I awoke bleary eyed following a Friday night of debauchery at Squaw Valley’s Rocker bar. The crap-feeling didn’t last long, though. Today was the big day—Saturday—I’d been looking forward to the McConkey premiere for months.
I made the short stroll from Squaw Valley Lodge into the central village and appeased my rumbling stomach with a smoothie and a bagel at Mountain Nectar. Soon after, I joined a small crew on an hour-long hike to the top of KT-22. Perched atop the rocks adjacent to the chair’s summit station is the famed eagle—a sculpture crafted in honor of Shane by Hansi Standteiner. Adorned in prayer flags, the eagle is said to symbolize Shane’s love of flight, and of the rowdy skiing lines in the area; it was dedicated on October 3, 2009.
Overlooking Squaw below, Alpine Meadows in the other direction, and Lake Tahoe in the distance, we spent upwards of an hour on the peak. The sky was blue as can be, and the winds calm. We enjoyed some beers—courtesy of Mike Rogge, who joined us along with Amie Engerbretson, midway through our hangout—and shared our excitement for the impending film screening. There was certainly no better place to count down the hours than atop that ridge. Sitting beside the sculpture, it’s easy to get a sense for how important Shane was, and is, to the local community.
After descending, I stopped by the hotel for a quick shower before heading off to Le Chamois and, from there, it was on to the Olympic House for Red Bull’s official pre-party. We enjoyed an open bar—Red Bull vodkas galore—and some scrumptious pizza. In one corner, a step-and-repeat was erected, complete with a table’s worth of props and toys for folks to utilize in the manner of skiing’s prop master-in-chief, Saucer Boy. Meanwhile, outside, the masses began to flood the venue, packing beach chairs, puffy jackets and blankets; the film wouldn’t start rolling for another few hours, but folks were eager to secure a prime viewing spot. Aside from a few rows of chairs—roped off and reserved for VIPs—this was a lawn seating affair.
Nearly 2,700 tickets had been pre-sold, so the organizers were anticipating a crowd of approximately 4,000. As the light began to fade, and the screening neared, I’d venture to say there must have been closer to 5K.
With moviegoers continuing to trickle in, attention was directed to a plane high above. It circled once, and as it passed overhead for the second time, three small specks tumbled out its side door and began freefalling directly towards the sea of people below. Chutes deployed soon after, and then one at a time, Timy Dutton, JT Holmes and Miles Daisher touched down on a cleared walkway, smack in the middle of the gathering. How’s that for an entrance worthy of Shane’s legacy and flair for the dramatic?
As the minutes ticked by, the light turned to dark. Flashing, colorful strobes, a few small fire pits and dozens of propane-fueled patio heaters made for a pleasant aura. The stars overhead were an added bonus. A spotlight was switched on, and high up on the mountain above, a projection read, “Thank you Shane.” One audience member nearby exclaimed, “That’s some Batman shit right there!”
Then, finally, the strobes and the building lights went dark and the crowd let out a roar.
To introduce the film, director/producer Scott Gaffney took to the stage with pro shred’ JT Holmes—both were among Shane’s closest friends.
Gaffney began, “I want to thank everyone for coming out. If Shane was here right now, I think he’d be looking out there and going, ‘Me, me, me, me, this is all about me,’ and that would only be his way of covering up actually how proud he is for everyone showing up here tonight.”
“When we got talking about putting this tour together, it was a no brainer about where it was going to begin; Squaw Valley was Shane’s home. When he was a young kid, he came up from Santa Cruz every weekend, and for some reason he didn’t become a surfer, he was here, just tearing it up, his first cliff huck ever was here… This really was his home.
“After attending school, he came on back to Squaw Valley and lived the last 15 years of his life here. He was one of us. Everyone around here has been with Shane in the lift line at KT. You’ve raced Shane for the first tracks in the Fingers… and how many people have stood at the edge of the Palisades, looking down over the edge, while Shane backed up and then skated on in and busted a huge ol’ backflip, right in front of your face, and stomped the crap out of it… that was Shane. Basically, this here, this entire group, 4,000 strong or whatever it may be, you are his extended family.
