Superhuman18 Feb 2012, Posted by in
The year is 1993. A 23-year-old skier named Shane McConkey put on quite a show at the Crested Butte Extremes. Steve Winter, who runs the ski-filmmaking company Matchstick Productions, was impressed enough to invite McConkey to film with MSP after the event. During that session, the first thing they did was hike out to a cliff band in the Colorado backcountry. Winter set up a camera below a large cornice. McConkey hiked to the top. There was a countdown—“Three, two, one, dropping”—and McConkey dropped, all right. His goal appeared to be a double backflip, but two things should be mentioned: The first is that back in 1993 no one was throwing double backflips and certainly not off 40-foot cornices. The second: Neither was McConkey.
“Shane did one and a half rotations and landed on his head,” says Winter. “We were all thinking the same thing: Holy shit, this guy’s gonna kill himself.”
A lot of things can help a big-mountain skier’s career— being stupid in the backcountry is not among them. “There are a lot of unexpected risks out there,” says Winter. “The last thing we want is some kook going crazy for the camera. But Shane kept demanding a second shot at the double backflip. We kept trying to talk him out of it—saying the cliff ’s not big enough, he didn’t have the trick down, there was no way to get enough speed.”
McConkey wasn’t hearing any of it. He stomped off and hiked up. Winter stayed below. He had a bad feeling in his stomach. Above him, out of sight, McConkey got ready. Winter heard the countdown. That’s when it happened: McConkey blazed off the cliff wearing nothing but his ski boots. He did not throw a backflip. He threw what would soon become his signature: a giant, naked spread eagle.
“What can I say?” says Winter. “It was fucking genius.”
Genius? Really? According to the dictionary, genius is defined as “an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc.” But that doesn’t help us much in athletics, especially when the sports in question are of the action-adventure variety. What does genius look like when snowboarding? What does creativity mean for a skydiver? How can we tell if a particular surfer is doing original work when the proof of that work vanishes with the crashing of a wave?
We can at least agree that genius begins with feats of mental greatness. The thinking needs to be novel, so the results need to be beyond what most can envision. Because it takes courage to push past the confines of culture, the thinking must also be brave. Because athletes’ canvases are nothing more than their bodies moving through space and time, then an act of genius must also be defined as an act of redefinition—redefining what is possible for the human body. Thus, in the world of action-adventure sports, the easiest way to hunt genius is to look for athletes betting their asses on the impossible.
And this is where things start to get strange—because quite a few asses have been on the line these past few years. Not too long ago the idea of anyone jumping a motorcycle over a bunch of school buses was so incredible that the whole world tuned in every time Evel Knievel gave it a go. These days, on any given weekend, in arenas all over the world, you can watch dozens of riders jump similar distances—backflipping as they go. Go back 25 years in skiing and the 360 was the hardest trick anyone could throw. These days, six-year-old kids pull it off routinely. Last season Bobby Brown threw the world’s first triple cork 1440—three spins, two flips, all off axis.
World records are being broken, then broken again. And many of them are ones no one thought should even exist: records that were beyond the pale, beyond the possible. Kayakers paddling straight-drop waterfalls are a good example. In 1999 Tao Berman dropped 98 feet four inches off the Upper Falls of Johnston Canyon in Canada’s Banff National Park—a Guinness world record. That official record stood for nearly 10 years—an eternity in today’s game—but then Tyler Bradt battled the number up to 107 feet, only to be fought off in 2009 by Pedro Olivia’s 127-foot launch on the Rio Sacre in Brazil. Olivia entered the water at 70 miles per hour, which was far beyond what most thought a kayaker could survive. This record too was believed unbreakable. That thinking lasted mere weeks; Bradt reclaimed the record by plunging 186 feet off Washington State’s Palouse Falls. He marked the occasion with a short video of his own, which tells audiences, “This is a major step up from what anyone has done before. It’s kind of an unknown realm for kayaking and what the human body can take off of a waterfall.”
