It was fitting that Shane McConkey went out with his ski boots on. Whether or not it was inevitable is subject to debate. A once-in-a-generation athlete, McConkey had not only influenced the way people skied; he actually altered the skis themselves, first by jump-starting the fat-ski revolution in the mid-1990s, and then by inventing pontoon-style powder skis, based on water skis, that are fast becoming standard for soft snow.
In a sport where 60-foot cliff hucks are now common ski-movie fare, McConkey was still pushing at the boundaries. Year after year, in film after film, nobody went bigger than Shane and JT. They were already the acknowledged masters of ski-BASEing, having skied off the world's most spectacular cliffs, from the north face of the Eiger to Norway's Trollstigen Wall. It was there that they filmed a shot-for-shot re-creation of the opening scene of 'The Spy Who Loved Me,' with McConkey as Bond leaping off the 3,000-foot precipice, pursued by Holmes.
Such exploits cemented McConkey's iconic status. Best of all, he was getting paid to live his dream, by Red Bull, K2, and a handful of other sponsors. Even at 39, with a wife and three-year-old daughter back in Squaw Valley, he wasn't ready to give it up.
"You step off the edge, and everything goes away," an emotional McConkey explained to an interviewer in early March, days before he died. "You're flying now. You're a bird."
McConkey was just as well known for his shaggy, approachable persona, freckle-faced smile, and sense of humor apparently on loan from Beavis and Butthead. He was always playing a joke, often as his alter ego, Saucer Boy – a neon-Bogner-jacketed, Jack Daniel's–swilling, saucer-riding, ass-grabbing caricature of, well, Shane McConkey. Even if you'd never met McConkey, you felt as though you knew him. More than 2,000 people packed his memorial service at Squaw in April, and countless tribute videos appeared on YouTube. Online donations poured in for Shane's widow, Sherry, and daughter, Ayla. He was mourned in ski towns from Chile to Bulgaria; one friend, snowboarder Jeremy Jones, christened an unnamed Alaskan peak "Mount McConkey," and another friend commemorated him by dropping into one of Shane's favorite steep runs naked.
"He was adored," says filmmaker Scott Gaffney, one of McConkey's oldest friends. "He was the clown prince of the ski industry."
In the raw weeks after his death, friends and fans wavered between sadness and denial. "I keep thinking he's playing a joke, and he'll pop up somewhere," one close friend said. Death was certainly no stranger this year to the tight-knit community of Squaw locals: A well-liked patroller had been killed in a slide, and a promising 21-year-old freestyle star had died in a rare in-bounds avalanche.
It was also a rough time for Red Bull, which had lost another athlete, Chris Muller, in a 2005 hang-gliding accident as he dove to snatch a sack of prize money off the ground. Shane's death made the company's slogan – "It gives you wings" – now seem unfortunate at best. And just one month before McConkey's accident, Rock Star energy drink–sponsored motocrosser Jeremy Lusk was killed in a backflip attempt in Costa Rica.
Beyond the energy drink world, the death toll among adventure athletes over the past decade is truly sobering, with a new obituary appearing every few months. Climbers Todd Skinner and Dan Osman. Mountaineers Charlie Fowler and Jean Christophe "JC" Lafaille. Swedish adventurer Göran Kropp, who, the year of the 'Into Thin Air' disaster, cycled all the way to Everest Base Camp, summited solo, and rode his bike home, only to die in a rock-climbing accident six years later. Then there was big-mountain skier Doug Coombs, who died in a fall in April 2006, leaving behind a wife and young child.