McConkey — Court Jester, Gifted Visionary, or Both? Movie Review

Post by blogger | April 22, 2014      

What would life be like if you wore Google Glass 24/7 and filmed every minute of your existence? While screening McConkey, the movie (released last fall), it felt like I was watching such a production. Result: Insight into an inspiring athlete’s life — and death — along with a few questions.

Turns out that not only do immense amounts of commercial sports footage exist featuring pioneer freeride skier Shane McConkey, he apparently began video taping his own life at an early age, and continued to do so on into his film career. The movie combines Shane’s own off-the-cuff creativity with produced/professional footage. In doing so, it follows the arc of the man’s life with unexpected intimacy (interestingly, from filmmakers who had previously specialized in straight “ski porn.”)

If you’ve lived under a rock, McConkey eulogizes Shane McConkey, easily one of the most influential skiers of his generation. Shane died while BASE jumping during fliming in 2009, the film subject of this review was made by MSP in association with Redbull and released last fall 2013. I’ll not do a recap of Shane’s life from the movie as a generic review would do; most of you know the gist anyway and the details are indeed in the flick.

I’ve always been a fan of Shane’s clown antics and beautiful skiing (I’m over 40 so I can use the word “beautiful”).

On the other hand, rather than the common take on his extreme stunts: “that guy has fu***** ba*** the size of grapefruit,” my take has been something like a parent gasping in fright as his child goes for a lawn-dart onto concrete from his skateboard, only to dust himself off, exchange the cracked helmet for a new one, laugh, and continue on.

Even if you’re of Shane’s generation, many of you might admit that despite admiring the size of the man’s testicles, you probably at least once have experienced that same shocked reaction to what he walks away from, usually laughing. On top of that, perhaps you’ve even been uncomfortable — if not while watching his skiing, then during seat gripping footage of his BASE jumps.

Most certainly, considering the amount of footage that must be available of McConkey’s life, the filmmakers could not help but make a rather personal and even myopic production out of what they had. To have a subject such as McConkey, and the “selfie” footage at your fingertips; too tempting to resist. The hope is they could use the resulting intimacy to show what made Shane tick, but more, to segue to a broader view and examine issues of why he paid the ultimate price.

Did they make it work? For the most part, yes. I could have done without the intimate photos of Shane’s wife’s morning sickness, and the helmet-cam clips of BASE jump mistakes are too much after you’ve seen just one. (Yes, I get the point…) But overall, by using a combination of commercial film, home video and personal interviews, the filmmakers manage to show McConkey’s human side along with his lighthearted yet inspirational presence. Adding balance, they document Shane’s circle of caring, loving people who suffer when he dies.

Regarding the broader view? Perhaps the subject is too much outside this film’s purview, as it doesn’t do much to answer why.

BASE jumping is incredibly dangerous. According to the Wicki, “BASE jumping as of 2006 has an overall fatality rate estimated at about one fatality per sixty participants. A study of 20,850 BASE jumps from the same site (the Kjerag Massif in Norway) reported 9 fatalities over the 11-year period from 1995 to 2005, or 1 in every 2,317 jumps. However, at that site, 1 in every 254 jumps over that period resulted in a nonfatal accident. BASE jumping is one of the most dangerous recreational activities in the world, with a fatality and injury rate 43 times higher than parachuting from a plane.”

Thus, while I found the film overall compelling, it was at at the same time disturbing. The filmmakers do explore Shane’s family relationships in depth (divorced parents, absent father, and so on), and even hint how his out-take antics sometimes got tiresome for his colleagues. This led me to think they’d ask more questions about a film genre that appears at times to produce “gladiator” movies, in which individuals do danger for real — for pay. Stuff that in most movies is done by safety-system backed stunt men and special effects.

At what point does this exceed the moral or ethical standards of our social contract? Any thinking person has to ask: Is there any limit?

First, for perspective it’s important to note that adventure films have been made for a long time, and sometimes can’t be made without people doing dangerous things. Thus, the question is not if doing so is appropriate (I’d say it is a legitimate creative genre), but again, what’s the limit or are things under control?

