312: The Delicate Dance Between Risk, Reward, and Death

This week’s conversation is with a legend, Cody Townsend, one of the most awarded skiers in freeskiing history.

Cody has evolved from a California beach kid obsessed with the mountains … to now stand atop the pinnacle of the sport.

From a successful alpine ski racing career to stunt doubling for Hollywood films, or skiing the “Most Insane Line Ever”,  Cody skis some of the most challenging and dangerous lines on the planet – all with an affable nature and a smile on his face.

Cody’s latest project, called “The FIFTY,” is in his words, “simple” – it’s a goal he set to try to climb AND ski all fifty of the lines and mountains chronicled in the classic book, “The Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America.”

From Alaska to Colorado, California to Baffin Island, these lines are among the most difficult in the world and all of them have at least one historical descent.

But no one has skied them all.

Cody’s goal is to change that. And in my opinion, there’s no one more suited to do so.

He’s about halfway through this project, and you can follow his progress on his YouTube channel… he uses skiing as his medium for insight, mastery and expression

“When I’m most confident, I have a conversation with myself where everything is centered around the success that I’m going to have, not the question marks that lie in front of me.” 

In This Episode:

Finding his passion at a young age

When I was six years old, I decided I’m going to be a skier. I didn’t know what a professional skier was. You don’t know about basic economics and how to live comfortably. But I just know, I was like, “I’m going to be a skier.” I don’t know why the sport grabbed me so heavily, but I do remember being 6, 7, 8 years old and growing up in Santa Cruz, California, which is four and a half hours away from the mountains. And all I could think about every day was skiing. It was just a complete and utter obsession. And I think I almost rewired my brain to just be like, “This is what you’re going to do. Figure out how to do it,” from that young of an age. And it kind of set me off on this path. Sometimes I wonder if I’m like, “What this didn’t work out?” How bummed would I have been?

Using sport as a forcing-function for honesty and self-awareness

I look at action sports, otherwise known as extreme sports, these kind of sports, quite often, the most talented have a unique ability to have a conversation with themselves and be honest with themselves in a way that is very open because you’re dealing with such heavy risk at times. You are dealing with life and death situations and you’re kind of, at times, laying it all in the line. So being able to make the correct decision in that moment means like really, really high self-awareness. And I think I’ve done well in action sports because of my ability to deal with fear and deal with risk.

Describing “The Most Insane Ski Line Ever,” also known as “The Crack”

This line is probably the most wild, natural feature I’ve ever seen in my life. It is a mountain that looked like it got cut in high half with a buzz saw with a little tiny crevice filled with snow down almost 2000 feet of this entire rock mountain. So it’s all cliff face and then just one shoot that goes through that. At its narrowest, it’s about three feet wide, and at widest about six feet wide. The upper pitches are 65 degrees where it was kind of like when I pushed off, it was almost vertical and kind of free falling. And then the rest was at 45 to 50 degrees. So it was just one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen.

Decision-making and risk

I look at athletes like ourselves and action sports athletes as just uniquely able to have this unbelievable self-awareness when it comes to their own risk taking. And I also think most people think we’re absolutely nuts, but internally, we think we’re actually pretty cautious because we’re taking weeks and analyzing our entire life to that moment to feel like, “Can I do this line?” It’s not even a question as, “Is it worth the risk?” It’s like, “Can I do this safely?” Is more the thing. And the fact around risk is if that question mark of being that I don’t know if I can do this, if that question mark is looming too large, then it isn’t worth the risk.

Taking baby steps to train risk

The thought was, “All I need to do is turn it up 5%, and then I’ll be able to ski this line.” It isn’t a leap of we’re going from, I don’t know if I can ski this, and 100%, okay, I’m just going to try it. I look at risk taking as this baby step. You just keep working your way slowly and slowly and slowly. It’s like if you’re running to a cliff edge, if you’re going to be sprinting to that cliff edge, that’s a lot of unnecessary risk. But if you inch your feet up inch by inch and take five hours, you’re going to get very comfortable with your surroundings. You’re going to get very comfortable with that edge. And you’re going to be able to go up to it and hang your toes over it. I kind of look at the same process. It was this years of baby steps to get to that point where it didn’t feel like that much risk to me, which does lead me to what I was feeling at top.

