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I mean — they don’t call the guy Diamond Jim for nothing. Big mountain legend, skiing innovator, film star, bon-vivant, teacher — and father to that other extreme sport jester Shane McConkey — Jim’s place in the North American skiing pantheon is assured.
His connections in the ski business are all encompassing. From Warren Miller to Alf Engen and Junior Bounous, from Toni Matt to Hans Gmoser and Toni Sailer, Jim has skied, travelled, hunted and climbed with the biggest names in the sport.
Yet he’s the first to dismiss his role as a history-maker. “I just happened to be at the right places at the right times,” he’s told me more than once. “My goals in life have always been to have as much fun as possible and make people happy. That to me is way more important than how much money you make — or how much power you yield…”
Indeed. A funhog long before Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard coined the term in the late 1970s — and a big-mountain freerider decades before that movement got traction in North America — McConkey has always lived on the leading edge of adventure sports. He was a poster boy for the powder skiing revolution of the late 1950s (there are more photos of Jim in the old-school lodges of Alta, Utah than there are in all of Whistler). He was one of the first in the ski-business world to understand the life-changing experiences that helicopters could deliver to high-end skiers. And he was an inspiring mountain mentor to a broad swath of early Whistlerites — from Bob Dufour to Finn Saarinen; from Scott Carrell to Cathy Jewett.
But it’s not his prodigious physical talents that make him such a fitting Whistler icon; it’s his ability to connect with people. No matter where, no matter how, Jim McConkey has always managed to make his friends, clients and colleagues think that they are the most important people in his life.
My father-in-law, Tom Ladner, was one such person. A tough judge of character, and a man who didn’t suffer fools, Tom was an unabashed fan of McConkey’s. “I don’t know how Jim does it,” he once told me, “but he can make the nastiest ski day feel like a walk in the park.” And then he laughed. “I recall one heli-ski outing in particular. Our last run was from the peak of Whistler and down through the trees to the base of Creekside.” Another chuckle. “Given the kind of gear we were using in the late ’60s that was a tall order for me. And I was exhausted. I remember at one point just plopping down in the snow and thinking I couldn’t possibly go any further…”