The Catalyst: Shane McConkey

How one man changed a sport

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in the September 2009 issue (Volume 38, Issue 1).

By Micah Abrams

In September of 2001, Peter Turner checked his voicemail at the soon-to-be-defunct Colorado offices of Volant. On it was one very long, very excited message from Shane McConkey, who had called from New Zealand. The message consisted of a string of superlatives, sprinkled liberally with F-bombs, and can be conservatively paraphrased as: “These are the best damn skis ever made.”

“It was absolutely hilarious,” recalls Turner, who at the time was Volant’s R&D manager and the one who made sure McConkey went south with some peculiar new boards. “He was down there with some of the best skiers in the world and it was really nasty conditions—wet, heavy stuff. Everyone else was doing eggbeaters while he flew down the faces. It was an amazing review.”

Shane McConkey.  Photo: Nate Abbott
Shane McConkey.
Photo: Nate Abbott

The maiden voyage of the Spatula was taken deep in the Southern Alps, and it was the penultimate moment of McConkey’s shadow career as a ski design iconoclast. This was the first ski to acknowledge that powder snow is the exact opposite of hardpack and, therefore, required the exact opposite design philosophy—hence, reverse camber and reverse sidecut. But while his insistence on such bizarre concepts finally came to fruition in New Zealand, the ideas behind it began gesticulating a full five years earlier.

When he sketched a pair of skis with reverse sidecut onto a Las Leñas bar napkin to illustrate what the ideal powder ski might look like, his own friends—the skiers with whom he was defining what we now call “big-mountain skiing”—mostly thought he was crazy.

It was the summer of 1996, and McConkey was having beers in a pub at the base of Las Leñas, Argentina. He was a full season into his crusade to convince his peers that the Volant Chubb—the fat ski that started it all for him—was way better than whatever race-stock GS ski they claimed was the ultimate powder ski. This was right in the middle of the shaped-ski revolution, and so increasingly the GS skis in question featured deeper and deeper sidecuts. When these sidecuts were brought into powder, they exaggerated something that McConkey had begun to realize: Sidecut actively works against you in deep snow.

The skinnier the waist of a ski is in relation to the tip and tail, the more focused the weight of the skier will be on the part of the ski least able to float in powder. McConkey eventually deemed this phenomenon the “Pool Cover,” since taking shaped skis into powder was akin to running across a pool cover: Your weight sinks right to the bottom while everything around you tries to float. But back in 1996, when he sketched a pair of skis with reverse sidecut onto a Las Leñas bar napkin to illustrate what the ideal powder ski might look like, his own friends—the skiers with whom he was defining what we now call “big-mountain skiing”—mostly thought he was crazy.

The Catalyst 2

“Some even laughed at it,” McConkey would recall years later. “I took the napkin home and kept it in my ‘cool and funny stuff’ file.”

A few years later, Turner was in Squaw Valley with a foot of fresh snow and a quiver full of variations on McConkey’s signature ski, the Huckster. The skis all reflected the prevailing design wisdom of the time, which sought the best of both worlds by increasing both the waist width and the sidecut. The idea was that the former would promote float while the latter would allow the ski to rail turns on hardpack. In practice, however, all the increased proportions did was create the same Pool Cover effect.

“After testing, he said, ‘Try this ski,’” Turner says. “I did a run off West Face, in Chute 75, and it was like, ‘Shit, these work really good.’ Then on the run-out, they were really weird—floppy. I pulled them off—they were just regular Chubbs—but when I put them together I realized why they didn’t ski right on the groomed run.” It turned out, those beat-up old Chubbs were completely bent up at the tips and tails.

That same night, McConkey dug out the old bar napkin with his initial ideas about reverse sidecut, paired them with what he’d just learned about reverse camber, and the Spatula was born.

Everything about the Spatula was at odds with how Volant skis were made. The ideas didn’t make sense to the engineers. The concepts were impossible to build with their existing tooling, and the company was facing a financial crisis that had everyone but Turner and engineer Ryan Carroll completely disinterested in pursuing McConkey’s radical line of thinking. It took them two years to design, engineer, and build the first four pairs—all which were done by hand, on-site in their office, before being shipped with McConkey to New Zealand.

 

Not long after Turner received McConkey’s ecstatic message, he included McConkey’s and Carroll’s names on a provisional patent for the Spatula. Not long after that, Volant was sold to Atomic. And not long after that, Turner found himself facing some completely baffled Austrian ski engineers.

“Shane had the larger idea in his head, and that’s how he got through that stuff.” The idea, it turns out, was a whole lot larger than maybe even McConkey realized.

