I met Robb Gaffney in 1991 at the University of Colorado in Boulder. We were in a sociology class called Deviance in U.S. Society, studying topics like international cocaine smuggling and the various players involved in a rest stop glory-hole exchange. While cracking up over the course content, we discovered we had something else in common — an obsession with skiing.
Soon we were venturing into the high peaks of Colorado at every opportunity. Robb introduced me to his brother Scott, an aspiring filmmaker, and we began to ski things with names like Montezuma Glacier, Hell’s Half Acre, and Shit for Brains. When the ski areas closed, we hiked up snowfields and couloirs well into summer. We were very driven, albeit also very naïve. We collected essential gear like crampons and ice axes, but rarely paid attention to what direction something faced or whether it would soften during the day. As the saying goes, good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. We exercised heaps of bad judgment, but managed to come out unscathed.
After graduating, our passion for steeper terrain led us to the stable maritime snowpack of Northern California. We followed the now unobtainable path of becoming classic ski bums. We became immersed in a diverse community of adventure enthusiasts. We each paid $230/month to rent a condo at the “Ghetto in the Meadow” in Lake Forest near Tahoe City, and took jobs that let us ski every day. Robb met his future wife, Andrea, while they were both bagging groceries at Safeway. We got to know a pizza delivery guy and pro mogul skier named Shane McConkey. Few responsibilities, endless pranking, and lots of skiing were on the menu every day.
It was the mid ’90s and the snowboard revolution was in full swing. Fat skis didn’t exist. Robb’s dynamic style and impeccable form made him the star of Scott’s low budget ski films. Robb and Shane began ticking off classic steep lines at Palisades Tahoe, and in the process started making skiing cool again.
Robb became a practicing psychiatrist, environmental steward, author (the now-classic Squallywood: A Guide to Squaw Valley’s Most Exposed Lines in 2003), and all around rad dog who inspired people to savor every delicious day. To me, he was not only an adventure partner, he was a best friend. We shared similar objectives in the mountains and found the same dumb-ass shit funny, but Robb would engage deeply when life threw us curve balls and the highs turned to lows.
As we got older, Robb skied more and more in the backcountry. Tahoe ski areas are fun, but he found his home range of the Sierra Nevada both stimulating and limitless. As much as he was a hot-shit free skier inbounds, he was even better suited for the backcountry. Robb began exploring lines in the Eastern and Northern Sierra, and gained a reputation among his peers as a proficient and accomplished backcountry traveler. He started skiing with local ski mountaineers with last names like Poulsen, Morrison, Dostie, and Lagasse, and he still skied with mere mortals like me. If there’s one thing Robb enjoyed more than skiing with friends, it was skiing with his kids. His son, Noah, was skiing local backcountry hits like Herlan Peak and Mt. Tallac by age 10. More recently, Robb slayed huge, corny south-facing slopes and delicious pow lines with his daughter, Kate.
In the summer of 2019 I was shocked to learn that the strongest, healthiest person I knew had been diagnosed with leukemia. Knowing little about the disease, I figured Robb would beat it no problem. I quickly discovered it’s not that easy, even for a superhero like him. In the spring of 2020, I thought I was seeing Robb for the last time. His condition had deteriorated and he told me there was an 80% chance he wouldn’t survive the next phase of treatment.
What happened then? Robb made it. He not only survived, he thrived for three more years. He was able to celebrate his 50th birthday, continue life with his amazing wife, Andrea, and enjoy quality time with his parents, Jim and Bunny, in Montana. He was able to watch Kate and Noah enter college and become outstanding young adults. He was even able to continue adventuring with friends. From ice skating on high alpine lakes, to choking on bottomless powder, to exploring desert landscapes of Southern California and Utah, Robb embraced the people and places that brought him the most joy. From hilarious text messages to getting my ass kicked in the skin track, it was the same old Robb.
Though it often seemed like life as usual, it was not an easy path, and Robb required constant treatment to keep the cancer at bay. I am grateful for modern science that gave Robb extra time, the medical professionals who guided him through major decisions while becoming his friends, and the lab techs who shared jokes while taking core samples from his bone. As 2022 became 2023, the cancer re-emerged with a vengeance. Robb was living with 9 out of 10 level pain every day. When the time came for the end, I am grateful Robb was able to be home surrounded by his family.
As tragic as this ending is, I am focusing on the positivity Robb brought to so many people in so many ways. I am looking for opportunities to embrace his spirit in the beauty I see every day. On a hike last week, I felt Robb in the winds that blew through the forest. I saw him in the crystal clear water flowing down the creeks, in the late September wildflowers, and in the mountaintops catching the last rays of sun. I realized I don’t have to wait until I am on the other side to see him again. I can see Robb every day. RIP, my friend.
~ Rob McCormick has lived in North Lake Tahoe since 1994 and Truckee since 2000. He still likes skiing as much or more than when he moved here.