The perfect mental state

I remember standing up top [of The Crack] and being in the most zen-like calm state I’ve ever been. It was just full confidence. And that was that just little bit of 5%. Sure, I didn’t know what it was going to be like to actually ski that line. But standing on top of it and looking at a line with fatal consequences and a line that’s never been skied like that before, it wasn’t a question mark in my mind that I was going to be able to do this. And that reflected in just being in this very, very calm state. I even reflected back to that calm state of being, when I was a downhill ski racer, when I was calm was when I was doing the best. And I remember thinking that moment, that being like, “You’re so calm right now. You’re not scared at all.” That’s good. You’re in the perfect mental state.

Is he an adrenaline junkie?

I can tell you I’ve never stood on top of a line or gone out before the day and thinking, “Man, I can’t wait to get the adrenaline at the end of the day.” It’s never been a factor. Sure, it feels really good and you have these flood of emotions that go through you, these chemicals go through you. And that’s an amazing feeling. But never have I gone out there with the intention that I want to have that feeling at the end of the day. In fact, quite often, I hate being scared. I really do not like it.

How does he build self-awareness?

I think it’s just been built over time, and it’s built because of the mountains because they make you face yourself quite often. In the mountains, quite often some of my biggest lessons I’ve had, have dealt with ego. And the mountains will always be more, will be bigger, will be more forceful, and will have dominance over you. You are small compared to the mountains. They are a wild, dangerous place. And in these moments when you have too much ego, you’re going to get slapped down by the mountains. And I look at all these moments through my life and all these tiny learning lessons along the way, as the ability to create that awareness and understand it.

Does he view the mountains as a hostile environment?

The mountains are dangerous, just like the game of football is dangerous. Yes, there is risk that you’re going to be taking. But if I look at my career path and everything that’s gone through it, I’m trying to navigate in between that hostility. And ultimately, if you’re making the right decisions, if you are out there with the right intentions, no, it’s not going to be hostile because I don’t come away from the mountains at the end of the day thinking, “Oh, my God, I just got out of a riot and I’m just happy to be home and on dry land and whatnot.” You feel empowered and you feel like this was a beautiful experience, not a violence experience, so it shares that.

Finding presence on the mountain

I will often go into this state, where it’s not this state of just there’s nothing in your brain. But it’s this complete focus, and there’s nothing else in the world. But you’re also drawing back onto a lot of human experiences that you’ve had. You’re drawing back on your emotions. I feel like in these moments where everything is on the line, and you can just feel every ounce of hormones that are flowing through you, these endorphins, these sensations, these motivations, they just kind of all start to come out. And you do have to listen to yourself. And you have to be in that moment and just think about, “Okay. What is going on inside me in relation to the world around me?” And it’s a state of presence that I haven’t found in any other way really. And I think to get there voluntarily is the strongest form, but I just find those moments in the mountains quite often.

Battling the dark side of extreme sport

The darkside is obviously death and loss. And it’s that sense of the loss within the community and your family. But a lot of it has to do with these sports and what we do it’s a uniquely selfish pursuit. And that’s something I’ve battled with for a long time, because one of the things as much as we’ve been glorifying this unique, look at yourself through this mountain, and you’re like, “Well, that’s uniquely selfish.” And it is very just inward facing. And it’s not doing much for the world around you. So one of the things I’ve tried to find as I’ve grown older is that balance between a pursuit that is at its core selfish, while balancing that with trying to be a good person to other people, being a good community member, being not selfish to your family. It is something that is taken me a long time to learn, but I realize the value of not being selfish is what’s keeping me here and continuing to make good decisions and trying to be a better family member, a better community member, a better friend, all these things.

Would he define himself as a risk taker?

I’m a risk mitigator. Obviously by putting yourself in these situations you could be categorized as a risk taker, but I’m constantly looking for ways in these endangered environments to mitigate that risk. It is a constant evaluation and observation of everything that’s going around you to do everything to take that risk out of the equation.

Why is he documenting his most recent project, “The Fifty”?

