It's almost impossible to breathe for the full minute-and-a-half video that shows Cody Townsend hurtle himself on skis through a narrow crevice on an insanely steep, rugged Alaska mountain.
Townsend broke the Internet earlier this year with his 90-second YouTube clip, entitled "Most insane ski line ever," from the ski movie Days of My Youth. To date, the clip has received more than 8.5 million hits.
The stunt earned the free-skier the "Best Line" prize for the best ski line at the 2014 Powder Awards.
At the end of the clip Townsend declares: "That was the scariest thing I've ever done." But the 31-year-old is planning for even more adrenaline-inducing adventures.
Townsend (College Ten '07, linguistics) has some advice for skiers who want to improve: "Go ski with people who are better than you. Surround yourself with people you can learn from."
Part of the thrill from watching that video is the sense that the terrifying ski run was spontaneous, as if he put on a pair of skis and jumped down the mountain. But Townsend's approach was methodical, not impulse.
"It was a five-year process of preparation," he said.
The Santa Cruz native grew up near the waves, but it was always the slopes that captured his heart and imagination. His parents own a cabin in Squaw Valley. Townsend's first memories involve skiing.
"I knew what I was going to do my whole life," he said. "I was obsessed with skiing from the time I was 6."
The immense popularity of the YouTube clip has given Townsend the freedom to pursue his own film project. That worldwide attention created its own momentum. "It was such a big thing—and people in the ski world want to see what's next," he said.
After receiving a boost in confidence as well as notoriety, Townsend hired a cinematographer to shoot his own movie called Conquering the Useless this spring in British Columbia.
Channeling the same boldness that motivated him to leap down that mountain, Townsend decided to veer away from the formula of many downhill skiing movies—which often rely on the sort of footage that some in the ski world refer to as "ski porn."
"Ski porn is basically the highest performance skiing in the world set to music," he said. "I wanted to step outside of that and show the human involvement, the pure fun that we have as well as new forms of adventure in the mountain. As skiers and athletes we have our own interpretation of the sport, and I want to bring the audience inside those stories."
Townsend is also using his savvy off the slopes. In 2010, he co-founded Arcade Belt Co., with the aim of making functional and lifestyle belts with an athlete's needs in mind. Based near Lake Tahoe, the product now has national distribution.
The company website includes a photo and self-effacing statement from Townsend, who referenced Santa Cruz locals who made fun of him "for being so obsessed with the oh-so-uncool sport of skiing. Who's laughing now? Well, they still are because they have big-paying jobs and skiers don't make [expletive] for money."
Townsend's plans for the future include more exploration and adventure, as well as pushing himself to keep improving.
"I want to keep trying to find more unexplored areas, where you have to step outside of established areas and use your own power and wit to go further than before," he said. "There are so many more unexplored mountains out there. Those are the ones that are enchanting to me."