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​Molly Armanino’s Unorthodox Journey To The Top

Freeskier Molly Armanino cannot abide anything boring. Not even a little dull. Ordinary things for other people are adventures for this skier. Average conversations will be hijacked with out-of-the-blue stories of saving sea turtle eggs from poachers in Costa Rica. Former ski racers often have the same story of how they quit ski racing: they got hurt, or burned out. Does anyone have a story about a semi-forced exit following a plan to streak through the Safeway before a Junior Olympics qualifying ski race? One that started by running down the street naked and right into the local cops on the way? No? Well, Molly does. Simple things for other people – such as getting from airports to mountains with skis – become sidesplitting tales of misadventure in Molly’s world, such as last week, when she lost the rental car in Spain on the way to her inaugural Freeride World Tour competition (it was towed, she found it, then she podiumed in second).

It’s true a delightful, genuine, whirlwind of mild and earnest chaos tends to follow Armanino – unless she is on her skis. That’s because the thing Armanino has really become known for in the last couple of seasons is not just the absence of dullness in her skiing, but laser-focused ambition and skill on snow. She rips, she is fun to watch ski, and an ever-present good attitude has led fellow skiers and fans on Instagram to dub her the "sendiest and friendliest."

On her inaugural FWT run, Armanino did not choose the conservative line - and it paid off. | Freeride World Tour/Jeremy Bernard photo.

The 29-year-old Tahoe-based skier exploded onto the scene in Freeride World Tour qualifiers in 2022. She handily won three competitions. Prior to that season, she’d competed in some FWT qualifiers and been known for aggressively sending - but frequently exploding. It took a couple of seasons, but she found the balance – sending, stomping, and winning. That earned her a Wild Card invite to this year’s Freeride World Tour pro event, where, if her second-place finishes in Baqueira Beret and Ordino Arcalis are any indicator, it is going to be an exciting season for the women.

Given that Armanino took a solid chunk of her twenties off skiing almost completely, her rise in the freeride ranks is impressive. After the failed grocery store streak event, the then 16-year-old’s ski racing career came to an abrupt halt. “My coach was so mad. My parents were so mad for weeks. My dad made me move firewood around our property for hours and hours as punishment,” she said. “I feel like I spent most of high school grounded, and I didn’t really ski at all after that.”

Instead, Armanino attended college at the University of California Santa Cruz and earned a degree in ecology, which remains a passion and part of her career outside of skiing. She studied abroad and worked in Australia and New Zealand, and returned to Lake Tahoe after graduation and landed a consulting job in conservation. The problem was, outside the window, the outdoors began beckoning again. “Our office had the most amazing views. It was excruciating for me to look out the window every day for two and half years. So, I ended up quitting,” she said, before adding, “I would recommend that if anyone wants to quit their job, do it!”

First FWT Pro comp, first podium. | Freeride World Tour/Jeremy Bernard photo.

Freed from office life, Armanino headed to a two-star FWT qualifier at Grand Targhee. “I didn’t win, but I got my first Sickbird Award at that one,” she said. “I was hooked. Competing was really fun, and it was a huge draw to meet other female skiers who like to ski the way I do.” It wasn’t until she was chatting with her brother, photographer Sam Armanino, that she found direction. “He asked what I wanted out of competing and skiing, and I realized I wanted to make the FWT. I have myself three seasons to do it – I knew I don’t want to be doing this forever, so it seemed like a good plan.”

Skiing just for fun during the pandemic helped boost Armanino’s skiing and motivations to another level. “We kind of had to ski secretly, it was still a bit taboo, so there was no Instagram, no pressure, and I really remembered how much fun skiing is, and how much I love it!” When life more or less returned to normal after the pandemic, and the 2022 competition season kicked off in earnest, Armanino was on top. That was, however, until a mishap on a multi-day ski and winter camping trip outside of Cooke City, Montana threw a wrench in the works. “I missed the last few comps, because I got frostbite on my foot. So, I didn’t make the Tour.”

Armanino and a ski partner had sledded in about 18 miles to the backcountry, set up camp, and proceeded to get after it for five days, ski touring from dawn till dark and climbing and skiing the area’s iconic couloirs. “The last day, we were all hyped about an early morning mission, to be on top of this couloir by sunrise. But I was so cold all day, I even hiked the couloir in all my layers. I have never been so cold,’ she said. They skied until sunset, but back in the tent, Molly discovered a badly frostbitten big toe. The next day, they still had to break camp and skin six miles to where the sleds were on the wilderness line.

Classic Armanino style - high speed on big open faces. | Freeride World Tour/Jeremy Bernard photo.

By June, despite therapy and rehab, half of the big toe had to be removed. It was a speedbump for Armanino, but it was quickly left in the dust. She is back working part-time in her other passion, environmentalism, and heading up the Tahoe Climate Change Action Network. And two months after surgery, she headed to Argentina where, on her second day, she sent a famed, near vertical 40-foot wall ride in Bariloche’s backcountry.

She signed a head-to-toe sponsorship with Scott. The Freeride World Tour called up, offering her a season wildcard. Scott sent her to the Sister Summit in British Columbia’s Monashees with some of the industry’s most influential female snow athletes. There, even amongst the industry’s elite, Armanino was first to send it off various airs, including a 60-footer. The game is not just back on, but now it’s been upped a few levels. Just as Armanino planned.

With the next competition coming up quickly, Armanino is keeping her eye on the ball - and keeping the heated socks charged. “I’m so excited for this opportunity, I’m trying not to put pressure on myself – but I want to go to Verbier, of course.” The ski world will see how the FWT plays out, but no matter what, Armanino’s going to enjoy the ride in the typical fashion: trying to avoid travel mishaps, and being sendy and friendly. “I’m just excited to be here, to meet people, and to have more ski friends,” she said. 

From The Column: Women in the Mountains

About The Author

stash member Brigid Mander

All things skiing, fun lines, off the beaten path adventures, skid life, telling stories, and obscure vocabulary words.