One of Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America
Story By Cody TownsendYETI Ambassador | Pro Freeskier
Photos: Bjarne Salen and Nic Alegre / Location: Valdez, Alaska
The Fifty Project: SkiTheFifty.com
Although the ski lines selected in “Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America” aren’t necessarily the gnarliest (though there are some), or the most beautiful (though there are some of those, too), the authors compiled the lines that skiers are just drawn to. It’s a collection of dreams. An ode to the mountains. And it’s the reason for my project The Fifty – where I set out to try to climb and ski all fifty mountains and lines chronicled in the book.
Meteorite stands out to me for its prominence and beauty. It’s a beacon to the heavens. In a range of some of the best mountains in the world, it somehow draws your eyes in like an optical super-magnet and provokes primordial emotions of awe, fear, magnificence, and energy. It’s big and raw, inspiring curiosity, and holds a place of lore in skiing history.
When I walked into the Teton Gravity Research offices in Jackson after completing our climb and ski of the Grand Teton, I see scrawled on the board: “Jeremy Jones – Meteorite.” I looked around, an eyebrow raised, and with a mix of modest and outright curiosity asked, “Uh…what’s that?”
I know exactly what it is. Meteorite Mountain is on my list too. And I know that Jeremy intends to hike and climb it, so he can snowboard down it – as is also my modus operandi of late. But it’s been his goal for nearly 20 years, having ridden it via helicopter, and attempted it other times on foot but gotten turned around. That’s the deal with foot-powered missions – the bigger and more complex it is, the more you need the perfect set of conditions to line up. There’s no forcing it. So yeah, a line can be on the list for twenty years.
Like myself, Jeremy and the film crew at TGR had also been watching the conditions, and through February and March Meteorite is still on the table. We start talking about teaming up for the attempt, and Jeremy says, “I remember the first time I met Cody. This young kid came up to me at an event and says, ‘I just rode Dirty Tooth!’ I thought you were just a frothing kid at Squaw…but it wasn’t long before I realized you’re the real deal.”
Jeremy’s one of the first people to show that you can hike lines like this – when no one else is even trying it. And until pretty recently, neither was I.
Well, Jeremy Jones is the real deal. My whole career I’ve been watching Jeremy from afar and following in his footsteps. He’s been a mentor to me, sharing his knowledge and educating me on moving through mountains safely and appropriately. In more recent years we’ve become closer as friends. Now, getting to be his partner, his equal, in this pursuit is a major moment for me. I am pretty psyched about it to say the least.
Ski mountaineering takes what amounts to a graduate-level education in snow science through decades of being in it. And Jer’s logged a good number of his years in Alaska where the terrain, the weather, and the snowpack are unlike anywhere else. Not to mention that while earning that mountain education, he revolutionized what people can do and developed some of the techniques to do it. Jeremy’s one of the first people to show that you can hike lines like this – when no one else is even trying it. And until pretty recently, neither was I.
“I thought there’d be way more people embracing the foot-powered approach – and there have been to some extent – but not high-level pros,” Jeremy says. “But I really respect that about you – you’re at the top of your game and totally shifting your focus, not afraid to be a beginner all over again.”
Although I do have some climbing and ski mountaineering experience, my first ten years of pro skiing was all helis, snow mobiles, and chairlifts. But in taking on the Fifty Project, I committed to climbing for my lines. And now with sixteen* of the “Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America” under my belt, I’ve learned a lot in the past year – like knowing that a year ago I wouldn’t have been prepared, physically or mentally, to take on this mission.
For me, skiing’s the easy part. Well, of course not easy. But compared to the ascent portion of these missions, where every single step is calculated for the risk potential of the entire face of the mountain sliding out from under you, skiing is at least less mentally taxing than that.
To accomplish our climb and ski on Meteorite, we essentially need two things: perfect conditions (a stretch of high pressure, stable snowpack, no wind, good temps) and for heli operations to be closed so no other skiers drop in on us.
Oh, and a third thing: a way to the base of the mountain.
