The Big-Mountain Skier from Surf City, USA
Having lived on the cusp of stardom for the past decade, freekier Cody Townsend finally broke through with an epic couloir line in Alaska—but the 15-second clip that made him famous was the product of decades of hard work
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Cody Townsend looks calm and collected as he clicks into his bindings and stares down the throat of a monster—a long, steep, tapering couloir wedged between towering rock walls. He cracks his neck left, then right, like a prizefighter ready for battle. He sucks in a breath of crisp Alaska air, and then exhales.
In a blink, Townsend is swallowed into the mouth of the giant crevasse. He scrubs speed with a hard turn in a shoulder of open space. He regains control and points his skis toward the skinny sliver of daylight a couple thousand feet below. His speed increases by the instant, and the walls appear to be pinching in. “It’s a narrowing hallway feel, like in a horror movie,” he says later. His helmet cam captures the claustrophobic intensity. Quickly, the sliver grows into an inviting, sunlit gap. He shoots out like a bullet, prompting a victorious cry as he blazes arcing turns over a chunky field of avalanche debris.
“I almost ate it right there. I actually hit that and started wheelie-ing, and thought I was going to tomahawk at like 70 miles per hour,” Townsend says, reflecting on the ride later with a laugh. “It would have made the shot a little more interesting, but it would have been a lot less fun.”
Townsend’s wild ride through the slot canyon in Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountains captivated the skiing world and, thanks to YouTube and his helmet cam footage, millions of viewers across the globe. The footage is only a small segment of the Squaw Valley skier’s starring role in the new documentary Days of My Youth, released in October. In December, at the 15th Annual Powder Awards—the Oscars of professional freeskiing—Townsend won Best Line, Best Male Performance, and the coveted Full Throttle award for his performance in the film.
“It’s totally different than any ski movie you’ve ever seen,” Townsend says. “It traces the life of a skier and the many aspects that we all share as skiers—everything from the friendships involved in skiing to growing up with skiing to the fear of skiing to the search for snow. There are all these concepts throughout, and there’s one main character who kind of ties it all together.”
Only one other skier, Sean Pettit, has won both the Full Throttle and Best Male Performance in the same year. Townsend had never won a single Powder Award, let alone three in one year.
“For me, the Powder Awards were the coolest because it’s respect from your peers,” Townsend says. “It felt really awkward going up and receiving them.”
[quote]Despite his racing success, Townsend was drawn to freeskiing, in large part to emulate Squaw Valley icons such as Shane McConkey. He started ditching race training to tail freeskiers around the mountain and try to mirror their stunts.[/quote]
The kind of international attention Townsend is receiving is well deserved. “Cody has paid his dues many times over,” says professional Squaw Valley skier and BASE jumper J.T. Holmes. “Many athletes may have given up, but Cody is an optimist. He stuck with it, and in 2014, he busted down the door.” And at age 31, Townsend might just be hitting his stride.
Townsend grew up a die hard surfer in Santa Cruz, California, but also spent winters sliding down slopes near Lake Tahoe. His family owned a cabin near Squaw Valley and frequently skied there on weekends. Young Cody enrolled in Squaw Valley’s Mighty Mites youth development program and fell in love with downhill skiing from the get-go. He then landed a spot on the resort’s elite youth racing team.
“Pretty much since I was six years old, I wanted to be a skier,” says Townsend. He went on to race on the NorAm circuit and even transferred to North Tahoe High School in the winter months to train, sleeping on a cot in his friend’s bedroom.
During fall seasons, Townsend played quarterback for his high school team back in Santa Cruz. His father played at the college level, and his godbrother, Trent Dilfer, played quarterback professionally for 13 years in the NFL. Cody was talented enough to play in college but didn’t find inspiration on the gridiron like he did on the slopes. “My dad wanted me to keep playing, I think, but I was pretty dead set on skiing,” Townsend says. “With football, you can’t really play your whole life. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to ski.”
Despite his racing success, Townsend was drawn to freeskiing, in large part to emulate Squaw Valley icons such as Shane McConkey. He started ditching race training to tail McConkey, Holmes, and other freeskiers around the mountain and try to mirror their stunts. Before long, he was shirking his racing responsibilities. “I’d show up to races with fat skis,” Townsend says. “I raced a slalom on 1080 twin tips at one point. My coaches were not super happy.”
McConkey was known for his stylish, acrobatic skiing, but he was also a legendary goofball on and off the slopes, never one to take himself or his sport too seriously. He was the guy who’d fart in a crowded Squaw Valley tram and claim it—anything for a good laugh. That playful style is on full display in Days of My Youth. In one clip, Townsend skis tightly between a couple of snowboarders and screams as he shoots by—a McConkey-like maneuver that was passed on to an impressionable teen.
In 2005, after years of skiing with the top dogs of Squaw, Townsend received an invitation to ski on film for Scott Gaffney, co-director of MSP Films, who was shooting The Hit List. It didn’t work out how either had hoped. Townsend says he “skied like crap” and didn’t understand how to perform for a camera. (In the end, Townsend made only a brief appearance in the bonus section.)
“That was really hard to stomach back then,” Townsend says. “It made me question everything. Was I talented enough to accomplish my dreams of being a professional skier? Was that the end of my ski career? What the hell do I do now? It absolutely crushed me. But with the help of my then-girlfriend and now-wife, Elyse [Saugstad], I analyzed what I did in the most nonemotional way and formulated a plan to get back on track.”