As competitive ball sports have become less dangerous (example: the NFL’s illegal-hits rule to protect “defenseless players,” which more and more seems to include anyone wearing pads), action and adventure sports have become increasingly harebrained. In rock climbing, skydiving, snowboarding, skiing, motocross, mountain biking, skateboarding, surfing, windsurfing, kitesurfing, caving, free diving, the list of onetime impossible feats continues to shrink. “In this day and age, the upper echelon of adventure-sport athletes are grappling with the fundamental properties of the universe: gravity, velocity and sanity,” says Micah Abrams, programming director of Network A, the new action-sports channel. “They’re toying with them, refusing to accept there might be limits to what they can accomplish.”
The great irony is that most people don’t even consider them athletes. They’re the poster children of the slacker generation, the ones marked with an X, who still, some two decades after the fact, continue to smell like teen spirit. But somehow they have become so much more. As Michael Gervais, one of the world’s top high-performance psychologists, says, “There’s a natural urge to compare athletes to athletes, but trying to compare a guy like Shane McConkey to a guy like Kobe Bryant misses the mark entirely. It’s almost apples and oranges. McConkey’s got more in common with 15th century explorers than with anyone playing on hardwood. You want to compare these athletes to someone, well, you’ve got to start with Magellan.”
In the years after McConkey flew naked off that cliff, he became a dual-sport threat: one of the greatest skiers to have ever lived and one of the most innovative skydivers in history. Ingrid Backstrom, herself one of the greatest skiers in the world, spoke for many when she said, “Pretty much it’s always a dumb idea to try to do something Shane can do.” To this day, skiers use the phrase McConkey turn to refer to a giant, high-speed power slide turn, made in some nosebleedsteep, sometimes rock-strewn, cliff-laden spot that—through the radically transformative capacity of the maneuver—has suddenly become a playground.
While very few athletes have McConkey’s athletic prowess, it was his ability to “see lines” that further set him apart. “Seeing lines” refers to the capacity to link two points in a creative and unusual way. This may not sound like much, but McConkey saw lines where others saw only death.
A 150-foot cliff may not be skiable, but McConkey didn’t see the cliff. He saw six tiny patches of snow—each about 25 feet below the last—and imagined a way to connect the dots, hopping and dropping and making his own a ski technique now known as “billy goating.” “Shane loved trying to find the hardest way down the mountain,” says ski filmmaker and one of McConkey’s closest friends, Scott Gaffney. “It was almost a compulsion: Seek out impossible spots and dream up ways to navigate further. In that way he was literally a visionary—he just saw things other people didn’t.”
“Once Shane decided a line was possible, he felt that it had to be done,” says fellow professional skier-skydiver and another of McConkey’s closest friends, JT Holmes. “But he also felt he was one of the best skiers in the world, so if anyone was going to do it, he should be the one. That was the way his mind worked. That was Shane being logical.”
This is also where skydiving comes in. McConkey began tossing himself out of airplanes in 1995. By 1999 he’d become a proficient enough BASE (building, antenna, span and earth) jumper to begin considering his childhood dream—reenacting the ski-off-a-cliff-and-deploy-a-parachute-toevade-the-bad-guys scene from The Spy Who Loved Me. It took a few years to work out the technical details, but in 2003 he went Bond off a 400-footer in Lover’s Leap, California. Most people thought it was a stunt. McConkey claimed it was the way forward: evolution, progression, what was next. No one believed him. In 2004 he ski-BASE’d off the13,025-foot Eiger in Switzerland.
Then they started to believe him.
For McConkey, ski-BASE gave him a way to start seeing really different lines. He had a phrase for aesthetically enticing terrain that had forever been off-limits because of gargantuan cliffs at the run’s end: close-out lines. With ski-BASE, these closeout lines were finally open for business.
Pretty soon other skiers began seeing those lines as well. In 2007 McConkey and Holmes went to Norway to try the next iteration, wingsuit ski-BASE jumping, wherein he and Holmes skied close-out lines, tossed triple backflips off 2,000-foot cliffs, opened their wingsuits, flew the face of the mountain and then, finally, deployed parachutes. During the time they sailed down those mountains, McConkey and Holmes tried “proximity flying,” or soaring a few feet from the rock at terminal velocity, where the slightest change in trajectory—mere inches—could send a “pilot” into a catastrophic spin. To give you an idea of the difficulty involved, Jon DeVore, one of the best wingsuit flyers in the world, says that “flying a wingsuit is like piloting an F-16 while wearing a straitjacket.”
