The Fifty: Mount St. Elias

If you’ve been following along with this year’s season of The Fifty Project, you’ll know we’ve been right there with Cody Townsend every step of the way. Through challenges, both real and manufactured, he’s been able to navigate confidently with onX Backcountry as his primary navigational tool.


The Ultimate Test

It’s one of the pinnacles of this project and one of the hardest lines. A unicorn of complexity and beauty, Mount St. Elias juts 18,008 feet straight out of the ocean in Alaska’s Wrangell Range. “It’s the ultimate test for skiers. There have been one, maybe two, ski descents in history,” Townsend says about the Mira Face. The line represents a major crux in his project. And with only 14 left to complete “The Fifty,” every effort now is like encountering a boss at the end of a video game. With a team of all stars joining Townsend including Dan Corn, Nick Russell, and cinematographer Bjarne Salen, they try to film their mission in the new film “Summit Fever.”

This 16-day expedition led them to a high point of mid-mountain through Hayden’s Peak which is a zone fraught with hazards both above and below. What they found was hardly edgeable snow that would make any skier—even you East Coasters—pucker. With a severe storm rolling in off the Pacific, the crew descends from their basecamp at 10,000 feet to the ocean. This retreat was littered with its own challenges including avalanches, seracs, and cliffs. “I like to go into these types of expeditions with low expectations and high hopes. There’s no delusion that the stars truly need to align for something like this,” says Nick Russell. 

Nick Russell on Mt St Elias

Don’t Get Lost

The descent from basecamp to the ocean presented the team with innumerable challenges. The foremost of which was navigating a slope that none of them had skied. On top of that, Townsend says, “There is no established ‘trade route’ on St. Elias and multiple ascent options based on skill level, weather, snow levels and where the pilots that shuttle you onto the mountain can land.” Having the right tool became paramount.

Instead of finding a consistent layer of snow they could descend, they found a waterfall where they thought a tongue of snow would be, wet slabs, and hangfire. Natural avalanches due to rapid warming occurred all around them and in the zone they had skied moments before. In this time-sensitive, high-stress scenario, there’s no room for uncertainty. Russell comments, “The size and scale is incomprehensible. It’s not a stretch to say that using onX Backcountry saved us while navigating to find our plane pickup location.”

While it was a less-than-smooth descent, the team took two days, had one bear encounter, and uttered a few choice words all in service of getting to the beach. Once at the shoreline, there was relative safety from the weather, but not from boredom. The team would stay grounded there for the next five days until a window cleared for an extraction by plane. 


Cody Townsend and Crew on Mt St Elias

While this episode marks the end of year three of The Fifty Project, we look forward to what’s coming, continue to make refinements to our product so that Cody and company can continue to navigate confidently, and enjoy some much needed time in the mountains. 

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Mitch Breton

Mitch Breton was raised on the shores of Maine's coastline chasing fresh snow, trout, grouse, and the best darn mosquito repellent money can buy. Covering topics from fly fishing, car camping, and beyond, he thrives on a story well-told.