You don’t move to Lake Tahoe for the money.
You move there because that big-ass alpine lake looks like the best summer of your life and those gorgeous mountains look fun as hell to ski in the winter. You stay – always a couple years longer than you thought – because there’s an existential gravitas to the Sierra’s most alluring enclave that draws you in to live out the answer to this question: What if I oriented my life around doing dope stuff outside?
A life based around adventure and fun can look like those of any one of the members of South Lake Tahoe ski crew Squid and Friends. This passionate group of skiers, filmmakers, and artists have oriented their lives around powder days, backcountry booters, and the physiological art of carving up a mountain on skis. They drop cliffs with charisma, make triple backflips look easy and are doing things in the Tahoe backcountry only a dedicated few can do. Just a bunch of ski bums doing their thing in one of the world’s premier ski destinations, Squid and Friends is “all fun no money” and cashing out big time every time they strap in.
It’s not surprising this rambunctious outfit of hucksters can trace its origins to Kirkwood, the scrappier rascal of the three Vail Resorts mountains in the area, which also includes idyllic Heavenly and the refined Northstar. It’s isolated from the crowds in it’s horseshoe bowl 25 miles south of the lake and there is a loose, pioneer spirit that inspires the adventurous to let it fly (see Darren Rahlves Bonzai Tour).
As so many ski bum origin stories begin, a quarter-life crisis led news reporter Sam Armanino to quit his job and take a position as Kirkwood’s race team coach, along with his sister Molly. From there they met other coaches Mike Emmit and Garrett Wisniewski and also linked up with perennial shredders Chris Whatford and Garrett Balen out on the mountain.
From this core – which also included Jasper Donley – grew the ever-evolving, ever-fluctuating collective of Squid and Friends. ”I like the name because it leaves it open, because we have a lot of people skiing in and out. The core group is made up of about 12 people with various levels of involvement,” said Armanino.
Armanino is lead filmmaker and editor of content with all the other Squids slicing couliers, sending it, or helping capture footage when Armanino can’t attend the festivities. The group’s edits consist of a healthy dose of frisky park laps, backcountry booters and shooters, and in-bound smash and grab freestyles, much of it at Kirkwood. The action is primarily captured in exhilarating detail with Armanino on follow-cam, skiing lines as hard and fast as his buddies with a camera in his hands. “I want really fast, steep, hard follow-cams. If I am scared of skiing over the line then I am in the right follow-cam spot,” said Armanino.
A lot of this 2021-2022 season for the Squids has been out on snow sleds in the gentle grandeur of the Blue Lakes and Luther Pass backcountry regions, just to the east of Kirkwood. “The snow was awful and the best way to make use of it is to build a huge jump and throw some Squids off of it,” said Armanino.
Two sessions beyond the ropes featured some monster hucking that underscores the heights some of these amateur athletes are reaching. Jasper Donley and Chris Whatford both threw triple backflips and Garrett Balen nailed a double-cork 1080, all of it captured for the recently published video Book 2: Chapter 1 on Squid and Friends’ YouTube channel.
“I don’t know a lot of people doing that in the backcountry in Tahoe. … People are joking that the triple is the new double. I’ve seen them landing doubles all over the place and now the triple is within the grasp of a couple. It’s pretty cool,” chuckled Armanino.
Ski bums certainly have a reputation for being singular in the way they prioritize the world around skiing, usually to the detriment of other areas of their life, like their bank account. Ironically, for a town whose property values have skyrocketed from unaffordable to unavailable, ski bums are what drive a large part of Tahoe’s culture and economy, from Warren Miller films that showcase the ultimate winter lifestyle to the fact ski bums occupy a lot of the service industry jobs that run the region’s economy.
Though they ski, the members of Squid and Friends certainly aren’t any bums when it comes to grinding out a life away from the slopes and positively investing in the community they live in. Garrett Balen is a wildland firefighter who has spent the last eight summers fighting some of the biggest wildfires California has ever experienced. His short film Equinox juxtaposes thrilling ridge drops in the winter months with chilling footage of gargantuan plumes of smoke rising from mountains consumed by fire during the summer.
Similarly, Molly Armanino’s film Amend splices her hard-charging lines with scenes from her successful push to get the South Lake Tahoe City Council to update its climate change goals and commit to eliminate carbon emissions by 2030 with 100% renewable energy – to help reduce and counteract the incendiary conditions that Balen has been battling for years. With South Lake dodging a fiery bullet last year from the Caldor Fire that almost consumed the entire basin, all attempts to help curb such environmental disasters should be applauded and pursued and these two Squids are right in the thick of such action.
The fact is it takes a lot of guts, grit, perseverance and vision to save up enough money in the summer and fall to create the perfect four month dream vacation of non-stop skiing every year. It’s a hell of a sacrifice, but one that can reap great rewards.
“I think everyone is constantly trying to find that balance, especially me,” said Armanino. “If you ask any of us members if they plan on being rich, I don’t think the answer is yes. I think we’ve given up on the idea of a glamorous career or a very stable life going into our 30’s, that’s a big compromise. Living in Tahoe is a compromise in and of itself.”
And yet, despite these unflattering financial futures, Armanino admits that the, “evolution is thinking about how we can free up winters completely.” How many people do you know that completely structure and dedicate their lives to their greatest passion? It’s a life the members of Squid and Friends enthusiastically embrace (at least for now), and in doing so they’ve added to and elevated the ski culture of South Lake Tahoe.
As Squid and Friends has shown, nothing is more fun than doing dope stuff with your friends.
Now, that’s why you move to Lake Tahoe.