Robb Gaffney and son Noah at the top of Freel Peak above Tahoe's South Shore, photo courtesy Robb Gaffney

Skiing Genes

Tahoe’s second-generation skiers are making their own mark with help from their folks

 

This winter, if lucky, you might see Warren Miller skier and Truckee local Amie Engerbretson rocket off a cliff in Squaw Valley’s Fingers named after her dad. Or you might catch 16-year-old Noah Gaffney dropping into a chute immortalized in Squallywood—the unofficial guidebook to Squaw Valley skiing penned by his father.

A generation has passed since a surge of skiers flocked to Tahoe’s slopes in the 1980s, drawn by the siren song of Scot Schmidt films and photos, ski flicks like Hot Dog…The Movie and ski magazine shots of neon-clad “extreme” skiers pushing the outer edges of the sport.

Many of these Tahoe transplants put down permanent roots in the area, becoming icons and influencers in the ski world and raising sons and daughters on the same hallowed ski terrain that brought them West.

Now, their offspring are carving out their own place in the ski world. Some seek personal challenge on backcountry peaks and iconic resort lines. Others follow in the tracks of their parents, working to build a career in the industry. But the commonality among them all is a generational love of skiing that shapes their outlook on the sport. It is a relationship filled with personal growth, an occasional dose of parental anxiety and moments of pure beauty. But most of all, it is a relationship filled with a deep sense of pride and satisfaction that this passion is being passed on to a new generation intact and blossoming into its own new incarnation.

The second-generation skiers born and raised in Tahoe ski their home turf with an innate ability that is one part genetics, one part parental guidance and one part their own unique take on the sport.

At 10 years old, Noah Gaffney skis Bear Scratch above Tahoe’s East Shore, photo courtesy Robb Gaffney

 

Robb and Noah Gaffney

Noah Gaffney had his eyes set all last winter on Eagle’s Nest—the dramatic fin of nearly perpendicular rock now referred to as “McConkey’s” in honor of one of Squaw Valley’s most famous skiers.

Noah grew up with the lore of that line—and hundreds of others. His dad, Robb, penned Squallywood: The Guide to Squaw Valley’s Most Exposed Lines, the unofficial guidebook to Squaw skiing, and starred in and produced several influential ski movies.

But when the younger Gaffney clicked into his skis on top of the intimidating line last season, he didn’t ski it in typical Squaw Valley fashion—the straight-lining tactic that most skiers choose when tackling lines from the Palisades to the Fingers.

Instead, the high school sophomore skied it in complete control, notching turns in the steep fall line, working his way methodically to the bottom.

“I did it slowly. It took like two minutes to get down,” says Noah, recounting the experience beside his father at their Tahoe City home. As he explains the thought process, a look of pride slowly covers his father’s face. The years of Mighty Mites, introducing Noah to backcountry skiing, passing down all of the things he has learned over a lifetime spent on snow, has paid off.

“Making turns down things, not just going fast, you end up owning that style of skiing. It is a different style than people are skiing right now,” says Robb.

Robb Gaffney knows the risks and rewards of skiing as well as anyone. Skiing can give so much to an individual—a sense of freedom, adventure, discovery and self-confidence—but it can also take things away. Many of his friends have either died in pursuit of the outer limits of skiing, or injured themselves so severely that they no longer ski consistently. “McConkey’s” itself is named after Shane McConkey, a close friend of Robb’s and a skiing legend who died during a ski BASE jump in the Italian Dolomites.

Robb Gaffney high-fives his son, Noah, then 13, after summiting Mount Shasta together, photo courtesy Robb Gaffney

 

So raising a son in Tahoe who aspires to ski the most challenging lines at one of North America’s most challenging resorts comes with both pride and trepidation.

Such is the challenge of raising a second-generation skier in Tahoe. Unlike Robb’s generation—who migrated to Tahoe as adults looking to test themselves on the same terrain they had seen in films and photos—their offspring are shredding the precipitous lines of the Chimney as middle-schoolers and skiing backcountry peaks at an age when their peers are playing club soccer.

