By Michael Goodwin
In many ways, Hans Mindnich is the consummate King of Corbet’s. A supremely versatile boarder, with no problem going huge or navigating consequential terrain, who moved from Tahoe to remote Glacier, Washington—about 10 miles from Mt. Baker—leaving amenities like reliable cell service and shopping convenience, and certainly any snowboard scene pretensions, in the rearview. A pure move executed in the pursuit of killer snow and steep terrain, no more no less.
“I would describe Kings and Queens as a very unique event,” Hans tells me at one of the rider’s meetings before the event, held at 4:30 each afternoon in the Ranch Inn basement, a large room that looks like an office building furnished with decor from your grandparents’ lake house. “It's definitely a freeride event, but I think it's unique in the sense that it has snowboarders and skiers not only riding together, but forming some pretty awesome friendships that I don't think I would have formed at other events.”
Hans has competed at Kings and Queens of Corbet’s four times, taking second place the last two years, finally crowned king in 2022. (*Last year was the year of the rock ride.) He’s the sort of snowboarder founder Jess McMillan envisioned excelling when she created the event.
“It's not for everybody by any means,” says McMillan. “It's a unique event. I kind of feel like it involves everything from big mountain freeriding to park and slopestyle, so you kind of have to have this really well-rounded athlete.”
McMillan, a skiing legend, Freeride World Tour Champion and Warren Miller film star born and raised in Jackson Hole, cites the time spent overseas watching both skiers and riders charge insane terrain as inspiration for the event.
“When I first started (Kings and Queens), coming off the Freeride World Tour, my whole world was skiers and snowboarders,” she says. “Xav De Le Rue is a good friend, and I spent a lot of time with him, watching him ride, and always found it incredible. I guess it wasn't what was on his feet, it was just that he was sick in the mountains. That is what I was trying to capture.”
Now in its fifth year, the event continues to gain traction, growing in popularity year after year, thanks to the incredible efforts of the event team, including the Red Bull-produced live stream pulling in a wide audience, and the daring of the competitors.
While the lineup at Kings and Queens of Corbet’s does not boast the superstar firepower of Natural Selection, the event has hosted big names of it’s own, like Rice and Beaman, Kingwill and Elhardt, to name a few, in addition to a host of dedicated rippers with plenty of talent, even if they don’t necessarily wield global clout. Bringing new riders into the fold seems to be just as much of a priority as retaining relationships with current competitors: Cheryl Maas, Yuki Kadono, Nial Romanek and Ryan Wachendorfer all made their rookie debuts this year.
Invitees are selected by a riders board composed of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort team members and athletes. Beyond reviewing event submissions to ensure riders are up to snuff, McMillan and crew put an emphasis on fit. “We want to make sure that we are bringing credibility to the event, and bringing athletes who are really excited to be a part of it,” she says.
The event’s familial tenor is a feature riders often cite as a reason they love the event and continue coming back. “It's more the friends than the run, for sure,” says Mindnich. “I have done a lot of competitions growing up and there's not been one that you feel as accepted at right away as you do here. It's very low key.”
Colorado’s Grant Giller, who’s competed the last three years, agrees. “Most of the time, if I went to a snowboard spot and was like, ‘This thing is gnarly and it's really hard to do anything, I feel actually scared for my health—which I have before on top of Corbet's—I wouldn't want to go back. But the way they treat us, and the crew that is there, between the snowboarders and the skiers, make it worth coming back every year for two scary but fun runs.”
Giller makes a point of noting that while the contest is obviously the main event, the whole week is really something worth looking forward to. “Last year Garrett Warnick did it with me and we were just going on hikes everyday. A lot of us bring snowmobiles and go build jumps on the off days,” he says.
When I arrived in Jackson on Saturday, February 19 for the fifth annual iteration of the event, Jackson was in the thick of a remarkable dry streak, practically no snow to speak of over the course of the last month or so. Remember the much discussed “cowboy” conditions for Natural Selection at the end of January? By all measures it had only gotten more buck out there since. It was a puckering view from atop the couloir when we took our media tour of the course Sunday afternoon.