As depicted in the film, as his career developed McConkey decided to combine wing suit flying, cliff hucking with skis and BASE jumping. He was ostensibly refining the sport, or as today’s lingo expresses it, “progressing.” But the combination turned out deadly. The fact that the failure of one ski to release during his last jump probably caused his death (by inducing a spin in freefall) is alarming when you consider the above.

To get some perspective on this I spoke with one of the filmmakers, Steve Winter from MSP (Matchstick). I asked him who the decision makers are in these sorts of situations, and if either the filmmakers or athletes nix things very often.

“It’s almost always the athlete deciding what to do,” Steve said. “What we end up filming is very very calculated with a high level of professionalism, to the point where with just about any idea an athlete comes up with, we feel comfortable filming. In the case of Shane, we grew up with him filming, and trusted him. Also, all this is situational. Ourselves and the athletes take every situation as unique, plan carefully, and only go ahead if we feel the risk is reasonable.”

And here is what Shane’s wife Sherry has to say, paraphrased from an interview that’s been published in several places (see link below):

“If people see him only in the movies…They don’t see how long he sat on his computer preparing for his jumps or researching the cliffs he was going to do or throwing rocks off cliffs and counting. I mean, he would spend hours at cliffs. It was so frustrating going with him sometimes — it was like ‘jump already!’ You know? It would take hours for him to do it…”

Fair enough, and I can support what Steve and Sherry say when it comes to highly developed sports such as big mountain skiing. But as you can read a few paragraphs above, BASE jumping is different — the odds are no good. Thus, there seems to be a grim inevitability to the whole exercise, no matter how much care is taken.

As backstory, consider the how and why of BASE jumping being so seductive for filmmakers. Beyond the 1976 James Bond skiing parachute stunts, I remember back in 2006 when Mark Obenhaus made the movie “Steep.” I had peripheral involvement in that project (including providing some voice-over narration and an on-camera interview), and spent quite a bit of time communicating with Mark and his associates about where ski mountaineering and (of the steep, free skiing variety) came from, where it was presently, and where it was going.

Never once did it even cross my mind that BASE jumping with skis had any sort of real viable role in the progression of the sport or needed to be part of Obenhaus’s movie. Sure, “ski-BASE” jumping is fun to watch, starting with Rick Sylvester’s El Capitan and James Bond stunts of the 1970s. But it’s only that, exciting movie stunts. It wasn’t like ski mountaineers were going to start wearing parachutes any time soon.

Nonetheless, somehow someone convinced Obenhaus that McConkey’s BASE jumping was worth quite a few minutes of valuable film time in the otherwise ground-breaking content of Steep. Likewise, BASE jumping continued to be content in ski films, culminating in McConkey’s last jump from the Sass Pordoi, Italy.

I’m all for any sport to “progress” and in some arenas physical risk has to be part of the equation. Individuals who push the progression, such as McConkey, do frequently deserve our admiration if not adulation. After all, inspiration is the name of the game and I’m no stranger to coming away from a jaw dropping ski flick or climbing film with renewed sense of purpose in whatever I do.

In that sense Shane’s motto of “you’ve only got one life, live it” does inspire. Yet many, if not most people know in their hearts a full life can be lived without high risk sports. More, quite a number of us believe in things like reincarnation or everlasting consciousness. “One life” can have a lot of meanings. Thus, we end up viewing Shane metaphorically and receiving his gift. To view Shane’s life realistically is another matter, e.g., his daughter is growing up without him — and we know from the intimate segments of this film that he adored her.

So what to do? It’s glass half full or half empty with this flick. Walk away depressed, or walk away inspired. I’ll choose the latter.

In my world view I feel that certain people do indeed exist whose calling gift (way of contributing) is to push limits of physical, emotional and mental risk. They sometimes fall as a result. Shane may have been one of those individuals.

“Stopping him would have been like caging an eagle,” is how his wife Sherry sums it up.

Takeaway? Examine what you’re being inspired by, and at what cost to the individuals involved. After that, focus on the good and live life to the fullest. Sure, it’s a cliche, but live like you’ll be gone tomorrow! Watch Shane ride skis like a fighter jet, invent himself as the clown prince of skiing (banned from Vail for nude skiing, then, Saucer Boy!), innovate modern ski gear, and cackle laugh through it all like a child being tickled by his parent.

