Staying Home With Pro Skier Cody Townsend

The Fifty project is on hold, but he’s still seeking solutions for the greater good

The coronavirus pandemic has interrupted the daily lives of everyone on the planet. For professional skiers, the premature end of ski season resulted in canceled film projects, expeditions put on hold, and a sudden decrease of work.

To find out how the athletes leading our sport are coping with the pandemic and hear what they are doing to stay healthy and sane, we’re catching up with a few of them in a five-part interview series rolling out this week. Read our first installment with Utah’s Drew Petersen here.

Cody Townsend, based in Lake Tahoe, California, has captivated a global audience with his attempt to climb and ski all the lines in the 2010 book, “Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America,” while producing an ongoing video series. The first episodes ran in early 2019. Watch the newly released Ep. 25 right here.

Prior to the pandemic, Townsend and filmer Bjarne Salén were still traveling the continent, ticking off lines from their project, dubbed The Fifty, as the routes came into mid-winter form. The coronavirus pandemic has since put that on hold, but the 37-year-old is staying busy at home with his wife, big mountain skier Elyse Saugstad, completing house projects, and focusing his attention on the greater good during this period of uncertainty.

At Home with Cody Townsend
Photo Credit: Ming Poon

POWDER: Before COVID-19 changed the entire world, what was the status of the project?
Townsend: We were on a really good pace. It was a slow pace to start the winter but then we ticked off seven lines in four weeks. We were about to go into the busy point of the season, March, April and May, when the big lines come in and were prepping for what was shaping up to be a ridiculous run, because of the conditions we were seeing.

Your original goal for this project was to complete it in three years. Has this pandemic altered that timeframe?
I’ve had to evaluate a lot of risk on this project and I did not foresee the risk of global pandemic being an issue for completing it in a three-year timeframe. So that three-year goal is completely out the window now. Trust me, I tried to figure out a way, I said, “I bet we can do this, I bet we can continue,” and then it just got to a point where it became completely socially irresponsible to continue this project while the world is at a standstill.

In the meantime, I see you’ve been hard at work keeping the project in the spotlight. You hosted a live Q&A about the Mount Washington episode. Anything similar in the works?
We have three more normal ski episodes to release through April but, in the meantime, while everyone is stuck inside I wanted try and do some of the stuff we’re not able to do normally, because we’re working on the ski portion. It’s a good opportunity to connect with fans of the project. There seems to be such a healthy fandom behind it, it’s been a blessing to be able to talk with the people that have been asking questions directly.

You shared some fan artwork pertaining to “The FIFTY” on your Instagram. Have you seen any other creative works or responses that have acted as a silver lining through all of this?
I’ve been getting more direct emails from people because they have time and know we’re all inside. I’ve gotten more emails in the past few weeks with passion behind them, people telling their story about turning around, because of one of the videos where they saw that we turned around.

Also, hearing about kids being into it, wanting to backcountry ski one day and approaching it with a safe mentality; messages from people saying it’s inspired them and they’re doing backcountry skiing the right way with education first rather than just going out and getting after it. To think that this project is having this impact is something I couldn’t have foreseen when I started it.

Cody Townsend, Lonely Chairlift
Photo Credit: Ming Poon
Townsend is seen here practicing social distancing well before its time. Bravo, Cody.

You own a small business, Arcade Belts. How is the company operating during the pandemic?
When you own a company and have thirteen employees whose salaries and livelihoods are based on decisions you make, it’s stressful. We don’t want to let them down or cut them aside, so our number one focus right now is survival and keeping people on payroll.

We’re in a healthy position, but at the same time it’s incredibly stressful because no one knows when it’s going to end. I think every company of our size in the world right now is thinking the same way. Besides survival, our CEO has been getting overseas shipments of N-95 medical masks and donating them directly to the hospital. I had nothing to do with that decision, it was all Tristan Queen, and it reminded me of the passion of small businesses that have a connection to their communities, fight for their employees and the people around them, because it’s the only thing we have.

A lot of companies will be judged by how they reacted during this crisis. It’s admirable that Arcade isn’t taking the short-view on things.
I just saw the news where Hobby Lobby laid off employees over email—no severance package, no healthcare, no lifeline, nothing other than the CEO saying, “God is in control.” He’s worth $6.5 billion.

You see that level of disrespect to humanity and you counter it with the fact that these small businesses, which are on a crisis line, going out of their way to help people, keep people employed, and keep fighting for the community. It becomes evident how small businesses can be good for the community, while others are just extracting from communities.

Do you have any tactics you’re relying on that you’d like to share with others to help stay sane and healthy right now?
What I’m trying to focus on is thinking not in terms of my own survival but what can I do to help people. I have some fundraising ideas and things I can do that would utilize my position and fanbase to maybe do something that helps us get out of this rather than just stay at home. I’m in a unique position to be able to help and not be stressed to fight for my own family’s survival.

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