, speed, and fun; the International Free Ski Association spearhead, tireless promoter, sometimes official, and burgeoning business guy, instantly recognizing the winning line on a venue and seeing not only himself as competitor, but the judging, TV, and infrastructural concerns as well; and, the soul-ski lifer, sitting on the edge of the couch, itching to get in the game, eyeing the Nordicas he’s been tip-toeing around the mountain in while he rehabs from his second knee-surgery in as many years.
But perhaps most apparent in this litany is McConkey’s current incarnation as student of the world, drinking it all in and not missing a detail of the sea-change machinations in an industry he’s known since childhood, but which only recently became both surrogate educator and livelihood.
In the self-styled free-ski schoolhouse, the man whose class-clownery and perpetual adolescence (and if you didn’t know the identity of “Saucer Boy,” now’s the time to clue in) have made him a god in the mind of many a pubescent acolyte, is growing up. And, like other celebrities, it’s happening very much in the public eye.
If you’re shocked to discover Shane McConkey was a precocious child, stop reading here. Born in Vancouver, his Can-Am parents separated when he was three and he and his mother, Glen, moved from Whistler to Santa Cruz, California. His mother was “the best mom in the world—which anyone would say, but mine really was.”
Indeed Glen, a strong skier and now four-time National Masters Skiing Champion, made numerous sacrifices and turned aside opportunities for herself in order to create more for her son. Naturally, according to McConkey, the greatest gift his mother gave him was skiing.
When Shane was very young and still living in Whistler, Glen skied with him in a backpack, where he loved moguls. On groomers he’d shake the pack and scream “bump, mommy, bump!”
Though he retains his childish desire for thrills and fun, McConkey is also still capable of other puerile behaviors. These infrequent outbursts are reserved for things that are decidedly uncool, or have somehow offended the purist within. Cinematographer Rob Bruce experienced one such short-lived tantrum while filming him, Seth Morrison and Brant Moles last winter for Steve Winter’s new movie. Waiting for the chopper, Bruce asked McConkey to make a cheesy little turn with some scenery in the background for a cutaway. Shane erupted “That’s queer, that sucks! We should just get out of the helicopter and ski a line like in [so-and-so’s] movie!” The others laughed themselves silly—they all thought that movie sucked.
But nowhere is the child within more apparent than when McConkey is watching kids ski, fully grooving on their take-air-off-anything mentality. “Kids are cool,” he smirks. “I’d like to have one–for a week.”
Q: “Do you miss your hair?”
A: “No. Less hair, more air—heh, heh.”
As McConkey explains it, Beavis and Butthead are his heroes because they live 100% as stupid idiots. They don’t have to worry about the fact that it’s important to be smart. Theirs is the ultimate reductionist universe, where everything is either cool or not.
And it isn’t lost on McConkey that most intellectuals spend their lives trying to create reductionist theories, which is perhaps why he sees little harm in being perceived as a nut—going as big as you can whether on the slopes or in a bar.
“He’s the funniest, freshest, most laid-back skier on the scene, and it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without him,” says friend, writer and free-ski diva Kristen Ulmer. “He’s pretty well-balanced, but it often doesn’t seem that way because he makes a joke out of absolutely everything.”
Among his peers, McConkey’s lighthearted approach seems particularly appreciated. Of the dozen or so people to whom I pose the question: “What comes to mind when you think of Shane McConkey” there isn’t a single one whose first reaction isn’t to giggle. Even Brant Moles, just home from two operations and drugged to the hilt, slurs out a laugh: “Shane’s a silly boy…”
Although the jest-fest seems to rub everyone the right way, it can make it hard to read McConkey. Since he isn’t predisposed to talking about himself, searching for anything beyond mere opinion or panning for a nugget from his continual stream of million-dollar quotes can leave interviewers praying for a hot needle vendor with a two-for-one special. For instance, of his famous father, Jim McConkey, a ski movie star himself with runs named after him at Whistler, Alta and Park City—whom Shane saw only once a year while he was growing up and whose accomplishments he only became cognizant of in his teens—he’ll say only, “It’s kind of wild that we ended up doing similar things.” But though he covers whatever insecurities and vulnerability he may possess extraordinarily well, he’s also strangely unboastful about the very things that have elevated his image beyond that of simple fun-hog skier. Like a dog who’s been caught with his head in the kitchen garbage—a place where canine instinct drove him without any cognition over the consequences—McConkey is often sheepish and deflective about the legendary impulses of his adolescent id.