Time to get up from the desk, hug my wife, call my son, go look out the window — and perhaps go skiing.

Even if you’ve seen this flick before, I’d recommend watching on the big screen at 2:00 PM this coming Sunday here in Carbondale. The 5Point venue will include some discussion of the film, and the type of folks that attend the festival are always up for conversation. 5Point Film Festival.

Check out another review.

Interview of Sherry McConkey, Shane’s wife.

In closing, if you want to enjoy the kind of humor Shane was known for:

Or, to be more current (after all, this post is sync with a FILM festival):


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


25 Responses to “McConkey — Court Jester, Gifted Visionary, or Both? Movie Review”

  1. brian h April 22nd, 2014 10:13 am

    Excellent review, Lou. “Examine what you are inspired by”. That idea resonates out into the world past skiing or sport. What draws us to our obsessions? Love or risk?

  2. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2014 10:25 am

    A little bit of both, that’s for sure, but I like to think we can all move over to the love side of the equation at some point. The flick gives mixed messages about how this was for Shane. On the one hand you do get the idea that he loved to scare himself, but you also get the impression that he did just love things like flying. In terms of WildSnow, this whole issue is why a big part of our mission statement is “good, safe, fun.” Sustainable backcountry skiing, in other words.

  3. Dostie April 22nd, 2014 1:51 pm

    Good thoughts; brings to mind the old mountaineering adage – ” there are old climbers and bold climbers, but no old, bold climbers.”

  4. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2014 2:11 pm

    Dostie, indeed!

  5. Happy Days April 22nd, 2014 3:02 pm

    As someone who knew Shane personally I can tell you, Shane was one of the most inspirational people there has ever been. He was not some nut who just like to fling himself off of things. His passion was only trumped by his love for progress. He by no means put one in front of the other. He was a father and a husband that loved his family. He wanted to grow old and give his daughter away at her wedding. To think that he was some kook that should have seen this coming is a slap in the face of all who knew him. Shane pushed the limits with an appreciation and knowledge for the sport that will be unmatched. Ayla will grow up with out a father, Sherry with out a partner. I go on with out a friend and the community is less with out him. Sorry some of you feel he was foolish or careless with his adventures, He was in fact neither. He spent his life on the snow, instead of behind a computer second guessing others. His insight into this sport has forever changes skiing and his hart has forever changed me. Thanks Lou for reminding some whom have forgotten.

  6. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2014 3:11 pm

    Thanks Happy, glad you got he gist of the review, I was trying to be thoughtful but at the same time respectful.

    Shane was most certainly not foolish or careless, he wouldn’t have been able to do all that stuff till he was 39 years old if he wasn’t calculating. Truly, I think it’s too bad he got into BASE, as it seems that activity is just too marginal for even a super talented athlete who was trying to figure it all out. I’ve done a lot of reading and research about BASE, and I can’t help but reach that opinion.

    On the other hand, as so many have said “Shane was, Shane.”

    Main thing, Shane cut a pretty big path and indeed inspired so many.

    I’m looking forward to this all being examined at 5Point Festival.


  7. See April 22nd, 2014 7:34 pm

    The Spatula alone proves he was a genius. I’ve got great respect for the man. The marketing machine that he used, and that used him is another matter.

  8. Dave Cramer April 22nd, 2014 8:55 pm

    His dad was a pioneering skier, too. Here’s the famous photo of him jumping over an airplane:

  9. dmr April 23rd, 2014 1:52 am

    Great write up, Lou. Indeed an amazing person, skier, and overall athlete.

    I completely agree with you regarding base jumping.

    Hi Happy, sorry about the loss of your friend.

  10. Oli C April 23rd, 2014 3:12 am

    Yes, Legend of a skier! Great film!

    The issues that you raise Lou regarding dangerous sports is interesting. Here in Cham’ there are many wingsuiter’s. Luckily I’ve never seen one go splat, I have seen a helicopter picking up a body. It’s horrendous for the families involved that loose somebody, but I just can’t help thinking that wingsuiting is so dangerous that at somepoint if you particiapte in that sport you will die.