Through this process, I wanted to be open… I wanted to show people this process of learning in the mountains, this process of learning ski mountaineering, and being honest with yourself and being open and vulnerable and just laying it all on the line. I put out episodes where we fail over and over. I put out an episode that shows me make a dumb decision and get heat stroke in the desert so that others can kind of learn from it. I don’t have the need to preserve my own image as a superhero. I’d rather put my image out as a normal human than anything else.

Losing and re-discovering passion

I looked at it at times when I kept filming and I kept doing that style of skiing and I put myself in unnecessary risk and without the good observation, because I wasn’t passionate about it. I kind of hurt myself in small ways a couple times, because I would go into a line and just be like, “oh yeah, whatever. It’s 40 foot cliff” and I’d fly off the wrong direction and almost land on rocks or an ice fall and crash and be like, “man, you’re not focused because you’re not obsessed with us anymore. You’re not passionate about it. And you need that edge in order to drive you.” And that’s when I kind of started to find ski mountaineering, expedition style skiing and this project that called the Fifty, it kept popping in my head and it kept just driving me internally. And i kept having a conversation with myself laying at bed at night. And I realized, I was like, “this is the only thing that you’re obsessed with. You have to do this now. You have to try to be the first person to ever ski this because it’s the only thing you can think about.” So since I had that passion, I needed to follow it. And since then, three years later, still follow on it.

What is Cody still searching for?

The biggest question I have in life is: Why are risk takers drawn to risk? When everything in our world and everything we’ve learned from darwinism to survival instinct says that our whole entire life goal is to stay alive and to procreate. And that’s the most instinctual thing to do. But why is there a certain percentage of the population that is willing to climb El Cap with no ropes, that is willing to ski and climb the biggest most dangerous mountains on earth? Why is that? There is something that I know that is far deeper than the cliché of being an adrenaline junkie that is something instinctual that drives humans to do this. I have my own theories, but I don’t know it yet. And I kind of feel like that would be my life’s work is to figure that out.

Tapping into flow state

I look back at these experiences – of actually both the experiences that we’ve talked about, me jumping that 90 foot cliff and landing on rock and then also the crack – there are these moments in both of those sensations where it feels like time stops and you feel like you’re in the matrix, for lack of a better term. That’s the best way to describe it, where you’re dodging bullets. I will never forget this sensation I had when I jumped off that cliff and I saw that I was going to land on rocks and had this feeling. I look down at the rocks below me going like “You’re going to die.” But in that moment, not feeling a single ounce of fear and instead watching the world around me just completely almost freeze. And I will still to this day, I can look at the snow to the right of me and see the texture in the snow. I can see the cameramen that were almost two miles away. I could see the helicopter that was a mile below me. I could see every little detail and it was like, it felt like I tapped into where we say, only we used 10% of our brains. You’re like, well, that was a moment I was using a hundred percent because all of a sudden I was able to have a book length conversation with myself in the span of two seconds.

His mind is his superpower

I look at my own successes in life and I think quite often less of it has been tied to my body and physical gifts in that sort of way. Of course, you have to have that to be a professional athlete. But I look quite often at my successes being much more related to my mind. And it’s something that is interesting because we don’t think of professional athletes and the power of their mind, yet I do think the best in the world have more consciousness and more power of their mind and understanding of it than just about any other human.

The importance of caring for our planet

As a skier, obviously a warming planet is going to have a huge impact on myself and my career and what I love to do. One of the things you see a lot is that professional skiers, professional snowboarders, are activists for it because we’ve been witnessing it for the past 10, 15 years.. As you get deeper, you realize like, “Well, the complications of this, go far, far, far deeper than just skiing and snowboarding and could have global impacts that could be devastating for civilization.” And as individuals, it’s really hard because we need systematic change and we’re led to believe quite often that we should buy an electric car or recycle and that’ll do it. But the systematic changes are going to have to start from the very top. My number one thing I say is pressure the big businesses and politicians, and vote for people that you want to see change.

Listen, Watch & Subscribe

Related Episodes

For a complete list of all Finding Mastery sponsors, vanity URLs & discount codes, visit Our Sponsors.
Stay up-to-date with the latest high performance and wellbeing podcasts and content with the Finding Mastery weekly newsletter.