The following appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
In her line of work, Elyse Saugstad is grateful for plenty of snow, quality ski equipment and frequent-flier mileage plans.
As an always-working, constantly-on-the-move professional freeskier, ski film star and defacto ambassador for her sport, Saugstad is rarely not packed for another flight to a mountain – from Sun Valley to Sundance.
So while it behooves her to be in a somewhat central location – northern California’s Lake Tahoe to shorten some of the travel distances between ski destinations – there’s no doubt that she’d just as well be back home in her native Alaska. It’s there that she’d be content to rip it up on all those powder-filled slopes, as well as fish the waters below for salmon and trout with her immediate family.
The irony is, Alaska offers some of the planet’s most challenging freeride skiing slopes (more on that later). Saugstad goes so far as calling the Last Frontier her sport’s “Mecca” locale. But it’s also Alaska, so of course it’s a bit of a logistical conundrum when the job requires so much travel.
“If you’re based in Alaska, you’re just tagging on an extra three-and-a-half- to four-hour flight. So it makes a lot more sense to be based here where you can travel much easier,” she says, admitting too of an unconditional love for her home state.
“Alaska is amazing. It made me who I am because of the way I grew up and what I was exposed to. That being said, because all my family is still there and it’s so accessible, for me I don’t feel like I’m completely cut off.”
For Saugstad, Alaska will always be there. So will the mountains. So will the fish. So will her parents and siblings. And there are adventures to be had both close to her current home and beyond. But now 40 and married to a fellow professional action skier with a similar obsession with skiing fast and furious down the steepest and baddest terrain, Saugstad will never forget how (or from where) she got here.
“For me, I can’t even really point a finger where I fell in love with the mountains because I fell in love so young,” she says. “I was feeling like I wanted to be a skier. Kids want to be astronauts or firemen, but I wanted to be a skier. I didn’t know what that meant in terms of having a career or anything. But that was just my moment that I can look back at.”
The lady knew her destiny.
ELYSE SAUGSTAD IS A ski tiger, someone who can match the skills of her male brethren while making heartstopping descents down steep peaks.
Her eventual specialty, freeride skiing, is more of a daredevil sport than the traditional skiing you’ll watch in the Winter Olympics, a level that Saugstad once was on a realistic path to. But she was willing to trade the chance to win a gold medal for tearing down some of the most breathtaking routes in the world and getting filmed and paid to do it.
“For me, I always just sum it up as it’s the coolest way to get down the mountain. So it’s essentially the mountain and using the mountains as a blank canvas and going down it in the way that you want to – fast,” says Cody Townsend, 36, Saugstad’s husband, fellow freeride skier and filmmaker.
“Whether that’s slow and controlled, whether that’s jumping off cliffs – whatever it is, freeride is truly a free form of skiing. There are no rules to it other than the rules that you set yourself.”
And both he and his wife embrace the idea of putting the “free” in freeride. Saugstad’s resume is full of accolades and honors: Freeskier Magazine’s female skier of the year award (2018); an ESPN poll ranking her as one of the top 50 women in action sports (2014); a 2008 freeride world tour championship. (She’s also been a guest speaker at TEDx Talk conventions and spoken at length to groups about surviving a 2012 avalanche that killed three friends in backcountry Washington state.)
And where did her love for winter sports begin? On the ski slopes and peaks of Alaska. Born in Anchorage, Saugstad and her family moved to Girdwood, where Alyeska Resort ski area became a second home.
“When we were in Anchorage, I remember my parents coming to school and pulling me out of school for a powder day. It happened a couple times and I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh. This is the coolest thing ever,’” she says. “So there were just so many fond memories of being a child and creating these senses. Skiing represented freedom for me in so many ways.”
When she was 7, her parents allowed her to ski on her own with friends, which Saugstad now refers to as another “a-ha” moment that living in Alaska allowed: the perks of independence and enjoying the outdoors – complete with companionship and a set of skis, poles, boots and a helmet.
It probably didn’t hurt that the kid was damn good at what she did. Athletic and skilled enough on skates to also show promise as a competitive figure skater before finally focusing on ski racing full time, it didn’t take long to realize that the sport could become more than just a recreational hobby and an avenue to ditch school for the ski lift.
Remember that when Saugstad was coming up, Alaskans had recently become Olympic heroes. Fellow Alyeska products like Tommy Moe (Alaska Sporting Journal, December 2013) and Hilary Lindh were both Olympic medalists in the 1990s in the downhill and served as built-in role models for Saugstad and other aspiring skiers instate.
One of her first races was a precursor to what would become a dedication to the downhill and Super-G, ski racing’s glamour speed events.
“I was so young. But afterwards I got this trophy and my parents were like, ‘You had the fastest time.’ But all of a sudden I was skiing with other fast skiers, because I guess I was good enough,” Saugstad says. “But then, of course, when you’re at that young age and win something, you think, ‘This is cool. I like winning stuff.’ So then I got into Mighty Mites and did very well and did well in high school. At 15 and 16 I was ranked in the Super G for my age.”
The Winter Olympics became a possibility to attain when she was a teenager.
“I was on the fringe (of the national team) and was on the regional team. But I got pretty burned out on ski racing when I was 17 and 18. I moved on,” she says. “And it was for the better because if I continued to race in college, I would have really burned out myself on skiing as a whole. Instead, when I got to college and started anew, it was when the free ski thing all of a sudden started to become prominent and there was this cool new thing (to try).”