The forecast for the coming week didn’t predict any game-changers either, some small storms on the horizon, with payloads of a few inches. It would be no joke, not that Corbet’s ever is. “Kind of a huck/survive fest,” is how 2021 Queen of Corbet’s Madison Blackley described the event.
It’s a challenge, no doubt. You can count on your hands the snowboard tricks that have been landed off the top: straight airs, half cab, front and back threes, cab 5, backside Miller flip, a monster method… And some nuts “almosts” like Mikey Marohn’s double back or Hans’ butter back 720. "No girl snowboarders have landed it,” says Blackley. “It's stompable, but once you air off, it's actually way bigger than you think.”
Competitors are free to drop in from wherever they like: the large center launch point, known as The Nose; The Goat Path, which is the rider’s left entrance and is generally considered the safest route in; The West Wall, or really, any other way they choose to enter. Drop order is picked randomly using a bingo cage at the welcome party, and considered a crucial factor.
“I think it's all about the drop order,” says Blackley. “The earlier you get, the easier it's going to be. This year I don't think there is any strategy. It's kind of just hold on tight and hope you stay on your feet.”
Each competitor gets two drops. They aren’t required to take them both, but the option’s there. With deeper, fresher snow, the bomb hole factor is real—you don’t necessarily want to drop first, but those handful of spots after first drop constitute the sweet spot. Plenty of riders who nail their first run choose to forgo their second. Corbet’s is tough enough to tame without a minefield to navigate. This factor is a large part of what informs the field size. “It's always been 24,” says McMillan. “My goal has always been six women, six men, skiers and snowboarders. It's more challenging than I thought it would be to get that number, but it's really based on bomb holes. I don’t know if we could do more in there.”
It’s not simply the air into Corbet’s that’s daunting; assuming you’ve put that down, which is a hefty assumption, controlling speed and not white rooming yourself in the couloir is a tall order. “It's steep in there. It's hard to explain,” says Mindnich. “You are just instantly going mach 10 and are on the fastest turn that you have ever been on in your life, just trying not to lose it.”
After the entrance there are a handful of jumps arranged throughout the chute, including one coming out of Coombs Cave, named for skiing pioneer and Jackson Hall of Famer Doug Coombs. The run finishes off with a park jump at the bottom, a 60-footer from the furthest takeoff dubbed the Crowd Pleaser for its proximity to the spectator area at the bottom of Ten Sleep Bowl. It’s a fervent crowd at this event, hyped on the send, whether there’s a landing to go with it or not.
“I’m assuming everyone is down to wait for the storm?” McMillan asks in the lounge Sunday afternoon. “Is anyone dying to compete tomorrow?” Crickets. The verdict’s in—we will wait and see what falls in the next few days, predicted to be about six inches at best, possibly boosted a touch by a southwesterly wind whipping up the couloir, and aim to run the contest in a good weather window on Wednesday or Thursday. There’s a hint of optimism in the air, but really, I think everybody realizes that what you see is about what you are going to get. Prep accordingly.
The interaction underscored one of the event's key attributes and points of pride: the competitors call the shots, from the course design, to the day the event runs, to the judging. Speaking of which, after the event the competitors all get together and watch video of everyone’s runs, scoring each on overall impression from 1-10. Most points wins, simple as that. Over house specials at Everest Momo Shack, Nial Romanek tagged it the most rider-driven contest he’s ever been a part of. “The riders run the show, and we have a good time,” adds Giller.
The next few off days afford time to gallivant around town, and the resort, hunting for lingering, rippable pockets. A hike out to Cody Bowl, a midnight skin up Snow King, an extended session at the Silver Dollar—an indulgence in the Jackson spirit. And a chance to appreciate the town’s quirks, like the juxtaposition of lavish wealth—I saw the sickest/most atrocious Dolce & Gabbana one-piece, and plenty of moon boots—and blue collar localism, of city slickers in spotless Stetsons and grizzled JHAF senders in seasoned Kincos.
