<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=799546403794687&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
CU Medical Student Honors ‘1999’ Skier Robb Gaffney on Skis and in Medicine

CU Medical Student Honors ‘1999’ Skier Robb Gaffney on Skis and in Medicine

CU School of Medicine graduate and legendary skier Robb Gaffney, MD, has left behind a legacy on and off the slopes – one that rural program student Michael Nocek is recreating on his own, sometimes literally.

minute read

Written by Kara Mason on November 29, 2023

In 1995, Robb Gaffney left behind the life of a full-time dirtbag skier to attend the University of Colorado School of Medicine — or that’s how his brother Scott Gaffney puts it in “1999,” a ski film turned cult classic that Scott recorded on 16mm film as a tribute to one of the best winters in ski history. 

“Robb skied 80 or more days the next few years, and at the end of a 100-day season in 1999, he was suddenly a doctor, leaving those of us who watched the same four years pass wondering what we have done during that time. This is Dr. Gaffney,” Scott says in the film, introducing his brother.

Triple Rock Berthoud Pass 1

CU medical student Michael Nocek skiing Triple Rock, one of the lines he skied for the Robb Gaffney ski edit, on Colorado's Berthoud Pass. Photo courtesy of Michael Nocek. 

The film, which was once awarded Freeskier Magazine’s “Movie of the Year,” is treasured by skiers around the world, but it was a short clip of Robb’s composed and skillful skiing in some of the most difficult terrain — including scampering down an exposed and rocky entrance to jump off a 40-foot cliff band on Colorado’s Berthoud Pass — that’s particularly meaningful to Michael Nocek, a second-year medical student in the rural program who is following in Robb’s footsteps on the slopes and in the medical community.

Nocek spent the 2023 ski season recreating Robb’s “1999” segment on Berthoud Pass.

“When I saw that Robb filmed his segment of the movie while he was in medical school at CU, I realized that this would be a great medium for me to pay homage to a personal role model and show Robb my appreciation for everything he has done for me,” Nocek says. “I was also aware that Robb was fighting acute myeloid leukemia and thought that recreating his legendary edit would bring a smile to his face.”

Nocek connected with Robb in May and shared his recreation edit of Robb’s “1999” segment. Robb, 52, died in September, four years after he was diagnosed with myelodysplastic disorder, which typically leads to leukemia.

1999 more than two decades later

Nocek recaptured exact scenes on the mountain, used the same music, and hit the Winter Park Pub with friends like Robb does in the film. 

“The segment started with Robb standing on top of a melted-out cliff band with a technical entrance and a mandatory 40-foot air out onto the slope below,” Nocek explains. “This rock, which is known as Gaffney’s Rock and named after Robb himself, is the big cliff staring you in the face as you look west from the summit of Berthoud Pass. The rest of the video clip showcases Robb and a few friends putting on a clinic on Berthoud Pass’s most famous and difficult terrain. They skied hard and fast; the exact way these zones were meant to be skied.”

Nearly every Friday afternoon and Saturday morning from March through May, Nocek would trek to Berthoud Pass with two fellow medical students and his fiancé to make his goal a reality.

“Since the Berthoud Pass Ski Area has been closed for over 20 years, finding some of the lines Robb skied in the film took a bit of investigative work,” Nocek says. “It required a mix of studying the original segment in detail, searching Google Earth and FATMAP for possible leads, and spending time doing exploratory missions on foot up at Berthoud Pass. Once I located the right lines, I spent time probing landings and doing visual inspections.”

From there, he says he kept a close eye on the weather forecasts ensuring an opportunity to capture the reenactment.

Nocek Maroon Bells 1

CU medical student Michael Nocek on the approach during his ascent and ski of North Maroon Peak in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. Photo courtesy of Michael Nocek. 

After all the film work and editing was complete, Nocek saw the project as a way to thank Robb and bring awareness to his diagnosis.

“Robb has done so much for the entire ski community,” Nocek says. “Whether it was his patients, his family, the Tahoe ski basin, or people like me who needed some motivation to follow my dreams, he’s positively impacted so many lives, and I thought it was time to show him some appreciation by supporting his fight against cancer.”

Finding community on and off the slopes

Long before Nocek embarked on the Berthoud Pass project and realized Robb skied the same lines he could reach within about an hour’s drive from the CU Anschutz Medical Campus, the prolific skier was an inspiration to Nocek.

“I always wanted to go into medicine, but shifted my focus during college due to my intense commitment to ski racing. Finding people like Robb, who are passionate about skiing and medicine, really inspired me to change careers and pursue my dream of applying to medical school,” Nocek says. “It was crazy that I had stumbled upon that clip doing research about the pass. That’s when it all started to come together that I could recreate it.” 

This season, Nocek, who is doing his clerkship year in Gunnison, is a bit closer to Colorado's famous ski slopes. Nocek is a second-year student in the school’s rural program, which aims to increase the number of CU medical school graduates who eventually enter and remain in practice in rural Colorado.

“It’s been awesome getting to work in a community that I can see myself returning to after training,” he says.  

Nocek in Gunnison 1

CU medical student Michael Nocek and Kelly Stewart, MD, a rural track alumna, working an emergency department shift at Gunnison Valley Health. Photo courtesy of Michael Nocek.

For the rest of the ski season — when he can find time between research, exams, and training — Nocek plans to work on another goal, skiing the five Colorado lines featured in the book “The Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America."

“I’ve skied three of the five already, and the last two of the Colorado classics are close to me out here in Gunnison,” he says. “It helps me stay human and follow my passion outside of medicine.  Even when I’m busy and stressed with training, I can look to people like Robb and know that you don’t have to give up a big part of who you are to have a career in medicine, and that’s important.”