The Most Determined Skier
Elyse Saugstad is at the top of her career despite going at it mostly alone. What’s her next move?
This story originally published in the October 2014 issue of POWDER (43.3)
The alarm clock beeped at 4:45 a.m. in Pemberton, British Columbia. Under the dim track lighting in the kitchen, Elyse Saugstad went through the rhythms of her morning routine with her husband, Cody Townsend, eating a quick breakfast—two eggs (fried, fresh from the chicken coop in the backyard), toast (gluten free, buttered), and coffee (French-pressed, poured into a thermos)—and silently loading up the diesel truck with gear and food for the day. The forecast had predicted it would pop blue, which in the world of filming and skiing meant it was a workday.
Mid-March and the pressure to film was mounting. Following the viral success of Saugtad's Co-Lab edit from the 2013 season, for which she was recognized with Best Female Performance at the Powder Awards in December 2013, the 36-year-old spent her winter zigzagging to chase storms and get as much skiing in front of the camera as possible. Over the course of the season, she logged more than a dozen days behind the wheel, traversed the West five times, and slept on eight couches and guest beds, plus a couple motel rooms. She left her home in Squaw Valley, California, and drove across the Canadian border to Revelstoke, to Whistler, back to Revelstoke, down to Washington, to Utah, back to Washington, to Tahoe, and finally, to Pemberton, where a snowmobile provides access to ski-movie-worthy lines.
With two sleds secured on the truck bed, Saugstad sitting shotgun, and Townsend at the wheel, we pulled out of the driveway in the dark and took a right on Canadian Highway 99, southbound to the Brandywine backcountry, where Townsend said we'd find a fluted face with steep spines. The first time the couple skied together—she was 26, he was 21—Townsend sent it off a 30-foot cliffband at Squaw Valley called the Light Towers in a move meant to impress. After landing, he looked over his shoulder and saw her fly off the same cliff. "She's in the air, stomps it, and comes up and says, 'This is fun,'" says Townsend. He's been in love ever since.
Six weeks earlier, I caught up with Saugstad at the Arcade Belt booth at SIA, the annual tradeshow for all things snow. Walking through the rows of booths set up with next year's gear, she whispered that she had another motive to be here besides helping her husband promote his stretchy belt company: She was, once again, searching for sponsors.
Saugstad had two major goals for her professional skiing career—win the Freeride World Tour, which she did in 2008, and Best Female Performance at the Powder Awards. She's checked off both, capping off a distinguished career as one of the best female skiers of the last decade. Over the past year, she co-founded a traveling avalanche clinic, gave a TEDx Talk on harnessing fear, was named one of ESPN's "Top 50 Women in Action Sports" in 2014, and skied lines bigger and faster than most of her peers. And yet, after the 2013 winter, at the height of her career, Saugstad was dropped from her major sponsor—Salomon, whom she skied for since 2007-—when her competitive big mountain-winning streak took off. She's frank about why the relationship with Salomon was severed: "I wouldn't be surprised if the French [Salomon is based in France] guys were getting really frustrated with me because I was sitting like a little squeak in the corner, saying, 'C'mon guys, pay attention to me.' And not just to me, but to us [women] in general."
Saugstad's voice is measured, and honest. She's smart, opinionated, and when she speaks, she settles her clear, intense blue eyes directly on you. Saugstad has a low tolerance for bullshit, a trait her closest friends appreciate but many misinterpret as her being difficult. She knows some have a hard time with her strength. However, she would rather cut to the chase, even if it costs her opportunities, than stay quiet and surrender to what she sees as unjust. Sitting around the kitchen table in Pemberton, Saugstad did not filter any of her thoughts about the state of women in the ski industry: "What could I do to prove my worth? Every year I worked harder. I became a better skier. It really didn't matter. It wasn't about that," she says. "What this is really about—it's a personal thing. It's what I love doing."
