Corbet’s Couloir

Many are called – but few jump in. They come from far and wide to test their mettle and acquire bragging rights in perhaps the most terrifying-looking challenge available to mere tourists in any ski resort in the Rockies: Corbet’s Couloir, near the top of Rendezvous Mountain, Wyoming’s powderkeg of a peak at Jackson Hole.

It is a rendezvous with a gaping, rocky nemesis. “The chute has tempted or terrified nearly every skier who’s ever come to Jackson Hole” writes David Gonzales in his book “Jackson Hole: On A Grand Scale.” Although skiers as young as eight have skied it, Corbet’s makes skiers from Wisconsin fall silent, and boarders from Quebec mutter anxiously under their breath. “Mon Dieu!” and “Ma foie” would be appropriate sentiments. Recently even a snowmobiler risked serious injury and the wrath of the resort by launching his machine over the edge.

What makes Corbet’s different is that in spite of its petrifying appearance – a great, yawning gash in a limestone wall more than10,000 feet above sea level – it is actually skiable (or boardable) by anyone with strong intermediate skills and buckets of courage – or hair-brained stupidity. It’s bark – or at least its ferocious countenance – is considerably worse than its bite. It is also very visible. A sort of circus act, or a ski resort version of Christians throwing themselves voluntarily to the lions.

Those who teeter on the brink, or actually jump (and jump you must if you plan to ski it), can be sure that dozens of faces will be pressed to the window of Jackson’s famous red “Tram”, or cable-car, as it nears the top of the mountain – to witness their heroic, or otherwise, encounter with the jaws of death as they stand, poised on a snowy ledge above what appears to be a leap into oblivion.

Truth to tell, no-one has ever died in Corbet’s (or so the resort will tell you, and there is no reason to doubt it), although there has been a litany of blown-out knees, spiral fractures, and broken bones. According to Gonzales, “one guy from England wearing Big Feet (tiny ski boards) hurled himself off and broke both legs and his jaw, and was knocked unconscious.”

Sooner or later, every regular visitor is likely to be lured, siren-like to the edge of the abyss, where a fearful cocktail of adrenalin, nausea, blue-funk and testosterone starts bubbling away with potentially dramatic consequences. Although there is no shame in turning back – and over any winter, hundreds will do so – the fact that you are now on the brink may tip the balance, prompting you to leap in just to save face.

Family honour may be at stake, just as it was when Jake Remington from Wisconsin jumped into Corbet’s just as his father Pat had done a quarter of a century earlier – and when Patrick Reeves, from London, jinked his way to the edge on his first visit to Jackson. Their timing was good. Corbet’s had been closed for most of the season, and the day the two men peered over the edge was the first day it had been open for weeks. Tom Russo, a Jackson Hole ski patroller, jumps into Corbet’s almost every day to decide whether it should be open or not. One prerequisite is that the so-called “Indicator Rock” – a landmark half way down the chute – has to have a good covering of snow. That morning, Russo had given Jackson’s most famous run the all-clear. “The minute we open it, they start hurling themselves in” says Anna Olson, Jackson Hole’s PR chief.

Reeves affected nonchalance but deep down he was on tenterhooks. “Going in?” I asked. “Not sure yet” he said, quite reasonably. “Probably. It’s a matter of family honour. My brother Harry’s done it – so I really must too, although he’s an exceptionally good skier.” Reeves, a former barrister and investment banker, now co-owner of Deliverance, a London food delivery company, is 34 and the archetypal dashing Englishman: good looking, understated, and brave. Unfortunately, his gallant attempt ended in comparative ignominy.

There are two principal ways into Corbet’s – and both have their pros and cons. Snow depths and conditions vary from day to day, as well as winter to winter, but a jump of some kind is unavoidable. Even though in exceptional circumstances when you can “sort-of” side-slip in, you invariably end up getting at least some “air”. But normally, if you leap into the void from the left (the so-called “normal” alternative), the distance you’ll jump is at least ten feet, and probably more. If you drop in from the right, it’ll be nearer 20. There is a third route down which is only sensible when there is plenty of snow – jumping off the West Wall….a leap of 30 feet.

