Rather than the press of bodies usually felt on a ride up Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s Aerial Tram, a nervous anticipation ballooned in the car as it swung past the towers, the cable thudding over the pulleys.
The skiers and riders — some of the best in North America — joked with one another. But when the day’s objective, Corbet’s Couloir, came into view, a hush descended before someone released a half-throated whoop and a gale of excitement and noise swept through the tram.
Jess McMillan, a former freeskier and local legend, grabbed the tram’s mic and quieted the bunch.
“I want to start this off by saying it’s Hans’ birthday today,” she said. “And I want to leave you with a quote from Warren Miller: ‘There are two rules in extreme snowriding: First, always follow your heart; second, never cry when it hurts.’”
The resounding cheers for the words of the recently deceased ski film pioneer cascaded into a unified round of “Happy Birthday” for Hans Mindnich, a snowboarder from Stowe, Vermont. Then the tram doors opened and the competitors stepped out to face Thursday’s inaugural Kings and Queens of Corbet’s contest.
‘Someone will ski that’
Jackson Hole lore pegs Barry Corbet as the contemporary discoverer of the couloir in 1960, when he was helping scout Rendezvous Mountain as a ski resort. Corbet was an experienced mountaineer and ski instructor, so he knew a thing or two about the hills when he made a now-famous prediction.
“Someday, someone will ski that,” he told his scouting partner.
Corbet’s Couloir has since become a testament to the resort’s big-mountain terrain and an objective of Jackson skiers looking to prove their mettle.
“Younger kids think of it as the pinnacle, the ultimate test of their abilities,” said Rob LaPier, the freeride program director for the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club.
But no ski club alumni, or any other Jackson skier, would have dared to believe they would have free reign over the couloir for an entire day, particularly with perfect skiing conditions. Wispy clouds streaked the blue sky, and the 4 inches reported by the resort skied more like 10.
Because the couloir had been closed for several days leading up to the event, the new snow made landing in the chute even deeper and softer. The resort’s park and pipe crew shaved the deck on the takeoff to perfection, according to several riders. Mindnich drew the first bib and a birthday present of first tracks in front of about 500 spectators gathered at the base in Tensleep Bowl.
He went big. He threw a huge 360, disappearing into a white plume before carving out and crushing the couloir. His almost perfect first run was marred by a big washout and tomahawk, but the stage was set.
“Hans really set the tone,” said Forrest Jillson, a freeskier and Corbet’s competitor. “There was no going back after that first run.”
Bigger and bigger
The couloir is no stranger to competition.
A tip from Jackson Hole Air Force members and a search into the Jackson Hole News&Guide archives unearthed the details of a 1986 and ’87 event — the Iron Skier — that sounds like Type 2 fun (the kind of fun only enjoyable upon reflection). The contest began at the top of Four Shadows, an out-of-bounds run on Cody Peak.
Competitors skied Four Shadows, changed into running shoes to hoof it to the peak of Rendezvous, then dropped into Corbet’s, skied out of Tensleep Bowl and finished with a giant slalom course to the bottom of the resort.
Filmmaker Dick Barrymore, the founder of the Iron Skier race, is quoted in an April 9, 1987, Jackson Hole Guide article saying, “The event itself is for the hot skier who knows how to handle the terrain at high speeds.”
The same could be said for the Kings and Queens. The run-in started nearly at the top of the Aerial Tram, allowing the riders to gain extraordinary velocity. The third to drop in, MacKenzie Lisac, was the first to go upside down. Her backflip attempt upped the competitive ante, even though she didn’t stick it. She came off the lip too slowly and didn’t quite clear the transition into the landing zone.
“I wasn’t really asking people what they were going to do,” Jillson said, “but if I’d known she was going to send it, I would have told her to go faster.”
Lisac agreed. When the announcer at the end of the run asked her what she could do to stick the landing, she was succinct.
“More speed,” she told him.
From there the race was on to go bigger and bigger. Chris Logan, a Whitefish, Montana, skier, almost brought around a Misty 720, an inverted spin trick. Griffin Post, always a smooth, smart skier, threw about the biggest straight air possible. Teton Brown dropped a double backflip, bringing it around but washing out on the landing. And Jeff Leger, aka Dr. Huckinstuff, did what can best be described as a swan dive off a cliff into the couloir.
No trick seemed too big as the stoke and the friendly competition at the top of Corbet’s pushed skiers and riders out of their comfort zones and to the next level of skiing.
An atypical competition
All ski contests are timed or judged. Someone has to win, otherwise it’s just a day of skiing with your friends. But a panel of judges sitting at a table would have seemed stuffy for such a novel event. So GoPro, one of the event’s top sponsors, stuck a point-of-view camera on each competitor, and a drone buzzed overhead.
