The new documentary 'McConkey' explores the life and untimely death of ski BASE jumper Shane McConkey, one of extreme sports' most innovative athletes. J.T. Holmes, McConkey's ski BASE partner, watched his best friend die trying to do a double back flip into a wingsuit glide while skiing in Italy's Dolomite Mountains. Holmes spoke to 'Men's Journal' about the new film, McConkey's legacy, and what, if anything, can be learned from an extreme athlete's death.
Whose idea was the movie?
I know that [Shane's good friend and filmmaker] Scott Gafney, soon after he died, was, like, "We gotta make a movie," and it wasn't like that idea had to be brought to Red Bull; they were already thinking it. And the odd thing is, Shane had spent so much of his life self-documenting things. It's almost like the inception of the idea began with Shane. Even at a young age.
One thing I noticed in the film was one of the old ski magazines crowning Shane the "Most Influential Skier Ever." That's a pretty bold statement. . . .
Shane had some huge contributions that really changed the sport, so that is not a far-fetched statement. If you look at the winningest ski racers of all time – sure, they dominated their sport, they skied faster than anybody. But did they change the course of it? Was it a different sport when they left or not? Just because you're the best at it doesn't mean you changed a darn thing. . . . It's the difference between Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton. Laird's a guy who thinks really creatively and picks up an ancient Hawaiian form of transportation and spurs the eight-billion-dollar industry of stand-up paddleboarding. Kelly Slater is unbelievable and has progressed surfing, but I wouldn't say he's changed the course of it as much.
And Shane changed skiing not just for pros. . . .
That's just it. He changed skiing for everybody. If you're a 40-year-old intermediate skier, skiing soft snow, and your legs are burned out at 1 pm, you can thank Shane because they probably would have been burned out by 11 am [on the old-style skis and using the old style of skiing].
What do you think Shane would be doing now if he were still alive?
I think about that quite a bit. I think he would probably be doing a lot of the fun things I'm doing: speedriding, racing wingsuits, and combining cool new sports.
In the film, there was a hint – his widow, Sherry, may have hinted at it – that he was backing off a bit, perhaps to be a more present father.
For his daughter, yeah. He would certainly have been focusing on Ayla and family, and I think that route would have continued. I think that instead of 60 to 70 days a year of cutting-edge, high-risk activity, it might have been closer to 30. But he definitely would have been still in the mix.
Did the rest of you back off at all after the accident?
I had a period there where I contemplated not continuing to BASE jump, but decided to continue. We didn't do any ski BASEs after that. . . . Nobody has actually done a wingsuit ski BASE since then.
Why do you think that is?
I would like to do it again. And I've made some minor developments towards safety from learning from the accident. Wingsuit ski BASE jumping is kind of a cumbersome, strange thing to do. It's like, you've got three different toys - skis, wingsuit, parachute. It's like, make up your mind. But it's the ultimate way to combine some cool things. So it would really need to be the right mountain calling to do it again. Something with some cool skiing, with a nice flight that wouldn't otherwise be achievable. I'm still a passionate ski BASE jumper.
There was a backing off just in the fact that I lost my partner in doing it. It wasn't nearly as fun to do it by yourself. I ended up training up a kid named Timmy Dutton. . . . He and I do ski BASE jumps together.
I bet his parents love you.
With a movie like this, don't you think it's tough to convince the average viewer that what Shane was doing wasn't ridiculously irresponsible with a young daughter?
After he died, there was that response. What was he doing? Why was Red Bull pushing their athletes, who are fathers, to do this crazy stuff? The fact of the matter is that Shane and I did plenty of ski BASE jumps without cameras on and we took risks all over the place. This was something that Shane was going to do. [On the jump he died on] we thought we had it. There were a number of variables that just went perfectly wrong.
So what exactly does a film like this shed light on? Is it just a celebration of a guy's life or is there any sort of message?
Different people will take different things from it. One person may say, "I think I'm going to spend more time bouncing my child on my knee than chasing an adrenaline rush," and another may say they're finally going to go huck the big cliff they've been eyeing at their local ski resort.
'McConkey' is available now on iTunes.