Shane McConkey spent his bachelor party gleefully giving the bird
to the law. For three days last month the trailblazing freeskier
and his buddies BASE jumped from a Northern California bridge to
a lake 117 feet below. The sport of BASE jumping--skydiving off
fixed objects classified as buildings, antennae, spans or earth,
hence the acronym--is not illegal (except in national parks), but
since in almost every case it involves trespassing, it might just
as well be. "Being an outlaw is half the thrill," says McConkey.
"Nothing's more fun than breaking stupid rules."
This is an article from the June 28, 2004 issue
Except maybe snorting noodles until they come out of your mouth
(a talent he displayed in the ski film There's Something about
McConkey). Or schussing off a 700-foot cliff with a parachute
and sticking the landing (an 007-inspired innovation McConkey
calls scara-chuting). Or skiing buck naked down a moguls course
during a competition, an antic that got him kicked off Vail's
ski slopes for life. ("There was definite shrinkage going on,"
BASE jumping with an unpacked chute is one of the rowdier
brainstorms conceived by McConkey and a pal last year.
"Basically, you strap on a harness, grab the cords in one fist
and the chute in the other," he says. "Then you heave everything
in the air and jump." But suppose the cords get tangled. How can
you be sure you don't go splat? "It's like driving a car," says
McConkey with a small shrug. "If there's a tree in your way and
you're about to hit it, you just don't."
On Day 3 of the bash, a motorist spied a plummeting partygoer and
jumped to her own conclusion. "She thought she'd witnessed a
suicide," McConkey says. She called 911, bringing police cars,
fire trucks and a search-and-rescue helicopter. McConkey was
spending the week on a houseboat, and the cop who came to his
dock asked, "Which of you guys jumped off the bridge?"
"It was time to invoke Rule Number 1," McConkey says. Which is?
"Lie your ass off."
He and the boys pretended to be innocent bystanders. They
fingered Charley. Charley who? asked the cop. Gnarly Charley,
they chorused. The cop didn't laugh; the revelers didn't crack.
Two hours later the cop left, empty-handed. "Normally, it's best
to avoid standoffs with the authorities," says McConkey. "But
because we got away with it, it was hilarious."
McConkey has gotten away with it for most of his 34 years. Life,
he feels, is unconfirmed unless everything is risked at once.
Even friends who have known him since childhood throw up their
hands in horror when asked to describe him. ("Well, deranged,
obviously....") As anarchic and outrageous as he often is,
there's a calmness about him, almost a stillness. "I want to be a
loose cannon and laugh in the face of death," he says. "Things
are way more interesting that way."
A ski-racing prodigy with victories on the pro mogul and
skiercross circuits, he quit bumping in 1995 to devote himself to
competitive freeskiing. "I loved catching air and looking at the
mountain creatively," McConkey says. "Big-mountain skiing is the
real deal, and I was King of the Hill."
Renowned for billy-goating down lines no one else could see, he
won just about every major event on the big-mountain tour. As
cofounder of the International Freeskiers Association in year
1996, he also helped get the sport in the X Games.
When not executing double back flips and switch-front flips (yet
another McConkey first, in which you jump backward, flip forward
and land going backward), the University of Colorado dropout
organized the world's inaugural Saucercross at Crested Butte
(1998). In 2001 he also came up with the Pain McShlonkey Open,
which was held for three years at Squaw Valley. It featured
downhill Rollerbladers (or snowlerbladers), who had been required
to assume mildly suggestive names--Harry Ballzonya and the
like--the highlight coming when they were announced over the
McConkey lives in Lake Tahoe with his wife, Sherry, a 36-year-old
candlemaker from South Africa whom McConkey met while
mountain-biking and married last month in Thailand. The couple
share a ranch-style house with two malamutes (Gage and Denali)
and a mutt (Pedro) that Shane liberated from Costa Rica. "[Our
wedding] was totally bitchin'!" McConkey reports. "All kinds of
idiocy that lasted for three weeks. Some BASE jumps, scuba
diving, streaking, injuries, rock climbing and plenty of whiskey
Retired from competition, McConkey translates his skill and
daring into a steady income by making ski flicks. (He's also
sponsored by several gear companies.) His cinematic alter ego,
Saucerboy, debuted in the 1997 video Pura Vida. A cocky,
snow-saucer-toting nincompoop whose climbing gear includes an
eggbeater and a cheese grater, Saucerboy plays the fool by
flopping off airport people movers and schussing waterfalls as an
"ex-stream" skier. "He's a really serious wannabe extreme guy,"
says McConkey. "He tries to be rad and gets picked on for
trying." Like Kenny in South Park, Saucerboy dies--gruesomely--at
the end of every video. "A lot of parents might have watched
Shane's films and thought my son is an idiot," says his mother,
Glenn. "Shane is anything but. He just loves adventure and
anything that's ridiculously fun."