Moreover, unlike a typical ski-BASE, which can be accomplished with skis attached, the addition of a wingsuit—which cannot be steered with skis on—required McConkey and Holmes to invent a release system that involved a pull cord attached with Velcro to the hip. “That was a big deal,” Holmes says. “Wingsuit ski-BASE jumping didn’t come from a Bond film; it came from our imagination. No one had done it before. So when Shane had to try it out for the first time, yeah, we were all pretty nervous.”
Ski-BASE was the furthest anyone had taken either of those sports, but then McConkey and Holmes set their sights further: the double-ski-BASE. In March 2009 they flew to Italy’s Dolomite range because McConkey believed they’d find what they needed there: a radical new ski line that ended in a 1,000-foot cliff that was perched atop a second radical new ski line that ended in another 1,000-foot cliff. The plan was to ski the first line, BASE jump off the cliff, land on the second, cut away the chute, ski that line, launch off the edge, and deploy a second suit. There you have it: the world’s first double-ski-BASE, what McConkey and Holmes called “the next chapter.”
The next chapter in surfing arrived on February 8, 2011. Early morning, crisp wind, sunny skies, and Jaws—one of the most ferocious surf spots on the planet, off the northern edge of Maui—was booming. The swell had popped up on radar a few days earlier. It was big and growing bigger. When morning dawned Ian Walsh took fellow professional wave riders Mark Healy and Greg Long to Jaws by Jet Ski. The waves were colossal: 50 feet, maybe 55. The wind was nuking. The surf was so choppy it took Walsh 45 minutes to anchor. In all his years of tow-in surfing at Jaws, Walsh had never needed to set an anchor before, because he’d used the Jet Ski to ride the waves. But today Walsh, Long and Healy hadn’t come to Jaws to tow-surf in on Jet Skis. They’d come to paddle.
To understand how mind-bending this proposition is requires a little history of surfing. Since the early days of the sport’s modern incarnation, at the beginning of the last century, wave faces in excess of 40 feet had been the outer limits of possible. As author Susan Casey explains in The Wave, “Anything bigger is simply moving too fast; trying to catch a 60-foot wave by windmilling away on your stomach is like trying to catch the subway by crawling.”
To get around this problem, in the early 1990s Laird Hamilton, Buzzy Kerbox, Dave Kalama and a handful of other mavericks invented the sport of tow-in surfing. Instead of paddling into monster waves, these surfers, using boards with straps on them, would hitch a ride on a towline hung behind a Jet Ski. The vehicle could then whip the surfer into the wave with exacting precision and more than enough speed to keep him moving. The results were akin to McConkey’s invention of the wingsuit skiBASE: Once off-limits waves were suddenly open for business.
Jaws had been off-limits for decades. People had been staring at it since the 1960s. It was hard not to. When powerful North Pacific storms blast down from the Aleutian Islands, the results travel thousands of miles unhindered, only to run smack into a fanshaped reef. Two deepwater channels on either side of the break increase the upward pressure. The combination creates perfect m 10 monsters: waves that can reach 80 feet and that crash with so much force the sound has been compared to the explosion of an atomic bomb. Surf legend Gerry Lopez is known for his fearlessness in heavy surf, but back in the 1960s he said he got nauseated just looking at the place.
Walsh had been thinking about paddling Jaws for a few years. He talked about it with friends, and he spent time at heavy paddle spots such as Mavericks and Todos Santos. He had thought about it carefully, and he hoped he was ready. “It’s a different kind of commitment,” he says. “With a Jet Ski you have to hold the line and get pulled into the wave—and that can be a gut-check moment. But to paddle into one you have to hang on the ledge. You have to wait until the moment the wave is about to break before you can get into it.”
