Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, chances are you might have heard of a little ski contest at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort last February called Kings and Queens of Corbet’s. If that name doesn’t immediately jog your memory, maybe this will:
That video of pro skier Jeff Leger sending an interplanetary front flip into one of the world’s most iconic couloirs went mega-viral as mind-blowing clips from the event drew millions of impressions across the internet and caught the attention of plenty of people from outside the action sports realm. It was unlike anything anyone had ever seen from a ski or snowboard contest–the sheer magnitude of how heavy the athletes were sending was unparalleled–but what was amazing about those clips was just how many different variables had to go exactly right for the event to even take place, and how much of a longshot it was from the beginning.
“I was absolutely terrified,” said Jess McMillan, events and partnerships manager for Jackson Hole, about the morning of the contest last year. “It’s happening, and I’m wondering, ‘Am I ready for this? Did I set it up right? Am I even qualified for this?’ I was literally three months into my job here at the resort and I’m standing at the bottom of the competition run with our Vice President of Operations and other sponsors. I’m holding my breath, wondering, ‘What’s this going to look like?’”
The process for McMillan to get to that point was one that had started years prior with an idea formed–as many pipe dreams are–over late-night beers.
“I competed on the Freeride World Tour for 10 years, and they always wondered where they could hold an event in Jackson Hole,” McMillan said. “So one night back in 2016, Eric (Seymour) and I were sitting at home, having a beer, brainstorming and were like, ‘You know where would be the sickest place for a competition? Corbet’s.’” Eric is McMillan’s husband and Jackson Hole’s content and media manager.
“Jess wasn’t working at the resort yet, and we were brainstorming, what’s the next best thing for Jackson Hole,” said Seymour. “She came up with the name–the ‘King of Corbet’s’, which was always (the late) Doug Coombs’ (title)–and we wanted to make sure we had women involved, so it became Kings and Queens.”
But there’s so far to go between creating a catchy event name and execution, particularly when trying to get permits and attract sponsors to a competition that–by design–invites athletes to launch off a cliff into a 40-degree chute.
“So I brought the idea to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort the year before and pitched it to the marketing department,” said Seymour. “And they liked the idea but were like, ‘Did you talk to mountain operations, risk and safety, our CMO or our Forest Service rep?’ So I went through those channels and got the green lights, but not the right level of support. Nobody was ready to own it at the level we envisioned it–which was having the best athletes in the world here–a lot of people saw it as a local event. So we put it on hold for a year, and when Jess came on at the end of 2017, we brought it back up, got it approved internally, and were ready to make it happen.”
Then Seymour and McMillan started going through the dual process of gaining permits from the Forest Service (Jackson Hole operates on a Forest Service lease) while also picking the right corporate sponsors to help support it. But given how hard athletes would be going and that there wasn’t a similar contest out there for comparison, the hurdles were larger.
“I talked with patrol because I was nervous; Corbet’s is dangerous and I didn’t want to hold a competition where someone died or got seriously injured,” said McMillan. “But patrol was great. They were like, ‘Nobody has ever died in Corbet’s, that’s the perfect spot for this.’ And that gave us confidence.”
Because Corbet’s Couloir is an inbounds run, the permitting process with the Forest Service only took the resort a week. Finding the right sponsors, and actually getting them to buy-in was a different animal.
“I got lucky in that this replaced the old Powder Eights event, so no matter what we had the money to throw this on our own if nobody else joined. We were also lucky that Red Bull–which doesn’t typically sign on to first-year events–wanted in,” said McMillan. “But even at that point, when we already had athletes coming and Red Bull signed on, a lot of media partners weren’t sure about it. It was kinda like asking a group, ‘HEY, WHO WANTS TO GO STREAKING WITH ME?’ and maybe having a couple people say, ‘Uh, sure’ while the rest are like ‘Let’s see how that turns out.’”
Adding to that potential instability from sponsors was the fact that, ultimately, there was no guarantee the event would even run–McMillan and Seymour were only going to greenlight it if conditions were absolutely perfect. They wanted the competition to be more like a film shoot than a traditional contest, and if the conditions weren’t right it wasn’t going to happen.
“Nope,” McMillan replied when asked if there was a backup plan if conditions were poor.
“We were talking to five different weathermen minute-by-minute,” said Seymour. “We were looking at a forecast the week before down to the exact day and time it was going to go, and the day before some of the athletes thought it wasn’t going to be right and we should hold off. Even driving in that morning the mountains were totally socked in, but our weatherman told us we would likely have a couple hours in the middle of the day where the weather cleared and he was right.”
That weather window was smaller than expected–forcing the organizers to limit each competitor to only two runs instead of three–but the Jackson Hole team had lucked out with blue skies and a foot of fresh snow. There was only one minor detail left: The athletes still had to push the envelope. If nobody was sending 100-foot, laid-out front flips and stylish 360s into the couloir would the general public even care?
“I don’t think anyone truly knew what was going to go down that day,” said McMillan. “Even standing at the bottom–I understood what was possible–but we really didn’t know. Everyone could have sidestepped down the goat path into the couloir and it wouldn’t have been anything like what it was.”
In the end, that didn’t happen, and the results speak for themselves:
The cards lined up for McMillan, Seymour, and the rest of the JHMR crew last year, and instead of being a flash-in-the-pan, the event turned into a wild success, so much so that McMillan says she hasn’t needed to approach sponsors because, “everyone wants to be a part of it this year.” That increased attention has brought with it the possibility of larger media partners and content delivery options–the team says they’re mulling over live-streaming it globally–and has helped attract even larger names to the event (McMillan says Travis Rice and Olympian Aaron Blunck will be participating this year). The prize money has gone up, and the crew is aiming to have an equal amount of male and female participants as more eyes will be turned to Jackson Hole.
But the wild reality is that if not for a two-hour weather window on a February morning last year, none of this would be happening.
The event window for Kings of Queens of Corbet’s is February 10-16.