Not that any resistance has slowed Saugstad. While her husband enjoys a dependable relationship with Salomon, complete with a travel budget that takes him from one wintery paradise to another to film movie segments, Saugstad has been left to conjure her opportunities with a small stipend from her sponsors. She plans her own film trips, hires her own camera expertise, fuels her own sled, and produces her own segments. What she lacks in a big sponsor budget she makes up for with thrift, by cooking her own meals, sleeping on friends' floors and couches, and avoiding helicopters and airplanes. In fall 2013, she took up a longstanding offer to ski for her college roommate's ski company, Moment Skis.
"Whatever happens to her in the face of adversity, she stands up strong," says Peggy Townsend, Saugstad's mother-in-law. "For instance, she was facing obstacles around filming opportunities and movies, she went out and made her own film. To me that's so resilient and so powerful. She didn't let something stop her. She figured out how to achieve what she wanted to achieve."
You can trace the Saugstad work ethic back to her great-great-grandfather, who led a Norwegian colony from Minnesota to Bella Coola, B.C., and has a mountain named after him. Neither of her parents are college educated, but they are self-made entrepreneurs in Alaska, her dad in construction and her mom as an electrician. When she was young, the Saugstads were a transient family, following work around Alaska in the warmer months. But come winter, the family would settle in Girdwood, where Saugstad took up figure skating and ski raced at nearby Alyeska as a young girl. She's carried a burning passion for skiing big mountains ever since.
"It's that Alaskan spirit," says Ingrid Backstrom, a friend of Saugstad's since they met ski racing in high school and became pen pals thereafter. "She is a very strong, motivated person. She believes in skiing. She believes in women's skiing, and she's not taking no for an answer. She charges at everything."
"See the triangle? Hit that and land in the textured snow. And see that little pebble? Air off that. Just ski it fast." We made it to the zone just as the first morning light illuminated the top of the peak, the rest of the mountain still cast in an early morning blue. Townsend was pointing up at a lip off the shoulder, talking Saugstad through her line. There is no back and forth, no uncertainty, handholding, or debate.
At the top of it, Saugstad radioed down to the photographer. Five, four, three, two, one—she dropped in and slashed a left turn, then a fast, long right to her first air. Nevermind that she approached her line without a sniff of hesitation, or that she skied it so fast the spray from her first turn had barely settled by the time she cut her last, a deep one-turn-wonder into the apron, it was her ease in the backcountry that struck me the most. It had been two years since the most horrific day of her life—February 19, 2012. Stevens Pass. An avalanche. Three fatalities and one survivor. That would be her.
The only reason Saugstad survived the avalanche was because she wore an airbag, a blunt truth advertised explicitly by the airbag manufacturer ABS, which now sponsors her. "With my ABS Twinbag I was the only one to survive a massive avalanche at Stevens Pass, USA," states the ad. Saugstad does not apologize for promoting the gear that saved her life nor shy away from the reality of that day: Two of the deceased were buried close to her. Where she ended on top of the snowpack, they were both four to six feet under.
"Our trajectory in the avalanche was very similar. Except that I was on top, and they were on bottom," she says. "It's really, really tough, but it's something that I want people to think about. It's good for people to feel uncomfortable—feel uncomfortable and go and get educated. Get the proper gear, and the proper gear should include an avalanche airbag."
We woke up the following day to a gray sky—a day off. Saugstad and Townsend slept in. Lounging in sweatpants and leggings, Townsend caught up on work for Arcade, Saugstad stretched on her yoga mat, part of her self-care regimen she hopes will keep her body strong enough to ski at this level for years to come. And yet, for the first time since professional skiing took off for her in 2007, Saugstad waited tables over the summer. In the near future, she sees a life with children and a career that would promote snow-safety education and mentoring young women in their skiing ambitions.
At some point, Townsend shuffled to the kitchen and threw together some food from the refrigerator for a late-afternoon curry. A friend stopped by. The gray turned to night, and we left the house to grab dinner. They were in bed by 9 p.m., another early night.
The next morning, the alarm clock went off again at 4:45 a.m.