    For the people that do it though they are looking for that buzz that nothing else can satisfy them with. True adrenaline junkies. I mean they are flying human’s! What do you do after that? It’s what these people choose to do so we can’t stop them. In Cham they banned it off one mountain (brevent), people just went to Switzerland or the other side of the valley.

    I need my fix of adrenaline, and itch for the next powder day or the perfect ribbon of singletrack to ride down on my mountain bike. If I don’t do any sport for a long time it does effect me. These wingsuiters are just even more addicted.

    Perhaps we are looking at this the wrong way like the failed war on drugs. Heroin junkies should not be treated as criminals and locked up, any kind of drug addict (including alcohol and caffeine) needs medical help for physical and mental issues. It can work. Perhaps us white powder addicts need snow counselling, and wingsuiters even so more.

  11. Lou Dawson April 23rd, 2014 5:34 am

    Dave and all, in the movie they’ve got quite a bit of footage of his Dad skiing, as well as interviewing him.

  12. Jason Gregg April 23rd, 2014 1:28 pm

    I liked the film but I think there’s a larger social/cultural issue here that MSP may have missed. Whether it’s BASE, walking a wire between the World Trade towers, or something as common place as thousands seeking and succeeding to summit the roof of the world, I think there’s something kind of sad about “extreme” sports. NO question the films are spectacular to watch and all of us “weekend warriors” benefit from the “progression” that occurs at the bleeding edge, but there’s a cost involved too, and not just in obvious cases like McConkey’s.

    Somebody once asked me if I was still extreme skiing. I asked what he meant and he said “Are you still using helicopters and skiing in Alaska, I said yes, and he said then you are. I did not, and still do not grant his premise, I think I can see a line between skiing and “extreme” skiing and extreme sports in general. I’ve seen Lou here talking about the lack (and loss) of attraction for him of “no fall” skiing, and I think I get what he’s trying to say.

  13. Erik April 25th, 2014 10:18 am

    This review excellently articulates the conflictiing emotions we experience after witnesses a star so bright it can’t sustain it’s own burn. Thanks.

  14. Drew Tabke April 25th, 2014 7:01 pm

    Thought-provoking review, Lou.

    I watched the film and was left with way more questions than answers. It seems to be an intractable paradox to be a career extreme sports athlete and a family man/woman. But it seems to me paradox is the normal state of affairs in human existence. There will never be answers.

  15. See April 25th, 2014 7:42 pm

    Maybe there would be less conflict between career and family if the extreme sport business wasn’t so focussed on ‘“gladiator” movies.’ That’s what bothers me— people taking massive risk (and sometimes paying the price) to grab eyeballs and sell product.

    What would extreme sports be like if the $ factor was less significant?

    Personally, I mostly avoid the colosseum these days.

  16. lou dawson April 25th, 2014 8:38 pm

    Good comments you guys. Some of this is indeed philosophy , questions with no easy answers but in my opinion worth pondering.

  17. Lou Dawson April 25th, 2014 10:56 pm

    See, the athletes have various motivations, but the ski film makers, that’s another matter as most of what they do is very commercial, though sometimes the motivations get muddled as it ends up being a creative collaboration. That’s what Steve of MSP alluded to when I spoke with him. As most of you know, I’m pro business and have nothing against commercial endeavors, but these days the pace of all that stuff seems to be accelerating, and I firmly believe many athletes are doing things and taking risks they would otherwise be leery of if they were not involved in commercial film making. (Shane however? I’d like to think he would have been doing all that stuff anyway, without commercial filming, at least if he could have afforded the travel, helicopters, gear, etc.)

    Thing is, there are tons of mountain athletes out there who are not film stars. Some don’t even _want_ to be film stars. Most of the ski por* is exactly that, and people take it much too seriously. It’s just entertainment. And sadly, sometimes it goes to the level of the Roman Colosseum.

