The Future of The Fifty: Cody Townsend Considers What’s Left to Accomplish

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—while documenting his missions in his show, The Fifty Project. More than 40 lines later, the project has taken its toll and Townsend is rethinking how he wants to complete the final descents.

Sharp, stark views. Cody Townsend and Vivian Bruchez look out at the peaks of Baffin Island. Courtesy Cody Townsend

Last winter, Cody Townsend and his film crew were slogging through the approach to a ski line while producing an episode 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. That moment, though, gnawed at him.

The Fifty Project has been an institution in the ski world since 2019, but its origins trace back to five years earlier. In 2014, following one of the best winters of his career, Townsend was looking for the “next thing.” Serendipitously, he picked up 50 Classic Ski Descents of 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.

After four years of The Fifty, Townsend has settled in comfortably to routine winter camping trips. Courtesy Cody Townsend

The next winter, Townsend started doing his first backcountry camping trips. In 2019, he officially launched The Fifty: his quest to climb and ski all the lines in 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America. Up until now, ski partner and filmmaker Bjarne Salen has documented every line and compiled them into the YouTube series The Fifty Project. The descents range from super technical to relatively straightforward and trace the North American continent from Alaska to Canada and across 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. After four years, the project has prompted reflections and, ultimately, a reimagining of the future of The Fifty.

Upcoming Episodes from Last Winter

While the outbreak of the Covid pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions slowed his progress, Townsend has diligently ticked off lines since he began the project in 2019. Heading into the 22/23 season, Townsend had skied 43 of the 50 lines, no small feat given that most of the descents require extensive travel, stable conditions and long approaches. Others necessitate multiday winter camping trips to access the depths of big mountain ranges.

With the release of The Fifty Project’s newest season over the coming months, Townsend will reveal the number of lines he completed last winter. Salen and Townsend released the first 2023 episode in early October. A second, 45-minute extended episode detailing their Baffin Island trip is premiering on the Salomon QST Film Tour, which is showing in ski towns across the world. These episodes offer insight into the progression of the project.

Townsend bootpacks en-route to ski Split Couloir. Courtesy Cody Townsend

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. Completing this line was particularly difficult, as Townsend faced the couloir that claimed the lives of his friends Kip Garre and Allison Kreutzen 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.”

As this past season exemplified, The Fiftyhas taken Townsend to some revered 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 capture tidbits of the logistics, planning, travel and the technicality of certain lines. But it’s just a glimpse. Throughout the project, Townsend has also faced less-documented challenges.

For many lines on the list, an alpine start is just the beginning of what is required for success. Courtesy Cody Townsend

One of the oft-underappreciated feats associated with attempting these 50 lines is the travel required to reach them. From Baffin to Alaska to interior British Columbia to New Hampshire, the locations are often as remote as they are rugged and stretch across 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.”

Throughout the project, Townsend has grappled with balancing chasing big objectives and maintaining his love of the sport. “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.”

Not only can objective-based skiing challenge the passion that pulls us all toward the sport in the first place, but it can also influence, if not change, how we judge risk in the mountains. With The Fifty, success is clear and quantifiable. A line is completed 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 to make sure I was mentally aware enough of myself and the group as a whole to not let the number make any sort of decisions when we were in the mountains. If you do that, you’re going to really start putting yourself in danger.”

After four years and four attempts Townsend tastes the fruits of his labor, linking turns down Split Couloir. Courtesy Cody Townsend

The Future of The Fifty Project

Even as Townsend has navigated the logistical, technical and mental challenges of The Fifty, one thing has remained steadfast: Townsend’s love of skiing and desire to push himself. Resolve has gotten him through more than 40 of 50 lines. But when he’s being honest with himself, it has taken a toll.

Driven by a love of skiing, Townsend intends to continue ticking off the final few lines on the list, but going forward he’s doing it on his own terms. Courtesy Cody Townsend

“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.

While Townsend intends to finish skiing all the lines in the book, he wants to do it on his own terms and at his own pace. 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 Issue 136. Or subscribe to read more stories from the untracked experience when they’re first published.

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  1. Ben Haight says:

    What lines does he have left lol?

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