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Over the Edge

Over the Edge

Travel
By Steve Casimiro
posted: 01/28/2003

Corbet's Couloir, the icon of Jackson Hole, has been skied, snowboarded, and photo- graphed from most every conceivable angle. Lines once considered insane have become commonplace. Back flips are old hat. Hundred-foot airs are dropped with regularity. Even sledheads have tamed this once-wild mustang: In 1998, a snowmobiler gunned his throttle and hucked both meat and machine into the narrow gap between the rock walls. Ever since patroller Lonny Ball made the first descent in the early 1970s (by falling in when a cornice broke), whatever can be done on snow has been done in Corbet's Couloir.

Ski films, a narrow but influential barometer of what's considered rad, now ignore it. Magazines do, too. Once a staple of photo annuals and Jackson Hole feature stories, the steep and craggy playing field at the top of Rendezvous Mountain has disappeared from the tribal radar, replaced by bigger airs, newer faces, and the massive palette of Alaskan slopes. Even locals dismiss it as an overrated tourist magnet. When I asked one Jackson-based buddy if Corbet's still matters, he said with a snort, "Well, obviously it does to you."

Damn straight. I don't believe the fabled coolie has lost its charm, its edge, or its pull. I don't believe we should throw it in the bin with mule kicks and spread eagles, avert our eyes when riding the Jackson tram, or let it drift into obscurity like some fading starlet. In fact, I believe that Corbet's is more than relevant. It is a vital part of our landscape. It remains one of the most significant test pieces in North America, a place where you can find the limits of both your mind and body, where you can measure yourself against one of the toughest mountains and most hallowed launching pads of all time. It's hard to imagine American skiing without it.

Corbet's doesn't have the same sense of scale and scope as the immense faces of Alaska's Chugach, and it won't make Doug Coombs or Seth Morrison think twice, but it's just as big and burly as it was when Jackson Hole opened almost 40 years ago. It stands at the top of a wild mountain in a chain of wild mountains, the whole of the valley laid at its feet. Should you fall, it seems as if you'll plummet all the way to the Snake River, 4,000 feet below.

The left wall juts out prominently, guarding the easiest line, so not only do you have to land a minimum of 10 feet of air, you have to make a dogleg turn to keep from slamming into the right wall, which has shattered more than its share of femurs. Prevailing winds funnel snow from Rendezvous Bowl into Corbet's, reloading it rapidly. Skiing it can be a joyous 15-foot drop into the softest down. More typically, the landing is hacked, the ramped entrance is striated from check turns and paralyzed sideslippers, and rocks mar the direct line and all potential bailouts. As couloirs go, it's a short one-basically just the landing and first turn-but that doesn't diminish the potential hazards.

Access is easy. For the measly price of a lift ticket and a 15-minute ride up the tram, Corbet's can be all yours. Just slide a few dozen turns from the tram dock to the lip, and you'll stand there on the edge thinking, "Maybe." And even if you don't have the chops to ski it, you'll feel like you should: It's as if the weight of years of heroics has created a vortex that pulls you in whether you like it or not. If you were to slide up to it without the knowledge of its reputation, Corbet's would be a compelling line to ski; with that know- ledge, it's irresistible.

Perhaps that's why so many people who wouldn't normally jump into a couloir are drawn to Corbet's. The chute is sometimes derided as a lemming's leap, and it's true that the runout into Tensleep Bowl is often littered with bodies of skiers who've "done" Corbet's. The thing to remember, though, is that from the perspective of a lemming, it's still a pretty big leap. The fact that many of those clustered at the entrance are on the eedge of being over their heads is exactly the point.

Few skiers will ever stick a Lincoln loop off a 60-footer or ride an A-Star helicopter to the top of a 50-degree Alaskan face. And the idea of being able to run the same downhill course as Hermann Maier is unthinkable. But the challenge of Corbet's is within reach of anyone who can stand on two skis. Corbet's is a rite of passage for lots and lots of skiers, regardless of where the media cameras are pointing. It's their biggest dream and toughest test. So, yes, you bet Corbet's matters, and I believe it always will.

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