The Fifty: Mt. Whitney With Alex Honnold

In year three of Cody Townsend’s The Fifty Project, we’ll be sharing some behind the scenes stories, how-to’s, and insights you can’t find anywhere else.

Expectation vs. Reality

Known for his world-famous free solo ascents, climber Alex Honnold joined forces with skier Cody Townsend in this episode to tackle the Mountaineer’s Route of California’s Mt. Whitney.

Cody townsend and Alex Honnold en route to Mt. Whitney

The Plan

  1. Bike from Badwater Basin—the lowest point in the continental United States—to the trailhead of Mt. Whitney.
  2. Ascend to the top of Mt. Whitney—the highest point in the contiguous U.S.—and ski it. (Yes, they planned to go from the lowest point in the U.S. to the highest in a day.)
  3. Eat a bunch of calories.

That didn’t exactly happen. What happened was that Townsend summited the peak the week before linking up with Honnold to scout just the ski portion. From there he drove over to Badwater Basin to begin the bike adventure. During the roughly 135-mile bike ride, Townsend suffered heat stroke and mechanical failure forcing them to drive the remaining roughly 40 miles. 

The next day, after driving directly to the base of Mt. Whitney, the team began their ascent. Halfway up, Townsend bonked and left it to the rest of the team to complete the mission. 

Alex Honnold Goes Skiing

Having left the approach and Townsend behind him, Honnold along with filmmaker Bjarne Salen and other crew members continued the push. Honnold describes his career on skis as, “Not really skiing, just surviving. It’s always just trying to get from camp to an objective or get down from some peak. It’s not like I really know how to ski.” One thing to note is that he almost never skis on-piste. In 2017, Honnold spent a month in the Queen Maud Land region of Antarctica, which is about as far from the resort as you can get. Despite the extremes at which his skiing career has started, he still claims, “Skiing is fun… in good conditions. I just never really ski in good conditions. If I do go to a resort, it’s pretty fun.” 

Mountaineer’s Route

In predictable fashion, he prefers the ascents in ski mountaineering over the descents. “I like using skis as a way to get around in the mountains when it’s snowy. I think of skis as tools and not really a ‘fun thing.’” Honnold reflects. He’s ascended the routes on Mt. Whitney, including the Mountaineer’s Route, but only in summer. When remembering the trip with Townsend, he describes it as, “The worst skiing I’ve ever experienced. It was like potholed ice, tracked out, and post-holed.” 

They weren’t alone on the mountain. Given its proximity to southern California, it’s quite a common adventure for city-folk. Despite how many people from Los Angeles who were hiking up that day due to the mountain’s relative stability by this time in the spring, it was survival skiing for Honnold. He has this to say of filmmaker Bjarne Salen: “Bjarne, bless his heart, was skiing in front of me—backwards—and he was like ‘just stay directly above me and if anything goes wrong, I’ll stop you. You’ll be fine, don’t worry.’ We were just skiing blown out ice and it was horrendous.”

Cody and Alex Swiped Right

Alex Honnold and Cody Townsend on Road Bikes

“This was basically our first date. We met socially somewhere and I certainly knew of him and his work. We have a lot of mutual friends, but we’ve never done anything together. It was fun to hang out with him and I’d definitely do another adventure together.” One of the nuances that comes through in the episode is that these two athletes are at the top of their class, but each in dramatically different disciplines. Commonalities include training, diet, lifestyle, and fitness, but also more personal elements and parallels within each of their paths. “There’s no playbook for how to be a pro fringe athlete,” according to Honnold, and that’s one of the things that stuck with him from the 12-hour bike ride with Townsend. 

The duo has a knack for adding challenge, or potentially even overcomplicating, a simple ski mission. With a successful summit and ski for both of them, albeit at different times, they can hang out in the entryway of their vans and acknowledge that at least one of them found their limit. The only thing left up for debate, now, is whether this was Type 1, 2, or 3 fun.

Find Your Limit
With onX Backcountry, you can plan adventures that safely allow you to find the boundaries of human performance. Share your location, bring a support crew, and plenty of water.

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.