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Cody Townsend is skiing North America’s 50 classic lines — and worries climate change makes some “last descents”

“Suddenly we are seeing lines disappearing. It’s changing so much faster than we thought,” big-mountain athlete Townsend says.

Cody Townsend at the top of a run on Joffre Peak in British Columbia, Canada. (Bjarne Salen, via @codytownsend on Instagram)
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This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Current members, click here to learn how to upgrade)

Cody Townsend was at the top of his game in 2014. His career as a pro skier was soaring. His talents were harvesting awards. And standing atop a plunging, high-consequence line in Alaska as the cameras rolled and the helicopter hovered, he pondered the 60-foot cliff way below his skis.

“It was something I would have been freaked out about and super challenged by 10 years earlier. And I was up there thinking ‘Ah whatever, this is going to hurt,’” the 36-year-old skiing superstar from Santa Cruz, California, says.

He shredded the line, stomped the landing and skied away. Like he always did.

“I was like ‘Yep, that hurt. Alright where are we going to go next?’” he says. “I just remember thinking ‘Whoa, something has got to change.’ Because if you are being bored by lines this gnarly, one, this is only going to push you to a place where you put yourself in more danger and then there’s even more consequence, or two, you are just going to fall out of love with skiing. That seemed like the biggest fear for me was to take the thing I loved most in life and was most passionate about and turn it into a 9-to-5 job.”

That spark five years ago led Townsend to a project that has enthralled the ski community. He’s aiming to ski 50 of North America’s most heralded ski lines — as detailed by Roaring Fork Valley ski mountaineers Penn Newhard, Chris Davenport and Art Burrows in “Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America” — in the next three years. He and videographer Bjarne Salen are documenting each line in “The Fifty,” a YouTube video series that emphasizes not only Townsend’s ski mountaineering prowess, but the meticulous and grueling work that goes into climbing and skiing remote peaks. The series — there have been eight videos so far — are captivating, with insight into the dangers and thrills found on steep, snowy slopes.

Since last Friday, he’s been in Colorado, filming descents of the some of the state’s most challenging peaks. We caught up with Townsend — who alongside his pro-skiing wife, Elyse Saugstad, ranks as big-mountain skiing’s royalty — this week for a quick chat before he loaded up his Tundra and headed back into the wild, where the remnants of the snowy winter deliver rich terrain for a skier hunting North America’s trophy lines.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Colorado Sun: You’re in Aspen, right? You ever spent much time over there?

Cody Townsend: I’m learning there is a really cool subculture to Aspen and I’ve always wanted to understand why so many bad-ass skiers call this place home and now I understand why. There are so many bad-ass peaks to ski up here.

CS: How are the approach trails in the Elk Range? Hearing from lots of folks that the summer trails are going to be impassable for a long time because of avalanche-flushed timber.

An avalanche dumped tons of snow and debris in the Conundrum Creek Valley floor beneath the area known as Five Fingers. The massive avalanche started at Highlands Ridge at the top. (Scott Condon, The Aspen Times)

CT: It’s like a war zone. It’s like the west side of the mountains and the east side of the mountains got into a fight and decided to launch all their trees at each other. Over in East Maroon, the summer trail to East Maroon Creek, there are thousands upon thousands of downed trees. It seems like it will take five to 10 years of clearing.

CS: So you just hit the Landry Line on Pyramid Peak, North Maroon and Mount of the Holy Cross in five days. That’s a big push. You feeling good about your progress so far?

CT: I’m feeling really good and a bit surprised. But looking back on my goals and what I thought I could do, I’m right along schedule. I was aiming to do 16-17 lines per year and we are at 14 as of today. My main tactic for this project has been, if I have a chance on big, hard, rarely skied lines then I’m going for that. If I went around ticking off easy lines I could find myself in a really tough position toward the end of the project with, what, 20 of the hardest lines in North America left.

CS: How set are you on that three-year timeline?

CT: I know that no matter what, Mother Nature plays the last card. If everything is perfect and I do get lucky, that’s great but it’s the weather and the mountains and I’m not going to rush it to where I have to do this in three years. If it really comes down to it, I’m definitely not going to be pushing over what I deem is safe or what I deem is too risky. I tell people, the partners I’m working with … that I have a priority list that dictates all my decisions. Priority number one is to come home at the end of the day. Priority number two is to have fun and number three is to ski all 50. We have already turned around based on that list.

CS: So you’ve felt those priorities get unbalanced already this season?

CT: We climbed Joffre (Peak in British Columbia’s Coast Range) twice and, really, Joffre was just not that fun of a ski. I’m not that proud of being there because it felt like I was just ticking it off the list. That factored into our decision to turn around on The Sphinx (in Alaska,) we probably could have gotten down that, but it would have been dangerous and not that fun.

CS: But it’s pretty safe to say a life was saved because you chose to ski Joffre. That video with you and videographer Bjarne Salen rescuing a skier who fell down that line was gripping. That guy was so lucky you were there to help.