“How about the time you threw a backflip in a mogul course at Vail, had your pass yanked by patrol, then rushed the course naked and got permanently banned from the resort?”
“You must be talking about someone else.”
“Didn’t you get beat up in a Whistler bar this spring by some redneck who thought you were eyeing his girlfriend?”
“I don’t think I understand the question.”
“What do you think now when you see that old Volant ad where your hair looks like you stuck your finger in a light socket?”
“What Volant ad? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Of course, what’s brought McConkey to the fore is his skiing: ballsy, big, aesthetic, wild yet controlled, unassailable. It would be unfair to say that without skiing McConkey is just another joker at a keg party trying to balance a couch on his nose, but it can’t be ignored that his talent on boards has been his deliverance from schlepping pizzas in Boulder and bussing in Tahoe. Writer and close friend Susan Reifer puts it this way: “My first and most stunning memory is of what a great skier he is. He has an unbelievable naturalness—an incredibly centered, relaxed, upright stance.”
He should. McConkey raced for thirteen long years, and went to high school at Vermont’s Burke Academy. He worked his way up to Nor-Am level, an experience that taught him how and when to rein it all in.
That’s evident during the finals of last January’s World Cup of Freeskiing at Blackcomb. Standing with a group of photogs behind a large rock in the middle of Diamond Bowl, we watch high-pro competitor after competitor make minor variations on the same mainline theme, the pattern interrupted only by a stunning 70-footer off a hanging snowfield by local Jeff Holden. Above our dig-in is a cliff topped by a rocky, convex slope with as much lichen as snow. The veteran shooter next to me announces “I bet McConkey comes down there.” What? It’s crap terrain, improbable, with no discernable line. But seconds later The Man’s silver helmet appears at the top of the rollover where he sets an edge, drops, sets, and drops again onto ever smaller ledges that slough to rock as soon as he touches them. Through a 300mm lens I watch his determined precision as he works his way to the edge and hucks 20 feet into the bowl no more than a couple yards from us. Breathing like a marathon runner, he continues past, sewing rock and snow into an elegant quilt that would net him fourth place overall even after losing a ski on both previous runs.
With its strictures, regimentation, and low rate of breakthrough, it was perhaps inevitable that McConkey would tire of racing. That he departed for the Pro Mogul Tour—which he “thought was queer for so long”—was only marginally less surprising, because McConkey certainly had freestyle in his blood.
Rob Bruce, who raced with McConkey, recalls being at U.S. Nationals with him just after Stump’s Blizzard of Ahhhs came out, and busting tip-cross airs with their racing rigs and bent poles off of a cat-track road while McConkey’s mom took pictures. “Shane could always be counted on to break training and go mess around if the snow was good.”
The mogul tour proved an epiphany for McConkey. “The excitement of skiing was re-instilled–just like when you’re a kid. Suddenly my eyes were open to all the possibilities again.”
Having fun again helped McConkey rediscover the love for skiing that would eventually propel him directly into the heart of the free-skiing scene, which he began to dabble in after roommate Kent Kreitler came up a winner at the U.S. Nationals in 1993. By competing at the World’s in Valdez in 1994, he’d finally gotten on the train he hadn’t known he was waiting for—and there was no getting off. “I went and watched it the year [after Kreitler won] and it was super-fun, super-cool. So pure. So rad. I had no idea.” And he feels exactly the same about the sport today—a fact he isn’t shy about dispensing to anyone who’ll listen.
That’s not just good for McConkey, it’s also good for business. There’s no doubt McConkey’s a marketable commodity and that his renewed lust for life with free-skiing has been a boon to main sponsors like Sessions, Oakley, Volant, Red Bull, Nordica, and Boeri, but he also has great personal relationships in every camp. “He’s one of our flagship athletes for the ski program,” notes Oakley marketing Pat Mcllvain, “but he’s also one of the funnest guys to ever hang out with; you either get sore stomach muscles from laughing or end up in jail.”
In fact, you can’t pay another competitor to say anything nasty about him, perhaps because, as Reifer notes, “Shane manages to bring a level of fun to everything he does that always surprises. It’s just part of his flow.”
POWDER Assistant Editor Keith Carlsen—who has been forced into nude acts of depravity at the hands of McConkey—perhaps sums it best, “Shane is more than just a leader–he’s a ringleader.”