    (word redacted above due to spam filter behavior)

  18. lederhosen42 April 26th, 2014 1:56 pm

    meanwhile, over on the snowmobile side of the equation…Gopro footage of snowmobile cliff jump into couloir. One upmanship to a whole new level. Gladiator sport indeed. How to analyse this from a rational perspective? kinda left me speechless. (pause the footage while snowmobiler in the air and look at how close he came on the first jump to stacking right into the side of the cliff)

  19. See April 26th, 2014 7:22 pm

    I listened to an interesting podcast today– Alex Honnold on KQED Forum. I think it is at least somewhat relevant to this topic, although I haven’t given it a lot of thought yet (went skiing).

    Anyway, I really appreciate your thoughtful treatment of this issue, and am in almost complete agreement (I don’t completely agree with anyone, myself included).

  20. Jason Gregg April 27th, 2014 12:48 pm

    It was refreshing to read Drew’s editorial about the Snowbird Freeride contest venue choice. I was lucky to get to spend 5-6 days skiing around Revelstoke with another of the FWT “extreme” skiers, Oakley White-Allen this spring. He was very methodical about what he was up to and after I re-watched his Sickbird winning run down the Bec de Rosses, I guess I don’t know what to think. I REALLY like the Freeride World Tour and dream of skiing things like the Mac face, but it can be uncomfortable watching.

  21. Lou Dawson April 27th, 2014 1:34 pm

    Jason, there are of course tons of sports we watch that have physical risk. IMHO the question is to what level we take that. Regarding the FWT, I think the defining factor (to put it bluntly) would be how many guys die or are maimed vs the total numbers of participants. If it seems under control, it probably is. But the tragedies can’t be denied, they seem to happen fairly regularly.

  22. George April 27th, 2014 5:42 pm

    Very sobering movie today @ 5 Point. I can’t help but feel numb. Some much talent, enthusiasm and charisma that left the show early.

  23. byates1 April 27th, 2014 8:24 pm

    It depends on where you are at in your life. Commenting perspective I mean. As young we look through lenses with unabashed ness, as we age we learn, get hurt, mature, and as aged, we look back at the young and find fault, but we were and are the same. Young at heart, commenting as the aged with our baggage and choices.

    Not bad for us,brilliant fun specs inside a nanosecond of time!:)

  24. See April 27th, 2014 9:20 pm

    Does anyone else find the “Hero” product name a bit repulsive?

    “Skier vs. Avalanche. Who will win?”

    “(T)weaked my knee a bit” makes me sad.

  25. Lou Dawson April 28th, 2014 6:51 am

    George and all, thanks for the comments. I was thinking last evening while watching the film that a big thing is “the life well lived.” None of us of course know when we’re gong to check out. A full and contributory life up till is something perhaps to strive for, and gives those of us left living some solace when a hero dies. In Shane’s case, he most certainly brought other people joy, love and inspiration.

    The disturbing parts are his obvious addiction to extreme and super dangerous thrills (which the movie makes very clear, even in his own and his wife’s words), and the media involvement. Yes, when I spoke with director Steve Winter he made it clear that the process of filming Shane doing risk sports was collaborative. I totally believe that. But on the whole, after watching the film again and thinking about it, I also believe it’s fair to say that the film industry was in this case an enabler of something tragic. I think that’s the nut question in this whole thing, that of how far we (or they, as in the industry) go with these “gladiator” extreme sport flicks.

    I haven’t been paying much attention to BASE jumping since Shane’s death. But I’d hope people are not lapping up BASE jumping as a film subject as rabidly as they once were. There was a bit of hooting and cheering in the theater last night when Shane did some of his jumps, but it sounded hollow.

    Films at 5Point are selected and judged on five key points:

    McConkey (the movie) holds up well in the commitment category as Shane was most certainly committed. Lots of purpose there as well. Those things are where some of the Shane’s inspiration comes from when we watch his stunts. But I think anyone would agree that the film did not demonstrate much in the way of respect, humility, or balance.

    I’m not professing to have any corner on this stuff in my own life and did do some pretty crazy stuff when I was young (though not for a movie career) but instead I’m trying to examine and perhaps improve. That’s the takeaway from 5Point and any film watched through their lens of the Five Points. The self examined life…with an eye on some basic principles for the life well lived.

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