The hiking boots, base layers, helmets, skis and other sporting goods carried by Kirkham’s Outdoor Products in Murray never captured Noah Howell’s imagination as much as a simple mess kit. When it caught the 19-year-old’s eye while he was stocking shelves, it wasn’t the cookware inside that piqued his interest. It was the peak on the lid: a beautiful, snow-covered mountain rising out of a lake with a wide, steep, perfectly skiable swath seemingly painted down the center.
“I don’t care where that line is,” Howell, now 43, remembers thinking, “I’m going to find it.”
A coworker quickly burst his bubble. It was Mount Moran, located a few hours north in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, and he had skied it just a couple months earlier.
Howell, a Holladay native, went on to ski many other mountains. He became an adept backcountry skier (he balks at being called a professional) who has more than a dozen first descents to his name. Backcountry Magazine even included him among its “50 Living Legends.” Yet he didn’t set skis atop Mount Moran until 2018 — nearly two decades after that image of its Skillet Glacier on a mess kit spoke to the rogue adventurer inside him.
It wasn’t nostalgia that eventually took him there. It was a book. Specifically, it was “Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America,” a coffee-table compendium of some of the best backcountry lines on the continent.
About five years ago, Howell dusted off his copy of the book, which was published in 2010, and realized he had skied down more than a third of its featured runs. He wondered what it would take to check them all off — something no one, not even one of the book’s three authors, celebrated ski pioneers in their own right, has done.
He has just 20 more to go, and counting.
“They put in some dream lines, but there’s some total s--- in there that I never would have done and wouldn’t do again if it wasn’t on the list,” Howell said of book. “That said, I’m glad I did them. That’s the beauty of it.”
Beauty and the beasts
Beauty is exactly what the three authors — Chris Davenport, Penn Newhard and Art Burrows – were going for when they compiled the list.
“The common thread is not challenge, it’s beauty,” said Davenport, who has skied almost half the lines. “The ski line that draws you in and makes you go, ‘Wow, Mother Nature is doing her thing in the most beautiful way.”
Davenport said the book was inspired by his own project of skiing all of Colorado’s 14ers and modeled after the climbing guide, “50 Classic Climbs of North America.” After culling input from friends and well-known skiers, they came up with a list of about 100 lines, approximately 15 of which were in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. They then whittled the list down by looking at the location and quality of the lines as well as the quality of the photos they had to accompany them. Four Utah mountains made it into the final version: Mount Superior, Hypodermic Needle on Thunder Mountain, Cold Fusion on Mount Timpanogos and Mount Tukuhnikivatz in the La Sal range of southern Utah.
Davenport is quick to point out that the book isn’t meant to be the final word on backcountry skiing on the continent. It’s not “The Fifty Classic Descents of North America,” he said.
Still, it’s a pretty good start. While all are intimidating feats for the average skier, some runs are easily accessible and popular among powder hunters, such as Mount Superior, which looms over the Alta and Snowbird resorts, or Mount Shasta in California. Others are on the verge of being sacrosanct. Those include University Peak and Mount St. Elias in Alaska and Mount Robson in Canada, none of which has been skied more than twice.
Partly because of those behemoths, the authors didn’t have any expectations that someone would try to ski them all. And yet, someone is. Two someones, in fact.
The Fifty Project
Cody Townsend readily admits that a project like “The Fifty” — the name of his YouTube series documenting his attempt to both climb and ski all 50 descents — wouldn’t typically be in his wheelhouse. The California kid has built his reputation around his big personality that matches the big air and big laughs he gets while skiing in big-mountain films. He likes to get up mountains quick, usually via helicopter, and get down them even quicker.
So, when a picture of him skiing down Terminal Cancer in Elko, Nevada, appeared in “Fifty Classic Descents,” it was his turn to chuckle.
“I was like a pro free-ride skier,” he said. “Here’s a pic of me in a classic, ski mountaineering style of book.”
He put his copy of the book on a shelf, where it also collected dust. Then, a few years ago, Townsend, 36, found himself drawn to the experiences to be had on the way up the mountain as well as the way down. He dusted off his copy and picked one of its most remote runs, the Messner Couloir on Denali — the tallest mountain in North America — as his proving ground. The adventure was a complete success, and at the beginning of 2019, he launched The Fifty project.