For Robb, a strong advocate of the lifelong pursuit of sport—and of realizing the risks inherent in skiing—the challenge is to raise a son who can dial it back when appropriate, elevate style over speed, and develop a mountain sense that will have him skiing with his own kids and grandkids some day.

“It is the balance of supporting the dream but not supporting a dream that is going to off them or seriously injure them,” says Robb. “At 40 or 50, they will understand.”

Noah isn’t just challenging himself within the ski resort. He has become an unusually accomplished backcountry skier for his age. He and his dad have ticked off many of the prized Tahoe backcountry ski descents: Mount Tallac, Jake’s Peak, Freel Peak, Bear Scratch. But the father-and-son duo have also ventured even farther, to Mount Shasta and Mount Whitney, as well as many of the impressive Eastern Sierra peaks that dot the landscape along Highway 395.

“We started backcountry skiing early on so we wouldn’t just go into that channel of just sending it,” says Robb. “It is a really great experience to grow the relationship, because backcountry skiing is not always easy. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you have those peak experiences, but you have to work to get them.”

Today, as Noah enters his last years of high school, he is a fully formed, astute, level-headed skier. Much of that comes from his parents’ tutelage, but a lot comes from spending time in the mountains in various circumstances and learning from experience.

“The time they spend out there, they pick up so much information,” says Robb. “There are certain things you want to teach, and there are things they can teach themselves.”

These days, when Robb and Noah head out to ski a backcountry peak, they ski as a team. They will always be father and son, but they now share information, talk about risks and choose routes as equals.

For a father who has dedicated a substantial portion of his life to the sport, listening to his son thoughtfully assess risk in the backcountry and respecting his mountain sense and judgment is a crowning achievement of both parenting and skiing.

“There were years that I was teaching and then Noah started pitching in, and I realized he was picking it up on his own. And now we make decisions equally,” says Robb. “I would say in terms of safety, I don’t worry about him that much.”

Amie Engerbretson carves a fresh turn in British Columbia, photo by Jeff Engerbretson

 

Jeff and Amie Engerbretson

Jeff Engerbretson followed what has become a well-worn path to Tahoe, although in the early 1980s he was on the leading edge of the migration. After seeing a Warren Miller film starring Scot Schmidt and Tom Day hucking themselves off of Squaw Valley’s steeps, Engerbretson packed his bags in Moscow, Idaho, and headed to Tahoe.

“I thought I would be here a couple years and then move to L.A. to do movies,” says Jeff.

But soon, Jeff was skiing the same terrain he had watched in those early films and landing photos in ski magazines. A couple years went by and the idea of moving to L.A. faded.

When his daughter, Amie, was born, he put down roots, moving from Squaw Valley to Truckee for the school system. In those early days, he juggled the responsibilities of being a professional skier, an aspiring photographer and cinematographer, and a new dad.

Father and daughter Jeff and Amie Engerbretson share a run during an outing with Valhalla Powdercats in British Columbia, photo courtesy Freeride Media and Bob Legasa

 

As soon as she could walk, Amie was thrown into that mix of skiing and filming. Even as a toddler, she was part of the film crew.

“At 9 months old she could walk, so at 10 months old she was skiing,” says Jeff.

Not long after learning to ski, she began making turns for the camera whenever her dad needed shots of families and young skiers.

“At 2 years old I was in Squaw brochures,” says Amie. “And then I was on a billboard at age 3.”

Those early experiences gave Amie an intuitive sense of how to ski in front of the camera, as well as a strong understanding of the behind-the-lens work needed to capture skiing at its most visually impressive.

“The times she could carry the tripod, she would,” says Jeff.

Little did father and daughter know, these early days were the perfect training for Amie’s future career as a professional skier. Today, she has an innate ability to understand photo and video angles, light and communication between photographer or cinematographer and skier.

“Being a good skier is not enough,” says Jeff, who acknowledges that while his ability was always strong, he never had a passion for pursuing the business side of the sport.

Amie, in contrast, has learned from that experience, realizing that strong skiing and a dogged determination are both required to make a career in the industry.

The knack for media creation has also rubbed off on Amie, who produces her own media segments for sponsors.

Now, she often hires her dad to film ski segments, including projects for Warren Miller—whose ski films initially convinced Jeff to drop everything and move to Tahoe.

