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Skiing

The Mountain that Nearly Broke Cody Townsend

Professional skier Cody Townsend is midway through his effort to ski the 50 classic lines in North America, but one out-of-the-way line in Glacier National Park proved the hardest of his career

By Micah Drew
Cody Townsend on the slopes of Mt. Stimson in Glacier National Park. Photography by Cody Townsend and Bjarne Salén

In March 2021, rumors began to seep through the Flathead skiing community that Cody Townsend, a former professional alpine ski racer turned Hollywood blockbuster stunt skier, might be in the area. Eventually, the rumor was backed up by sightings of Townsend’s ostentatious Mercedes sprinter van with his “The FIFTY” mountain logo on the side. 

The FIFTY is Cody’s multi-year project to ski every line as laid out in the iconic book “Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America.” Those who knew the book knew that Mount Stimson, one of Glacier National Park’s six towering peaks above 10,000 feet, was on the list.

I reached out to Cody in March, just in case the rumors were true, hoping to get through what I assumed were hundreds of fan emails and media requests. 

Nothing. 

The rumor mill eventually died down and it wasn’t until June 23, when Cody dropped a highlight reel for season three of the project that the Glacier trip was all but confirmed. Three minutes into the video, several aerial clips show a series of dramatic peaks. One is unmistakably the jagged glacially carved summit of Mount Stimson. 

Final confirmation came a few weeks later, in a brief email response from Cody: “We were up around those parts in March, but we ended up bailing. [We] came back in April to end up getting a successful mission on Stimson. I mean, it almost broke us given how gnarly hard it is to get in and out of there, but we did it and it was a damn fine ski mission.”

The line down the southwest face of Mt. Stimson. Photography by Cody Townsend and Bjarne Salén

The book, “Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America,” was compiled by Chris Davenport, Art Burrows and Penn Newhard in 2010 to identify lines across the U.S. and Canada that fit the broad definition of “classic.” The book relied on local experts to provide intelligence on what they considered the most dramatic and iconic lines in each region.  

Of the 50, two lines are in the eastern U.S. and one on Baffin Island in Nunavut. Most are scattered around classic mountain havens like Colorado, Utah, the Canadian Rockies and the great Pacific Northwest volcanoes. There are just two lines in Montana: the Patriarch, a 2,500-foot couloir on Glacier Peak in the Beartooths, and the Southwest Face of Mount Stimson in Glacier National Park’s Nyack Valley. 

Mount Stimson looms 5,000 feet above Pinchot Creek and from the summit a sheer pitch of broken shale runs 4,000 vertical feet until reaching a cliff band with a convenient exit to skier’s left. Locals Pete Costain and Andy Zimet made the first descent in 1997, and Pete wrote about it for the book, calling the face a “ski mountaineer’s dream.” 

Even in summer, summiting Mount Stimson is a feat. The shortest route requires a 12-mile approach through primitive backcountry on poorly maintained trails. Looking down from the summit, the idea that the face is skiable, even when covered with a blast of snow, is almost unfathomable. 

In the winter, however, the white-covered visual seems more attainable, especially to Pete who had flown all over the park with a pilot taking photos of potential backcountry routes. 

“I never realized there was so much stuff to ski back there,” he said. “I never ended up doing anywhere near the number of descents I wanted to.”

He did make it to Stimson in 1997, at the tail end of “the mother of all winters.”

Nick Russell crosses a creek on the way to Mt. Stimson. Photography by Cody Townsend and Bjarne Salén

“I knew from talking to guys who had hiked it that the approach would be hateful without a lot of snow,” he recalled. “But we had just unprecedented snowpack that year.”

Pete and Andy skinned in and made camp high up towards the Stimson-Pinchot saddle before summiting the south face and finally taking in the line from the top. 

“Andy wasn’t the most confident skier back then, and he was thinking of maybe just going back down the south face,” Pete said, but eventually the two dropped into the southwest face and didn’t stop for 4,000 feet. 

“It was the perfect big mountain cream cheese pow run most of the way down the face,” Pete said. 

Although the snowpack down low was near record, Pete recalls the approach was a horrendous bushwhack. 

“Virtually anything you do in the park can be just atrocious,” he said. “It’s kind of a symptom of the area, you know we’ve got huge vertical relief but there aren’t any passes to get you up high. You’re always starting way down in the jungle somewhere.”

Pete knew Cody would be attempting the line at some point during his multi-year project and would have had a word of advice. 

“If Cody had gotten ahold of me around when they were going to do it, I’d have said no, it’s going to be just terrible,” Pete said. “I flat out would have told them to wait for a better year.”

Cody Townsend, left, and Nick Russell on the approach to Mt. Stimson in Glacier National Park. Photography by Cody Townsend and Bjarne Salén

On Oct. 23, Cody released episode 28 of The FIFTY on YouTube featuring Stimson as the 31st line of the project. The video starts with Cody standing in a forest, surrounded by shoulder-high trees in his touring setup and a large white pack on his back. 

On a Zoom call from his house in Lake Tahoe, California, Cody recapped what was supposed to be a two-day outing. 

