Cody Townsend Sheds His Ego
The elite ski mountaineer was struggling mightily on an expedition. To get through it, he would have to get out of his own way.
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Cody Townsend shared his story with producer Paddy O’Connell for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It was edited for length and clarity.
Some of the best lessons I’ve learned in my life came from mountains. The suffering, the horrible heinous conditions, skiing hard pack on the steeps, and going really deep into places few people have ever been before. These poignant moments where your ego is shoved straight in your face are really, really clutch to stepping through to that next level of contentment, of happiness.
I am a skier and, these days, a ski mountaineer. A long time ago, I was a free ride skier, but I just prefer to call myself a skier. I like devoting your life to chasing fun things, which may seem a little bit selfish, but ultimately I feel like it’s a good, happy way to live your life. And somehow I’m here 20 years later, still doing it. I’m ancient when it comes to the terms of being a professional skier.
I’ve had many lessons from the mountains and many lessons related to ego. This moment was one of the more powerful ones.
A Ski Descent of Denali
We were going to do 6,000 feet of climbing with our skis on our back and try and ski off the summit of Denali.
When you’re stepping out of 14 Camp, it takes a couple hours to get to the base of this massive head wall: this steep face with fixed lines and a conga line of climbers going up and down them.
The sun at that point is right on your back and the ambient air temperature might be in the minus tens, but the sun is so powerful that you’re immediately sweating. You feel like you could strip down to your underwear and be comfortable, yet the snow is glistening and frozen and not affected by the sun at all. You’re hearing the squeaks of your crampons digging into this creaky cold snow. You’re watching the cornices and the crevasses ahead of you. You get onto the fixed lines and then take out your ice axes and start climbing up a pretty steep face to the first ridge line.
There’s two guys in our group: one who has spent about a month at elevation and one who’s just like a physical freak. As we start going up, we’re going pretty fast and we are at a pace that I don’t feel is sustainable. I feel like as a team, we’re pushing a little too hard, and if we get up to a high altitude point, that’s gonna catch up with us. That’s the most dangerous thing: pushing hard down low and then all of a sudden getting high. And that really could be not only debilitating towards getting to the summit, but could end up being fatal. That was all of a sudden in my mind.
We get to the top of this ridge at about 16,500 feet, and I remember taking off my pack, struggling with my A-frame and getting my skis apart to get into my roll top bag. And that’s when I realized I was huffing and puffing.
I speak up to the crew. I’m like, we’re moving way too fast. We’re not gonna be able to sustain this pace. We need to slow down.
They look at me with blank stares like, we’re not moving too fast. They pushed back silently to my plea to slow down, and they took off. And at that moment I felt nothing but anger.
I don’t like to blame other people, so I immediately looked inward. I was like, what’s up with you? Why are you angry? And it was just this like straight up epiphany. It was my ego that was angry and wanting to keep up with people that are stronger than me.
The goal is getting to the summit and skiing back down. The goal isn’t to try and keep up with these physical freaks. You have to acknowledge your own fitness, your own skills, your own training for this, and come back and realize who exactly you are.
And when I felt the weight of the ego shed from me is when I shouldered my pack again. I remember feeling actually lighter, like my pack got lighter. The next few steps I took, I felt like I had more energy than at any moment on that climb before and the days leading up to that point. And for the first time I felt so happy to be there.
I’m looking off this ridge line at 17,000 feet over just some of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen in my life. Every step was just filled with joy. And it was because I shed that ego of wanting to be fast, wanting to be strong, wanting to be a professional skier and a professional ski mountaineer. And as soon as I shed that, I started enjoying the entire climb.
I cried three times actually on the way up Denali. Just out of pure joy, I want to say—but possibly altitude effects as well.
Once we got to the summit, I had one of the most magical ski runs of my life. I skied a 5,500-foot couloir called the Messner Couloir. And I ended up doing it solo.
It was like ten at night. The sun is just barely above the horizon, but still not going down because we’re in Alaska and it’s June and the sun really doesn’t go down at that time of year. This sense of awe and wonder of where I was, was absolutely beyond overwhelming.
My ego almost didn’t let me have that moment on that ski run, have those moments of crying three times on the way up, have those laughs with my team, climb with my team. If I was trying to keep up with them because something inside me wanted to prove that I’m as strong as these other two people, none of those moments would have ever come.
Knowing who you are, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, knowing your own drives, knowing what happened to you emotionally a day ago, a week ago, a month ago, where you were at in life and how that affects your decision making, whether that be in mountains or whether that be in day to day life, I think is crucially important.
I’ve taken that moment, and I try to carry it around with me.
Professional skier Cody Townsend is trying to complete a years-long goal of skiing Fifty iconic North American ski descents. His effort is documented in the YouTube series, “The Fifty.” You can follow along on Instagram @the.fifty.project or @codytownsend.
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