“They told me, ‘There’s something wrong with the file you sent us. The curves are all wrong. The ski is backward. You need to resend the file,’” Turner says. “I said, ‘Make it. That’s what we want.’ They looked at me like, ‘You have got to be kidding.’”

Atomic produced 300 pairs of the Spatula—bringing the total number produced to something less than 1,000—before they lost interest. Not long after that, they lost interest in Volant altogether. But there’s a reason why New Zealand was the penultimate moment in McConkey’s shadow career as a ski design iconoclast. The ultimate moment was still to come.

In early 2005, McConkey showed up on the heli pad in Whistler for a day of skiing with clients of his new sponsor, K2. It was the sort of boondoggle for your sponsor’s retail partners that qualifies as “work” when you’re a pro athlete, but McConkey chose that morning to make a point.

Before leaving his hotel room, he took his Apache Chiefs—at 131-98-116, a respectable powder ski by most standards—and secured wire around the rivets in the tip plate. He then tied the wire off around the toe piece of the bindings, crudely but effectively reversing the camber on the skis.

“Theoretically, the snapping of the cables could have severed his leg or an appendage of a much-valued K2 distributor,” recalls K2 Brand Manager Jeff Mechura. “We decided we better build McConkey some skis.”

Not that Mechura didn’t know what he was getting into when he signed McConkey after Volant folded. A consensus freeskiing icon by that point, McConkey encountered no shortage of interest from major manufacturers. But he was clear that he had no intention of signing with anyone who didn’t take his design ideas, and the Spatula, seriously.

Few who skied them could disagree that the Spatula was a quantum leap forward in powder ski design, but it was nevertheless something of a zero-sum game: Arguably the best powder ski of all time was arguably the worst conceivable ski for nearly any other condition. And while any robust product line needs a great powder ski, manufacturers primarily sell skis designed to work where people primarily ski—variable-to-hard packed snow.

If the Atomic acquisition signaled the death of the Spatula for Volant, it was in fact the rebirth of ski design for everyone else.

“The reverse sidecut thing was just wacky,” says Mechura. “In anything other than powder, it works way too hard against you. But we could tell from the beginning that reverse camber had real potential—and not just with our powder skis.”

When K2’s designers explored how reverse camber might be applied to more traditionally accepted ski designs, they discovered a whole lot of gray between the black of the Spatula and the white of their standard products. Their first foray, released in 2006, was the Pontoon, a ski that addressed the Spatula’s lack of versatility by shifting the reverse camber toward the tip and tails—a concept now universally known as “rocker”—and keeping the ski camber-less underfoot with slight sidecut throughout. To ensure it still floated like a Spatula in powder, they gave it truly ridiculous specs: 160-130-120.

At the time, McConkey was both surprised and impressed: “I would have built something completely different,” he said in the 2007 edition of K2’s SKEEZE Magazine. “I’m glad they didn’t listen to me, because the Pontoon is 10 times better than the Spatula ever was.”

The Catalyst 3

This, of course, is nothing more than humility on McConkey’s part. The Pontoon was born of a series of sketches he provided to K2’s designers, not at all unlike the sketches he gave to Turner and Volant seven years earlier. “You look at those sketches,” says K2 designer Matt O’Laughlin, “and they’re full-on engineering drawings. But the point with Shane is that he never let the details drag him down. An engineer or a designer would get caught up in the details of ‘How do we get through this problem?’ Shane had the larger idea in his head, and that’s how he got through that stuff.” The idea, it turns out, was a whole lot larger than maybe even McConkey realized.

Today, POWDER’s Buyer’s Guide features more than 100 skis, over half of which feature some variation on the rocker concept. Browse the big-mountain lines from most of the major manufacturers and you’ll find rocker applied throughout, but the concept is no longer solely considered powder-specific. With park skiers noticing how their powder skis butter off lips and tip-press on rails and boxes more easily, companies like Armada and Lib Tech are exploring how the concept can be applied to park skis.

That McConkey’s ideas, which were so out of sync with mainstream ski design just five years ago, can now be so ubiquitous raises two important questions. The first is: What ever happened to that patent Turner filed in 2003?

“A provisional patent is just a foot in the door,” he explains. “By the time it came up, Atomic had bought the brand and they weren’t interested in the patent. They just dropped it. It’s all public domain now.”

If the Atomic acquisition signaled the death of the Spatula for Volant, it was in fact the rebirth of ski design for everyone else. And even the tragic passing of McConkey can’t change the answer to that second important question: If his first runs on the Spatula were the penultimate moment of McConkey’s career as a ski designer, then what’s the ultimate moment?

Look at the racks in your local ski shop. That moment is now.