What is ski mountaineering? Legendary freeskier Cody Townsend explains

Cody Townsend goes after him, pc: Facebook screenshot

What is ski mountaineering? This is a great question, especially for someone like me looking to improve their backcountry skills for next season. It’s a much better question for a legend like Cody Townsend, one of the most awarded freeskiers in history and considered by many to be “the people’s skier” for his laid-back demeanor and caring attitude.

Cody is probably best known for his ski mountaineering work continuing The Fifty Project where he set out to climb and ski the fifty peaks described in the famous book, The Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America. For someone like Cody with his credentials, that’s a much better question to ask and one he recently posted in his Q&A session on Facebook, What is ski mountaineering?

“It’s a hot topic of debate in the skiing and climbing communities, a question that may not have a simple answer and a term that’s loosely used for a catch-all of a lot of what I love doing in the mountains these days Hell is a term I use, probably too liberally, when explaining to others what this @the.fifty project is all about.

Cody goes on to say and voluntarily reports, “I don’t like labels in skiing. It’s useful for describing subgenres and styles of riding for sure, but ultimately it’s just skiing.”

So let me clear things up. What you do in the mountains is more or less skiing, and in the end, it’s just skiing? Where does that leave us mortals? Making the leap from resort towers to climbing peaks safely in the Eastern Sierras requires little more than “just skiing.” Other responses to his question demonstrated a wide range of opinions, including labels such as:

  • mountaineering (only on skis)
  • mountaineering
  • mixed climbing (as opposed to single climbing)
  • tour
  • skin
  • “just tear it up” (my favorite)
  • an expedition, i.e. any trip lasting several days
cody townsend climbing
Cody boot package facebook pc screenshot
Cody Townsend ski mountaineering
Cody delivering the goods, pc: Facebook screenshot

This all sounded reasonable to me, at least in part, until Cody published his follow-up article, this time using an example of what ski mountaineering is all about. not! You have to read it yourself to believe it!

“So in general I see the definition of ski mountaineering given by the following example. You have axes in hand, crampons on your feet, you have just climbed a very exposed rock step where a fall would injure you at best and you you’re heading to the top of a steep, narrow couloir Do you ski mountaineer now?

For me, not quite. There are many short lines, on the side of the road, in the range of cellular services where you can access exposed technical terrain. For example, if you are climbing and skiing the Third Pillar Couloir on the Dana Plateau, you often have to rappel over a rock step and/or find a way to climb through that step. But you’re within sight of the road, in a couloir without a prominent peak, and are usually just out for a fun day of skiing. Sure, there are elements of ski mountaineering, but to me, you’re just off-piste skiing with technical or steep terrain. If you were to label this type of skiing, which I urge people not to label (see last post), you could label it “Technical Ski Touring”. It’s the Trad Cragging of the ski world. (It’s an escalation term). It’s a short day of skiing. Ski mountaineering is something much more specialized than that.

If that’s really the case, then I think we’re about to see what it really takes to operate in this mysterious niche, without labels, without limits, and according to Townsend is”just skiing.”

cody townsend climbing at night
Cody climbing in the dark, pc: Facebook screenshot