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An Impromptu Interview with the Good Doctor | UNITED STATES, CALIFORNIA | 01/02/2009, by Freedom Rider
I woke up to my alarm early Sunday morning to a silent stillness in the air, unable to predict the level of awe that would befall me in the hours ahead. My legs dully ached because the season had only begun two short weeks ago; and it just didn't make sense to be heading into Tahoe's Desolation Wilderness so early in the season. "Is this really going to happen, or did I just dream this premise up over the night?", I thought to myself in my half-awake state until suddenly my suspicion was denied by the sound of Niall the Chupacabra's Toyota roaring up the hill. Apparent absurdity aside, it was now clear that the mission was very real, and beginning within that very moment.
Nonchalantly my buddy Rojo mentioned the name Robb Gaffney, but the connection wasn't realized until I walked out my front door and saw him standing in the driveway with his skis, looking to get in on some Sunday morning Tahoe backcountry ski touring. During the long drive down the west shore, while sitting in the back seat next to Dr. Robb Gaffney - a legendary figure in extreme skiing, and Pinch - one of Tahoe's most accomplished ski dogs, I continued wondering if this wasn't a dream. To say that the good doctor is a local Squaw Valley legend is to say that Daniel Day Lewis is a local Hollywood movie actor.
Squaw is commonly known as the Hollywood of ski towns, and it owes much of this reputation to Gaffney's book, "Squallywood." Other than being featured in such classic ski films such as Ski Movie II, 1999, and Walls of Freedom; Robb Gaffney is most known as the leading authority on extreme skiing in Squaw Valley California. His book, "Squallywood" is virtually the most complete ski guide ever written, outlining Squaw's expert terrain line-for-line, turn-for-turn, in over 200 pages with the precision resembling the medical procedure guide books that Gaffney studied in medical school. With "Squallywood", Gaffney effectively leveled the most popular playing field of America's competitive freeskiers by creating a standardized system rating each line's difficulty level, "hero factor", fun factor, as well as the ski film clips featuring each given line. Suddenly the world famous Squaw Valley had no secrets, and everyone now knows that that 30' cliff you hucked the other day is really only a 20 footer, and it doesn't even reach the red zone in Gaffney's difficulty scale.
Contemplating Gaffney's contributions to modern skiing served the purpose of distracting me from the difficult hike. Only two days ago this snow fell as an upside-down snowpack, (heavy density snow on top of light density snow), unfortunately killing a local snowboarder at Squaw Valley in an in-bounds avalanche. Obvious signs of settlement were everywhere, and snow pit tests confirmed that the snowpack had miraculously flipped itself right-side-up in only two short days. When asked why he chose to make Tahoe his home after growing up in New York and going to college in Colorado, Gaffney said, "Tahoe basically has it all. Whatever you want to ski, it's here, almost any day you want it." And Gaffney is not alone in this thinking; some of skiing's biggest names, from Glen Plake to Shane McConkey, call Tahoe their home.
This got me thinking about my last visit to Breckenridge where I almost felt too old for that town at only 22 years of age. "Why is it that Breck makes me feel old but Tahoe makes me feel young?" I wondered while carving through the steeps of Maggie's South Peak, following in the tracks of a figurative skiing giant. The forecast called for a cool cloudy day but I don't think one could imagine a more perfect bluebird day for backcountry skiing. Even in the final days of December, the sun was cooking the powder into a dense creamy substance that strikes a perfect balance between stability and chargeability. It seemed as though I was actually flying down the side of the mountain, throwing all of my weight into each turn and receiving that amazing equal-and-opposite reaction from the thick Sierra Cement. In a manner of thinking, it was a sort of flying, or at least the best that man can do on Earth without wings; just effortlessly gliding over the face of the mountain without making any solid contact at all, only floating through a space filled with air pockets packed between water crystals.
Standing on what appeared to be the edge of the Earth and the sky, Gaffney asks me, "Where in Colorado would you be able to ski something like this?" And he was right, just a short time ago what we were standing on was a sheer granite face. Now, two weeks and 10 feet of snow later, we have a thick snowpack filling in much steeper terrain than you could ever hope to ski in Colorado's light dusty snow. I was beginning to think that Gaffney wrote Squallywood with the sole purpose of distracting would-be epic powder skiers from his true undisclosed backcountry haunts! Speaking on our mutual fascination of the ideal snowpack condition at hand, Gaffney tells me, "In most places, if you tried to come out here and ski this kind of stuff every day, like we do here, you probably wouldn't last very long. I think living in Tahoe adds another 35 years to the average skier's lifespan." Finally with this remark it became completely clear why so many living ski legends call Tahoe their home.
I think it is because they don't want to give up their passion for great technical skiing even after accepting the responsibility of being a parent and spouse. Frankly speaking, if you are a competent and aware person, the odds are in your favor that you can live a long and exciting life backcountry skiing in Tahoe. So while Summit County Colorado is overflowing with 20-somethings sacrificing their bodies to the half pipe god for their 15 minutes of fame, Lake Tahoe California appears to be a sort of refuge for some of skiing's giants to peacefully enjoy some primo soul-riding when they aren't behind the lens of Skiing Magazine or Warren Miller. I feel young being in Tahoe not so much because of my age, but because here I am truly standing on the shoulders of the giants who paved the way for skiing to be what it is today.
Gazing off the edge of a cliff, overlooking Emerald Bay, Robb and I have a friendly debate over who gets to take the next line of freshies. Out of respect I offer Robb the honor, but he suggests that I go first in order to get some shots for the magazine. Just like watching your favorite ski video in the world's biggest Imax theater, I watched Robb through my viewfinder charging down the face, and blowing right by me in a cloud of powder with the fluidity and ferociousness of a much younger skier who does not yet know the dangers and damage that comes along with a lifetime of extreme skiing. Shortly after, while sitting in the back of our pickup truck shuttle from the west end of Maggie's to the east parking lot, the feeling seemed mutual that we all just shared something meaningful on such a classic day of backcountry ski touring under the warm California sun. The facts that Gaffney is a skiing legend, and my crewmates are only humble cooks that live for skiing, were completely irrelevant in that closing moment. Together in the back of that truck, cruising around the shore of beautiful Emerald Bay under the peaks of Desolation Wilderness, we were all brothers in the spirit of these mountains of eternal wisdom.