What keeps you coming back, I ask Madison, who's back for her third appearance this year. “The Jackson Hole vacation!” she says. “It's a cool mountain, a cool town and just a cool community. I don't think I would have an opportunity to have this experience coming here if I wasn't part of the contest.”
There’s a rawness about Jackson for sure—the terrain is gnarly, as are the legions of unassuming rippers who claim local status—and it animates this event. The enthusiasm for watching people toss themselves down one of North America’s most famous couloirs is huge. The town and its denizens play an important role in this event, and the buzz about town is real.
In the coffee shops, the galleries and the bars, everyone is talking about the upcoming contest, quizzing friends on the setup, the schedule, and dishing out wild claims of what they would throw, though nothing to rival the truly laugh-out-loud stuff you can find online. Being on-mountain will temper even the most delusionally cocksure. The proof really is in the results.
Tuesday and Wednesday deliver light snows, a handful of inches at most. The dustings have added a fresh layer on top, but it’s hard as nails below, and that superficial dressing will be gone with the first drop, an “honor” that belongs to Cam Fitzpatrick this year. If there’s anyone primed to guinea pig in a year like this, I guess it’s the Jackson native. The build crew has adjusted the course to suit the conditions as best as possible. By all accounts, they did an incredible job, and are an irreplaceable part of the operation.
“The competition should feel like a film shoot, where you're out there supporting each other,” says McMillan at the Wednesday afternoon meeting, underscoring the ethos she founded the event on: bringing people together for the community and the camaraderie, regardless of discipline. The mood among the riders seems light. Early ups have been arranged. “The tram waits for no one,” she says in closing.
The sun arrives Thursday morning, with strong winds in tow, the chill pushing temps below zero. The top of the course buzzes with chainsaws as a runway is cut into The Nose to help better align the takeoff with the landing for these conditions. I’ll spare a recap of the event, if you missed it and need to get caught up on what happened, click here.
The abridged version: The contest starts with a send, and ensuing ragdoll from Cam. Big fucking props to him for just getting in there and given’ ‘er. Deaner approved.
Having had the chance to watch Cam and skier Sander Hadley take a swing at it, Mindnich dropped third. “I try not to make any calls, just put together an A, B, and C plan and then kind of wait until the day of, look in there, and visualize it,” he says. “I feel like if I get in my head before it just messes things up a little bit. Obviously it's a bit more firm (this year), and I think it will actually be more of a chess game than a send game.”
He starts by going front three off The Nose, not straight off the top ropes, but by cutting out on it from the rider’s left, an entry that cut down on the drop a bit and would be repeated throughout the day. Stomps it. Controls himself into the chute, back three off a jump on the rider’s left, and then a front three poke on the Crowd Pleaser. You can hear someone in the broadcast let out a prophetic shout, “We’ve got a winner.” Having landed the front 3 into the couloir, I couldn’t help but think of the 360 on the park jump as part of that chess game: he had the most difficult, and impressive part in the bag, do you risk much at the bottom? After all, it’s likely his washout on the bottom jump last year that cost him the top spot after his insane backside 360 wallride up top.
Again, for the sake of not typing out what you can just watch, and for brevity since I’ll be fairly shocked if many are still reading this, I’ll just briefly comment on the riders who placed.
Yuki Kadono and Ryan Wachendorfer took second and fourth respectively in the men’s division. Ryan was ninth to drop, and almost held on to what surely would have been a contending run, going back three from the same spot as Hans, just having the slightest bit of trouble holding on to the landing, front 3 off one of the jumps rider’s right in the chute, double back on the bottom jump. *An additional note: those kickers in the chute are way bigger than they look.