CT: Yeah that was one of those weird things where you start to think about the miracles and spirituality of this life in the mountains. I mean, everything that happened with that was just more than coincidence. The fact that we were even up there that day. Bjarne and I did not see a single other person up there that day. The fact that I stopped where I did. The fact that I was looking back up the peak and saw him fall. That was a 15-20-second window at most. People have died falling down that couloir. The fact he ended up in a not-fatal position. The fact I could get a call for help and the rescue helicopter could reach him before dark. Those helicopter pilots were pushing it. Everything about that was amazing.

CS: So in one of your first videos, you backed off Utah’s Mount Superior after digging a pit and finding sketchy layers that you said yielded “a pretty medium probability of a gigantic, high-consequence avalanche.” You backed off Joffre to return another day and today you dropped the video of you climbing to the top of The Sphinx in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains, but not skiing from the peak, meaning you are going to go back, right?

CT: Yeah, we’ll be going back for that.

CS: So I see you and Jeremy Jones — the pioneering snowboard mountaineer and founder of Protect Our Winters — and Aspen’s Chris Davenport and Whistler pro skier and filmmaker Mike Douglas on the front lines of the growing chorus of skiers demanding action on climate change. You guys, with your filmed explorations and adventures, are out there showing us firsthand how climate change is altering the mountains. So much so that we are hearing talk of “last descents.” You mention that in the Joffre video, the likelihood that warming winters and receding glaciers are making more and more lines unskiable.

CT: I think that’s why we are championing climate change so hard. It’s in our faces. If you are a weekend, casual skier the cycles you see year over year may be revealing a little less snowpack in some places. But when we go out there and we are relying on ice and glaciers to hold snow, suddenly we are seeing lines disappearing. It’s changing so much faster than we thought. As skiers, we are seeing things that were once possible have become impossible. There’s already a line on the north face of (British Columbia’s) Mount Robson that has a first descent that is also its last descent. The way down the north face is different than the people who skied the first descent. It’s crazy and it’s pretty sad to see.

CS: I’m thinking about how your wife, Elyse, opened up to New York Times reporter John Branch about her survival of the devastating 2012 Tunnel Creek avalanche in Washington state. Now this project is really highlighting the decision-making behind backcountry skiing. Talk about how that transparency is a big part of this project and something you want to elevate.

CT: People have been talking about transparency forever; wanting more behind-the-scenes stuff in ski movies and when we put that in there all the sudden we hear that it’s a boring ski movie. If I was to make this whole project into a movie, you wouldn’t see a lot of the behind-the-scene action because we’d have 90 minutes to show 50 lines.

Our whole goal with this project was to go line by line, knowing that about 80 percent, even 90 percent of what we show will not be skiing. Because honestly, the skiing would be boring. A bunch of steep, slow turns on exposed terrain. The goal was to show everything behind the skiing. I wanted to show the research, the decision-making, the hardships of climbing and routefinding. All the details that make backcountry skiing and attempting to ski big lines part of the fun, in a certain way. What I enjoy about doing big lines is this all-enveloping focus and that it takes days or even weeks just to figure out one line. There is so much research that goes into these descents. And then on the day of, all the planning comes to fruition and all your decision-making that day determines success or not. I guess that’s what people truly are connecting with. I didn’t quite realize how much people would connect to the back-end of the story. The main feedback we hear is from people who want longer episodes, which is not what you think when you think about internet videos.

CS: And while you are showing that often-hidden side of ski mountaineering — and that it’s not always flying down fields of pristine powder — you are keeping it fun and irreverent at times. You seem to be striking a good balance between fun and game face. (I really liked watching you swing that monoski down Terminal Cancer Couloir in Nevada.)

CT: I see a lot of climbing and alpinism and ski mountaineering being overly dramatic and overly serious. I’m not like that when I’m up there, but when it gets serious, I’m definitely serious. I wanted to show that this is still fun. It’s not like we are bad asses conquering mountains and we are just hanging it all out there, like we are so gnarly. But when it does get gnarly, which it will and it has, then I want to make sure we translate that seriousness. This is a point where you are hyper-focused and not joking around. We don’t want to die.

CS: There’s a big push toward better avalanche awareness and making sure people are equipped with the right tools — both physically and mentally — when they ski in the backcountry. Do you see a project like yours, with its behind-the-scenes focus, helping in that? Is it something that’s needed as more skiers start looking beyond resort boundaries for their fun?

CT: Now that’s a double-edge sword. Bjarne and I and others have talked about this. We are being successful and we are making this look cool, which is maybe making more people want to do it. And inevitably more people in the backcountry putting more hours out there leads to more accidents. So, one, we are showing this is serious, by showing a near-fatal accident, and two, we are showing our decision-making and turning around and coming back down a different way. We are showing those skills that are necessary but I hope that doesn’t give people false confidence into thinking they can go out and do it themselves. This is a culmination, for me, of 15 years as a professional skier and spending my life in the backcountry, skiing and hiking and climbing with some of the world’s best skiers, ski mountaineers and alpinists. I’ve had some of the most amazing mentors ever and I’m continuing to learn right now. These are lines that you should work for over a course of decades.