“My retirement is her hiring me,” Jeff says.

For the Engerbretsons, that is not the only thing coming full circle. Jeff, whose skiing ability resulted in a prized line on Squaw Valley’s Fingers being named after him, knows that the generation who knew his skiing history is fading away, replaced by a new generation more familiar with Amie.

“Growing up, I was always ‘Jeff’s daughter,’ and now he is ‘Amie’s dad,’ and it kills him,” says Amie.

Jeff smiles. It is a smile of both pride and begrudged acknowledgement. It is the smile of a proud father who still has a competitive bone or two left in his body.

“I still have a line named after me, but pretty soon everyone is going to think it is named after her,” says Jeff.

These days, Jeff Engerbretson often finds himself behind the camera snapping photos of his daughter, Amie, photos courtesy Freeride Media and Bob Legasa

 

And at the end of the day, Jeff and Amie both know that it is rare for father and daughter to be skiing and filming at the highest levels of the sport decades after Amie first strapped on skis in their snow-covered driveway.

“I’ve really tried to push the longevity you can have in this sport,” says Jeff. “A lot of my friends have blown up and they can’t ski like I can now.”

Because of that longevity, the next Warren Miller ski film may well have Amie making turns down some steep Alaska face, while her dad films.

And even when she drops into those committing lines, Jeff says he doesn’t worry about a daughter who grew up in the mountains and has learned to ski with skill, style and a long career in the sport in mind.

“I trust her skiing, and I trust her head,” says Jeff.

Emma DesLauriers and her father, Eric, scout a line during a Tahoe Junior Freeride Series event, photo by Chris Saito

 

Eric, Emma and Wildon DesLauriers

Eric DesLauriers grew up in about as idyllic a winter setting as one can imagine. His parents were the founders, owners and managers of Bolton Valley Ski Resort high in the Green Mountains of Vermont. He and his brother learned to ski as toddlers and that translated into a lifelong passion for the sport.

Eric went on to appear in ski movies and coach youth skiers at Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley, where he still coaches today. His brother Rob became a renowned big-mountain skier who was featured in more than a dozen movies and ticked off high-altitude skiing accomplishments like Mount Everest and four of the other “Seven Summits”—the highest mountains on each of the seven continents.

Eric, a longtime friend of Tom Day (Day’s father was a ski patroller at the family’s Bolton Valley resort), came to Tahoe in the winter of 1988–89 and never left. Soon he was coaching big-mountain skiing to a crop of young Tahoe kids, including his own.

In a sport that can be so competitive in a “who-skied-it-better” way, Eric has always emphasized personal accomplishments to the children he coaches.

“We definitely strive to instill a love for skiing, but also we talk about the intellectual process of personal challenge and personal reward,” says Eric.

Like all parents whose kids ski high-consequence terrain, seeing their children turn into thoughtful, intelligent skiers who are engaged in the sport for the right reasons brings a heightened level of joy.

“It is not just, ‘drink Red Bull and go huck cliffs,’” says Eric. “To see your kids thinking is really rewarding.”

Wildon, Eric’s son, now 21, attends college in San Diego. His daughter, Emma, 19, goes to Berkeley. But Eric gave both of them a West Coast version of the fairytale childhood he had growing up in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

Emma and Wildon competed across the Western U.S. and Canada in the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association competitions, as well as locally in the Tahoe Junior Freeride Series.

Either in competition, or simply while freeskiing the mountain, Emma says one comment about her skiing style rises above the rest.

“I always get the compliment that I ski like my dad,” she says.

Following in the footsteps of her dad, Emma DesLauriers confidently skis off a cliff during a freeride competition at Alpine Meadows, photo by Chris Saito

 

And now that she is off at college, Emma realizes the gifts that skiing has given her, well beyond the athleticism needed to ski steep lines fluidly.

“Skiing has given me confidence, not only in my athletic ability, but it also made me headstrong,” says Emma. “It has made me a stronger person in many ways.”

After skiing at a high level throughout their teens, Eric DesLauriers is not sure what his two children will do next. But he is certain of one thing: “Mountains and skiing will always be a part of their life.”


David Bunker is a Truckee resident and parent of two young skiers.

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