Townsend didn’t completely set aside his need for speed, though. He set a goal of skiing all 50 descents within three years — a goal both he and Davenport see as perhaps an impossible dream.
“The likelihood of finishing is actually very low,” said Townsend, who checked off 19 of the descents last season for a total of 20. “I have to be comfortable with that and I have to be comfortable telling the world, after I’ve committed publicly to it, that, hey, I’m not doing this. I’m not going to gamble my life on that.”
Balance of powder
That’s the challenge within the challenge for anyone attempting any of the 50 descents. At some point during each expedition, the value of life must be weighed against the value of accomplishing a goal.
While he says he is not the best skier or mountaineer, Howell prides himself on his ability to line up conditions and routes and plan each expedition to the minutiae. So, he had some choice words when he twice drove out to Split Mountain in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains only to have to turn around and return home after he deemed the conditions too dangerous.
The mountain, which has claimed more than one skier’s life, remains one of just two descents from the book in the lower 48 states Howell hasn’t skied. But he never second-guessed his decision.
“It’s had an avalanche and it’s just all rocks, or it rained and it’s just all crusty. There’s just so many ways you can get shut down. Just health, too, and gear issues and weather,” He said. “It’s just really a poor choice of sports. But that’s what makes it fun when it does work and does come together is just how magical it is and how rare and lucky.”
It’s because of those risks, both foreseen and unforeseen, that Howell and Townsend emphasize they are not in a race to the top.
“We’re just mountain people, doing this for our own personal enjoyment and challenge, not for any sort of glory or competitive vibe,” Townsend said. “We know the mountains have the upper hand anyway.”
Both skiers have dedicated their next few seasons to ticking off as many of the routes as they can. Howell, motivated by age, has a trip to Canada planned next spring — when the days are longer and conditions are generally better. Ideally he’d knock off 10 descents during that two- to three-week stretch, but he said he realizes it could be as few as two, or none.
Meanwhile Townsend, committed to his three-year timeline, will be following “stability, not storms” as he tries to dust off about 15 more lines starting in January. One he has yet to attempt is Mount Moran, which has been one of Howell’s favorites.
Howell no doubt would be happy to share his notes. And, if the timing works out, he and Townsend are both open to attempting an expedition together.
“Both of us see it as a ridiculous feat,” Howell said of chasing the 50, “and if either of us could pull it off, it would be incredible.”
NOAH HOWELL’S 5O DESCENTS
Descents that the Utah skier has achieved thus far:
1. Mount Superior, UT
2. Hypodermic Needle, UT
3. Mount Shasta, CA
4. Mountaineers Route, CA
5. Polar Star, Baffin Island (2004)
6. Terminal Cancer, NV (3/24/10)
7. Cold Fusion, UT, (5/28/13)
8. The Patriarch, MT (4/4/14)
9. Middle Teton, WY (2/14/15)
10. The Sickle, ID (4/15/15)
11. McGowan Peak, ID (4/16/15)
12. Devils Bedstead, ID, (4/29/15)
13. Grand Teton, WY (4/7/16)
14. Mount Tukuhnikivatz, UT (4/23/17)
15. Mount Williamson, CA (4/29/17)
16. Bloody Couloir, CA (5/10/17)
17. North Maroon Peak, CO (5/15/17)
18. Buffalo Mountain, CO (5/16/17)
19. Wilson Peak, CO (5/20/17)
20. Mount Hood, OR,(5/27/17)
21. Mount Stimson, MT (3/10/18)
22. Mount Moran, WY (4/24/18)
23. Huntington Ravine, NH (5/1/18)
24. Tuckerman Ravine, NH (5/1/18)
25. Mount Holy Cross, CO (5/9/18)
26. Castle Peak, ID (3/12/19)
27. Pyramid Peak, CO (4/8/19)
28. Fuhrer Finger, Mount Rainier, WA (5/3/19)
29. Watson Traverse, Mount Baker, WA (5/5/19)
30. Eldorado Glacier, Eldorado Peak, WA (5/7/19)