Surfers use landmarks to triangulate the spot in the water where they want to take off. Pick a spot too far out and the waves will just pass you by. Pick one too close in and you can accidentally find yourself in the impact zone. The launch point for tow-in surfing was easily 150 feet beyond where Walsh wanted to sit, but where he wanted to sit was another question. Nobody paddled Jaws on monster days, so it took some trial and error for Walsh to get it right.
Then he got it right.
He had found a tree on the shore to line up with, when a huge set appeared on the horizon. He spun his board around and started paddling. His goal was to take off as late as possible, letting the wave rear toward vertical before he popped to his feet. But even with the wave near vertical, when Walsh finally popped to his feet… nothing happened. He was hung up on the ledge, perched above a chasm. “I was really late,” he says. “When I jumped to my feet the wave looked already beyond vertical. The wind was ripping up the face with so much force that I had to grab the edge of my board with my right hand just to try to keep myself in it.”
Then his nose dipped and his board followed. He dropped straight down—a ferocious drop, full of free fall and bounce— down, down, down, board chattering, nose bouncing, Mach speed. At the last instant Walsh got his weight forward, stabilized the board and took control. He dove deep into his bottom turn, dragging his right hand across the wave, then made a few quick cuts to get into position for the tube. That curtain closed. Walsh spent a second inside before getting tossed from his board. The jaws of Jaws snapped shut.
By then it didn’t matter. Walsh had inverted a century of surf wisdom and had done the impossible. He’d paddled into a wave so off-limits to paddlers that an entirely new sport had to be invented. Here’s another thing about doing the impossible: The view is different from the inside. For Walsh it didn’t feel impossible, it felt normal. Like eating breakfast.
Miles Daisher, one of the best wingsuit flyers in the world, explains it like this: “Ever since you were a little kid, you always have a dream about what you can accomplish. As soon as you get close to that dream, there’s another. There’s always a desire to keep learning, to keep evolving. Here’s the line. Let’s tickle it a bit. And then you figure out that’s not actually the line. The impossible is actually a little farther out, so let’s go over there and tickle it again. You do this for long enough and you just get used to it.”
This is what athletes mean by the term progression. Walsh had been surfing at Jaws since he was a kid. There had been days, weeks, months and years of pushing himself into 10-foot, 20-foot, 30-foot surf, of slowly discovering what he was made of by continuously testing his limits, of nearly dying, of pushing past injury and fear, and of honing skills, getting stronger, getting smarter—a self-taught, near graduate-level education in hydrodynamics, meteorology, body mechanics. “It’s a different kind of education,” says Andy Walshe, the head of athletic performance at Red Bull. “It’s informal. The environment is the teacher; it’s really a process of guided discovery.”
Of course spectators don’t notice much of this. We can’t see progression. When we see a surfer riding Jaws, the tableau is neurologically unfathomable. The brain’s pattern-recognition system is built to lump like with like, but when in most of our lives have we put ourselves in the path of Godzilla? There are no grounds for comparison. So we look at Jaws and feel fear, dread and awe—because that’s what evolution designed us to feel. But that’s not what Walsh felt.
“Mostly,” he says, “it felt like another day at the office.”
March 26, 2009 was another day at the office for Shane McConkey. He’d spent his morning with JT Holmes. They took a cable car to the top of the Sass Pordoi, a 9,685-foot mountain in the Dolomites. There’s a restaurant up there and a nice lookout spot. They had a cup of coffee at the former and spent some time at the latter hunting a spot to launch the double-ski-BASE. They found one but decided to save that jump for another day. Instead there was a 2,000-foot cliff up there. McConkey had jumped off of it the previous summer. Today—if the damn wind would die down a bit—he wanted to give it a go in a wingsuit.
Daisher tells a story about a time McConkey clipped a house on a BASE jump gone bad and screwed up his back. When he went to the doctor, the doc asked how it happened. “Shane told him what he did for a living,” says Daisher. “He’d mashed a vertebra, and it was serious. The doctor told him there was no way he could ski or skydive anymore. Shane looked at him and said, ‘Basically you’re telling me I should go home, get out my .45, put it in my mouth and pull the trigger.’ ”
There is this to consider about the upper edge of action and adventure sports: They’re worth dying for. More and more, that’s what’s happening. Trevor Petersen, Mark Foo, Peter Davi, Doug Coombs, C.R. Johnson, Sion Milosky, Ryan Hawks, Michael Reardon—there have been quite a few fatalities lately, and the athletes are aware of this. A few days before McConkey stood atop the Sass Pordoi in Italy, he was standing with Daisher back in Idaho. “He was giving me a lecture,” Daisher recalls. “What do we m 12 do for a living? We both have families. You need to tighten up your ends. You have to have a will.”