As the meteor rose in 1995-96, you could catch Shane McConkey on the newsstand staring out from the pages of a half-dozen magazines at any given time. In many photos he was upside-down, looking ahead to the landing in one of his trademark backflips (“It was fun, something I could do that wasn’t as boring as a straight cliff huck, so why not?”). But in January 1997, in Squaw Valley, McConkey’s rapidly-expanding universe—one in which he’d claimed five major titles in three seasons—got turned upside down in a very real way when he tore his right ACL, requiring surgery that put him out for the season.
No sooner was he back in the saddle in the 1997/98 season–placing 4th at Blackcomb, first at the European Championships, and 2nd at U.S. Nationals–than he blew out his other knee during training for a contest at Red Mountain, B.C. (he eventually won this year’s tour title despite not competing in South America or the Valdez World’s). McConkey isn’t sure why his knees were suddenly vulnerable, but some have pointed to the custom high-backs on his boots. Physics dictate that the higher and stiffer the boot, the more torsion is driven upward from ankle to knee. The trade-off for dumping the cuffs would be less stability landing airs and cliff-drops—something McConkey now has to think hard about.
But where other skiers in his position would have been devastated, McConkey threw himself into organization and stayed deeply involved in the scene, travelling the world to free-ski events and keeping himself and everyone else stoked.
“Sure it humbled him,” notes Ulmer, who interviewed him after the first injury, “but it also brought out more of the genuine Shane—not so silly, not bitter, just very real.”
Maybe that’s why he’s put so much back in through his work in forming and chairing IFSA, though McConkey’s own evaluation of his benevolence reads “I just wanted to help make sure that this really cool sport stays really cool.”
This part’s simple. McConkey is as driven by success as the next person. He’s had success on the slopes but he dropped out of college and never felt good about it, so now he’s gone back to school.
The wealth of experience in starting the International Free Skiers Association with its people and politics and paradox of regulating something that’s anti-regulation can’t be emphasized enough in his mind. “Going into that kind of work is definitely hard—I’d much rather just go skiing everyday, but I’m learning so much about the industry and the whole business side of things, how it all works—it’s really fascinating.”
First stop on the curriculum, of course, is diplomacy class. “The biggest problem is when sponsors or promoters or TV guys come up with these objections or super-hardcore opinions after witnessing only one event and they don’t know how many times we’ve hashed over these subjects. They say things like ‘Why don’t you make this rule’ or ‘Why don’t you put a gate there and make everybody go around it to hit this jump ‘cause that’s where we’ll get the best shot.’ We just can’t bend to that kind of stuff and if it means we won’t get the kind of exposure we might otherwise get, then that’s fine. As long as the sport stays pure.”
McConkey has also been re-schooled on the risk versus rush scenario inherent in skiing, but he’s taking an unconventional course: Base-jumping 101 (and, since you’re still wondering what he was doing in jail in San Diego: During this summer’s X-games, a Red Bull-sponsored base jumper was teaching him how to scope buildings. The jumper got off a clean jump and escaped, while McConkey, filming from the roof, didn’t).
“Base-jumping has helped my skiing tons because of the whole mental aspect. Because every little hazard can be life threatening, you have to note every little detail and account for it beforehand. I’m taking a lot more into account in every run now, and it’s allowing me to ski far more difficult, exposed lines.”
Uncertain? Certainly not.
In McConkey’s solar system, centripetal force, spawned by the increasingly massive gravitational field of planet free-ski, is drawing things in, providing the template on which everything is coming together—happiness, belonging, fun, security—the very life formula for which we all unconsciously search. That it’s all tied together by skiing, something for which he has true, uncompromising passion, as well as the fact it’s grounded in a non-conformist, epiphanic, brothers-and-sisters movement of such uncommon purity and eclecticism (at least for sport) as to defy conventional comparison, can only be seen as incredibly healthy. Not to mention cool.
Back at Whistler, the video ends. The chips are gone. Laughter and splashing drift through the door from the pool outside.
“Cool,” says McConkey, all too predictably, as he smiles and stands to stretch.
This time the intonation is just nebulous enough that you’re not sure exactly who or what it’s aimed at, or at which floor the doors of McConkey’s mental elevator have just closed. In fact, the only shred of certainty hanging in the air as the last word of Shane the boy is swallowed by the general din, is that whatever it refers to—nothing or something, one thing or all—Shane the man absolutely means it.
(Originally published in Powder Magazine, 1998)