After Thursday’s competition the footage was distilled into individual runs, and the skiers and riders were asked to judge each other Saturday night. Those who picked the victor would know just how difficult the winning runs were to execute.
“It was phenomenal,” resort spokeswoman Anna Cole said. “All the athletes gathered at the TGR theater on Town Square and spent almost three hours judging each other. It was really well received.”
Competitors were judged only by sex, so skiers and snowboarders occupied the same category, a rarity in the freeskiing world. After much debate, the marathon session finally yielded a king and a queen.
Karl Fostvedt, a skier who grew up in Sun Valley, Idaho, and has filmed segments for Teton Gravity Research, Poor Boyz Productions and several other production companies, took the top spot on the men’s side. Second in line was skier Sander Hadley; snowboarder Mikey Marohn took third.
For the queens, Jackson skiers had a great showing. Caite Zeliff, a ski instructor at the resort, took first place, and skier Kara Munsey, a self-described “dark horse,” took second. Snowboarder Hana Beaman, who already has some X Games podiums on her resume, took third.
Though all the skiers inevitably pushed themselves to the limit, Jillson, who took fourth on the men’s side, gave props to the knuckle-draggers.
“The snowboarders need to be applauded,” he said. “For them to do so well on a skier-specific run was incredible. Mikey’s [Marohn] run was up there in the realm of best snowboarder runs I’ve ever seen in person.”
Closing the opportunity gap
As seems inevitable in today’s world, however, controversy engulfed the competition even as the resort pulled off one of the most progressive competitions in modern freeskiing.
What was meant to be the coda on a fantastic week of skiing, a crowning party at the Mangy Moose that started late Saturday night, produced a picture of the king and queen holding giant checks. Internet enthusiasts quickly noticed a discrepancy between the prize money for Fostvedt and Zeliff. He received $8,000, while she had been given only $3,000 for winning the same contest. The other podium finishers were also given less: $2,000 for Munsey to Hadley’s $4,000, and $1,000 for Beaman to Marohn’s $3,000.
“That’s pretty standard for ski comps, to be honest,” Munsey said.
The resort and its sponsors, including Smartwool, Red Bull and GoPro, ponied up a $21,000 purse, to be split between the six winners. The resort had decided to divvy it up based on the number of competitors that showed up — 18 men and seven women — so the bulk of the prize went to the male competitors, Cole said.
“We had invited an equal number of males and females, so we looked at it on a per-person basis and did it proportionally,” she said.
But in the wake of a cultural moment that has included the Women’s March and the #metoo movement, the ski community didn’t accept the justification. The uproar was instantaneous and loud, with many voicing their frustrations with the resort’s apparent shortsightedness.
“We realized the audience was seeing it one way, and not the way we had,” Cole said. “We really took it to heart. We were not intentionally trying to shortfall the women.”
By 11 a.m. Sunday, after the resort’s Facebook and Instagram pages were inundated with angry feedback, Munsey said McMillan sent an email to all the competitors saying that, in light of the imbroglio, the resort was going to even the purses.
Both first-place winners received $8,000, while each in second was given $4,000 and those in third $3,000.
But even with the resort leveling the purses, Munsey was disappointed that the brouhaha happened at all.
“They held this progressive freeride comp, then this move was so not progressive,” she said. “I wish that they would have set the bar and said, ‘Let’s hold the freeride community to this standard.’”
Munsey said it’s not just about the money. Paying women proportionally, rather than equally, only propagates the disparity, discouraging women from entering competitions. She said the opportunity gap that women face — fewer sponsorships, less community support, fewer invites to competitions — is as important to address as equal pay.
Rather than simply being an embarrassing mar on a unique event, Munsey said, this could be the watershed event that brings the pay gap in skiing competitions to the fore. She said the outrage was more unexpected than the skewed payout, and she saw it as a jumping-off point for change, a “kick in the pants” moment for freeskiing.
“If they learned a lesson and can do something to keep moving forward, it’s to keep talking,” she said. “Let’s set the bar for equality. It’s 2018 — it’s not acceptable.”
Wage discrepancies aside, the Kings and Queens of Corbet’s competition may still have moved the needle for women’s skiing in a way that transcends money. The seven female athletes took one of the biggest stages in freeriding and showed they were up to the task, a move that could push more female riders to step outside their comfort zones.
“There were girls who backflipped into Corbet’s on Thursday,” Munsey said. “That’s unheard of. I’d never skied that line, never jumped into Corbet’s with speed, because I never had the opportunity to. Now women have. All in all, I would say women’s skiing progressed on Thursday.”