Michelle Parker takes on a human-powered bike-and-ski mission like no other
© Bjarne Salen
“The Mountain Why” documents pro skiers Michelle Parker and Cody Townsend reaching the ultimate level of exhaustion as they bike tour to climb and ski three classic lines.
It was late spring 2020, in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, when pro skiers and long-time friends Michelle Parker and Cody Townsend started dreaming of an expedition. Townsend is in the midst of a multi-year project, called The Fifty, to try and ski all of the lines in the 2010 book, "50 Classic Ski Descents of North America." He was telling Parker about his idea for a bike touring trip to ride from their mutual hometown of Tahoe City, California, to the Pacific Northwest to ski a few of the lines in the book, once travel restrictions were lifted. Before he could finish, Parker jumped in: “Can I come with you?”
So, the two of them, along with filmmaker Bjarne Salén, who drove his van and carried weeks’ worth of food supplies, set off on a five-and-a-half-week journey, covering 1,033 miles and 46,788 vertical feet on their bikes, plus another 20,000 vertical feet on skis. They successfully climbed and skied three iconic routes: the Newton Clark Headwall on Oregon’s 11,250-foot Mount Hood, and in Washington, the Führer Finger on 14,411-foot Mount Rainier and 8,868-foot Eldorado Peak in the North Cascades. Their efforts are documented in the new short film, “The Mountain Why.” We spoke to Parker about towing a 100-pound trailer, traveling during a pandemic, and the beauty of cheese puffs.
The Mountain Why
Red Bull: You’re a road cyclist normally, right? So, how hard was the biking for you on this trip?
Michelle Parker: I ride a road bike quite often. I had purchased a bike trainer when COVID hit, because I knew I needed a hamster wheel for myself. So, I felt decently in shape when we left. We both rode gravel bikes, but we had to figure out how to carry all of our stuff—camping gear, ski touring gear, food and water for the day. I ended up calling mountain biker Rebecca Rusch, a Red Bull athlete and friend, and I was like, ‘I need your help.’ She gave me all the beta, from the trailer to the bag company. I think our trailers weighed around 100 pounds.
What was that first day of towing all that weight like?
It took a minute to get used to the bike setup. It was really wobbly. The first day, we ended up on some dirt roads that were steep and bumpy. I was thinking, there’s no way we are going to be able to do this. In the beginning, Cody had thought that we’d ride 80 to 100 miles a day. I was a bit more realistic. I was like, 60 would be great. We ended up averaging around 70 miles per day.
It must have felt good to finally step into your skis after all those miles.
I didn’t really ski during the early parts of COVID, so that first day back on skis on Mount Hood felt so good. We rode there, camped at the base of Mt. Hood Meadows, woke up early, and climbed to the top. I remember those first few turns so well. We were down by 8 or 9 in the morning, so we just got back on our bikes and kept riding.
Sounds like there wasn’t much down time.
I was envisioning us stopping at a river to wash our clothes or have a snack. But all of a sudden, we were pinning it and not stopping. There was no rest. It was cool to see how well my body adapted. I got into the flow of it. At the same time, you’re always hungry. You’re always thirsty. You’re always tired.
Hopefully you had good snacks.
Cody is gluten free and Bjarne is vegan and gluten free. Occasionally, I would sneak a snack into the van that I could eat all by myself, like cheese puffs.
How did you pull this trip off during a global pandemic when most people weren’t leaving their houses?
We kept to ourselves. We literally didn’t go into any public places. We camped. We wanted to keep it pure and carry our gear, which we did, but we had Bjarne carry our food, so we didn’t have to stop frequently for supplies. On the mountains, I felt really confident and comfortable with our decision making. That’s one of the beautiful things about having good partners in the mountain. Cody is one of my best ski partners and our communication is rock solid.
You were also riding in the early summer months during protests and an uprising over racial injustice. Were you seeing signs of that from the road?
We had 10 hours on the bike each day, listening to podcasts, and we were having these intense conversations about everything that was happening. During a period of rain, I went to Portland and got to march. I wanted to look back on this moment in time and know that I was a part of what I consider to be the right side of that movement. We ended up in Seattle the day after skiing Rainier and we intentionally went to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. Cody and Bjarne hadn’t gotten to experience that side of the uprising. We felt that energy. The mood of the trip was altered from then on. Politically and navigating the pandemic, it became far more in depth than we had anticipated.
How did the political atmosphere affect the way you were feeling?
It altered my entire reality. I remember one video confessional while we were riding through the most beautiful road that was closed to cars. I was listening to these podcasts. I remember thinking, this is such a cool trip. We’re doing it human powered, and I’m really proud of the effort. But then all of a sudden, it felt like it didn’t matter. It was such a privileged thing to be doing. It flipped my entire reality. When I’m processing stuff like that, the way that I know how to do it is to be out in the wilderness and walking in the mountains. I was able to do that, grinding it out on the bike, but it was a really unique way to process it. It was a privilege to be able to dedicate that much time and energy to learning.
Explain the title of the film, “The Mountain Why.”
We were trying to figure out why. Why do we do these things? Why do we put ourselves through so much suffering? To me, the answer is when you challenge yourself with a goal that you don’t know you can accomplish, a really audacious goal, that’s when you grow. It’s character building because every day is unknown and you’re pushing through these subconscious limits that you may have put on yourself. It feels really powerful to break down perceived barriers and limits that we put on ourselves—that’s where the magic happens. In the end, I discovered that the why isn’t something that needs to be answered. The why is what perpetually moves you forward.