As the two-time reigning Queen of Corbet’s, Caite Zeliff is hitting her stride in Wyoming’s legendary ski town
WORDS • Erin Spong // FEATURED IMAGE • Jay Goodrich
Caite Zeliff first found skiing–rather, skiing found her–in her hometown of North Conway, New Hampshire. Home to Cranmore Mountain Resort and the United States’ first ski school, the community’s roots run deep with skiing history. In 1939, Cranmore’s Eastern Slope Ski Club introduced its Junior Program to provide equipment and lessons for kids to learn how to ski, which is still in effect today. The program takes North Conway’s elementary schoolers to the mountain every Monday for a half-day of skiing and that’s where Zeliff first fell in love with the sport. Growing up with a single mom working a full-time job who didn’t have much interest in skiing, it was the town’s culture and its active ski community that lit Zeliff’s match of infinite stoke.
“I’m pretty grateful that I grew up in a town where everyone was so fired up on skiing, otherwise I don’t know if it would have become a part of my life,” said Zeliff in a phone interview.
Zeliff joined the Junior Program in third grade and instantly took to the sport. In fifth grade, a close family friend introduced her to ski racing, where Zeliff’s talent and obsession truly flourished.
“I found skiing and racing at this really amazing time and fell in love with it. I happened to be good at it, I got a lot of praise for it, my confidence grew because of it and I found a freedom that I never found anywhere else,” she said.
With sights set on the U.S. Ski Team, the aspiring skier went to high school at Proctor Academy in Andover, New Hampshire, which offered a stellar Federation of International Skiing (FIS) program and opportunities to train in France in the fall and Chile in the summer. Hard life for a high-schooler. After graduation, Zeliff spent a year at Stratton Mountain School as a last-ditch effort to make the U.S. Ski Team. The invite never came, so the young competitor opted to take her talents to the University of New Hampshire (UNH), where she raced at the Division 1 level until she tore her ACL in January of her freshman year.
“It was kind of a blessing in disguise, to be honest with you,” Zeliff explained. “At that point, I was kind of burnt out of ski racing.”
That same winter, Zeliff left ski racing and dropped out of school when she caught word that a friend was moving west. Looking for an exit strategy from the racing world, Zeliff jumped at the opportunity to tag along. She had never really heard of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, when her friend suggested they land there, but it only took one trip into the YouTube black hole–and discovering the resort’s bucking bronco logo–to know Jackson was where she needed to be.
“Weirdly enough, my whole ski racing career I had a bull rider on the front of my helmet. They called me ‘Rodeo’ because I was pretty out of control, I wasn’t a pretty skier,” said Zeliff, laughing.
Her first winter in the “Wild West,” Zeliff focused on rehabilitating her knee, but come spring, the competitive skier found herself on the start list of Daron Rahlves’ Banzai Tour after a racing friend suggested that she join him for the contests in California.
“We hopped in my truck [from Jackson] and we couch-surfed our way through a week in Kirkwood. It was a blast,” Zeliff remembered.
Not quite ready to let the season end, when the snow started to melt in the states, Zeliff took off for winter in New Zealand. A coaching gig for the Treble Cone Racing Academy fed her economic needs, but it was when she entered her first freeskiing competition, The North Face Frontier–a Freeride World Tour (FWT) qualifying event–that she discovered her insatiable desire to shred big mountains.
Following that season in the Southern Hemisphere, the invigorated, newbie freerider chased the FWT circuit and used Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR) as her training grounds. In an effort to adapt her carve-or-die East Coast racing style to be more playful and fluid, Zeliff looked to the mountain’s rowdy locals for inspiration.
“Just because I’m a little bit of a ski nerd, I knew Jeff Leger was a crazy local legend who liked to ski off of gigantic cliffs. So I made it my point to follow him around a little bit and I watched how he floated. He was like a snow fairy,” joked Zeliff.
After skiing with Zeliff for the first time, Leger was impressed. “She was obviously a super strong skier, but it was her attitude that really won me over. She just wanted to have fun. She was excited about all types and aspects of skiing, mountain life and extracting as much pleasure as possible from the moment. It was refreshing.”