The “normal” jump has one disadvantage – you have to make a fast “aeroplane” turn (changing direction in mid air) to the right to avoid the possibility of slamming into a massive rock wall, whereas if you attempt the much more scary leap, you’ll at least have an uninterrupted run down the couloir (assuming you land safely, and stay on your skis or your board).

Reeves chose the shorter jump. And, like a young officer going over the top in World War One, in he went with chin and upper lip suitably stiff. Unfortunately, his landing was typical of many choosing this route (including me in 1990). The impact of landing from only 10 feet was enough to release one of his skis, and although he made an excellent one-footed recovery, he was forced to climb back up to retrieve his ski. However, such is the allure of Corbet’s that even a partly-successful plunge causes instant elation – the realisation that you have jumped in and you are still alive. Who cares if you have temporarily mislaid a ski? Although there was a shriek of joy from the couloir way below, Reeves said later: “I feel I failed – I’m quite annoyed with myself. I should have gone in from the right. Even though it’s a much bigger jump, at least it’s a fairly straight-forward landing. I’m planning to come back and try again.”

Corbet’s is named after a climbing guide and film cameraman, Barry Corbet, a veteran of Everest and Mount McKinley. When the ski resort’s founder, Paul McCollister, was exploring Rendezvous Mountain’s potential in 1963, he took Corbet with him. As they crossed Tensleep Bowl, Corbet pointed to the snow-filled chasm in the cliffs and said: “People will ski that. It will be a run.” The man who proved it was not Corbet, however – although he did leap in once – but a 19-year-old ski patroller, Lonnie Ball. He had intended to rappel into it – the normal way back then – but as he was standing on the edge, the cornice collapsed and in he went: the first man to ski Corbet’s. Corbet himself never got a chance to ski it again. He broke his back in a helicopter crash while filming in Colorado. It was at this stage that the couloir was named after him.
For a snowboarder like Peter Thurlow – an 18-year-old who normally skis at the diminutive Tyrol Basin (vertical drop just 300 feet), near Madison, Wisconsin – Corbet’s presented a much more dramatic profile. “I’d heard tell of Corbet’s, and its mystique, but never seen it. It was the thing to do, but I felt it would be beyond me during my two previous visits to Jackson. It was mainly the fear factor. This time I felt it was the chance of a lifetime. When I looked over the edge for the first time I was extremely nervous – especially coming from Wisconsin!
“It’s more difficult for a snowboarder, with no poles, to control the entry, but I got my courage up, took a deep breath and went for it. I more or less threw myself over the edge. It was a huge adrenalin rush – an amazing feeling. Although I had a big fall, and churned up a huge amount of snow, I made it down to the bottom I shall always remember my first time. I’m going bring my kids here one day to show them.”
Waiting at the bottom was his friend Brad Christensen. “Ever since I’ve become a good enough skier, I’ve wanted to go in to Corbet’s” says Christensen. “When I first looked in, I thought ‘Wow – this is kind’a scary.’ I started thinking about all kinds of things – and started to scare myself a little. So I thought: ’What the hell!’ and just dropped over the edge. As I went in, I thought: ‘Wow! I’m actually doing this!’ But when I landed, one ski popped off. I was still overjoyed. It was really sweet! Wow! “
One of the early recreational skiers to leap in was Pat Remingon, now an epidemiologist (a doctor specialising in epidemics) who lectures on public health at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Back in the mid 70s he was a young skier touring the Alps and putting on freestyle shows. “I used to do my jumps with my eyes shut, but somehow managed to land” he says. “I took Kate, my wife-to-be, to Jackson on a bus. She’s pretty unflappable, but you wouldn’t get her to go anywhere near Corbet’s.