Atop the Sass Pordoi the wind calmed down. McConkey and Holmes hiked out to the cliff and roped down to a spot just below the edge. McConkey threw rocks and counted seconds. Ten, maybe 12 seconds before impact. Plenty of time, he figured, for everything that needed to be done on the way down. Their launch point would be critical. They built a kicker at the cliff ’s edge, but the snow was crappy and something wasn’t quite right, so they started over.
They got into their flying gear, and Holmes went first. He pointed his skis toward the edge, took a couple of slight turns on his way down and launched a perfect double backflip off the cliff.
McConkey was left alone. He had a GoPro camera on his head and was miked up. “Oh yeah,” he said into the mike, “here we go, another ski-BASE.” He exhaled deeply, just once, and pointed his tips toward the cliff.
Considering the odds, the risk and the escalating body count, you have to wonder what drives these athletes forward. Sure, in recent years sponsorship dollars and media attention have increased, and the heights of fame achievable have increased. But for most athletes, their core motivation runs much deeper.
Take kayaker Tao Berman. When he first spotted Lacy Falls in 2007, it was just a 300- foot bone-dry ribbon of granite rolling down a mountainside into the Pacific Ocean. But Berman also saw lines, so he imagined what this ribbon might look like when the mountains above were covered with snow and the falls were flush with runoff. He imagined a river. He imagined what it might feel like to jump into his kayak and push into that torrent and blast off down this mountainside. Perhaps, he thought, if everything went exactly as planned, if every paddle stroke and body tilt and every other split-second decision was faultlessly executed, he might be able to come out the other end alive. He’d hit speeds close to 50 miles per hour. Top to bottom was what, maybe 15 seconds? The question: Could he be absolutely perfect for 15 seconds? Could he be flawless?
Berman wasn’t certain, but he was certainly curious.
“In our daily lives,” Berman says, “when do we achieve perfection? And how do we know? There’s always a gray area. Was that a perfect date? How can you tell? Did I do a perfect job at work? Hard to say for certain. On Lacy Falls, if I make a bad decision, there’s a reasonable chance I’m going to die. But if I come out the other end and am still alive, well, then I know, for those few seconds, I was perfect.
“We don’t really learn what’s most important unless we’re threatened with losing it,” he says. “I think being alive is what’s most important. That’s the real point. But most people don’t willingly and consistently put their life on the line, so they miss that. When you risk everything, you get very clear very fast about how grateful you are to just be alive.”
Toward these ends, Berman paddled Lacy 13 Falls in early spring 2008, about a year after he’d first considered it. The run was trickier than expected. Kayakers need water depth to control the descent, but the snowpack was light that year, so there wasn’t much snowmelt that day. The water depth was less than four inches. So much for 15 seconds of flawless. Berman went top to bottom in 11 seconds. Former Olympic kayaker turned badass river guide Chris Spelius summed up the journey: “Tao Berman, Lacy Falls— patently crazy.”
Eleven seconds of patently crazy—all of them perfect.
There is a final piece in this puzzle, a bit of technical information that makes the picture complete. It’s time to talk about the biology of the rush.
For starters, the term adrenaline junkie is something of a misnomer. In fact, a great many athletes don’t want anything to do with that particular chemical. “If I’m feeling adrenaline,” says Berman, “it means I’m feeling fear. It means I’m not prepared to do what I’m about to do and it’s time to back off.” But that doesn’t mean these athletes aren’t chasing a high. Besides adrenaline, risk taking releases into the brain a bevy of feel-good neurochemicals, including endorphins, naturally produced painkillers that are a hundred times more powerful than morphine. Dopamine, for example, is what cocaine increases into the brain, making it one of the most addictive substances on earth. There are also anandamide, the body’s version of THC; norepinephrine, our natural version of speed; and perhaps serotonin, which is why all those rave kids love ecstasy so much. Oddly, if you tried to cocktail these drugs on the street, the result would be an overdose. But the brain can do this naturally—without risk of overdose—if the conditions are right.
