Like most people, Caite Zeliff, a 23-year-old skier with an aggressive New Hampshire racing background, has a special relationship with Corbet’s Couloir, Jackson Hole's signature run. A lot of people stare at the near-vertical precipice forever, trying to summon the courage to drop. Some do, only to bounce and ragdoll in full view of the tram drifting overhead, a delightful hoot to everyone riding inside. Many people tuck tail and ski the other direction, giving some lame excuse like, "Oh, the light's bad," or "My boots don't feel good today," or simply, "Maybe tomorrow." But then again, some ski it and make it look easy: hands forward, hard left-footer to a hard right-footer to shoot past the imposing rock walls.
But after Zeliff was named the first-ever Queen of Corbet's last week, you could say that her relationship with this rowdy line has been significantly elevated.
You see, Zeliff, who works as a ski instructor, ski coach, and competes on the Freeride World Tour, had never even skied Corbet's until her first drop the day of the competition. That morning, she backed up about 20 feet, pushed off, and sent a big straight air, landing far below in the couloir, before skiing hard and fast, throwing a spread eagle for good measure near the bottom, before coasting into the finish corral.
"I love pushing my skiing, but I'm a shy skier. I don't like a lot of eyes on me, and skiing Corbet’s, you're on display," she said. "But anytime you have an opportunity to ski Corbet’s on a bluebird day after it'd been closed for a few days, you have to jump at the opportunity."
Zeliff was one of seven women, and 25 skiers and snowboarders in all, from around the country invited to throw down in what has since become a social media bonanza. To get optimal conditions, the resort closed Corbet's for three days beforehand. Forecasted storms didn't exactly materialize to deliver the softest of pillows, but roughly eight inches the day before and some wind created enough for the resort to give the go ahead.
The men's crown went to Karl Fostvedt, who stomped a smooth cork 7 off the lip, transitioned to a backflip off a lower cliffband, before sending a straight air off another cliff while a crowd of several hundred people camped at the base of Tensleep Bowl roared its approval.
Each competitor had two runs. At the end of the day, the athletes gathered to watch the film, judge one another, and select the winners. Rounding out the men’s and women’s podium included Sander Hadley and Kara Munsey, respectively. In third place were snowboarders Mikey Marohn and Hana Beanman.
Zeliff and Fostvedt each took home $8,000. Original payouts had weighed heavily toward the men, with the top woman, Zeliff, scoring just $3,000, compared to $8,000 for Fostvedt, $4,000 for runner-up Sander Hadley, and $3,000 for third-place Marohn. When viewers saw the discrepancy on photos posted to Instagram, a deluge of criticism threatened to undermine what had otherwise been a highly successful event. The resort shortly rectified the situation, offering equal payouts to everyone on the podium. Zeliff said she was pleased to see women treated equally as men, but noted that at the end of the day, she was just honored to have the opportunity to compete.
"It was such a huge compliment to be in the lineup with guys and girls I've looked up to forever," she said. "It was a special."
One of those idols is Jeff Leger, a 43-year-old mustachioed professional ski bum who goes by the handle Dr. Huckinstuff, performs snow phone commentary three days a week, and has lived in Jackson for 25 years, including 15 as a resident employee of the Hostel X, the last bastion of ski-bumdom in the rapidly expanding Teton Village.
"I'm just an old-dog powderhound who wants to get as much air as I can get," he said.
One of his jobs at the Hostel was to show ski movies to guests, including The Performers and Ski the Outer Limits. Younger fans viewing the Kings and Queens on social media may be under the impression that Leger was the first to huck a giant front flip off of Corbet's. He'd correct them and say, no, he was merely following footsteps. It was in the film Ski the Outer Limits, from 1968, when a long-hair skier sent an enormous front flip, on long skinny skis no less, sans helmet.
"I love Corbet’s. I ski it all the time," he said. "I knew if I threw my line down I'd do well.
Standing just below the 10,450-foot summit, Leger watched eight of 10 competitors go off the front lip. Nobody had yet taken the mandatory air off the west wall. "My thinking was that I was going to take the biggest line they would allow me to take," he said. "I knew it was borderline with the conditions. But I've done that move before and I've done the west wall. If there was a time to shoot the moon and get people super jazzed, this was it."
Skiing up to the drop, he took a left turn, then a right, and at the edge of the cliff launched a huge front lip. He landed in the backseat and one of his skis decided to shoot the moon as well, effectively ending his chances at glory.
But like Zeliff, Leger said the Kings and Queens of Corbets wasn't about winning, but taking part in a so-far historic event. That is, until next time. "You'll see people go big a couple times a year," he said, "but to see people lining up, sending right off the lip one after the other was special for sure."