The Man: Shane McConkey

Shane McConkey is fast on his way to ruling the ski world, yet all he ever wanted was to ski and keep the sport cool

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in the November 1998 issue (Volume 27, Issue 3).

Shane McConkey’s image makes people money, his name makes people laugh, kids think he’s a minor deity, and he doesn’t even have to compete to win the free-skiing tour. Is Shane McConkey truly omnipotent?

Last March, atop a permanently closed face at Kirkwood, California, a group of free-skiing judges stared down over the steep, firm snow and rocky chutes, scoping lines on the day’s venue and looking for a way down. As naturally as a farmer scans the sky for rain, all eyes turned for guidance to the man carrying a sloppy 40-pound duffel, an ill-packed sack crammed with shovels, sleeping bag, and judging cards. If anyone could pick the perfect line, surely it was the slight, steely eyed 28-year-old with the duffel—even if, after recently tearing apart his ACL, he was under strict doctor’s orders not to ski.

Sure enough, Shane McConkey took control, leaning over the edge and pointing out which lines might score three, four, or five under the guidelines of the International Free Skiers Association (IFSA), the fledgling organization he founded to regulate the ski world’s hottest commodity. Finishing his explanation, McConkey abruptly hitched up the duffel, ripped three perfect turns, and into the five-line, a steep, tight chute with a little drop-off in the middle. Before the others even had a chance to think, he was at the bottom with the bag open and the shovels out.

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Dropping the five-line wasn’t what the other judges had in mind when they gathered here for the day’s comp. For McConkey, however—pioneer and lead driver of the freeski wagon train, reticent but thoughtful organizer, erudite jokester, redneck punching bag, dedicated fun-hog, legendary shit-disturber, and the most respected ripper in all of skidom—shredding a potentially winning line for fun (with a torn ACL, yet) was just another day at the office.

What’s brought McConkey to the fore is his skiing: ballsy, big, aesthetic, wild yet controlled, unassailable.

Impressive as such vignettes may seem, if you want a real sense of the power behind McConkey’s skiing, go back to early January 1998 and his final run in the Extreme Free-skiing World Cup on Blackcomb Mountain in Whistler, B.C.—a line no one else even attempted during the finals.

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Competitor after competitor made minor variations down the same main line, the pattern interrupted only by a stunning 70-footer off a hanging snowfield by local Jeff Holden. Far above the spectators’ dig-in was a cliff topped by a rocky, convex slope with as much lichen as snow. A veteran photographer, pointing to it, announced, “I bet McConkey comes down there.” What? It was crap terrain, improbable, with no discernible line. But seconds later a newly trademarked silver helmet appeared at the top of the rollover. McConkey set an edge, dropped, set, and dropped again onto even smaller ledges that sluffed down to rock as soon as he touched them. With determined precision, he worked his way to the edge and hucked 20 feet into the bowl. Breathing like a marathon runner, he continued, sewing rock and snow into an elegant quilt that nettled him fourth place overall even though he’d lost a ski on both previous runs. Comments from the crowd gathered a thousand feet below on the Blackcomb Glacier outrun ranged from a gasping, “Oh my God, where is he going?” to a mystified, “Did you get that?”

Contest winner Gordy Peifer later said, “It was pretty sick. Shane is mental; the guy goes off—and his runs yesterday were sick, too. He upped it a little more today.”

And while McConkey’s stature among freeski competitors may serve as a model of peer respect, his standing is even bigger among those who know him only through videos, posters, and magazines, the kind of word- and photo-driven deification that launched the careers of Plake and Schmidt. As one ski insider recently noted, “Simply put, to many, Shane is God.”

FAST FORWARD
It’s July, and McConkey is penciled in as a coach for a couple freeski camps, myriad of responsibilities (ranging from clothing and ski design to sponsor appearances and IFSA functionary and promoter) that find him spending more than half the year away from his home in Lake Tahoe. In his room at Whistler, a bunch of kids who look like campers munching chips and readying for a swim 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 racing, bumping, and boarding camps. These are the first real freeski camps that the industry has seen, and McConkey is more than excited. “You gotta see what these guys are doing,” he enthuses. “This one kid is spinning 900s and landing switch! It’s unbelievably cool.”

