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Feature image: Cody Townsend and Bjarne Salen descending the Sphinx, Chugach mountains, AK.
Words by Brennan Lagasse • Photos by Ming Poon
If you identify as a skier, chances are you know the name Cody Townsend. Maybe you caught wind of the Lake Tahoe based skier in his formative years as a decorated ski racer, or later in one of his many starring roles in modern ski films, such as those produced by Matchstick Productions.
If neither of those are true then it’s likely you know his name because of The Fifty, a recent multi-year project to ski each of the fifty classic lines featured in the book, The Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America. The Fifty’s YouTube Channel now has almost 100K subscribers, and is arguably the most viewed ongoing ski media of our day. With anticipation and stoke high for Season 4 of the project, ASJ caught up with Townsend in his Tahoe City, CA home to check in about the project, and see what the ski community has to look forward to in the coming year.
ASJ: Before we get going here, a HUGE congrats to you and Elyse Saugstad on becoming parents! How have the first few weeks been?
CT: Well I’d say there is a lot of similarities to our typical “Type II Fun” mountain sufferfests. It’s exhausting, challenging and patience testing but man are the moments of pure joy totally worth it. It is a different kind of joy and love though, something I didn’t know was in me and it’s truly a one of a kind gift.
ASJ: How do you see being a father impacting your work as a professional skier? Do you have other skiers/mentors who are also fathers that you look up to, or have gleaned advice from?
CT: There are aspects of travel, time away and expeditions that are gonna be tough on two professional skiers balancing their careers with raising a child. At the same time, I think it’s going to be so amazing to introduce my son to the mountains, to the outdoors and to the sport which has brought me so much happiness in life. I’m definitely picking the brains of people like Chris Davenport, Jeremy Jones and others who balance their unique careers with raising kids.
ASJ: Where do you get most of your ski days in these days?
CT: 80% of my days on snow are in the backcountry these days. Whether it’s the local jaunts around Lake Tahoe or on the road across the West, I’m finding a strong majority of my skiing is done via human power. That other 20% is at the resort and despite my focus on the backcountry, the days ripping around the resort, banging laps out with your friends are so sick. I’m so backcountry focused I sometimes feel this sense of wonder at these flying chairs that dump you off at the top of the mountain in minutes and let you just play the entire day. Resorts truly are modern marvels.
ASJ: How do you feel about the Palisades Tahoe name change? Are there any eco-social advocacy/stewardship projects you’re especially interested in, or currently a part of?
CT: I am deeply supportive of the name change. The most basic reason is that the more I learned about the old name, that term, and the history of the area the more I realized just how horribly offensive the old name was. It was a term filled with pain for a lot of people and changing the name was a step in the right direction to acknowledge colonial history and allow indigenous peoples into the forefront of society. Personally, my goals as an outdoorsman are just to lift other people up that haven’t had a voice, that want to protect wildlands and to bring them to the front of the conversation and fight to protect our climate and natural world.
ASJ: Were you in Tahoe at all this summer for the smoke/fires? Can you share your thoughts regarding the exacerbation of wildfire in our backyard due to climate change, and how climate change is impacting the craft of sliding on snow?
CT: The fires in California have been downright awful the past decade, making home at times unlivable simply because the air quality is so hazardous for your health. It feels like there are two seasons now, winter and fire season. Ultimately it’s a problem created by a hundred plus years of human and governmental decisions from poor forest management decisions to delaying any action on combatting climate change. The main impact on skiing is the livability of our mountain communities and the desire to live through fire season in order to be close to the snow. It’s making me even question my family’s future here.
ASJ: What gets you stoked outside of skiing?
CT: Surfing is definitely my other sport of passion. Sure I climb, mountain run, bike and all that to pass the non-snowy months but ultimately, surfing and the ocean have had my heart since I was 10 years old. But beyond sport, I think trying to be a better relative to other humans and our natural world is what I’m focused on most outside of skiing. To give back and protect what has made my life so enjoyable.
ASJ: Your roots are in Santa Cruz, do you make it back there often? Do you still have family in the area? Do you still surf your childhood break(s)?
CT: Born and raised on the East Side of Santa Cruz and luckily still have family close to Pleasure Point which makes it very easy to come home, see old friends, get in the water and connect back with my hometown. It’s also nice because I can paddle out to a crowded break like Sewer Peak and still get waves because I know everyone out there … something that’s hard to do in California these days! Ha.
ASJ: How’s van life and how has that style of living influenced The Fifty Project?
CT: After two seasons in the back of a truck, I can say van life is everything it’s cracked up to be and also may have made me a bit soft. Cooking breakfast in my underwear in a heated van at the trailhead just feels like 5-Star living. It makes it hard to leave the van on a brutally cold morning. I feel like I have to do a few nights in a freezing tent just to make sure I don’t get too soft!
ASJ: Can you share any plans about the Fifty Project for this upcoming season?
CT: For 2022, the plan is to continue with the project and mainly base myself up in Canada where I haven’t been able to go for the past two years due to COVID related travel restrictions. There are nine lines up in Canada still to do so putting the focus on those lines and the expedition style trips up in AK are where my primary focus is.
ASJ: Obviously, the global pandemic threw The Fifty off its intended trajectory as a three-year project. What else has the pandemic brought to light for you? What have been the biggest challenges? How far has COVID put you behind with the project? Has COVID offered you a new perspective at all?
CT: The past two years for The Fifty have been tough because of COVID and the impact it had on the world. From cancelling all travel in 2020 right before the primetime ski mountaineering season to being limited to only traveling in the US in 2021, COVID was a major disruption. So for the episodes of 2021, we really focused on quality over quantity. Our episodes are all over 20 minutes long, show far more of the process of what it takes to ski these lines and give viewers more of a behind-the-scenes look. Overall, COVID has done two things for the project. First it has forced me to be more patient and second, it also shows how minor skiing and my project is in the grand scheme of things. Sure this project is a life focus for me, but ultimately, there are far more important things in life and giving focus to those aspects is important.
ASJ: Thanks for your time, Cody! We all look forward to following The Fifty project this Winter! Can you share any final parting thoughts for our readers?
CT: Thanks Brennan and ASJ. Ultimately my only thought to end on is that we are really lucky as skiers and outdoors people. We’re in a time in history where play, adventure and connecting with the outdoors in a recreational spirit has allowed for a type of fun that is incredibly life fulfilling. Making sure we know that this lifestyle isn’t available for millions of others and helping others to get to this quality of life isn’t just a good idea, it’s something we should prioritize as a community of humans in order to make this world a better place for people and the places we love.