That last morning, they rode the Sass Pordoi cable car to the summit. Deep in the Dolomite Alps of Italy, Sass Pordoi, at 9,685 feet, is more for tourists and hikers than for skiers; its tablelike summit is almost completely ringed by cliffs. But Shane McConkey and JT Holmes had no interest in marked ski runs. They were there for the cliffs.
Clipping in, they skated across the plateau and skied down about 300 vertical feet before traversing a slanting ledge. The snow was firm, verging on icy, so they switched their skis for crampons. It had snowed during the night, and they had already managed to trigger a small slab avalanche, which slid away from under them and roared over the side, falling hundreds of feet. They paused to collect their wits, then kept going, reaching their destination just before 2 pm.
McConkey had jumped this cliff before, in summer, and ski-BASEing it had been on his to-do list ever since. Now that he was pushing 40, he was checking items off that list as fast as he could.
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To gauge the height of the cliff, they threw stones over the side and timed the drop. Eleven seconds later, Holmes heard one smack the scree field at the base. They guessed the cliff was about 1,400 feet tall, maybe more. Holmes remembers that the trees down in the valley looked really small, and he took comfort in that; it suggested they were high enough to pull off a stunt nobody else but them had ever done: a combined ski-wingsuit-BASE jump.
McConkey and Holmes would ski down a steep, hanging snowfield and launch themselves straight off the edge of the cliff; jettisoning their skis, they would then spread their arms and legs to open a wingsuit, a high-tech fabric garment that would allow them to fly. Steering the wingsuit with their arms, they would swoop out over the valley like flying squirrels before finally throwing their chutes to land. Two camera crews would film the whole thing for Matchstick Productions, the world's leading maker of ski movies.
On paper, the stunt sounds insane, but it was something McConkey and Holmes had been carefully developing for years. They had both done ski-wingsuit-BASE jumps before; JT had pulled one from a nearby cliff the day before. After sizing up the line and choosing the best takeoff point, McConkey and Holmes used their avalanche shovels to pile the thin, windblown snow onto their run-in, building a small kicker jump at the edge to carry them well clear of the wall.
Finally, at 5:30 pm, the light was perfect for filming. The men tested their bindings one more time, pulling on the release straps they had designed. Both sets released perfectly. JT radioed the film crew: all set. "Dropping!" he called, and leaned down the slope, arcing six strong, graceful turns before pointing his skis toward the edge and launching himself off the kicker into open air.
Holmes turned two quick backflips, then yanked on the straps that jettisoned his skis, arching his back and spreading his arms and legs so the wingsuit could catch the air. He flew away from the wall for 15 to 20 seconds before the sharp report of his chute banging open echoed across the valley and up the cliff. As he dropped to the snow, Holmes noticed that the trees in the valley were really small, but he didn't think much of it; turning, he pointed his helmet cam back up the cliff, waiting to film his best friend's jump.
But McConkey never came. Later, when Holmes forced himself to watch his friend's helmet-cam footage, he saw exactly what had happened. McConkey had jumped not long after him and hit the kicker perfectly. But when he came out of his flips and yanked the release straps, only his right ski came off; the left one stayed fixed to his boot. Worse, the right ski had gotten snagged on the left, leaving both skis attached to his body. As McConkey picked up speed, his free fall became more unstable. If he threw his chute, it would go straight up into his skis and get tangled.
But JT could see that even in this desperate situation, Shane didn't panic. They had talked about this scenario. Shane calmly, methodically reached down to manually release the binding, working to get the right ski off as he plummeted to Earth. Finally it popped free: Both skis flew clear from his body, and McConkey was able to quickly flip over onto his belly to throw his chute. But he was already nine seconds into free fall, and the ground was right there, rushing up to meet him at 110 miles per hour.