The Toughest Line: Molly Armanino Navigates Grief in the Mountains

These photos appeared in “A Tale of Two Summits: Molly Armanino’s Balancing Act”. Read more in the full the story from in Issue 17.1

Mention Molly Armanino to anybody that knows her, and they’ll invariably smile. Her zest for life and love for the sport of skiing are contagious. Brigid Mander’s profile of the 30-year-old Tahoe local in The Ski Journal 17.1 portrays the balancing act of success on the Freeride World Tour and a passion for climate activism.

Armanino’s positive armor took a dent this August with the untimely passing of her brother, Sam, in a mountain biking accident. In the wake of his death, we’d put our scheduled interview on the backburner, but a few weeks later she messaged us and said she felt ready to talk. She was generous with her time and with her openness, talking about grief, honoring Sam through her skiing and what she hopes to get out of the upcoming ski season—her first without one of her favorite ski partners.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

The Ski Journal: You wrote this beautiful Instagram post that seemed to be a tribute to Sam. One quote that really stood out was, “Thus, I refuse to be angry at the world, I’ll keep one foot in front of the other until I can feel Sam’s smile in my heart. I’ll tell stories with vulnerability and weight.” Can you talk about that idea a bit? What do you mean when you say you’ll tell stories with vulnerability and weight?

Molly Armanino: I’ve been pretty close to death and have gone through the grieving process, unfortunately, before this. And when getting interviewed for podcasts and a few articles, I always avoided sensitive topics. When I was in college, I was driving my two friends to a music festival and ended up crashing, and my best friend passed away. That was about 10 years ago. I mention that because I did this podcast with Michelle Parker—I love Michelle so much—but I listened to the podcast and we talked about car accidents. I almost brought it up to bring some value to the conversation, but I felt like it was maybe too much or too dark or too vulnerable to just tell the public.

But then at the same time, I think, well, what if somebody else has gone through something like that? Or what if this can touch more people on a deeper level? So, talking about vulnerability and weight, I meant it, I guess, as a tribute to Sam. Because I want to honor him as best as I can and talk about him and be open, whether it’s with the media or in general throughout my ski career. I’m just hoping to not be so ashamed, and to be ready to talk about him more.

ABOVE Molly Armanino making lemonade out of lemons in the challenging El Azufre backcountry in Argentina. Photo: Ryan Salm

TSKJ: Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Sam? It seems like you two were especially close.

Molly: Sam and I are about a year and half apart. Our whole lives we’ve been best friends. Sam has always been my logical side, making me think through things. We’d talk about everything from careers to relationships, and he’d constantly calm my nerves about most things, unless it was something I clearly did wrong like putting floss down the toilet. Sam followed me when I moved to Tahoe about five years ago, and we lived together for four of those years. We grew up skiing together, and it was so amazing to have a built-in adventure buddy. I always felt so safe knowing that he was around.

Although, in terms of skiing, he has always been a bit more cautious than I ever was. He’d be at the bottom filming while I’m at the top of a scary line, and he’d be more scared than I was. Sometimes, he’d refuse to film me because he was so nervous, which would always make me so mad! I think mostly Sam and I supported each other through just sharing our lives together—we worked together from home in the same office, skied together, biked together, and shared the same friends and community. Everyone loves Sam so much.

TSKJ: What legacy does Sam leave?

Molly: Sam is known for lifting everyone around him up. I say that with a cringe because it sounds so cliche, but it’s the honest truth. Sam was a videographer and spent his career highlighting other people’s skills. Sam started a fun ski crew video platform called “Squid and Friends.” I’m not really sure exactly how to explain it, but basically it was meant to provide videos of all of us friends skiing around and documenting the ridiculousness behind skiing. Sam was the Squid and a follow cam god! Again, if you ask anyone, they’ll say that Sam was literally so stoked about everything. He recently got super psyched on biking, vans, and just started to get into bike trail building.

