Local pros talk about favorite, gnarliest, scariest ski lines
Special to the Tribune
You want to stump a professional skier, ask them this question: What’s your favorite ski line?
“It’s like picking your favorite kid,” laughs big mountain skier Cody Townsend, who grew up shredding the slopes of Squaw Valley.
Townsend doesn’t have kids, but the choosing-your-favorite-child analogy is a fitting one. Townsend and his wife, fellow pro skier Elyse Saugstad, do, however, have a dog (Theo).
Like kids (or dogs, for that matter), every big mountain line is unique and unpredictable in their own ways. Oh, and they’re sure to keep you up at night. Shredders like Townsend, Saugstad and many more will scout steep, treacherous lines for days, skiing them hundreds of times in their heads — lying awake with stoked smirks — before they drop down the mountain’s face.
“It’s actually one of the toughest questions in skiing you can ask a professional skier,” Townsend said.
Yet, even though a skier (or parent) may not want to admit it, they’re bound to have a favorite line (and kid). Which is why Tahoe Magazine spoke with a handful of Tahoe-Truckee pro skiers to reveal which of their lines stand — for some, quite literally — above the rest.
CODY TOWNSEND (APRIL 2014)
Let’s start with Townsend, who some would argue holds the proverbial championship belt for the greatest ski line of all time. In fact, take a moment and Google “best ski line ever.”
(Go ahead, I’ll wait…)
That’s right — the top search result is a YouTube clip titled “Most insane ski line EVER” of Townsend rocketing down a wicked 2,000-foot-long vertical chute known as “The Crack” in the Tordrillo Mountains in Alaska.
It’s been viewed over 12 million times and counting. Presented by Red Bull and Matchstick Productions, the video went viral immediately after it hit the web in December 2014. Nearly five years later, it’s still fetching new comments. (A sample comment in August 2019: “THAT’S INSANE!!! WHAT A BIG BALL BADASS!!!!”)
Watch the jaw-dropping 1-minute, 28-second clip and you’ll be saying — while perhaps not verbatim — something similar.
You can see why Townsend, who’s skied stunning lines stretched all over the world, told Tahoe Magazine that “The Crack” is, indeed, his favorite line (so far).
“I’m going to go with the one I’m most known for,” said Townsend, who won line of the year at the 2014 Powder Video Awards and by Outside Magazine.
“It’s one of the most crazy geological features that I’ve ever seen,” the globetrotting skier continued. “I dropped in full of confidence and I just started going — it was zero-to-60 in a couple seconds. All of a sudden I realized how steep and how narrow it was. It was the first time I got more scared while actually skiing. Usually you’re in the flow state and Zen’d out. This one I was like, ‘oh my god — this is really, really, really gnarly.’”
As you hear in the video, after Townsend slices down the chute and spits out the bottom at 70-plus miles per hour, he announces: “Oh my god — that was the scariest thing I’ve ever done!”
Townsend said he had always dreamed of finding a line like “The Crack,” and when he found it, he “knew it was meant to be.”
“To ski this line that almost seems impossible, and to do it in the best way that you think you can, and to come out of it … that was one of the craziest feelings of my life,” he said. “To accomplish that goal just felt really good. All the awards and accolades and viral videos, it was just like putting candles on top of the cake.”
ELYSE SAUGSTAD (FEBRUARY 2009)
For Saugstad, her favorite line also earned her a top accolade and — get this — a brand new car. It was over a decade ago at the 2009 Freeride World Tour at Squaw Valley, where the University of Nevada, Reno alum won best female line of the year.
Her line was off Silverado, starting near the Tram dock, Saugstad said. Though the line was chock full of experts-only cliffs and drops, Saugstad made it look like child’s play.
“Right off the bat, I found an air, stomped it, and had a couple of really big, fun super G turns,” Saugstad recalled. “After those couple of big turns, I found another cliff to air, stomped that; made about two more turns, hit one more cliff and then straight-lined out to the flats.”
The first female competitor out of the gates, Saugstad set a bar that no one else could reach that day.
“I was able to ski it at my very best with complete confidence, which makes your skiing much better,” she said. “There’s so much more of a ‘wow’ factor when you ski a line with complete confidence. This was one of those runs where I honestly didn’t feel like I could’ve skied it any better.”
Making the victory even more special, she said, was the fact the line of the year award was voted on by her fellow skiers.
“It was pretty rad,” she added. “To be awarded something from your peers is almost more special then winning from regular judges.”
DARON RAHLVES (FEBRUARY 2019)
For decades, Daron Rahlves has skied memorable lines in many corners of the globe. Yet, the longtime Truckee resident said perhaps his favorite line, at least in recent memory, happened just this past winter in his backyard.
In February 2019, Rahlves shredded down The Bear Scratch off of Herlan Peak on Tahoe’s North Shore. Looking from Sand Harbor, you can see fall lines that look like (you guessed it) bear scratches.
