Tag Archives: Shane McConkey

Getting GNAR With Robb Gaffney

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Robb Land of the Lost

Robb Gaffney dropping in

Imagine telling a professional athlete, “I can’t believe you’re a pro. I’m so much better than you.” That’s exactly what the game of G.N.A.R., played at ski areas around the West, encourages participants to do. Meant to showcase the good-natured part of the sport of skiing, G.N.A.R points can be scored anytime, anywhere.

In 2003, Robb Gaffney wrote the book “Squallywood“, a guidebook to the most exposed lines at Squaw Valley. Legendary skier Shane McConkey added the chapter “G.N.A.R”, which stands for Gaffney’s Numeric Assessment of Radness, poking fun at those on the slopes taking themselves a bit too seriously.

Skiing certain lines at Squaw, where the game originated, score a certain number of points. But there are ways to improve the score. You get extra credit for skiing a difficult line while also talking to your mom on your cell phone. If you really want to up the fear factor a notch, try skiing the line BN, short for Butt Naked. That provides an extra 5,000 points for men and 10,000 points for women. (I suppose that extra 5,000 points is a either a consideration of how we women actually have more to show or perhaps a way of encouraging us to show it off more often.)

In fact, rumor has it that a certain female ski patroller scored 10,000 G.N.A.R. points for an after-hours naked ski run at Crystal Mountain recently. She even tried to call her mom on her cell phone at the same time, but her mom didn’t answer. Certainly leaving a message for your mom while skiing Discovery Chair butt naked deserves a few extra credit points. But I digress.


Robb Gaffney topping out


Robb Gaffney takes a look

Robb Gaffney is no stranger to extreme skiing. He lives with his wife Andrea and two children in Tahoe City and works as a psychiatrist in Squaw Valley. Starting in 1990, and continuing through medical school and residency, Robb helped his brother Scott produce numerous ski films including the most recent and probably the most popular, “G.N.A.R. The Movie“. He skied in most of his brother’s movies and has had several segments in Matchstick Productions films.

Currently Robb’s interest lies in backcountry skiing all over the Sierra Nevada and sharing some of these excursions with his kids. He has also founded a project called Sportgevity, with the goal of increasing the lifespans and physical health of athletes in action and mainstream sports.

Kircher-show-descriptionThis week on The Edge Radio, Gaffney will talk to us about playing the game of G.N.A.R, the late McConkey and how to get close enough to the edge without going over it. So often big skiing has been filled with big egos and bigger checkbooks. But Robb Gaffney reminds us of our roots. Sometimes the biggest risk is to throw away the rules and just have fun. Robb Gaffney is the man that knows how to do that.

Is It Okay to Die Doing What You Love?


In the ski world, like any number of high-risk sports, tragic accidents sometimes happen. When Shane McConkey died nearly two years ago, like a mantra worn thin by repeated mumblings, the refrain echoed through the ski industry, “Well, at least he died doing what he loved.”

Two days before his disappearance, I talked to Paul Melby about his job as a diving instructor. He liked it, but it was cutting into his ski time. As both a former ski patroller and snowcat driver at Crystal, Melby was accustomed to skiing every day. And now, his four day-a-week schedule just wasn’t enough. So, while probing around a tree well yesterday, my heart in my throat, I remembered the refrain. “At least he died doing what he loved.”

But I don’t buy it. I can’t. Death is death. And even if someone dies with a heart full of joy, their blood pumping with a nirvana-esque sparkle, they are still gone.

“At least he died doing what he loved.” Tell that to his mother, to his family, to the hundreds of volunteers that have searched for him.

A few years I ago, I spoke to J.T. Holmes about base jumping. J.T. jumps off cliffs in a squirrel suit and flies. He says he’s like a bird, and that the feeling is unparalleled anywhere else. You can’t get this feeling skiing. When I asked him if it was dangerous, he just smiled.

He explained it to me like this: when you start out base jumping “you have a bucket of skill and a bucket of luck. At first, the bucket of skill is empty, and the bucket of luck is full. You pour from the bucket of luck into the bucket of skill. And someday the bucket of luck will run out.”

I wonder how different that is from drug addicts–engaging in risky behavior one knows will kill you. If J.T. was speaking of using heroin–how the high was worth the risk, how one day it would most likely be his demise–I would have been alarmed. I might have told him to get some help. I may have even taken him to a drug rehab center.

But when we talk about high-risk sports, everyone seems okay with it. Like it’s okay to die doing it, as long as you were happy right up until the end. But aren’t drug addicts enjoying themselves too? Don’t they, too, love the high and want to prolong it, want to get back to that first ideal rush, when they didn’t know if they would ever land, if they would ever have to follow the laws of gravity and physical limitations again?

As a ski patroller, charged with saving lives, I just don’t buy it.

I want to believe that I can save lives, that I can find a missing skier, bring him home–alive and well–to his waiting family. I want to believe that no one will ever die on my watch.

And yet I know, from my own experiences, that isn’t always possible. I know, too, that the rush of adrenaline, the pure joy of cold snow, the deep promise of the untracked line, the expectation of winter storms marching relentlessly towards us makes it all worth the risk.

We tell ourselves, “I could die today and be happy.” And perhaps that’s true. But I would like to posit this view: it’s better to live and ski, or jump, or fly another day. Living is always better. It is only here that we can enjoy the breathtaking splendor of mountains and cold air and crisp joy. It is only here that we can return.