Corbet’s Couloir by Steve Curtis

Jan 8, 2013 by

Doug Coombs, Corbet’s Couloir

By Steve Curtis, 1987/88 Jackson Hole Skier

It never fails: As the aerial tram slides up the last crags leading to the top of the mountain, a murmur emerges from the inmates therein, “There it is, they must be crazy.” Low-keyed at first, it gains in vocal momentum as a beast might growl when its quarry is scented. Corbet’s Couloir has swung into view; noses are pressed to the glass and eyes are bugged-out. Over the icy lips of the couloir, ski tips are poised.

Inevitably, the exhortations begin: “Go for it!” “Juuuuump!” “Do it!” The prey has been spotted and the tram-beast is frothing at the mouth.

There is always the unsuppressed aroma of sadism and swagger in such exhortations – like the sort of perverse anticipation found at car races or, let’s say, air shows. (Disasters are fine as long as they’re not mine.) However, the emotive connotations change dramatically when it’s you behind the wheel.

From the top, looking between your skis, Corbet’s has a definitive European air about it: Chamonixish? The Dolomites? Wherever. The cliffs in the foreground rise spectacularly and the imposing ruggedness is magnified as the northern horizon of Yellowstone recedes into a far distance. You get the vertiginous sensation that you are viewing the world through a fish-eye lens – as if one could actually see the curvature of the earth. Before you leap, there is a fine moment. It is your split-second gift of static immortality, just a breathless moment on the brink. For better or worse, your skis ease over the edge, then…

There was a morning, a long time ago, that I skied “the couloir” for the first time: The day was clear and the sun shooting prismatic sparks off pillows of new snow. I made my way past the cliffs, reaching out with every turn and feeling the swell of light powder against by body and skis. Reaching out for some far horizon, I didn’t stop till the bottom. Then I collapsed; my heart was laughing. It was an effortless and beautiful run.

It has never been better for me than the first time; conditions never so perfect. And it cost me my unrestricted “A” pass for two weeks. I had been an idiot. The couloir was closed, and for a good reason: avalanches. I was young and followed some other worthless yahoos in there – a couple moments of unbridled glory with the snake in a skier’s Garden of Eden. Forbidden fruit. The next day they blew the cornice off Corbet’s. It was quite the slide. I didn’t see it, though. I was on a two week “hiatus.”

Euphoria and stupidity. Of course, this is the nature of the game when it comes to a ski run that can take its rightful place in the world-wide pantheon of wacko enterprises. Ever since Everest-climber and cinematographer Barry Corbet latched an eponymous stamp on this headwall of ice and snow, it has been the scene of countless absurdities, outrages, heroics, tragedies and (incidentally) some incredible skiing. It has been called “the elevator shaft of North American ski runs,” but it is more like a skier’s “wheel of life” spinning out its karmic freight: blood, guts, glory, spills and thrills. Once, in for an après-ski beer or two, I found myself situated in the company of some buckskin bozo who was lamenting the loss of his fourteen-inch Bowie knife. In Corbet’s?! “Yaas,” he said, his voice having all the charm of an abused kazoo. I moved down a couple stools, wondering how much snow would have to fall before I’d ski the thing again. Then there was a guy who took a three-hundred yard sleigh ride to the bottom, leaving a ski imbedded up to its binding in the landing. Dutifully, he shed himself of every piece of extraneous gear, and up he went. Many trams did pass. Finally, fingers trembling to grasp his ski – he leaned in and stretched for just a few more precious inches… AAAAhh! His boots blew out from underneath him, and boy was he off to the races. Not a ski pole or anything to help arrest himself. Last seen he was headed for the Snake River – a comet of dubious distinction.

Now, what can be said for this sort of lunacy?

Anyway, it is the skiers of precision that lend to Corbet’s the talent and performance upon which its magical reputation is built. Success for these masters is not measured whether or not they can chatter to a stop before reeling down the mountain ass over teakettle. Rather, it is a expression of skills; an economy of expended energy. Airplane turns, quick reflex turns, taking the boldest line, lots of air – these are the nuances that invade the expert’s mind when he sets out to “nail” the couloir.

Years ago, a film crew was at work in the couloir making the ski-flick “Rhythms.” Their models were flashy, they were great skiers, and they were taking some big air. Spectacular stuff. But there might have been a sense of perturbation in the air, or territoriality…or something? Something that inspired ski patrolman Joe Larrow to zoom off the top of the mountain and right in front of the cameras, launch himself ninety feet into the abyss. His arms raised in victory; his double somersault recovery is the movie’s triumphal denouement. He nailed it.

Well…above all, Corbet’s is a helluva ski run, and it differs for everyone as people are different as individuals. It changes over the years as you change, and no run is quite like any other that came before it. And you’re only as good as the last time you went in.

Someday you may be poised over that brink, the beast watching; your ski tips quivering in the fish-eye lens. You may go for it or not. You may go in a hundred times. But, whether ten times or a thousand, as someone once said about love –”there’s only two that count: your first and your last!”

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