Jackson Hole is revered by many as one of the most challenging ski resorts in North America for its smörgåsbord of gnarly, technical inbounds terrain. With over 2,500 skiable acres accessed by a 100-person tram that shoots riders 4,139 vertical feet up the mountain in mere minutes, skiers who frequent these slopes have no choice but to go bigger, ski faster and charge harder. Its endless supply of steeps, chutes, couloirs and massive cliffs leave even long-time locals seeking out unexplored zones and it all culminates in the resort’s most famous run: Corbet’s Couloir.
Arguably one of, if not the single most-talked about ski run at any resort, Corbet’s Couloir has been on extreme skiers’ bucket lists since Jackson Hole ski patroller Lonnie Ball first skied it in 1967. Requiring a cornice drop of 10-plus feet just to enter the couloir–depending on the day’s conditions and the line you take–Corbet’s takes no prisoners. To highlight the line and introduce a progressive inbounds, big-mountain competition, JHMR concocted a winner-takes-all, peer-judged freeride contest down the famous couloir, aptly named the Kings and Queens of Corbet’s. Since the inaugural event in 2018, Kings and Queens is considered by many to be the most entertaining test of a skier’s progressive ability and willingness to push the boundaries.
In February of 2018, upwards of 30 male and female competitors in both snowboarding and skiing—ranging from local legends like Leger to household names like Karl Fostvedt—were hand-chosen by Jess McMillan, Jackson Hole’s events and partnerships manager, and her team. Considering herself lucky to even get an invite, Zeliff went into the debut event with a clear intention: go big or go home. Tweaking her massive couloir drop with a shifty and piecing together a near-perfect run from top to bottom, Zeliff walked away from the contest as its first-ever Queen.
“After winning the first Kings and Queens, my life changed,” Zeliff recalled. “It’s funny to say that, but it’s 100-percent true.”
Hardly able to call herself a pro prior to the contest, Zeliff walked away from the debut Kings and Queens event with the crown, and in just a short period of time, went from ski instructor and Thai food server to being proclaimed one of skiing’s most prominent up-and-comers. With sponsorships coming in from The North Face, Blizzard and Tecnica, Zeliff’s childhood dream of being a professional skier was blossoming in real-time.
“Having the opportunity to ski with Warren Miller this year and opening doors to filming other projects and shooting and getting write-ups in magazines, I don’t know if any of that would have happened, at least as quickly, without that first win,” she said.
When Kings and Queens of Corbet’s returned for its sophomore year in 2019, Zeliff seized the opportunity to prove she was more than just a one-drop wonder. Sending it bigger than any other female on the start list, ‘Rodeo’ earned the back-to-back title by stomping another straight air shifty off the cornice, red-lining down the face in complete control and splaying a Grand Canyon-wide spread eagle near the bottom. An accomplishment that “solidified her eternal spot in the alpine folklore of Jackson Hole,” said Leger.
“[The second win] was validation that I’m capable, it wasn’t just a fluke,” said Zeliff.
In the months since the second Kings and Queens contest, Zeliff has continued to film for various projects, snagged an athlete sponsorship from JHMR and made her way down to Argentina and Chile for winter in the Southern Hemisphere. At 25, Caite Zeliff is just coming into her own as a professional big-mountain skier. Eager to continue filming with prominent production companies like Warren Miller, Teton Gravity Research and Matchstick Productions, Zeliff looks to one of Jackson’s most notable female skiers, McMillan, for mentorship and guidance.
“As an athlete it can be easy to get caught up in the noise of the industry,” described McMillan of becoming a mentor for Zeliff. “[I tell Caite,] ‘You are the only person that gets to live your life, so choose your own adventure.’ I can’t wait to see her ripping lines on the big screen, in magazines and on billboards.”
With Jackson Hole as her home base–and the surrounding Teton Range as her playground–Caite Zeliff has more terrain at her ski tips than almost anywhere else in the world to hone her cliff-dropping, line-stomping craft. Fueled by the tangible energy of the sacred Tetons and its devoted following of skiers, Rodeo won’t be pulling back the reigns on this wild ride anytime soon.