“The great thing about Corbet’s is that it’s not tucked away in the middle of nowhere. Everyone can see it. It’s very rare to have a run like that in such an obvious location. Every time you go up in the Tram you see it – and it looks bad. It’s a cliff. It’s never easy and sometimes it’s impossible. But often the problem is in your head.

“When I took Jake to see it a year ago, we crept up to the precipice, and it looked ugly. It was awesome. Jake turned to me and said: ‘Dad, you went off THIS?’

Now, a quarter of a century later, Jake – ignoring his parents advice to stay out of Corbet’s after injuring his medial cruciate ligament skiing in Steamboat, Colorado – was about to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“I ducked out the first time” he says. He rang his father to say: “Brad and Pete went into Corbet’s today, Dad. But I didn’t go in. I don’t think I can do it.“

“It was almost as if he wanted me to tell him it was OK that he hadn’t done it” says his father. “Then, the following night, he rang again to tell me he’d done it. I was very proud of him. He asked me if I wanted to jump in again. I think that it’s alright to say that I did it, and that I’m still here to talk about it!”
Three young French Canadians were among those who joined me on the brink of Corbet’s on that February day when it finally opened its jaws to the skiing public. First in was Stephane Dufresne, doing a university degree in mechanical engineering in Quebec. “Everyone was talking about how this couloir was one of the hardest runs in the Rockies, so we decided to come to Jackson to ski it” said Dufresne, from the village of St Felix, an hour from Montreal. “But it was much worse than we imagined. No-one told us you had to jump off a cliff! When we saw it – oooooph! We didn’t think we could do it. Then we watched three other guys jumping in. Your photographer, Greg said: ‘Are you ready?’ So I said: ‘Yes….3-2-1 – and I jumped in. It was incredible – incroyable – to feel the surge of blood and adrenalin.”
Dufresne was soon followed by J.F. (Jean-Francois) Turcotte from Repenteghy, on the outskirts of Montreal. But their friend Benoit Ricard decided not to jump. “He even went back the next day thinking he’d do it, but again he decided not to” says Dufresne. “Neither JF or I wanted to do it again. We did it once, and it was great, but we felt if we did it again we might hurt ourselves.”

By contrast, Corbet’s is an almost everyday occurrence for people like Pete Marsiglio, a professional snowboarder who does on-snow clinics and demos for Rossignol. “Depending on my mood, I might ride the Tram all the time and keep jumping into Corbet’s” he says. “I must have done it 50 or 60 times – maybe getting on for a hundred. It’s pretty basic, although occasionally I have tumbled 60 or 70 feet down. I’ve been in there when people have lost every bit of their equipment, or broken an arm or a leg.”

This year, Corbet’s was in “good shape”. That’s Marsiglio’s way of saying it was more of a challenge than usual. “They used to blast the cornice off the top to make it safer and easier to land” he says. “They didn’t do that this year. That means fewer people go in, which is how I like it. But because it’s been closed most of the winter, I feel I must grab every opportunity to jump in.”

Women, of course, jump into Corbet’s too. But not so many. Marisiglio’s wife, Anita says: “For the past three years I have watched Peter drop into Corbet’s. Finally, in 1998, I went in myself. It was extremely scary, even though that year was a great snow year. The entry was a wall of ice. I basically got the courage up because I knew that once I was in the couloir, the snowboarding would be worth it. I went in a three or four times that year. I remember feeling quite proud of the accomplishment even though my arm hurt as I slid down the wall on my heelside edge. Since then I just sit on the edge and watch Peter going in. It’s thrilling, but it’s something I think I’ll only do again when the snow is right. At 34, I feel I am getting less brave as the years go by.”

© Arnie Wilson

Arnie Wilson jumped in to Corbet’s on his 46th birthday. Travel arrangements for his return visit (when he did not jump in) were made by Ski Independence, Broughton Market, Edinburgh EH3 6NU Tel 0870 555 0555 He flew with British Airways direct from London Gatwick to Denver, Colorado, and on to Jackson Hole with United Airlines. He stayed at the Snake River Lodge in Teton Village (+1 307 732 6000)