When we think of Sam, we think about passion, creativity, empowerment, and joy. Most importantly, we think about absurdity and laughter. He truly is so hilarious and ridiculous that not a single person I asked could find a serious photo of him. Sam makes us laugh, makes us feel joy and makes us feel empowered. I miss him with my whole heart.

ABOVE Armanino is consistently known as one of the most stoked skiers and positive athletes in the posse, but the death of her brother has put that positivity to the test. Photo: Adam Chad

TSKJ: What advice do you think Sam would give you as you move forward with life and with your ski career?

Molly: Sam and I viewed skiing so differently. I wanted to make a career out of it, and all he wanted to do was have fun. I would come home sad or distraught about my performance competing, and he’d just look at me and tell me I need to chill out—none of this matters. Although I felt like Sam and I could never quite relate in our perspectives of skiing, now I want to take Sam’s perspective with me for my future. I do this weird sport because it makes me happy, because it’s fun and because I can see nature in a different way. I want to come home just as stoked as Sam, whether or not I crash or win on the Tour.

In life, I want to forever cherish what we had as siblings and encourage others to love each other as much as we did. I also want to dedicate my life to becoming the change I want to see in the world through climate activism. On this note, you should really watch the film that Sam produced for me called Amend. Sam died from hitting a burnt tree from this same fire.

TSKJ: With snow already flying, do you have something that you’re most looking forward to about this upcoming ski season?

Molly: For my whole ski career, I always felt like I was just so hard on myself. I always wanted to do better, ski better, or do what my friends were able to do—a triple back flip kind of thing or skiing certain lines or something. I would always be disappointed in my runs, and Sam would always just tell me to just chill: “It’s skiing. It’s just fun.” So, what I look forward to this year is to embrace Sam fully and do it for the love of it and not get so bogged down by my insecurities.

TSKJ: Are there any particular goals that you’re trying to accomplish this season, or projects you’d like to work on, either competition related or not?

Molly: I would really like to film this year, because I felt like I didn’t have much time last year. I’m looking forward to working on a project maybe as a tribute to Sam or something that he would be really stoked on. And I am looking forward to the (Freeride World Tour), but I’m scared. My dad doesn’t want me to do it because obviously he wants me to be safe and stuff like that. So, I’m grappling with that, but I’m looking forward to reconnecting on the tour and having something to stay motivated to do. Hopefully I won’t be as stressed as I was last year. That’s the goal.

TSKJ: You’re always outspoken about environmental issues, and you’re CEO of a nonprofit climate organization. Tell us about that organization—what is it and what’s the goal?

Molly: It’s been an organization in Tahoe for many years before me, the Tahoe Climate Change Action Network. It’s basically people coming together and talk about ways that we can assist with transitioning the city of South Lake Tahoe off of fossil fuels. We’re working toward procuring our own energy so we can define where that energy comes from versus being wrapped under the small utility monopoly. We’re trying to bring ourselves off the grid, and there’s a lot of regulatory things that we have to deal with. TCCAN focuses on the public outreach and city council direction and movement towards getting the city 100% renewable by 2030. It entails a lot of emails, a lot of attending city council meetings. We’re also trying to restore and renovate some hotels to decarbonize them and make them affordable units for South Lake Tahoe locals. We have a few projects going under the climate change umbrella here in South Lake.

ABOVE Skiing the sunny side of things in El Azufre, Argentina. Photo: Ryan Salm

TSKJ: With all your travel, are you able to ski at home in Tahoe much?

Molly: Not as much last year as I wanted to. I was busy the whole season, and it was the best season ever in Tahoe. All I wanted to do was just get back home and ski with Sam. So, I don’t really get to ski in Tahoe as much as I’d like, but I do have my whole life to do that. That’s what I’m telling myself. There are so many lines everywhere that I think I could spend a lifetime trying to ski everything I want to ski. I’m not in a rush at the moment.


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