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Back in 2019, in the first season of The Fifty Project, Cody Townsend set his sights on the Sphinx, a 55-degree pitch in Alaska’s Chugach Range and one of the most classic of the 50 classic descents in North America. That mission didn’t go so well.
For one, let’s just come right out and say that climbing to the top of this 1,423-foot big mountain line is a nutty idea to begin with. You’re basically bootpacking straight up major exposure the whole way. There’s a reason heli-skiing was invented.
Secondly, back in 2019, Townsend wasn’t the experienced ski mountaineer he is today after checking off more than 30 big mountain lines after climbing to the top of them. As Townsend himself admits in his most recent episode of The Fifty, he was pretty much a ski mountaineering noob and was learning as he went thanks to the expertise and guidance of the pros who accompanied him. While climbing the 55-degree knife’s ridge of the Sphinx the first time around, Townsend readily admitted that he was shaking in his boots.
Thirdly, the snow proved absolutely horrendous on that first attempt. Skiing sun- and wind-affected snow in the Chugach is not ideal; skiing sun and wind-affected snow on a 55-degree face was a no-go for Townsend. When he got to the top of the line, he realized the snow was too sketchy to safely ski, so he and the crew decided to down-climb to a safer spot and ski a less steep section of the Sphinx.
So while he kind of checked off the line in 2019, he didn’t really. He knew afterwards that he’d want to go back and try again. He didn’t know that it would take three seasons of waiting patiently for the snow conditions and the weather to align to make it back to the Sphinx.
But good things come to those who wait. Check out the snow conditions Townsend gets on take-two.