It’s pretty typical that there’s no clearly marked trailhead on the lines we’re attempting. But this time is proving to be pretty complex. “Let’s put it this way,” I say on the phone to Jeremy, who’s on the runway in Talkeetna on his way to meet me in Valdez. “I just bought a machete and flagging tape.” This kind of thing is definitely the fun part for me – the mental and physical challenge of making it happen.
Our plan is to break trail so we’re able to bring our gear into the snowline and drop it there for the night so that we’re dialed before setting out for our attempt.
We spend two days bushwhacking and creek crossing – which means boots and socks off, stepping through frigid glacier streams – to set our route. Finally, we find a place to drop our gear. After flagging a couple key spots to help keep us on track, we head back to the cabin to get a few hours of sleep before our meeting with Meteorite.
It’s 1:15 A.M. Coffee at this time of…night? day?...is disorienting, but with a little fuel in the tank, we set out. Fortyish minutes later we’re parking the van and are finally on foot. It’s just the three of us – me, Jeremy, and Bjarne, our videographer and co-adventurer – out here navigating in the moonless pre-pre-pre-dawn. Yesterday’s gear drop helped make these dark hours to be relatively brainless – especially ahead of the mental marathon we’re approaching.
We’re re-tracing the steps that we mapped out yesterday, which means crossing that very cold creek again. If we weren’t awake before, this bare-footed, glacier-water dip does the trick. We reach our gear stash, swapping hiking boots and machete for crampons, splitboards, and skis. At about 4:30 AM our journey up the mountain begins. “It’s all uphill from here,” I say to the guys. I hear the faintest sympathy chuckle over the sound of snow crunching as we hike. That’s probably the last of the jokes for a while – we’re heading into big, steep, dangerous terrain that requires laser focus.
For the next six-thousand feet, we don’t look at the top. We don’t talk about the top. We don’t talk about the run down. We only talk about getting through the next section. Because the top is not a given. I’ve heard Jeremy explain that the art of big mountain riding is the ability to fight through tiredness and deep snow and stay committed to going up, but simultaneously recognizing that if the window of opportunity closes, you have to be willing to walk away from it.
Bjarne, Jeremy, and I are a small team, which allows us to move faster through dangerous positions and be swifter in our decision making – and every step on Meteorite is a decision. So far, every “Is this safe?” we are determining to be a yes. As Jeremy likes to say, “If it’s not a screaming yes, it’s a no.” With that as our gauge, we take another step up, ask the question again, evaluate the snowpack and our gut feeling, watch the conditions, and decide. The thighs are burning, but after five hours of this, my brain is cramping, too.
For a brief second, when we’re 9/10ths of the way up the mountain, hanging on a 50º face with butt-clenching exposure with thousand-foot cliffs to the left, I allow myself a moment to think, “Holy crap, I’m so insanely psyched to be up here with Jeremy.” We’re doing this thing together, as equals. It’s happening right now.
Incredibly, twelve hours of zero-mistakes climbing, of putting one foot in front of the other is all behind us. We’ve reached the summit of Meteorite. The Chugach Range is stretched out to the horizon and I think about those who’ve come before us – who broke down the mental barrier telling you something isn’t possible. And one of those people is up here with me.
There’s nowhere to hide at the top. Not from the blind rollover waiting for us, and not from the overwhelming emotional experience of being here. Experiencing it all simultaneously, the rush of adrenaline and endorphins, the outright exhaustion and relief, and all the yes-es it took to get here. And not just today’s yes-es, but the full expanse of mine and Jeremy’s careers and passions lining up to put us here. This feeling – this is why we hike for our lines.
And now, the steeps we just climbed are ours to ride.
Back at the van, we’re completely worked. Looking back at the peak, Jeremy says, “When someone asks me, ‘Why do you do what do you?’ you know, it’s kind of an unanswerable question.” Nodding, I hand out our hard-earned beers, eager to hear a bit of wisdom from my sensei. Cracking open his can, Jeremy continues, “But the more radical the adventure, the better your beer tastes.”