All these chemicals show up in what athletes call “the zone” or, as scientists prefer, a “flow state.” The former term was coined by baseball wizard Ted Williams, the latter by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who used it to describe “being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Scientists describe flow states as exceptionally heightened performance accompanied by exceptionally heightened pleasure. Temple University sports psychologist Michael Sachs, who has also done an extensive study of flow state—defined it as an “increased sense of well-being, an enhanced appreciation of nature and a transcendence of time and space.” According to his research, flow states vary from pleasant highs to nearly unbearable bliss, the latter akin to a godlike sense of power and invincibility.
Flow states are common in almost any activity that requires intense concentration and produces a perfect balance between the challenge ahead and one’s skill set. This challenge-skills balance—also known as the sweet spot between anxiety and boredom— is where the zone is found. And anyone can find it. Flow states show up in surgeons, artists and chess players, and in each case the states are described in terms of the very meaning of life. “There are moments that stand out from the chaos of the everyday as shining beacons,” write Csikszentmihalyi and sports psychologist Susan Jackson in their Flow in Sports. “In many ways, one might say that the whole effort of humankind through millennia of history has been to capture these fleeting moments of fulfillment and make them a part of everyday existence.”
This is not just their opinion. Over the past half century almost every scholar who has examined this question has reached similar conclusions. Flow states are what we’re all seeking, all the time. But here’s the missing ingredient that brings adrenaline games back into the picture: Because of the depth of concentration required, because of the cascade of neurochemicals released, because of a thousand other reasons too complicated for this story, action-adventure sports may be the fastest way to reach the goal, the easiest path toward producing a flow state.
And once you’re in a flow state, the real magic happens. The zone is so treasured because it is where the impossible becomes possible. Michael Sachs believes flow states are “at the heart of every championship ring that’s ever been won.” Former St. Louis Cardinals linebacker Dave Meggyesy called them “the essence of the athletic experience,” and coach Jimmy Johnson thanked Csikszentmihalyi for the Dallas Cowboys’ Super Bowl victories.
Just because the chemicals released by a flow state are produced naturally doesn’t make those states any less addictive. Csikszentmihalyi says people will go to great lengths to get into a flow state, even at tremendous personal expense, and for this reason he calls flow states autotelic, meaning an end in themselves. Psychologist Michael Gervais points out that “if you look at the chances these athletes are taking, the amount of poor judgment that can be exercised, yeah, it’s pretty clear you’re looking at addictive behavior.”
On March 26, 2009 McConkey hit the jump perfectly. He sailed off the Sass Pordoi and did what he could not back in Crested Butte so many years earlier: a perfect double backflip. It was the last time something in his life went right. A moment later he reached down to release his skis, but only the right one popped off. It got tangled with his left. He reached down to manually release the binding, but the move flipped him upside down—which meant he could neither see the ground approaching nor deploy his parachute for fear of further entanglement. Some people, including Daisher, believe you should throw the chute anyway, but McConkey had long argued for the need to release the skis first, get into a stable position for flight and then throw the chute. He did in fact manage to release his ski and get into a stable position. “It was an amazing recovery,” Holmes said afterward, “but he was already too late.”
McConkey died on impact. He left behind a wife, a three-year-old daughter 15 and a 15-year legacy that, despite the startling rate of progression in these sports, will most likely remain unmatched for a considerable time. As former Powder magazine managing editor Leslie Anthony writes in his book White Planet, “The ski world’s superman was gone.” The double-ski-BASE remains, though, the chapter yet unwritten. Holmes says it’s only a matter of time, and if he doesn’t do it, someone else will. That’s the tradition. That’s how these things get done. That’s really why McConkey was considered a genius. He did what all geniuses do: He shifted the paradigm. He opened our eyes. He gave his life so that, maybe, we could reinvent ours.