“As this premiere approached I was thinking to myself, ‘This event is going to be all time. This is going to be one of the sickest nights ever.’ But then I’d kick myself in the butt, and I’d think, wait a second, this movie is kind of a tragedy, and this whole story is kind of a tragedy, and we all know that. But, the biggest magic of Shane McConkey, I believe, was how he inspired us to celebrate life. Only days after he died, guys were hucking off the Palisades naked, doing spread eagles… saucer boys were running rampant all over the world at various ski areas, and that basically embodies who Shane was. He inspired, he made people want to go out and enjoy more of life, push your comfort zone, physically, socially, or in any which way, because when you do that, you’re going to have that much more of a fulfilling life. And in Shane’s own words, ‘If you’re not having fun, then what the hell are you doing it for?’
“So, thank you Shane. Thanks for all the inspiration, the laughs, the whole bit… I hope you guys enjoy this movie, and with that, I’m going to pass it over to Shane’s second best friend, JT Holmes.
JT took the mic’ and let out a, “Yeah Squaw Valley!”
He carried on:
“This is a very impressive crowd. I’m impressed, but I’m not at all surprised. What more of a testament to a man’s legacy than that thousands of us gather here at Squaw periodically and share super special evenings, run amuck and have as much fun as is humanly possible?
“I think the first time was the memorial service… It was one of the more memorable and special evenings of my life, and it’s this community that makes it that way. Shane could have lived anywhere, he could have skied anywhere, he could have raised his family anywhere in the whole entire world, but he did it right here, and that’s because this is where people who kick ass at life hang out.
“So now we’re here for the movie… These guys sent me a rough cut a bunch of months back, and they gave me the, ‘What do you think? What do you think?’ I’d say, ‘I haven’t watched it.’ It took me probably 10 days to muster up the courage to press play, to sit down and watch the thing. When I did, I had a hell of a reaction, and that’s what you’re about to have right now.”
And with that, the reel began to roll.
Scott Gaffney and JT Holmes introduce McConkey. Photo by Cameron Baird, Red Bull Content Pool.
For the next two hours, the audience was treated to a spectacular documentary. I experienced a wide range of emotions throughout the screening, and this sentiment was echoed by everyone I spoke to post-show. There are moments of pure comedy—as to be expected. We relive Shane’s highs, with jaw-dropping footage showcasing his skiing, BASE jumping and more. We see Shane at his low points, too—times in his life where he struggled to find himself. And we are also moved to tears as we hear commentary from those closest to Shane, including beautiful segments where Shane’s wife, Sherry, speaks openly about her loss.
As the credits began to roll, the crowd let out a great show of appreciation. Truth be told, I was expecting the locals to go absolutely berserk, but the collective cheer seemed somewhat contained. I attribute this to the fact that the film doesn’t leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. You hurt for Shane’s family. You hurt for Shane’s friends. You hurt for the loss of a man who touched countless lives.
It’s not until some time passes that you begin to remember the underlying theme: This film was made to honor Shane, who was among the biggest advocates of “fun” our sport has ever known, and if there’s anything we can do on a personal level to carry on his legacy, it’s to make each and every day a little bit more of a thrill.
Photo by Cameron Baird, Red Bull Content Pool.
Following the screening, we made our way back into the Olympic House for the official after-party. The temperature had dropped considerably throughout the evening, and I was happy to find warmth (and also free drinks and pizza) inside.
For the next few hours, I made the rounds and spoke with a who’s who of industry notables and distinguished athletes. The show of support for Shane was incredible. There were too many big-name skiers on site to list them all. Among those I managed to catch up with were Tanner Hall, Chris Benchetler, Cody Townsend, Elyse Saugstad, Grete Eliassen, Michelle Parker, Erik Roner, Mike Douglas and—a highlight of the night for me—Scot Schmidt. In addition, I met athletes from all reaches of action sports, from snowboarding, to big wave surfing, to biking, to climbing and beyond.
Amid the chaos, I spoke with Matchstick’s own Mike Hans. Hans explained that originally, there was enough worthy footage to produce a film that was between six and eight hours in length. How to solve this problem? MSP and Red Bull called upon the expertise of one David Zieff, a seasoned editor who’s worked for nearly three decades in various facets of the film industry; among the projects he’s worked on are Crazy Love and The Cove.