His buzz over the new scene isn’t surprising. In fact, McConkey throws in quickly with anything related to going fast or defying gravity in novel and exciting ways. This becomes apparent when someone puts on My Way, the latest in a string of sno/skate/surf/motocross/wakeboard/attitude/low comedy flicks. Even taking a break from the vid to field a call from a Sessions team manager, McConkey maintains his unwavering support of all that is new and rad. “Yeah, you gotta check this guy out,” he says of the switch 900 dude, “He’s cool.” His judgment sounds casual, but draw your own conclusion. 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, a miniature version of the flickering snow, ice, and rock is reflected in his eyes. It’s a deeply compelling image. In the interplay of stare and reflection lies a McConkey few outside his inner circle will know: Complex Inner Guy, strikingly distant from his frequently over-the-top public persona and role as Ski Hero Action Doll, yet at the same time intimately connected.

The next half-hour is a primer entitled Facets of McConkey, the transformations washing over his 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 dumb-ass 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 focused, post-adolescent athlete, one of skiing’s true renaissance riders mentally sizing up lines and visualizing as a racer would gates or a mogul skier a bump course; the wide-eyed, super-stoked newbie, open to all the terrain possibilities on a face and seeing only air, speed, and fun; the IFSA 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 infrastructure 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.

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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 in an industry he’s known since childhood but that only recently became both teacher and livelihood.

In the self-styled freeski schoolhouse, the man whose class-clowning has made him a true Gen-X hero is growing up.

CURIOUS
If you’re shocked to discover Shane McConkey was a precocious child, stop reading now. Born in Vancouver, his Can-Am parents separated when he was 3 and he and his mother, Glenn, 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, Glenn, 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, her greatest gift was skiing.

When Shane was very young and still living in Whistler, Glenn often 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, nowhere is it more apparent than when McConkey is watching kids ski, fully grooving on their take-air-off-anything mentality. “Kids are cool,” he smirks, letting you know there’s a punch line coming. “I’d like to have one—for a week.”

Q: Do you miss your hair?
A: No. Less hair, more air—heh, heh.

DUMB-ASS WISE-ASS

As McConkey explains it, Beavis and Butthead are his heroes because they live 100 percent 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. It isn’t lost on McConkey, either, 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 freeski diva Kristen Ulmer. “He’s very well-balanced, but it often doesn’t seem that way because he tends to make a joke out of absolutely everything.”

Among his peers, McConkey’s lighthearted approach to the whole competitive scene seems particularly appreciated. Of the dozen or so asked “What comes to mind when you think of Shane McConkey?” there isn’t a single one whose first reaction isn’t giggling. Even Brant Moles, just home from two operations and drugged to the hilt, slurs out a laugh: “Shane’s a silly boy…”

Although the joke-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, panning for anything beyond mere opinion or 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, but whom Shane saw only once a year while he was growing up and whose accomplishments he only learned about in his teens—he’ll say only, “It’s kind of wild that we ended up doing similar things.”

Though he covers whatever insecurities and vulnerability he may possess extraordinarily well, he’s also strangely humble 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 can be sheepish and deflective about the legendary impulses of his adolescent id.

Q: How about the time you threw a backflip on a mogul course at Vail, had your pass yanked by patrol, then rushed the course naked and got permanently banned from the resort?
A: You must be talking about someone else.

Q: Didn’t you get beat up in a Whistler bar this spring by some redneck who thought you were eyeing his girlfriend?
A: I don’t think I understand the question.

Q: 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?
A: What Volant ad? I don’t know what you’re talking about.

