Professional free skier Cody Townsend to talk risk management, close calls, and big lines at ESAC’s annual fundraiser
In 2014, Powder Magazine called Cody Townsend’s ski descent of something known as “The Crack,” a six-foot-wide, needle-thin couloir on a peak in the Tordrillo Mountains of Southwest Alaska, The Line of the Year. Skiing Magazine called the long, 60-degree couloir “the most insane ski line ever,” and the footage of Townsend’s descent, captured in the film “Days of My Youth,” has received over 50 million hits on social media. When Townsend shot through the feature, he clocked in at 70 miles per hour. Townsend is the speaker for this year’s Eastern Sierra Avalanche Association (ESAC) fundraiser, on Saturday, December 2.
Townsend grew up in Santa Cruz, but skied in the Mighty Mites program at Squaw Valley starting at age two. When he was 15, he started following free skiing pioneers Scott Gaffney, JT Holmes, and Shane McConkey around his home mountain. “I just followed them around for a good year and tried to keep up. They didn’t even know who I was. I’m sure they were like, ‘who’s this kid?’” Eventually the crew invited him to ski with them, and Townsend started dropping cliffs, doing aerial tricks, and doing his best to keep up in the side and backcountry. “I’m still star-struck about it, all these years later,” reflected Townsend, who remained friends with McConkey until his death in a base-jumping accident in 2009.
Townsend became famous for skiing big lines only accessible by helicopter in Alaska, but says the Sierra are unparalleled in the terrain they offer. “The Eastside is a mecca for touring, ski-mountaineering, couloir skiing. The snowpack and terrain make it a giant playground, but you have to work to get there,” said Townsend, saying the region’s big approaches keep crowds out of the backcountry. “The same pristine lines would be tracked every day if they were anywhere else.”
In his 17 years of professional skiing, Townsend has seen a lot of tragedy. He told John O’Connor of the blog “Gear Patrol” that, by age 32, he had lost 13 friends to skiing accidents.
Townsend had a near-death experience himself in 2011. At the time, he was skiing the best he’d ever skied, and neglected to adequately scout a big line in the Canadian backcountry before deciding to descend. He dropped a 90-foot cliff and found himself hurling toward a landing not of powder, but of rock. He fell forward and hit the edge of the rocks with his skis under him, tumbling onto the snow below. “I was arrogant, and I destroyed nearly all the ligaments in my knee and broke my tibia. If I’d landed on my back, I would be dead,” said Townsend this week. “I brought it back in after that. The mountains are the boss, and you’d better check your ego at the door.”
Townsend said, “I think when people on the outside look at alpinists, big mountain skiers, and big wall climbers, they think we’re just crazy, that we all have big balls and no fear. These people are some of the most calculated decision makers anywhere.” He said he practices sitting with his fear as opposed to conquering it. “If you’re not afraid in a big mountain environment, you’re doing something wrong. Emotional, or irrational fear is a reaction to something that looks scary, feels scary, but is actually of low consequence,” said Townsend. “Rational fear, on the other hand, keeps you on your toes. It makes you ask, ‘what are the legitimate dangers here?’”
Townsend said having a good partner is one of the most important parts of backcountry skiing. “Look for a shared risk quotient, and try to find someone who shares the same goal to make better decisions… Having someone who is willing to back down with you is important,” said Townsend.
On Saturday, Townsend will speak about how he manages the risks associated with performing in a big-mountain environment. He’ll also talk about how he transitioned from being a recreational skier to being a professional skier. His advice to aspiring professional skiers: learn a trade. “The side-hustle is key in a mountain town. I bartended and waited tables for about 10 years,” said Townsend.
According to ESAC President Nate Greenberg, Townsend is part of an emerging trend, where professional, extreme mountain athletes are starting to talk about how they calculate risk in the backcountry. “It is refreshing to hear an athlete of his caliber speaking in such a very introspective and thoughtful manner about decision making,” said Greenberg.
Townsend’s presentation will start at 7 p.m. on Saturday, December 2, at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area’s Eagle Lodge. Doors open at 6 p.m. for a raffle, silent auction, and appetizers. Tickets are $20. Proceeds will support avalanche forecasting 7 days a week for the first time in the Eastern Sierra.