In 2009, Shane McConkey was ski BASE jumping in the Dolomites range of Northern Italy. McConkey had pioneered this extreme sport, in which athletes ski off cliffs with parachutes on their backs. He had successfully mitigated many of the inherent risks of the most dangerous sports in the world by pioneering new technology in ski design and technique—and he looked good doing it. Above all, McConkey was the celebrated clown hero king of the skiing, BASE, and wingsuit communities. In the air above the Dolomites, however, one of his skis failed to release. The offset weight sent him into a spin. McConkey successfully jettisoned the ski and rolled into a flying position, but it was too late. He hit the valley floor and died on impact.
J. T. Holmes was there in the valley—in fact, he had jumped first. A professional skier turned canopy expert, Holmes considered McConkey his mentor, but they were much closer, developing an almost brotherly bond after decades of adventurous pursuits. Talking about death is nothing new for Holmes, who's shared his story with 60 Minutes, including in an upcoming episode airing this fall, and in the Emmy-nominated documentary McConkey. Somehow, though, he's been able to continue with the most dangerous sports in the world after watching some of his closest friends die doing the same.
On a June afternoon, I met Holmes, who at 34 is now one of the most accomplished canopy experts in the world, for a hike up McConkey's, a prominent peak in Squaw Valley, California, that the mountain-sports community renamed in his honor. An eagle sculpture now sits on its summit. Enough high-profile athletes from the region have died in their sports that people will occasionally talk about a Squaw Valley Curse: to call the area home, the story goes, is as good as writing your own obituary.
Holmes lives across the valley and can see McConkey's eagle from his bedroom. On the day of our hike, he pulled up to the trailhead parking lot in a weathered Ford F-350 diesel pickup truck as midday clouds roof the valley. A storm warning was in effect for the area, but we started up the mountain.
"Terrible things can sneak up on you," Holmes said as we walked up the peak's ski area. "I'm a literal and analytical guy, so I dissect things."
Holmes started skiing as a young kid, making the nearly four-hour drive with his parents from their home in Palo Alto to Squaw Valley when he could. He became a professional skier at 17. He filmed for various production companies and appeared in the pages of ski magazines. Five years later, he took the air awareness he learned hucking cliffs on skis to BASE jumping.
"June 22, 2002," Holmes said as we move one step at a time heading up the mountain. The date marks the beginning of his canopy career, on a bridge in Idaho with Shane McConkey. Perrine Bridge was built in 1974; at 486 feet, it's the eighth tallest in the country. It's also the only place to legally BASE jump in the U.S.
After his first solo parachute from Perrine, Holmes was hooked. He enrolled in skydiving classes and started making weekend pilgrimages to the bridge. McConkey introduced Holmes to the sport, but Holmes often jumped alone that summer, front flipping off the bridge over his dangling chute—a move known as a McConkey, and one that is necessary for those who want to jump but do not know how to properly and safely pack a parachute.
In January 2003, less than a year since his first BASE jump in Idaho, Holmes and McConkey decided to ski off Lover's Leap, a 600-foot granite cliff band in South Lake Tahoe, with parachutes on their backs. That jump would change their lives.
The following winter, McConkey and Holmes approached Matchstick Productions, a Colorado-based filmmaking company the duo had filmed with previously, about adding ski BASE to their slate. Matchstick jumped on the idea, and Holmes and McConkey opened ski BASE lines in mountains around world, including the first descent of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps. Reaction from the rest of the ski world, however, was mixed.
"People would say, 'This isn't skiing. It's a stunt.' Other people said 'Wow, this could be the door to the next level of our sport,'" said former Powder magazine Editor Keith Carlsen. "Shane said it was how he was going to develop his of skiing. It was this weird, fucked up thing these guys were doing."
Holmes and McConkey pushed the sport even further by adding wingsuits to their kit. They would ski off a hanging snowfield, one that ended in a cliff. After ditching their poles, in the air they would pull a strap on each hip that released old Tyrolia bindings on their skis. Once airborne, they opened their wingsuits to sail through the valley like flying squirrels before deploying parachutes for the landing.
"We trained hard," Holmes said. "We thought things through, but we were bold. I look at things that Shane and I did, and I look back now and say, 'Glad that worked out.'"
He unshouldered his backpack and sat on a log by the trail. We were taking a break under East Face, about halfway up the mountain, and I was only about halfway to understanding how Holmes can ski off cliffs or ride a paragliding wing down a snowfield when he knows, better than almost anyone, the high stakes of aerial action sports.
"You got to be cognizant of what is your motivation," he said. "Sometimes it is ego; sometimes it's pure fun. Sometimes it's achieving exposure that'll help you maintain sponsor relationships. It all needs to be balanced and kept in check."