It’s a line Rahlves said he’d been eying for years, but the conditions were never right. And when they were, Rahlves, the most decorated male American downhill and super G skier in history, was in another part of the globe dominating the World Cup circuit.
“Just the location,” Rahlves said of The Bear Scratch line, which he estimated at 2,400 vertical feet from the top to the road. “You’re right above Tahoe — above Sand Harbor — and it’s beautiful. It was perfect conditions, top to bottom.”
On a cloudy powder day in February, with no tracks in front of him, Rahlves snaked through a thicket of snow-covered pines down the steep mountain overlooking Big Blue.
“It’s pretty cool being that far above the lake and skiing down to lake level,” he said. “That, to me, was the run of the year and the greatest run in Tahoe that I’ve had…”
“Up until this point,” he added.
LILA LAPANJA (JANUARY 2014)
Lila Lapanja, an Incline Village native and alpine racer for the U.S. Ski Team, dug up from her memory bank a powder day on the Dolomites in Val di Fassa, Italy.
Along with two U.S. Ski teammates and two coaches, Lapanja swapped a day of training on groomed trails for a day of shredding in the backcountry. Specifically, they were at the Sellaronda, a ski route that loops around the massif of the Sellaronda mountain range, of the famed Dolomites.
“We learned that Europeans often won’t ski off groomed trails unless they know it’s safe,” Lapanja said. “As Americans, we kind of push the limits — we duck ropes, we ski off-piste.”
As a result, Lapanja and her teammates had “so many runs of perfectly smooth, fresh powder.”
Lapanja couldn’t point to a specific line that sticks with her. Rather, she said all of her runs that day snowballed into “one of the best days of freeskiing I’ve ever had in my life.”
“I remember one of my coaches saying, ‘we have full souls today on the Sellaronda,’” she continued. “He said it so poetically and it was snowing — it was a really cool moment. Even now thinking back on it, I’m filled up again.”
TRAVIS GANONG (2013 or 2014)
“I wonder if there’s any way that we could kind of shroud it in mystery a little bit?” Travis Gangong says after revealing his favorite line. “I think it’s, I dunno, not really allowed? …”
The Tahoe City native is talking about a line located a stone’s throw from his hometown, in the backcountry of Squaw Valley, where he and a friend, Jordan Basile, went on a secretive moonlit run.
“It was five or six years ago … or maybe longer,” said Ganong, seemingly adding layers to the mystery on purpose. “But for me, that was it. Because it was perfect snow, in my backyard, skiing something I’ve looked at my entire life and wanted to ski, and it was finally the perfect conditions. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
As the story goes, after skiing all day at Squaw some five or six (or more) years ago, Ganong said he and Basile were having drinks at “The Chammy” (Le Chamois & Loft Bar). Then, at about 9 p.m., like moths to a flame, they were beckoned to the backcountry by a full moon.
Where to exactly? Ganong, who grew up as a downhill ski racer at Squaw, is keeping that under wraps. All he’ll say is it was “a backcountry line visible from Le Chamois at the bottom of Squaw.”
The Olympic skier, however, had more than enough to say about his experience skiing this mystery line; his voice jumped an octave as he relived the memorable run, which he ballparked to be about 1,500 vertical feet.
“It’s super steep and sustains the entire way from the top all the way back to the parking lot,” he recalled.
In “three feet of blower snow,” Ganong said he and Basile linked up 15-20 turns down a hanging snowfield before dropping into a small chute that spat them out. Capping the line, they flew down a slew of spines and pillows to the parking lot.
“Again,” he emphasized, “in three feet of the best snow I’ve ever skied in my life. It was, for sure, the best run of my life. Hands down.”
MICHELLE PARKER (APRIL 2019)
In 2015, Squaw Valley native Michelle Parker attempted a huge spine-riddled line on Caffeine Ridge in Haines, Alaska.
Cascading the line, Parker got walloped by her own sluff — falling snow that’s knocked loose by a skier — and lost one of her skis.
“I thought I was in a small avalanche,” she said. “I came out the end and totally ate shit.”
For years, Parker thought Caffeine Ridge would be “a line that got away,” adding, “you never know when you’re going to be back in that location.”
This past April, however, Parker found herself staring down the very same line on Caffeine Ridge.
“Just coming back to and staring at it — this thing is a monster,” said Parker, adding that, this time around, she was fully confident when she dropped in. “I was psyched to go back to it and shred it.”
And shred the line she did.
Parker laced down the spine, caught air over cliffs, evaded her sluff — which she said “was barreling down to the right” of her — in a run she said was “some of the best skiing I’ve every personally done.”
“I was completely present in my decisions,” she continued. “I remembered my line from top to bottom, where I was going to be and all the variables. It’s the ultimate feeling of perfection, almost. I strongly noticed the progression that had taken place in the last few years and that’s something that’s really gratifying.”