Confronting the dangers of extreme sports · Robb Gaffney

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Robb Gaffney is best known around Tahoe as the guy who wrote “Squallywood, A Guide to Squaw Valley’s Most Exposed Lines.” In other words, he’s an excellent skier who has pushed the envelope of adventure on skis. But now Gaffney is leading an effort to help Tahoe folks find the balance between the thrill of skiing now, and the desire to still be skiing into old age.

“At some point you have to take stock in what you are seeing and change course,” said Gaffney. Having two children raised in the Tahoe ski culture, brought Gaffney to the decision to dedicate his energy to keeping children alive, he says.

Gaffney began skiing at an early age in the Adirondacks of New York. He grew up downhill skiing and back-country touring between the high peaks of the Adirondacks.

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“Watching people die, people getting hurt, watching kids following
in our footsteps was a strong motivator to get involved.”

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He also had a Tahoe connection before he was born. His parents spent time at D.L. Bliss State Park before they were married, and liked to renew the Tahoe connection when they took their three boys on road trips across the United States.

“We would always stop to camp at D.L. Bliss. In college, I would take week-long trips to ski here,” said Gaffney.

Gaffney graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder, then came to Tahoe for a winter break before medical school. He underwent Safeway’s quick training program before facing the New Year’s onslaught of crowds as a temporary checker. During the whirlwind, middle-of-the-night training, he met his future wife, Andrea. After the holidays, Gaffney went to work in Squaw Valley’s Race Services department. When his break year was up, he was reluctant to give up the Tahoe lifestyle, especially since the winter of 1993-94 was a dismal one for snow production. So he did what every true Tahoe ski lover would do – he cancelled his entrance to medical school, taking a considerable risk that when he reapplied they would not accept him. The winter of 1994-95 was a snowy one, which was great for skiing, but made it hard for him to leave Tahoe and dive back into medical school.

“There were some tears giving it up,” he said.

Gaffney spent four years in medical school in Denver, followed by a four-year residency program at UC Davis to become a psychiatrist. In Davis, he was near enough to Squaw to do the research needed for what would become “Squallywood,” writing mostly late at night when his tasks as a resident were complete.

“Squallywood,” documents more than 150 lines at Squaw Valley and includes a host of maps and photographs, concluding with a bonus chapter by the late Shane McConkey. The book became popular and helped to foster a movie, “G.N.A.R.,” a humorous look at the Squaw Valley ski scene. The movie was edited by his brother, Scott Gaffney, who also lives in Tahoe.

Gaffney arrived in Tahoe for good in 2003, running his psychiatric practice at the base of Squaw Valley until 2014 when he moved to Tahoe City.

 

Educating youth

While his love of skiing is unabated, his developing understanding of the psychological connection of our societies increasing love of danger, and the death of many great friends and skiers, led Gaffney to start a Web site called Sportgevity in 2012.

“Watching people die, people getting hurt, watching kids following in our footsteps was a strong motivator to get involved,” said Gaffney.

The focus of Sportgevity is on “promoting a culture that is based on helping kids to make decisions to remain alive and healthy in a high risk landscape,” said Gaffney. There were avalanche courses for kids and presentations to youth groups, but for Gaffney the Web site had not done enough.

After the death of Erik Roner in a skydiving accident in September, “Renee Koijane approached me to put some well-needed energy into the effort,” Gaffney said. They decided to get a group of people together to see what they could do to promote the Sportgevity cause. Joining them to form the Go Bigger Coalition (GBC) were Jeff and Carolyn Hamilton (Jeff is a World Speed Skiing Champion), Squaw ski coaches Alenka Vrecek, Jason Dobbs and John Walsh, and triathlete Jill Whisler and her firefighter husband, Alan Whisler.

The group held a packed house presentation on Dec. 14 at the Tahoe Art Haus and Cinema in Tahoe City entitled “Why the Huck?” The evening included Gaffney providing a detailed analysis of why kids and young adults push the envelope of extreme sports, and how they can learn how to make good decisions. The GBC will be bringing their presentation to local schools in the coming months.

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For Gaffney, while he wants to help the entire community, it is also personal. His son, Noah, is 15 and daughter, Kate, is 13. Noah is a strong skier who Robb soon realized could follow in the dangerous footsteps of others if he was not provided with the direction he needed.

“Every day I talk to Noah. Anything I can say to help increase his awareness. What he needs to focus on to navigate the sports climate,” said Gaffney.

He likes to take Noah back-country skiing where he can teach him to ski the right places at the right time, and to be an independent thinker.

Perhaps his greatest lesson came when he brought his son to Round Top near Carson Pass. It was a beautiful day, but given the avalanche danger, Gaffney knew it was likely when they got to the top, they were not going to ski the lines that they would both want to ski.

“He had to tolerate that feeling,” said Gaffney. The feeling that it is OK to take a step back from the brink, so you can ski another day.

 

For more information on Sportgevity and the Go Bigger Coalition, visit sportgevity.com.