After his work with MSP Films fizzled, Townsend turned his attention to competing on the Freeride World Tour and finishing school. By 2007, he had graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a linguistics degree and was gaining valuable experience in ski competitions. Performing before the critical eyes of judges compelled him to become more imaginative with his line selection and tricks, he says. “It teaches you how to read lines and ski in bad conditions, how to ski creatively, and how to pick out lines that other people aren’t,” Townsend says.
During this period of Townsend’s career, a concern crept into the back of the skier’s mind: “What if I can’t make pro skiing pay the bills forever?” He was skiing at Squaw Valley with two of his ski buddies, Tristan Queen and David Bronkie, when Townsend developed the idea that would form the backbone of a successful business.
“We kind of had this minor revelation while skiing that our belts sucked,” Townsend says. “They were either too tight or too loose, the buckle would slam you in the gut if you ate it, you’d get snow down your pants.”
So the three friends learned to sew. They handcrafted 500 belts based on the functionality of stretchy wader belts used in fishing and sold them to local shops around Tahoe. The belts flew off the shelves, and in 2010, Arcade Belt Co. was born. The belts now sell in multiple countries. Last year, the company expanded to an 1,100-square-foot office near Squaw Valley and hired two full-time employees.
A more polished Townsend returned to filming in 2010—five years after he fumbled in front of Gaffney—and tried out again for MSP Films. “We gave him another shot, and he just killed it,” Gaffney says. “He’s been skiing for us ever since.”
[quote]He rehabbed that summer and didn’t miss a beat. He’s now skiing stronger than ever, evidenced by his starring role in Days of My Youth and resulting accolades. “I feel like my pure, unadulterated obsession with skiing has gotten me back every time,” he says.[/quote]
Since then, Townsend has made filming a key component of his career. He has appeared in several movies by MSP Films, Teton Gravity Research, Warren Miller, and other film companies. But those high-performance shoots come with a share of risk and injury.
While filming in British Columbia in April 2011, Townsend endured a terrifying wipeout after launching off a 70-to-80-foot cliff and landing on a protruding rock. He fractured his shinbone, tore a collateral ligament, strained another ligament, partially tore his meniscus, and suffered some bone bruising. He says the incident could easily have ended his career, or worse. Most recently, Townsend tore two ligaments in his knee and suffered a severe bone bruise while filming with MSP in Seward, Alaska, in May 2013.
“I walked away questioning a lot, whether or not this would keep happening in the future … and whether or not stacking up injuries was worth it,” Townsend says. “To come back from it, I did what I’ve always done whether I’m injured or not—set a singular goal and focused every ounce of energy on accomplishing that goal.”
He rehabbed that summer and didn’t miss a beat. He’s now skiing stronger than ever, evidenced by his starring role in Days of My Youth and resulting accolades. “I feel like my pure, unadulterated obsession with skiing has gotten me back every time,” he says.
Townsend was on a ski trip with big-mountain snowboarder Jeremy Jones in 2009 when he got the idea to seek out the giant couloir in Alaska. The pair was in eastern Nevada to ski and ride the Terminal Cancer Couloir, a long, straight chute in the Ruby Mountains. Tapping into his creative roots, Townsend decided he wanted to ski it fast—far from the natural choice for such a daunting feature.
“It was such a fun line; it felt like Star Wars going through it,” he says. “So I thought it would be really cool to go to Alaska or B.C. and find the man version of that—the big, gnarly one. So I’d been looking for it since then.”
[quote]After surviving to tell his story, Townsend says he has no plans to top the feat. In fact, that “one-up” mentality is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of his sport, he says.[/quote]
Townsend discovered the chute while flying over the Tordrillo Mountains with the MSP Films crew in April 2014. (He first had his eye on another, burlier chute but aborted it after determining it was too dangerous.) After scoping his now-famous couloir line on foot, Townsend returned to better conditions two weeks later and skied it, recording his epic footage that went viral online. The ski world is still abuzz.
“That was [Cody] the Racer that was able to pull that off,” says Gaffney, who stood at the top of the line with Townsend to film. “A lot of other skiers think they could do that, but I don’t think a lot of them could really control their speed and everything else necessary to make that line happen.”
While he didn’t realize it at the time, Townsend was not the first to descend the couloir. After the footage was released, pro snowboarder Travis Rice announced on his blog that he and Eric Jackson rode it only weeks prior while filming their latest project. Rice says he spent hours carving out the cornice entrance. Unlike Townsend, however, he shut down his speed to let his slough go by and then took his time riding down.
Rice called and interviewed Townsend and posted the conversation to his blog.
“It was pretty cordial and cool. I had no idea how he was going to react. It could have been a very sensitive thing, and he could have been super bummed, but he was pumped,” says Townsend, adding that Jeremy Nobis and possibly others skied the same line years earlier.
After surviving to tell his story, Townsend says he has no plans to top the feat. In fact, that “one-up” mentality is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of his sport, he says.
“That line was a big set-the-bar moment, one that I almost feel guilty for. I want to set the bar for myself, but I don’t want someone else to look to top that,” Townsend says. “I think this is a good time in my career to kind of pivot and change perspective and do something different—because the audience truly wants their mind to be blown, and to go out there explicitly trying to do that is the single most dangerous thing you can do. You will kill yourself in that process.”
Townsend instead plans to embark on two relatively tame expeditions this season. He’s headed to the northern reaches of Norway, in the Arctic Circle, and then to British Columbia for a self-supported snowmobile mission to a remote range that’s never been skied before.
“I’m going to slow it down and spend more time in the mountains searching for one line and ski it the way I want to ski it,” he says. “I just want to ski for myself.”