Cody Townsend’s Honeymoon with Death Is Still on Hold

Last winter, Cody Townsend went viral after skiing the line of his life: The Crack.

Cody Townsend – Action
"The Crack" | Blake Jorgenson/Red Bull Content Pool

For a while afterwards, he just lay there, loath if not exactly unable to move, knee pounding, vision fogged over, snow beginning to eddy in the soft, sickening whorl of a cataclysmic yard sale. Looking back, Cody Townsend acknowledges he had perhaps been a bit rash, with a bit too much surplus ego, skiing off an 80-foot cliff in the Canadian outback after scant reconnaissance. But it had seemed doable from the heli: a narrow, jackknifed spine-wall with a gnarly overhang. Although, that was all he could see. His line vanished after the first ten feet. No worries. In over a decade of backcountry free skiing, Townsend had done worse. Never mind that the two other pros he was with that day had begged off. Chickenshits.

As it turned out, the cliff didn’t overhang at all but rather sloped outwards. A lot. As if, at the end of a well-lit hallway, suddenly… a trapdoor. Townsend flew off the lip and plummeted straight onto dry rock. It was like falling seven stories onto a sidewalk. Had he landed on his heels, he would’ve been killed or paralyzed. But Townsend’s first impulse, having grown up in the surf of Santa Cruz, was to pitch forward — to wrench out a midair pirouette of sorts, wherein he managed to get his skis under him and, on impact, skip off the rocks onto the snow, where he rag-dolled 100 yards to the bottom. From the knee down, his leg basically exploded: torn ACL and MCL, shattered tibial plateau, frayed meniscus. But somehow, once again, on a solitary mountainside deep in the heart of the unknown, Cody Townsend had postponed his honeymoon with death.

That was in 2011. Townsend was back on skis eight months later, ripping indelible lines again, though, for longevity’s sake, reining in the ego a tad.

It’s tough to fathom it now, but Townsend was a largely unknown force in free skiing back then. He’d been plugging away for years, waiting tables while stringing sponsors together. Hardly anyone noticed when he almost sidelined into academia (linguistics) at UC Santa Cruz. He got married, bought a house. Worker-bee stuff. Settling into the quiet commonplace. It happens.

“I was grinding along,” Townsend says, “wondering if I was wasting 10 years of my life trying to be a professional skier only to wind up battered and dead broke with no job at 40. It went through my head a lot.”

That all changed last winter, when Townsend skied the line of his life* in Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountains. You’ve seen this. There’s this guy screaming down an impossibly steep, needle-nose couloir — a near-vertical rock tooth splashed with snow, essentially — in a wild, hair-on-fire descent that seems like an optical illusion, doubly so when he’s swallowed by a long curl of granite. Yet there he is spitting out the bottom, emerging as if from a wave, howling in amazement.

The thing went viral, as in The Today Show came calling. Random corporate sponsors followed. Fucking reality TV. All of a sudden, everyone wanted a piece, and Townsend cleaned up at the annual Powder Awards — free skiing’s Oscars — winning three prizes, including the coveted Full Throttle award. Things were never the same.

Cody Townsend has struck on a fresh approach: to hell with the easy fly-ins. The backcountry guides, fancy lodges. No more pampering. He’s doing it all himself, thank you.
GP Martin

The preamble is worth some backtracking: 2014 was a shit snow year in Alaska. Townsend, who was filming in the Tordrillos with Matchstick Productions (the resulting film, Days of My Youth, was released last October) would’ve normally been skiing spine-walls — rock faces shaped like a crinkled shower curtain — but they were solid ice. For weeks, the crew putzed around the lodge, waiting for snow. Then one morning they got a dusting and up they went in the heli, tracing striated razorbacks of volcanic and glaciated cascades, until finally it appeared.

“We almost missed it,” Townsend says. “It was a sliver. When I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh my god, does that go through?’”

They called it The Crack. On sight, Townsend knew it was a piece of a very intimate shadow he’d been chasing for a long while, going back to his early childhood in Squaw Valley, when he realized, around the time most kids are switching to fast-pitch, that he was cast from chancier stuff.

“The past few years,” he says, “I’ve been trying to find a balance between pushing the outer limits of what I can do on skis and staying alive.”

Because here’s the thing about freeskiing: No matter how you slice it, death and disfigurement are omnipresent. They are its essence. You make your peace with that one way or another.

“Death is always in my brain,” says Townsend, 32, who has lost 13 friends to skiing accidents over the years, including his best friend, C.R. Johnson, who died in 2010, and Shane McConkey, who fell to his death during a ski-BASE jump in 2009. Of the five kids Townsend grew up skiing with at Squaw, only two remain.

“The past few years,” he says, “I’ve been trying to find a balance between pushing the outer limits of what I can do on skis and staying alive.”

Before he dropped into The Crack, Townsend had a good look around — the Tordillos are a string of 11,000-foot peaks cut by huge magmatic dikes just miles from the Gulf of Alaska — and also, it probably goes without saying, inward.

“I was so calm, almost Zen-like,” he says. “It wasn’t ego. It was knowing that everything I’d done in my life had led up to this. I got to a place where I could be very analytical about it.”

In the video, you can see Townsend make a few turns at the top. They were more like controlled power-slides, fraught stabs at an edge. But halfway down, as the rock pressed tight, there was no room to turn, and he had to straight-line it. “It was the fastest I’ve gone since I was a downhill racer,” he says. The exit was so narrow he could’ve touched rock with outstretched hands. “I was cookin’ out the bottom of that thing.” He was pushing 70 mph.

In a weird twist, The Crack occasioned Cody Townsend’s “Nashville Skyline” moment. He decided to chuck the industry method, cut loose from the media circus, the reality TV bozos who wanted him to ski The Crack again, or perhaps even up the ante to crazier, deadlier stuff.

No, he’s after something else altogether.

“When I was 20 years old I was comfortable dying while skiing,” he says. “Now, it seems like a selfish way to go.” Which is not to say you’ll find Townsend at the office potluck, shoveling turkey-and-provolone pinwheels. Free skiing defines him, keeps him sane. “This year opened my eyes to so many possibilities, so many different ways of being. There’s so many stories to tell,” he says.

Townsend has struck on a fresh approach: to hell with the pampered, painless backcountry fly-ins, the heli-guides and luxury lodges, après-ski masseuses and fireside apéritifs. He’s doing it all himself, thank you. Self-driven and self-actualized, with little more than a GPS, camera and snowmobile. Out into the blank spaces that nobody’s skied before, along British Columbia’s coastal range. Just getting there’s a doozy. The nearest trailhead is 100 miles off. Place is rife with dead-end 80-foot cliffs to cannonball, with no safety nets to speak of. But you gotta climb them first, you see, scout everything from the bottom up, stow the barnstorming manliness to tackle it clean, with balls but good sense. Because you screw up out here, that’s it. There’s no one to rescue you.

* Townsend considers a 2010 descent in Girdwood, Alaska, to be the line of his life, far scarier if less cinematic than “The Crack.”

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