For the last four years, Cody Townsend has chased the most noteworthy ski descents on the North American continent—at least those detailed in the book 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America—Documenting his adventures in his show. The Fifty Project. Townsend, who has completed more than forty lines of the project, is now rethinking the way he will complete the last descents.
Cody Townsend, his crew and the episode they were producing of The Fifty Project As his skis cut a skintrack, Townsend recalls looking wistfully across the valley at an enticing descent, thinking “I want to ski that more than anything right now.” But, bound by a specific list of ski lines, Townsend was compelled to shift his focus back to the approach at hand. This moment, however, was a gnawing one for him.
The Fifty Project The ski industry has been a part of the ‘Next Thing’ since 2019 but its roots go back five years. In 2014, following one of the best winters of his career, Townsend was looking for the “next thing.” Serendipitously, he picked up There are 50 classic ski descents in North America, the project’s eponymous coffee table book that details just what you’d expect. While he’d flipped through it many times before, this read was different. Page after page of dramatic ski descents—many requiring remote backcountry travel, winter camping and extensive planning—resonated with Townsend’s search for something new in the sport.
Townsend began his first backcountry trips the next winter. In 2019, Townsend launched The Fifty, his quest to ski and climb all of the lines in There are 50 classic ski descents in North America. Bjarne Salen, Bjarne’s ski partner, and a filmmaker has recorded every line in the YouTube series. The Fifty Project. The descents are varied, from the most technical to the easiest. They trace the North American continent, from Alaska to Canada to the Lower 48. No one has skied every line in the book … yet.
Townsend may be the first to do it, but if he does the endeavor won’t be without its challenges and a keen sense of awareness of the darker side of objective-based skiing. The project, which lasted four years, has led to reflections, and ultimately a reimagining the future of skiing. The Fifty.
The Next Episodes of Last Winter
Townsend, who began his project in 2019, has been diligently ticking off lines ever since. Townsend was able to ski 43 of 50 lines by the time the 22/23 winter season began. This is no small achievement, given that many of the descents are long, require a lot of travel and stable conditions, and have a lengthy approach. Other mountain ranges are only accessible by multi-day winter camping.
The release of The Fifty Project’s Townsend will reveal in the upcoming months the number of lines that he wrote last winter. Salen and Townsend published the first episode of 2023 in early October. Salomon QST Film Tour premiers a 45-minute long episode about their Baffin Island excursion. It is shown in ski resorts around the world. These episodes provide insight into the progress of the project.
Titled “44/50 – SPLIT – Tragedy and Triumph in Split Couloir” that first episode aired in early October, and it encapsulates the challenges of objective-motivated backcountry skiing. After four years and four attempts, Townsend and Salen successfully skied the Eastern Sierra’s Split Couloir. Townsend’s attempt to complete this line was especially difficult because he faced the couloir where his friends KipGarre and Allison Kreutzen died in 2011. “Putting in an effort [on the Split Couloir] after four years of trying was kind of representative of the project as a whole,” Townsend reflects.
Then there is Baffin Island’s Polar Star Couloir, an objective that embodied the culmination of Townsend’s evolution over the course of The Fifty. “The patience, my own personal goals, learning through this process, going from being a newbie to mountaineering to going out there and having the confidence to work with complex anchor systems, make the right calls on a very consequential line, and being able to do it in a safe and sustainable sort of way,” Townsend summarizes, reflecting on skiing Polar Star. “And Baffin is just one of the coolest places on the planet.”
This season has been a great example of this. The FiftyTownsend’s journey has led him to some prestigious ski destinations. But tackling big lines, film crew in tow, is exhausting and has challenged Townsend’s motivations for The Fifty.
Reflections on The Fifty
Fairly brief and often accented with a touch of Townsend’s signature humor, episodes from The Fifty Project You can capture the details of travel, logistics, and technical aspects of certain lines. But it’s just a glimpse. Townsend also had to deal with less documented challenges throughout the project.
Traveling to these 50 lines can be a difficult feat. These locations can be as remote and rugged as they are long, spanning an entire continent. “The amount of travel can be absolutely mind-numbing,” Townsend says, laughing. “That’s one of the downsides of the project. [The travel] actually really does take away from skiing, which is the thing I love most.”
Townsend struggled to maintain his passion for the sport while pursuing big goals. “I love the sport of skiing more than anything I’ve ever known in my life. It is the one throughline in my life that’s been a constant,” he says. “And I’ve always abided by the philosophy that you ski what Mother Nature lets you ski, and this project goes against that. You ski what’s in the book.”
Skiing objectively can not only challenge our passion, but also affect, if we are not to say change, the way that we perceive risk. With The FiftyThe success of the project is clear and quantifiable. It’s either a line that is crossed out or not. When you’re in the mountains, having traveled thousands of miles to check off one line on a list, it can be hard—really hard—to make the decision to bail. “Objective-based skiing adds a different layer of risk in the mountains, and that is one of the things I think about a lot,” Townsend explains. “It was a big thing I had to wrestle with early on [in the project]. I had make sure that I was mentally aware of both myself and the entire group so I didn’t let them make any decisions while we were in mountains. If you do that, you’re going to really start putting yourself in danger.”
The Future of The Fifty Project
Townsend has mastered the technical, mental and logistical challenges of The Fifty, one thing has remained steadfast: Townsend’s love of skiing and desire to push himself. He has been able to complete more than 40 lines out of 50 with resolve. But when he’s being honest with himself, it has taken a toll.
“My main goal in life is to do rad shit and come home at the end of the day,” Townsend says. “And that takes sacrifice, that takes patience, and that takes maybe not completing your objectives. … I want to make sure I’m doing this thing in a sustainable way.” Realizing that objective-based skiing can “chip away at the purity of [the sport],” Townsend is shifting how he approaches The Fifty.
Townsend wants to ski all the lines in his book at his own pace and on his terms. In the meantime, he’s going to go back to his roots: the pure love of skiing.
“The web series of regular episodes coming out is going to end this December. There is most likely going to be no more episodes coming out in 2024,” Townsend admitted. “My attempts on the last lines remaining are going to happen. I’m just going to be doing them more on my own and with my friends and less trying to produce an episode out of it,” he explains. “Ultimately what I want this project to be remembered for is the storytelling, the adventures with your friends, going out there laughing and doing it in a style that is safe and sustainable, and making conservative decisions so you can continue to do this for a long time.”
Followers of The Fifty Project can expect to see the remainder of 2023’s episodes drop through December. They can be found on Townsend’s YouTube channel.
For more of our coverage on The Fifty and skiing North America’s classic lines, pick up a copy of This issue 136. Or Subscribe to read more stories from the untracked experience when they’re first published.
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