Scouting Rendezvous mountain in 1960 in order to set up Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Barry Corbet looked at the limestone-lined gully and said, “Someday, someone will ski that.” In 1966, the resort’s second year of operation, 19-year old patroller Lonnie Ball became the first to do so (though he denied it for three weeks for fear of losing his job.)
Now, the aptly-named Corbet’s Couloir is one of North American’s most iconic inbounds ski runs. It’s also home to one of the world’s most-viewed freestyle ski competitions, the annual Kings and Queens of Corbet’s.
The first Kings and Queen’s of Corbet’s launched on February 1, 2018, under blue skies and with four inches of new snow reported, boasting a mix of 25 women and men, a mix of pros like Griffin Post, X-games veteran Hana Beaman, and ripping locals like Kate Zeliff and Veronica Paulsen. More than 500 spectators gathered at the base of the couloir to watch.
In just three years, the competition has gained ample popularity alongside longstanding events like Burton’s US Open, and not far behind title sponsor Red Bull’s flagship Rampage mountain bike comp. More than 20 million viewers tuned in last year to watch.
Named for Jackson Hole’s late ambassador Doug Coombs, the unofficial King of Corbet’s, the event is a combination of a big mountain and slopestyle comp with one simple conceit. Whoever throws the best tricks off the 30-foot cliff at the head of the limestone-lined couloir, and a few other jumps on the 40-degree slope below wins. Each run lasts no more than 30 seconds, and the degree of risk and difficulty is stunningly easy to understand at a glance. That’s not to say they are easy to execute, however.
This is why the event is invite-only (this year’s edition attracted 150 applicants for 24 spots)—and the comp has essentially minted the careers of the winners.
In order to ensure the best and safest course for the competitors, the run is roped off for two weeks; the first to build the in-run, subsequent jumps, and to protect the snow; the second to create a weather window for the competition. Any night during the designated window the athletes will get word that in the morning, it’s go-time.
Rumor has it, the 2021 event may go off February 18 this year. SKI Magazine will be on location covering the action live via Instagram. We spoke to some of the event’s key organizers to find out how a competition like this got the green light in the first place, the ways it’s evolved since, and what to expect when the 24 athletes launch into the run this week.
Bill Lewkowitz, JHMR Business Development Director, and Doug Coombs’ Powder 8 partner: No one skied Corbet’s in the ‘80s unless it was good. It definitely wasn’t skied by tourists. More people go into Corbet’s in a day now than people did in a week back then. The equipment is just much better now.
Doug was famous for the wallride. He actually didn’t take air unless he needed to take air. He was like a cat. He wanted to get to his feet as quickly as possible.
Jeff Leger, Jackson Hole’s “Dr. Huckingstuff”: I had a poster of Corbet’s in my room growing up—of Rob Deslaurier dropping in off the west wall. Moving here, you hear the stories. Joe Larrow straight-lining a quarter-mile from the tram and sailing 100 feet into the couloir, Sick Rick Armstrong dropping 80 feet off the west wall. Corbet’s invades your psyche if you ski at Jackson. After 25 years, I can’t even guess how many times I’ve dropped into it.
In 2012, TGR staged a film shoot there and guys were jumping over each other to drop in. Guys were doing backflips. Griffin Post repeated Sick Rick’s cave line.
In 2017, Jackson native and 2007 Freeride World Tour champ Jess McMillan was hired as Jackson Hole’s events manager. Wanting to make a splash, she and her husband Eric Seymour, the resort’s content and media manager, hatched a scheme.
Jess McMillan: For years [fellow FWT competitor and Jackson Hole athlete] Griffin Post and I had been talking about a FWT stop at Jackson or some other prestigious event. Corbett’s is so legendary, it seemed untouchable. Over a couple of beers on our couch, we sketched out the idea to have an invite-only athlete-judged, session-style comp. We started floating the idea to departments at the resort, and we got a surprising amount of support.
Seymour: When we took it to patrol, they said tourists from all over the world tumble into this thing backward, upside-down, and no one has died there yet. You should be Okay.
Kevin Brazell, JHMR ski patrol: We do a lot more ski retrievals than anything else in Corbet’s. When people go tumbling to the bottom, their skis are often stuck near the top. When I heard about the comp, my concern was who they were going to let into this competition.
Ultimately, though, these are serious athletes who really know what they are doing. We put some spots off-limits—like the high west wall that Sick Rick skied. Most importantly, we close the run for at least a week ahead of time to let the soft snow pile up. We do hear about that from locals and people who’ve come to Jackson just to ski the thing.
McMillan: A north wind can scour the powder out of Corbet’s in just a few hours. We give ourselves a five-day weather window for that and for visibility issues. That first year, I didn’t sleep for a few days before the competition, watching for the conditions to line up.
We were lucky that Red Bull, which doesn’t normally sign on to first-year events, wanted in. Even with Red Bull on board, a lot of sponsors were skeptical. It felt like running up to a group and shouting, “Who wants to go streaking with me?’