Born in Vancouver, McConkey comes from powderhound royalty. His
father, Jim, is a freeskiing pioneer who has had runs named after
him at Alta and Park City in Utah and Whistler Mountain in
British Columbia, where he started the resort's ski school. The
Stanford-educated Glenn took up ski racing at 46 and has won four
national masters titles. "Mom used to ski with me in a backpack,"
Shane says. "She showed me the ropes and pushed me hard. She
didn't want her only kid to be a slacker."
When McConkey talks about his childhood today, he always plays it
for laughs, but his parents divorced when he was three and
haven't really spoken since. Shane and his mother moved to Santa
Cruz. "Mom always talks about Dad as this evil guy who never had
time for his family," says Shane, who saw his father about once a
year. "But, honestly, I have nothing against him. He just had his
own program and wasn't the father type. Have I done all this
crazy stuff to impress him? I don't think so."
Shane's first brush with death came at 12 during a float trip
with Glenn. He hollowed out a sandbank and sat inside.
Immediately the walls caved in. "I was buried under a foot or two
of sand," he recalls. "I couldn't move a finger." He heard kids
laughing. He remembers one saying, "Maybe we should dig him out."
They did. McConkey had learned Rule No. 2. "Always prepare
meticulously," he intones, "or you will be dead."
Safety, McConkey takes seriously. "He's constantly checking and
rechecking the lines of his chute," says the improbably named
BASE jumper Cliff Ryder. "He's very anal about it."
Five years ago the skydiver who taught McConkey to BASE jump,
Frank (the Gambler) Gambalie, drowned trying to elude Yosemite
rangers who were chasing him after a leap from El Capitan. "The
authorities associate BASE jumping with ultraextreme danger,"
grumbles McConkey. "And to them, anyone who jumps with his chute
in his hands is certifiably insane."
Unpacked BASE jumping was born in Twin Falls, Idaho. McConkey and
Ryder were standing on Perrine Memorial Bridge, 486 feet above
Snake Canyon River, when they had a eureka moment. "Dude,"
McConkey said. "Let's throw our canopies while jumping the
"It'll make a hilarious video," said Ryder.
"Or a great snuff film."
Some people think McConkey has an affection for death. Others,
like pro skydiver Eli Thompson, think he has a fierce jones for
living. "Having watched footage of Shane BASE jump on skis, I'm
amazed he can still walk and talk," Thompson says. "Skiing the
impossible line on a supersick mountain, then launching off a
cliff, staying stable and opening a canopy without twisting and
tumbling and fumbling is, well, it's a testament to both Shane's
ability and his will to survive."
Mention scara-chuting, and a blissful look comes over McConkey.
"It's as if I'm looking at the mountain with totally new
glasses," he says. "I see way more jump-able objects and lines to
But suppose you lost a ski before takeoff. What would happen
then? The question broadens McConkey's beatific smile. "It's like
driving a car," he says. "If you're going 60 miles an hour on a
supergnarly switchback, you don't lose a wheel."
You just don't.
THEIR HANDS IN HORROR when asked to describe him. ("Well,