This article originally appeared on Ski Mag
Freeskiing icon Robb Gaffney died on September 22, four years after being diagnosed with a rare form of bone marrow cancer. He died at his home in Tahoe City, California, surrounded by his family. He was 52.
In his final days, Gaffney’s brother Scott, a skiing legend in his own right and a longtime filmmaker with MSP Films, wrote on his patient journal on CaringBridge, "He's given everything he has and then some; sadly, cancer doesn't care ... We aren't ready but we're all here, in place, for that final, painful goodbye."
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Gaffney was first diagnosed with myelodysplastic disorder--which often leads to leukemia--in September 2019. He underwent years of treatment, including stem cell transplants, but the cancer eventually progressed to acute myeloid leukemia. In June 2022, his doctors identified a recurrence. Over those years, Gaffney still got out to adventure whenever his body allowed, climbing mountains with his kids, Noah and Kate (both in their 20s), jumping into waterfalls, and ice skating on frozen alpine lakes, taking advantage of every day he had.
He was transparent about his battle with cancer in the hopes that it might help others, and at the time of his death, Gaffney was at work on a book about his experience fighting cancer. "The outdoors has provided the best therapy by far," he wrote on CaringBridge. "I let my friends and family know I need no reassurance. And to the backcountry skiers in my life, I say I'm way ahead on the skintrack and happy to be there for anyone as they work their way up."
Gaffney's impact on the world of skiing dates back decades. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he appeared in now-classic ski movies like "Immersion," "1999," and "Walls of Freedom," during the early heyday of extreme skiing, alongside the likes of Shane McConkey, Kent Kreitler, and JT Holmes. "Everyone knew when you were on the mountain, you were there to celebrate," Gaffney told me once. "We had this feeling that we were part of something bigger."
In 2003, he authored the book Squallywood, a guidebook to the 150 rowdiest lines at what is now called Palisades Tahoe, and he and McConkey co-created the game of G.N.A.R (which stood for Gaffney's Numerical Assessment of Radness), a point-based system that celebrated getting rad while not taking yourself too seriously. (G.N.A.R. points could be amassed by, say, airing a big cliff, with bonus points awarded for doing it naked or on snowblades.) He and his brother Scott created 2011's "G.N.A.R., the Movie," a mockumentary that reminded us all that skiing is supposed to be--above all--fun.
"I was always like, what are those guys up to? They brought a lot of fun," says pro skier Daron Rahlves. "The Gaffneys brought another aspect to having fun in the mountains. And Robb loved to share that fun, that passion. It was a call out to the rest of the ski world."
Gaffney grew up in New York's Adirondack Mountains, learning to ski at age two at Big Tupper Ski Area. He was the youngest of three boys, including older brothers Steve and Scott. Their parents, who'd spent time in Tahoe before having kids, took their three boys out to Tahoe on a summer vacation, and that planted a seed in Robb and Scott. While Robb was studying pre-med at the University of Colorado at Boulder, he and Scott would road trip out to Tahoe to go skiing and he eventually moved to the area after graduating in 1993.
For two winters in Tahoe, Gaffney worked in race services and as a grocery bagger, and he and Scott, who'd also moved to the area, started filming their exploits on the mountain, with his brother always lugging around heavy camera equipment. In 1995, Gaffney left Tahoe to attend medical school in Denver, and then for a four-year psychiatric residency at the University of California at Davis, but he would visit Tahoe regularly during that time, often filming ski segments during short breaks from med school. He penned Squallywood during his medical residency, mostly between the hours of 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. "That was an era before social media, when life was not about giving away your secrets," Gaffney said.
In 2003, Gaffney--along with his wife, Andrea, and their two young children--moved back to Tahoe. Robb, then 32, took over a retiring psychiatrist's practice, with an office at the base of the ski hill. He called it a dream job--he'd ski on his lunch breaks between helping patients deal with all kinds of mental health issues. Gaffney and his brother Scott lived down the street from each other in Tahoe City, where they raised their families side by side.
Over the next decade, prompted by the death of so many friends in the ski world, Gaffney began to steadily shift the culture of the same high-risk community he'd once helped start up years earlier. Instead of promoting the most extreme feats, he began using insight from his psychiatric work to shift the focus on celebrating longevity in mountain sports. He appeared in a 2012 NBC broadcast alongside Shane’s widow, Sherry McConkey that raised questions about high-risk sports, he launched a website called Sportgevity that focused on promoting long-lasting participation in sports, and he gave a local TedX talk on how to help your kids survive outdoor sports.
Watch Classic Robb Gaffney Lines From Scott Gaffney’s 1997 Film, Breathe
Gaffney was a disrupter at heart. "Cultural shifts don't happen quickly," he told me back then. "We're trying to show that being alive and healthy for the rest of your sporting life is one of the coolest things around. Everyone wants to break new ground. I'm saying the coolest thing is being alive and healthy."
When Palisades Tahoe unveiled plans for a massive resort development, Gaffney was an outspoken opponent and launched local community efforts ranging from protests to opinion letters to raising concerns over environmental issues. "His care for the community of Tahoe will be felt for decades," wrote pro skier Cody Townsend. "He's a pillar of skiing and he influenced skiing in uniquely profound and positive ways."
Adds pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones, "Think of Robb when you don't think you can hike any further, don't want to wake up early for a dawn patrol or jump into that cold mountain lake and send while you can."
A GoFundMe account has been set up to support Robb's family. A celebration of life will take place in Olympic Valley on October 6.
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