Pictured: Olympic Valley under smoky skies September 7 2022

SF Chronicle: Famed Tahoe skiing psychiatrist and author Robb Gaffney dies at 52

Famed Tahoe skiing psychiatrist and author Robb Gaffney dies at 52

Last week we gathered in the heart of Olympic Valley to celebrate the life of Robb Gaffney.

Whether on the mountain or in a meeting of the Sierra Watch Board of Directors, as a doctor, and as a dad, Robb was a real-life hero of the Tahoe Sierra.

The loss is staggering. But we are confident that Robb will continue to inspire us – to keep us TRUE.

Pictured: Robb Gaffney at Snow Fest 2023.To ski the chutes at Palisades Tahoe requires a hike to the peak from the Siberia chairlift — and once there, Robb Gaffney further separated his style from the other steep-terrain skiers.

He picked a route down through rock walls on strips of snow that were not wide enough for a turn until he hit a speed of 50 mph at the bottom of a chute or chimney.

This was back in the 1990s, and there were lines in the Palisades terrain section that had never been skied the way Gaffney did it. 

In his spare time, while a resident in psychiatry at the UC Davis School of Medicine, he wrote, mapped, published and distributed “Squallywood: A Guide to Squaw Valley’s Most Exposed Lines” in 2003. The book title references Palisades’ previous name, Squaw Valley, which the resort changed in 2021, acknowledging Native American tribes’ longstanding objections that it was derogatory.

“Squallywood” became an instant ski cabin coffee table classic and sold out its first edition even as Dr. Gaffney settled into a Tahoe psychiatry practice near the ski hill — sometimes treating patients as they sat side by side on the chairlift.   

Over time he stopped riding lifts, preferring to hike up into the wilder backcountry terrain and ski down. It was hard work for a short reward, but Gaffney stayed at it until last winter, when a four-year struggle with acute myeloid leukemia overtook him. 

Hospitalized last month, he made the decision to go into hospice care so that he could lie in bed at home in Tahoe City and look out the window across the west shore of Lake Tahoe, Rubicon Peak and the Desolation Wilderness, where he spent most of the last 30 years skiing and hiking.

Gaffney died Sept. 22, said his brother Scott, a ski filmmaker who often featured his brother. He was 52.      

“In Robb’s days at Squaw Valley, he was skiing exceptionally rowdy terrain with a smooth style that came naturally to him, ” Scott said. “He jumped off cliffs and did all that exciting stuff, and as he got older he found more peace and fulfillment out in the backcountry.”

When Gaffney first moved to what is now called Olympic Valley in the 1990s, advances in downhill ski equipment combined with a cultural shift away from the marked slopes put skiers in areas where they hadn’t been before. 

“Robb was a pioneer in what was then a new chapter of extreme skiing. He skied the type of lines that people did not think was possible on two skis,” said Megan Michelson, a lifelong Tahoe skier and freelance journalist. 

Michelson wrote about Gaffney’s skiing career, including the loss of skiing buddies like Shane McConkey, who died while base jumping in Italy in 2009. These experiences, on top of a severely dislocated knee that required a complete year in rehab, and his medical training gave him a unique perspective in helping other skiers with the psychological challenges of the sport.  

He helped Michelson through the trauma of being at the top of a run in Washington state when an avalanche swept down and killed three skiers in front of her. It took her a season to regain her nerve, and when she went into the backcountry outside Alpine Meadows, it was with Gaffney. 

“I had a lot of fear and anxiety, and I panicked when we hit steep terrain,” Michelson said. “We stopped there and assessed the risks and ended up turning around. But it gave me the trust in myself that I could return to that style of skiing.”

“I could not have asked for a better person to be with in that moment than Robb,” she said. “He was understanding and nonjudgmental and led me to the right decision.”

But one thing Gaffney was judgmental about was the announced development plans for Olympic Valley after a corporate takeover in 2010-11. Gaffney spoke eloquently and analytically at county hearings and walked picket lines during protests

He became involved in the advocacy group Keep Squaw True (renamed Tahoe Truckee True) and with his brother made a one-hour documentary film, “To Keep Squaw True,” which made the festival circuit. He later joined the board of the nonprofit Sierra Watch.

“Robb Gaffney is one of the most influential skiers and advocates for the environment that Lake Tahoe has ever seen,” said Mike Rogge, editor and publisher of the Mountain Gazette magazine. “Future generations who grow up in the area are going to be glad they had Robb to advocate for skiing and saving what we have in North Lake Tahoe and the Sierra.” 

Robb Gaffney skiing the Bear Scratch chute on Lake Tahoe’s east shore in 2015. Courtesy of Matt Bansak

Robert Brian Gaffney was born Sept. 26, 1970, in Tupper Lake, N.Y. His father, Dr. Jim Gaffney, was the town doctor, and his mother, Bunny, taught physical education at the junior high level. Both of his parents were canoe racers, and the family spent summers at a lakeside cabin and winters on Ski Big Tupper, a mountain served by three chairlifts and a T-bar.

When Gaffney was 14, his family took a cross-country camping trip, during which he saw Olympic Valley for the first time. They took the tram up, and Gaffney then ran from the station to the patches of snow lingering on the Palisades and skied down in his tennis shoes. 

Known in his youth as Robbie, he ran cross-country and played soccer and golf at Hugh C. Williams Senior High School. When he graduated in 1989, he decided he had outgrown his nickname, and by the time he arrived at the University of Colorado in Boulder he was going by Robb. During summers he worked as an instructor in whitewater kayaking on the Ottawa River in Canada. 

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Colorado in 1993, he took two years off before returning to medical school. That was when he found Tahoe for the second time. He and Scott moved their ski film venture to Tahoe City.

However, that project did not pay, so he got a part-time job at the ski resort, setting up gates and fencing for ski races and a less-glamorous side job bagging groceries at the Safeway in Truckee. One register over was Andrea Gemperle, a recent graduate from UC Santa Cruz taking a year in the mountains.

When Gaffney returned to Denver for medical school, Gemperle went with him, and they were married in 1997 on the west shore of Lake Tahoe. 

The publication of “Squallywood” in 2003 helped Gaffney more in establishing his psychiatry practice than did his long years of medical training. A local psychiatrist read the author’s bio, contacted Gaffney and ended up turning over his practice to him. 

Gaffney set up an office across the street from the Olympic Valley Post Office. On days that were too nice for school, he would drive right by his office to take his son, Noah, and daughter, Kate, skiing. They were always on the mountain by 8:30 a.m., when the lifts opened. 

Last January, the Gaffney brothers took a backcountry ski day above Sand Harbor on the East Shore. They hiked 2,500 feet up and skied down straight toward the lake. But Robb was feeling pain that turned out to be tumors on his spine and his pelvis, so they cut their day short.

That was the last run of his life.