Zieff worked on McConkey in capacity as director/editor—along with directors Steve Winter, Murray Wais, Gaffney and Rob Bruce. Hans told me, “The film wouldn’t have happened without [Zieff].” For the MSP crew, cutting shots proved to be a difficult task; for them, each and every clip represents a trip, an adventure, a story—memories. Zieff’s perspective as an outsider proved instrumental in the success of the project, as he helped the team to craft the final package into 109 minutes.
Long perhaps, but Mike Douglas said it well when he told me, “The movie was amazing. I had high expectations, because obviously with Shane there’s just a wealth of footage to go through and so many amazing stories. And they delivered it. It was the longest ski film I’ve ever seen by quite a bit, but it felt like the shortest. That was an amazing thing. You just wanted to keep seeing more. They did a really good job, I was very impressed.”
The night grew long and the gang raged on. More Red Bull vodkas were consumed, champagne bottles were sabered, stories and memories of Shane were shared. Outside, a concert was in full swing. Elsewhere in town, a handful of bars were also packed to the brim. And eventually, we were shuffled out of Olympic House and spilled into the village streets where our quest for party resumed.
The directors and Sherry McConkey walk the red carpet. Photo by Cameron Baird, Red Bull Content Pool.
The next morning, I headed back to Mountain Nectar. That smoothie was much needed… ‘Twas another beautiful day, and I was joined on the patio by Douglas, Hans, Holmes and Gaffney, among others. While the group was collectively feeling a bit rough around the edges, I recorded some of Gaffney’s thoughts on the premiere, and on the film itself.
In terms of where this event ranks in his long history of film premieres, “This is probably number one,” he said. “You’re proud of all the movies you make, but this one is a whole new level, really, and to have this kind of turn out, and just the love of the Squaw Valley community, it couldn’t be beat.”
As for the end goal? “We just wanted to convey who Shane was, and be totally honest with the movie at the same time,” he said. “It seems like all the reactions have been so positive in that regard. People got to see the Shane they wanted to see, and they got to see behind the scenes, the Shane that maybe they didn’t know. I think we were able to capture all sides of him, and as I’ve said, the only thing we’ve missed out on, there’s so much stuff that couldn’t make it in the movie.”
While the constraints of a “normal” length film kept some content from seeing the light of day, fans of Shane will be excited to know that MSP and Red Bull will be releasing a commemorative book, packed with Shane’s own writing, and some stunning imagery to accompany. Gaffney guessed they’ll print approximately 2,000 copies to begin with, and proceeds from sales of the book—in addition to sales of the film itself, plus film premiere tickets—benefit Sherry and Ayla McConkey.
In the continuing discussion with Gaffney, I also inquired about the presence of athletes from all walks of the action sports world. In a statement that I believe sums up the resounding feeling of the weekend, Gaffney explained, “I think the message Shane brought is something that transcends skiing. It’s that zest for… Shane’s carpe diem attitude and the way he pursued his life, it’s something people in all these different sports can relate to. Everyone’s got the same mentality, and that’s why Shane became a great BASE jumper, and why he could have become great at a whole lot of other things—like a lot of these athletes also could. They’ve got the mindset to push themselves in certain ways. So, even though skiing is this little bubble, that message Shane conveyed, it spreads to everyone.”
As the MSP crew parted ways—en route to meetings to discuss the direction of future projects, including Days of My Youth—I made the short trek back to Reno-Tahoe International Airport, where I boarded a plane back to Denver, and in midair, began to write the above. The typing was slow—thoughts still reeling with the film, with the amazing group of people I’d just spent time with, and with Shane’s lasting legacy. Above all, I felt lucky. Lucky to be working in this industry. Lucky to interact and collaborate with so many talented individuals. And as I mentioned above, if there’s one thing we can do to enrich our day-to-day, as well as the lives of those around us, it’s simply to remember one simple thing: Have some f#cking fun out there. Oh, and don’t be afraid to take your clothes off.