McMillan: The VP of mountain ops, Tim Manson, had been the toughest to convince on the comp. He and I were standing at the finish area and as the first competitor was about to go, he grabbed my hand and squeezed it, like “what did we just do here?” Hans Mindnich had drawn the first bib, and he threw a massive 360 off the lip and landed it. There was a huge roar from the crowd.
That set the tone. Allotted two runs apiece, competitors threw backflips, mute-grab 360s, and 720s, landing 60-80 feet downslope from the 30-foot high cornice atop the couloir. Most started their runs 30-yards-or-so uphill of the couloir.
Griffin Post: On the in-run, all you see is the lip, then suddenly you see the bottom of Tensleep bowl. You feel like you are launching to the moon as the ground falls away. Even though you know what’s down there, your brain short circuits a little.
Opting for variety, Dr. Huckingstuff opted to throw a swan dive-to-frontflip off the near-west wall, some 70 feet above the bottom of the couloir.
Leger: It’s a thing I had pulled off before on numerous occasions. I was wearing a backpack, but contrary to the rumors, it wasn’t packed with bubble wrap. My problem was under rotation. It wasn’t horrible though. You get an unbeatable visual perspective. It’s a way to experience what you’re doing to the utmost. I thought the event was super cool. There was a ton of camaraderie, emulating the way it is up there on a big powder day when there’s a combo of gawked tourists and all the chemicalized freaks giving it their best. I feel lucky to have been able to be a part of it.
Judging was performed by the competitors themselves based on event footage, and the results were announced at a Saturday night party at the Mangy Moose. However, when a photo of the winners, Karl Fostvedt and Kate Zeliff, holding oversize checks was posted to social media, fans cried foul when they noticed Fostvedt received $8,000 while Zeliff only got $3,000. Dozens of protests filled the comment sections overnight.
Anna Cole, JMHR Marketing Manager: That was a tense Sunday morning. Jess and I are both women who want to progress the sport, so we felt blindsided. We had invited an equal number of women and men competitors, but only seven women showed up, so we divided the $21,000 purse proportionally. We were fatigued from the event and of course the party, so those conversations were hard, but we were lucky that the resort ponied up to even out the prizes. It was a huge learning moment, but also showed how much engagement we have with the public.
Paulsen: I think it’s really cool that Jackson Hole stepped up. Even FWT doesn’t have equal pay.
In 2019, after visiting Red Bull’s Rampage mountain bike comp, organizers built terrain park-style hits below Corbet’s to enhance the possibilities. They also invited Trevor Kennison, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 2015 snowboard accident and had been forerunning Freeride World Tour qualifying events on his sit-ski. At the top of Corbet’s Jackson Hole snowboard legend Travis Rice offered to coach Kennison, literally holding his coat as they rehearsed the speed he’d need to launch, rather than plummet, from the lip.
Kennison: I never skied a day in my life; I only snowboarded. So having my idol Travis Rice take the time to help push me and look out into the horizon to pick out a mountain top to aim for, I couldn’t be more grateful for that. I had to rehearse it six times, close my eyes, think it through, imagine myself sticking it, open my eyes, realize I wasn’t ready, close my eyes again, and rehearse it until I was comfortable about it.
Kennison, scrubbed his first attempt, just a few feet from the edge.
McMillan: It was completely silent at the top for a full minute until Trevor ran it out 30 yards from the lip and fired off of the nose.
Kennison launched 40 feet into the couloir, bounced 30 feet downhill, and rode out a plume of powder.
Kennison: It was probably the best feeling of my life up ‘til that point.
In 2020, Red Bull streamed the comp live and competitors built kickers about 10 feet back from the lip of Corbet’s. People were astonished, but a few successfully landed double backflips. In addition to his flawless double, Parker Costain threw in two additional backflips and a 360 on the lower jumps to take the men’s division. The biggest moment of the event, however, was Veronica Paulsen’s backflip—the first ever landed by a woman into Corbet’s and good for the win.
Paulsen: I’d unsuccessfully tried to land them in both the 2018 and 2019 comp. I got close, putting my feet down but struggled with the landing. I’d competed in moguls all the way through college, so was comfortable doing backflips, but never on any drop as big as Corbet’s. Last winter, prior to the comp, I was just backflipping off of everything I could see.
Last year I was nervous but not scared like I was the first two years. I had the support of everyone up there. The snow was good that day. You could hear my scream on the Go-Pro footage. When I got to the bottom, my friend Kate tackled me off my skis. It was pretty emotional. I didn’t even do a second run.
My phone started blowing up almost instantly, from people who’d seen the live feed and posts on Instagram. It even made Sportscenter. I got my first sponsors and got to quit my job waiting tables at the Mangy Moose. It catapulted my ski career.
This year, in order to reduce Covid-19 exposure, the 2021 Kings and Queens of Corbet’s won’t include a live stream. SKI Magazine will be on location covering the action live via Instagram this week. Red Bull TV will also air a 90-minute highlight distillation of the competition on February 22.