Inside Freeskier Cody Townsend’s White-Knuckle Plan to Conquer North America’s Most Dangerous Mountains

In March 2021, Townsend’s and Saugstad’s lives changed when she found out she was pregnant. Nonetheless, a couple of weeks later, in April, Townsend, a 38-year-old father-to-be, set his sights on a tricky line called the Patriarch (No. 36), on Glacier Peak, deep in Montana’s Beartooth Range. The Patriarch requires a 15-mile approach, two nights of winter camping, technical ropework to rappel into the 55-degree couloir, and iron nerves to ski both below a dangerous hanging cornice and above a huge cliff, all the while knowing that any slip would likely be fatal.

In addition to Salen, Townsend’s partners on that expedition were North Face pro Jim Morrison and North Face team captain Hilaree Nelson, the late matriarch of extreme skiing. The quartet made the rarely skied line look almost routine.

What would have been line No. 37 was even more difficult: Alaska’s Mount Saint Elias, which straddles the US-Canadian border and rises directly from the Gulf of Alaska. At 18,008 feet, it’s the second-highest peak in both countries, a mountain known for horrible and unpredictable weather, monster avalanches, and a labyrinth of gullies and ridgelines. Townsend and Salen teamed up with Tahoe snowboarder Nick Russell and Alaska guide Dan Corn, and were dropped off via ski plane on the glacier with supplies for three weeks.

They made it to 13,000 feet before an ominous weather report forced them to retreat. With 70-pound packs, they attempted to descend to their pickup location on the beach. But they soon got lost and found their path blocked by cliffs and a maze of gullies. Worse, heat-induced avalanches began raining down all around them.

“Not a great situation,” said Townsend.

“Pretty serious,” Russell replied as Corn scouted for a way out the side of the gully.

“These are the moments you kind of regret the decisions you’ve made,” said Townsend. “I’m not proud of this at all.”

Corn found them an escape route down an adjacent gully, and moments after they’d skied it to safety, the entire thing ripped out above them in what Townsend called “the largest avalanche I’ve ever personally witnessed.”

“If we were in that couloir, we all would have gotten smoked, straight up,” said Russell. It took seven more days of waiting on the socked-in beach before a plane could safely pick them up. For Townsend to finish his quest, they’d have to go back.

That was May 2021. In October of that year, Indiana Townsend was born. “There was something in my brain that’s never fired before,” Townsend said about becoming a dad. “I just can’t wait for that age from 5 to 12 when I can actually take him out and do stuff.” Indy is a happy kid who never goes anywhere without his plastic Lamborghini and loves to terrorize Theo, the family’s toy Yorkie.

“I’ve wanted to keep Indy out of my profile,” Townsend told me, referring to his social media presence. “There is a line between my household and who I am and what is out there in the media.”

Saugstad, on the other hand, readily embraced Indy as part of her professional image. In May, she was just wrapping up shooting a mockumentary with fellow freeride luminary and new mom Jackie Paaso, which they titled Here, Hold My Kid. It’s about two veteran pros who give birth and suddenly realize their sponsor has room for only one mommy shredder on the roster. A charming death match and pointed industry critique ensues. “Luckily, it’s so over-the-top that you realize this really isn’t us,” said Saugstad. “At least I hope so.”

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