"March 29, 2009," he said as we picked up our packs again. That was the date he and McConkey were ski BASEing for a Matchstick Productions film in the Dolomites. Holmes skied into his jump, turned loose his skis, deployed his chute, and landed safely. Then came McConkey's fatal turn.
"I struggled quite a bit with Shane, because it could have been me," Holmes continued.
After McConkey died, Holmes put away his BASE kit for a while, choosing the relative safety of skiing without parachutes or wingsuits. Less than a year later he was recreationally skiing in Squaw Valley with fellow locals, including professional skiers Timy Dutton, Ingrid Backstrom, and C.R. Johnson, a pioneer of freeskiing. On an in-bounds line called Light Towers, Johnson caught an edge on an exposed rock and fell.
"Timy and I both tried to resuscitate [C.R.] with Ingrid, a handful of others, and ski patrol," says Holmes. Johnson, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury years' prior, was pronounced dead by medical assistance. T.B.I. patients are often more susceptible to head trauma following an initial head injury. "That was tangible and real. It is another example of you can't let your guard down. Not that C.R. let his guard down, but things can happen at any time."
Holmes had struck up a close friendship with Timy Dutton, a former heroin addict who found new highs in skiing and air sports. The duo traveled the world together, BASE jumping for sponsors, shooting television ads, and working for Hollywood in films like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Godzilla. Holmes was several years older than Dutton and served as a mentor to the younger skier the way McConkey had for him.
"Timy and I had something similar going," he says, making the comparison to his relationship with McConkey. "I've always said that if it had been me that died in Italy on March 26, 2009, instead of Shane, he'd have felt the pain I felt when Timy died.
"April 29, 2014."
It was a skydiving accident in Lodi, California. Dutton was 27. Initial reports incorrectly stated that Holmes was involved in the jump. He did, however, call Dutton's mother, Michelle Homan, to deliver the news of her son's death.
To this day, Homan worries about Holmes.
"I don't want his family to go through what we went through," she told me. "He and Tim did some pretty risky things. They had shared with me that they were talking about maybe toning it down a little bit. I've encouraged that."
Holmes, however, is expanding into new extreme sports. The latest is speed riding. Essentially, it's skiing with an undersized paragliding canopy. Between 2003 and 2005, a group of French pilots shortened the paragliding wing to create the speed wing—the shorter the wing, the faster and more maneuverable the flight. The drag of the canopy lifts the skier, who controls his altitude by hand lines to the wing. With a speed wing attached to his harness, a skier can access several, previously inaccessible snowfields in a single flight.
The sport has taken off in the Alps, notably in France and Switzerland, and is gaining traction in the U.S. At the other end of the spectrum are guys like Holmes and fellow American and Red Bull athlete Jon DeVore, who starred in the Red Bull-funded The Unrideables in 2014, a wing-and-ski adventure in Alaska chronicling the rise of the sport. Holmes rode in the closing segment of Warren Miller Entertainment's No Turning Back. In the film, Holmes and Olympic snowboarder Ueli Kestenholz ski closeout line after closeout line as WME's nod to the latest development in skiing.
We were just below the summit of McConkey's when thunder rumbled into the valley. The metal eagle statue looked more like a lightning rod than a good place to pay our respects, so we decided against finishing the climb. The storm looked ready to boil over. "I brought my wing," Holmes said, pointing at his backpack. "Probably not the best day to fly."
As a light rain began to fall, I finally asked Holmes: How do you go on enjoying these activities after so many tragedies?
"I watched the footage of Shane over and over and over and over again trying to figure out what went wrong, and drew pretty solid conclusion from it," Holmes said.
Earlier in our hike, Holmes mentioned how, after the death of his friend and mentor, he kept returning to a scenario, turning it over in his mind: "If two men or women went out in the backcountry skiing and they trigger an avalanche. One person dies and the other person lives. What does the survivor do? Does the survivor throw away his skis? Or never leave the confines of the ski resort? Or does the survivor analyze exactly what went wrong that day—for instance conditions, evaluations of conditions, decision-making process, motivations, preparedness, analyze everything—and move forward in the mountains as a more experienced, knowledgeable mountain man or woman.
"I chose to do that."
People might think J.T. Holmes has a death wish—I know I did—but that's not quite right. He has seen firsthand just how precious life is, and because of that he soldiers on. To do the contrary and quit adventure sports altogether would be admitting a farce. And so Holmes is measured, carefully choosing which risks he takes. You might see one of his videos on the Internet and picture him always hopping in his red truck at the base of Squaw Valley to go on the next adventure, jumping off some new precipice or speeding down a powdery slope only to take off, flying through the Alps with his wing. When our hike was over, however, J.T. Holmes went home. After all, with storm clouds filling the valley, it was raining.