“Day one was about seven miles as the crow flies, and it took us ten and a half hours. Then we climbed and skied, which was an 11-hour day. We were so exhausted, we knew we weren’t going to be able to walk out,” Cody said. “On day three, we had run out of food, we were incredibly exhausted, and we all broke.”

Snowboarder Nick Russell joined Cody on the trip, as did Bjarne Salén, the cinematographer for The FIFTY.  

“We’re all really happy go lucky guys, especially when it comes to suffering. You laugh and you’re just kind of happy about it, you roll with it,” Cody said. “We say it’s privileged suffering and you can opt-out whenever you want, but this was the kind of suffering where we actually broke.”

 “It was awful beyond all means. Just really, really brutal.”

Cody Townsend, left, and Nick Russell prepare to cross the Middle Fork of the Flathead River on the approach to Mt. Stimson. Photography by Cody Townsend and Bjarne Salén

Of the regions where the 50 lines are found, Cody said he knew the least about Montana, despite having spent time in Whitefish during his ski racing days. It fits with his reason for starting the project — in his former life of filming “typical” ski movies, he ended up in the same areas each year, skiing big lines in Alaska or British Columbia. 

“Meanwhile, there are all these amazing zones all over North America that you don’t have an excuse to go to,” Cody said, adding that he couldn’t believe the size of Stimson when he first saw it. “Stimson looks like an Alaskan peak sticking straight out of the forest, just this great white shark fang sticking up into the sky.”

To prepare for the FIFTY, Cody spent months looking at historical weather data, route beta and avalanche forecasts in order to plot each line on a spreadsheet and pinpoint rough timeframes each would be most accessible. Stimson was labeled for a short late-season window, and in 2021, with the Canadian border closed and only a handful of lines left in the U.S., it moved up the list for the season. 

In early spring, Cody reached out to the Flathead Avalanche Center and began the process of obtaining his filming permit for Glacier. He said park officials expressed concern that a ski movie might drive up winter visitation to the park. 

“You know, after our success on Stimson, I can tell them we’re not going to be inspiring anybody,” Cody said. “Nobody is going to watch our video and go ‘Yes, let’s go do Mount Stimson.’”

The approach to Stimson from U.S. Highway 2 starts with a crossing of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River full of snowmelt and the occasional mini iceberg. Nick donned full waders for the crossing, Cody slipped on little booties for traction and Bjarne had a pair of black Crocs in sport mode.  

“That was the easiest part, by far,” Cody said in retrospect. “I would cross the river 10 times in a row, barefoot, if I didn’t have to do that bushwhack again.”

After the river, Cody characterized the trek as the “single worst approach I’ve ever done in my entire life,” a 10-and-a-half-hour obstacle course full of deadfall and dozens of mini creek crossings.

A 2 a.m. start on the second day gave the crew several hours of slow progress through darkness and as dawn brightened their objective remained shrouded in clouds.  

“It seemed like the mountains were telling us we were pushing too hard,” Cody said. “At that moment I decided in my mind we weren’t going to the summit. That’s the lesson I was going to learn from this mountain, that I’ve got to have more patience and more time.”

But while that thought percolated through their collective conscience, the trio decided to keep skinning, aiming to at least catch a good sunrise over Glacier. As the sun crested the distant peaks and lit their objective up close, the last bit of cloud cover burned away and the group continued ascending. 

“Just like every kind of mountain adventure, until you get there you truly don’t understand,” Cody said. “That flurry of energy in your stomach, those little butterflies, that kind of tension in your throat. I had one of those moments where you can’t tell if they’re necessarily real or in your head or if they have some deeper meaning.”

“You feel a place differently when you’re standing on top of a mountain,” he continued. “Glacier National Park is one of the most popular parks in the world and yet you can count the few people that have stood on top of that exact place.”

The trip peaked at its physical high point. 

“Ski mountaineering isn’t necessarily about the sensation of sliding on snow,” Cody said. “It’s more about where you are in the world, it’s a tool to get you into really cool places.”

Predawn approach to the summit of Mt. Stimson in Glacier National Park. Photography by
Cody Townsend and Bjarne Salén

“At the summit, I felt like I had come to peace with this challenge in front of me and realized that the challenge was not the mountain, the challenge is always yourself,” Cody said. “I sometimes question the metaphysical kind of lessons you learn from mountains, but sometimes they’re very true. And that one felt true.”

What also rang true was that the unplanned third day of the trip broke all three men.  

“We were all just swearing nonstop,” Cody said. “We were swimming through the forest the whole time and you couldn’t turn because your skis couldn’t make it and it just never opened up. At one point I felt my tip get caught on a tree and I went forward downhill with a 60-pound pack on top of me in like a Christmas tree farm. It took me 20 minutes to get back up and that’s when I really snapped.”

As Cody said to the camera, “This takes ‘it’s never over until you’re at the car’ to a whole new level.”

“I have a lot of respect for everyone who’s done this line,” Cody said to his companions back at the van. “You’re suddenly in this league of being able to suffer harder than even good sufferers to do that line. I want to say that was awesome but it wasn’t. That was horrible.”

His companions responded as only seasoned sufferers can. 

“Tomorrow, we’ll think it’s awesome.” 

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