FOCUSED
Of course, what’s brought McConkey to the fore is his skiing: ballsy, big, aesthetic, wild yet controlled, unassailable. As friend Susan Reifer points out, he has an incredibly centered, relaxed, upright stance, which is perhaps why he instantly excelled at freeskiing after prior success on the Pro Mogul Tour and, before that, racing for 13 years.

McConkey went to high school at Vermont’s Burke Mountain Academy, and as a racer worked his way up to Nor-Am level, an experience that taught him how and when to rein it all in. That much was apparent last February at the U.S. Nationals in Crested Butte, Colorado, a contest McConkey missed winning by only the slimmest of margins. Vail’s Dave Steiner sums up McConkey’s second-place finishing run: “Everyone knows Shane’s the best skier on the mountain. He made his final run look too easy—not because it was but because he’s such a good skier. He came down the final face with two fluid turns, and everybody else flailed and made it look more dramatic.”

And though he didn’t like losing the title to Rex Wehrman by a score of 155 to 154.8, in the end McConkey was both philosophical and supportive: “This shows you how deep the field is and how strong the competition is. Every year it’s getting tighter. There are a lot of freestylers—it’s not just ex-racers anymore—and that’s great to see.”

REJUVINATED
With racing’s strictures, regimentality, and low rate of breakthrough, it was perhaps inevitable that McConkey would tire of it. 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.

Filmmaker Rob Bruce, who raced with McConkey, recalls being at the U.S. Nationals with him just after Greg Stump’s Blizzard of Aahh’s came out, and busting tip-cross airs with their racing rigs off a cat-track while McConkey’s mom took pictures. “Shane could always be counted on to break training and go mess around if the snow was good,” recalls Bruce.

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 freeskiing scene. He began dabbling after roommate Kent Kreitler came up a winner at the U.S. Nationals in 1993. When McConkey competed at the Worlds in Valdez in 1994, he stepped onto a 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. But while his marketability and ski-zest are a boon to main sponsors like Boeri, Nordica, Oakley, Red Bull, Sessions, and Volant, McConkey also boasts great personal relationships in every camp. “He’s one of our flagship athletes,” notes Pat McIlvain of Oakley sports marketing, “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.”

POWDER associate editor Keith Carlsen—forced into several nude acts of depravity at the hands of El McConko—hits the nail on the head, “Shane is more than a leader—he’s a ringleader.”

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BUMMED
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—was 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 1997-98—placing fourth at Blackcomb, first at the European Free-Skiing Championships, and second at the U.S. Extreme Skiing Championships—than he blew out his other knee warming up for a contest at Red Mountain, B.C. (as a measure of his command of the sport, he eventually won this year’s tour title despite not competing in South America or the Valdez Worlds). McConkey isn’t sure why his knees were suddenly vulnerable, but some point to the custom high-backs on his boots. Physics dictate that the higher and stiffer the boot, the more torsional forces are 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 about.

“He’s the funniest, freshest, most laid-back skier on the scene, and it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without him.” — Kristen Ulmer

But where others in his position would have been devastated, McConkey threw himself into organization, remaining deeply involved with the tour. “Sure it humbled him,” notes Ulmer, who interviewed him extensively after the first injury (“From Insult to Injury,” December ’97), “but it also brought out more of the genuine Shane—not so silly, not bitter, just very real.”

And though he’s put plenty back in by forming and chairing IFSA, McConkey’s own evaluation of his benevolence is typically self-effacing: “I just wanted to help make sure that this really cool sport stays really cool.”

As an education, the wealth of experience starting the IFSA, 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 hard; I’d much rather just go skiing every day, but I’m learning so much about the industry, the business side of things, how it all works; it’s fascinating.”

First stop on the curriculum is diplomacy class. “The biggest problem is when sponsors, 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.”

Back at Whistler, the video ends. The chips are gone. Laughter and splashing drift through the door from the pool outside.

“Cool,” says McConkey, 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. In fact, the only shred of certainty hanging in the air as his last word is swallowed by the general din, is that whatever it refers to—nothing or something, one thing or all—the man absolutely means it.