Finishing her college studies at the University of Nevada, Reno also fortuitously put Saugstad in the heart of the growing freestyle skiing and snowboarding hub at nearby Lake Tahoe. Her soon-to-be husband Townsend was also based there (though they met at a winter sports trade show in Las Vegas).
One of their first dates was – you guessed it – skiing with Cody, as well as some of his buddies who just happened to be freestyle community icons (J.T. Holmes and the late Shane McConkey).
Both husband and wife love to share the story about that day.
“(We) went down a challenging run and she was just on my ass the whole time. And I thought, ‘Oh, she can ski,’” Townsend recalls. “And then we went up to this other run and I felt like I was going to show off a little bit and show her what I can do. I hit it and perfectly landed. And Elyse was midair off the exact same cliff and stomps it, skis up to me and said, ‘That was fun.’ Oh my god. I did not expect this. It was kind of instant love for me. We started hanging out and Elyse joined my little rat pack of buddies. And she was the girl of the group who was outskiing most of the guys.”
And they hadn’t even started fishing together yet.
FOR BOTH SAUGSTAD AND Townsend, fishing was almost an afterthought before their worlds merged. And it’s understandable, given how much time they spent outdoors – in winter skiing weather.
“My parents worked so much that we didn’t going fishing that much as a kid. My dad was in construction and my mom was an electrician. All the jobs would be in small towns and more remote areas. And so that’s when they would work their butts off all summer,” Saugstad says of the limited opportunities they had to fish as a family.
It really wasn’t until she left Alaska, met Townsend and started going back to visit the family with her boyfriend and then husband in tow that they both figured out that this fishing thing was a pretty cool getaway from the rigors of their ski careers.
And while Saugstad did enjoy getting out to fish during Alaska’s salmon runs, she had to get her California beach community and weekend ski bum significant other interested in fishing.
“I remember (fishing) once or twice in the ocean thinking it was the single most boring thing, and I wondered why anyone would fish,” Townsend says with a laugh. “It really was not that fun and I thought it was not that very interesting.”
“But when I went to Alaska and we were catching that first salmon, you felt like, ‘Oh my god! This is amazing.’ That surge … the actual fight, and, especially when it comes to salmon, just being able to harvest them, is pretty special. That’s where it hooked me. I remember coming home and trying to figure out how I can keep doing this. I want to keep fishing.”
But even Townsend had an impact on Saugstad when it came to the two inspiring each other from a fishing standpoint. Some in Townsend’s circle of friends hail from Montana and took him fly fishing on remote creeks in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.
When Saugstad joined her husband on one such outing, she too was enlightened by an experience she’d rarely had.
“I had only known about going out and catching salmon – big fish that you took home to eat. And you don’t go out there and flounder around with flies and throw a fish back in the water,” Saugstad says. “And at first I was really like, ‘Why are you trying to catch a fish that’s only like 6 inches? That doesn’t sound exciting.’ And I would go to set my hook and I would flip a couple of tiny little fish right out of the water; because I tried to set so much harder, I would lose the fish immediately. But I didn’t understand the subtleties and the idea of catching really small fish and being really excited about it.”
Now when the couple migrates to Alaska to spend time with Saugstad’s family, they’re just as likely to break out the fly rods and cast for a few trout as they are to have the salmon gear out during the spawning run.
But some of the Alaska trips can be a bit bittersweet for these two. As much fun as they have skiing back home in the mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe, Alaska has even bigger mountains. And more to conquer.
THEY ARE QUITE THE photogenic pair, including when on skis while slicing down some edge-of-your-seat mountaintops. Such a partnership is a match made in film, and both have appeared in several of the skiing adventure flicks made famous by the legendary filmmaker Warren Miller, who influenced both Saugstad and Townsend in their younger days. (Townsend appears in two Warren Miller Entertainment productions, Playground and Impact.)
“I think Warren Miller is responsible for multiple generations of skiers. For me, it was the coolest thing in skiing,” Townsend says. ”It was the most fun thing in the world to do. It was so badass and I don’t even know if we truly understand how important and impactful those films were on skiers.”
Both he and Saugstad have their own YouTube channels, which include some epic videos of the couple’s ski trips. A two-part production titled Backcountry Skiing has between 92,000 and 95,000 views each. It’s a blend of spectacular skiing and some comedy mixed in.
And it’s the kind of footage that most of us – even those who are as hardcore and experienced weekend skiers on the intermediate hills at popular resorts – can only dream of experiencing on their own.
But watching others accomplish the impossible on film and then excelling in the sport themselves is how they got here. The sponsorships, the trips to find new powder to beat and the overall have-backpack-ready-to-travel lifestyle is a hectic one. But it’s a journey Saugstad – she once pondered law school – wouldn’t trade.
“I was putting off law school to be a ski bum. And then I met Cody. He had just started to break in himself and just broke through in a film with Warren Miller and had filmed with Matchstick Productions,” Saugstad says. “And it wasn’t that I was seeking it out per se, but Cody was definitely urging me to – I don’t know – put some effort into being a pro skier and at least compete and see how I like it. He thought I was definitely good enough, so with his encouragement I did. And now law school is a thing of many, many years ago.”
So too were those days burning up the slopes around Girdwood, and while Saugstad has skied all over the world. There’s always fish to catch and more snow-covered peaks to shred back home.
“The mountains are endless in Alaska,” she says, “and I feel like I’ve just barely touched it.” ASJ