Before long, you almost couldn't watch a ski movie without seeing Shane and JT launch off a cliff – or some other big-mountain skier who had adopted the technique, like Erik Roner. But not many athletes had the nerve. "To keep it interesting, you've got to do something more with each jump, to further the progression," admits Will Gadd, who tried BASE jumping but soon abandoned it. "For me, I could kind of see how it was gonna go. I thought the timeline was kind of short."
Having mastered the ski-BASE jump, McConkey was already thinking of ways to up the ante. In Norway in 2007, while filming the Bond sequence, Shane and JT tried out something new: the ski-wingsuit-BASE. Here was a trick nobody else was doing – and looking back, this might have been a warning sign. Shane was well aware of the odds: From their own experience, JT says, they knew that in one of roughly every 100 BASE jumps, something goes wrong. The history of BASE jumping and skydiving tells a grim tale, from BASE founder Carl Boenish (died jumping in Norway in 1984) to wingsuit inventor Patrick de Gayardon (died in a skydiving mishap in Hawaii in 1998). It's dangerous to be a pioneer.
With the ski-wingsuit-BASE, there was no one to show them the way, nobody else to make mistakes for them. They were in truly uncharted territory, but they weren't done: Their mission on that fateful trip to Italy was to nail the first double-stage ski-BASE, where they would ski off one cliff, parachute down and land on a snowfield, then cut away and drop off another cliff using a second chute – all in one fluid shot.
As McConkey said in the interview shortly before he died, "This is exploration for us."
They were exploring parts of mountains that had never before been skied, but they were also pursuing that oldest, most tantalizing, and most dangerous dream of all: the dream of human flight.
On the back deck of their modest cedar-shingled home in Squaw, just around the corner from the old Trampoline House, Sherry McConkey swings gently in an old chair from KT-22, Shane's favorite lift. Right above her head is a signature: "Frankie G. III," their late friend Frank Gambalie.
Sherry is 41, two years older than her husband, wiry and strong thanks to daily yoga. She left her native South Africa in 1988 with a backpack and a few hundred dollars, and gravitated to Tahoe because she loved the outdoors. Mountain biking introduced her to Shane in 1998; after they got married in Thailand in 2004, their honeymoon was a three-day trek into the jungle, where they camped with a primitive tribe and plucked leeches off each other. "It was the most awesome experience ever," she says.
Their dog Pedro, a tubby mutt that Shane rescued off the beach in Costa Rica and insisted they bring home, wanders in and out through the sliding glass door, unsure of what to do with himself. He studiously ignores the brand-new kitten, Princess, fresh out of the Reno animal shelter. As Princess climbs fearlessly up my trouser leg, claws pricking my flesh, I can't help wondering if she isn't connected to Shane on some reincarnatory level.
After the memorial service, 23 of McConkey's closest friends pulled off a clandestine memorial BASE jump from the Squaw Valley tram – a favorite jump of Shane's he'd always hoped to do officially. Every night, a dozen or more friends show up for dinner, crowding around the narrow, rustic dining table, telling stories. Some of them leave with a scoop of Shane's ashes, kept in a forged-steel urn made by a blacksmith friend, to scatter from some favorite cliff.