Yuki had the 18th drop, and put down a backside Miller flip off the chainsawed runway both times*. He didn’t land the back double ten on the bottom jump in his first run, and had a brief butt check on the run out of the Miller flip on his second, before stomping the back double ten on the Crowd Pleaser, after which he ran up and down the spectator area, high fiving a crowd chanting his name, grinning ear to ear. I was not privy to the rider’s judging session, but it would have been interesting to see what the outcome would have been if Yuki had put together a completely clean run. The conditions quickly deteriorated in the second half of the contest, with low light and whipping winds making the run even more arduous.
It’s plain to anyone watching that the course is more manageable on skis—easier to land coming in, control speed, handle the bumps, and so on. Huge props and respect to all the riders for getting in there and sending it, conditions be damned. It was impressive to watch, and thankfully there was less carnage than I’d anticipated.
No women boarders made the podium this year, but they swept last year. Hans was the sole men’s snowboarder to place in 2021, and this year, three of the top five spots on the men's podium went to boarders, including two of the top three. Fairly even splits year to year, but this brings us to the million dollar question: Should there be separate divisions for skiing and snowboarding? Would the event benefit from a change in format?
“Since (the event’s founding), we have gone back and forth. Do we separate it into skier and snowboarder divisions?” says McMillan. “Each year we put out an athlete survey, and say, ‘Hey, do you guys want separate divisions?’ Every time the athletes say, ‘No, we want to compete together,’ which is crazy and awesome and actually achieves my goal. A lot of the athletes when they come in they are like, ‘This is nuts, why would we do this?’ And they all come out making friends forever. That's really what it's about.”
Many riders I discuss this with cede ground to both viewpoints, and either don’t express strong opinions one way or the other, or feel it all balances out. “Yes and no,” Hans says in regard to whether the event would benefit from split divisions. “In one way I am indifferent, it also adds a bit of an element. At the end of the day there are going to be ups and downs for either side, snowboarders and skiers.”
Blackley’s take was similar. “Some people want to have it split, I don't think it matters,” she says. “I think a lot of the snowboarders that come here have more of a slopestyle, freestyle background and a lot of the skiers are more backcountry (oriented). They hit jumps and film parts and stuff, but I don't think they spend as much time in the park as the snowboarders. So there are strengths and weaknesses for both, I think. It's a pretty fair competition to be honest.”
Giller, on the other hand, felt there’s a lot to gain in separating the two. “I think the event would grow in snowboarding, and more people would be interested in sticking around after Natural Selection to do it, because it really just is a completely different ballgame, skiing and snowboarding. It's not that we don't like the skiers. Honestly, I look forward to seeing them every year and it’s super fun to rip around with them. But as far as the actual contest goes, it would be amazing to not go against skiers because it really changes the way you pick your contest run. A lot of the skiers can pretty much double backflip or backflip anything, and that is a conservative line for them. For us to be conservative we have to really dial down the tricks, and they don't necessarily. Additionally, on the media side, I think it would grow a lot more because people in snowboarding would take it more seriously.”
Giller also highlights the difficulties that come with trying to judge skiing and snowboarding together, of comparing apples to oranges. For instance, judging as one group requires that skiers and boarders all appreciate the nuances in difficulties of different tricks, which might be lost in some cases and skew results.
In a scenario where the contest was split, the People’s Choice Award, which was introduced this year, would offer an opportunity for an award to still be given out based on the whole field.
McMillan, and others, point out that even if separate divisions were created, there are logistical hurdles, not least the prize money. “That doubles my prize money to 80 grand, which is a big spend. We haven't had that approved yet,” she says, laughing. Fat pocket people, y’all listening?!
There’s also the bomb hole factor. If the goal was to have prize money for the top three in each division, you’d probably want a field of more than six to make it feel a little more competitive. Obviously, there is a ton to flesh out around this debate, from judging to logistics and more—much more than I will dedicate space to in this piece.
In short, I certainly don’t see the question as an existential one. It seems to me like the event will continue to grow and have success whether boarders and skiers compete together or separately. The difference, in my opinion, will be what that growth looks like. I think as is, the event will continue to register big viewership numbers and grow in the mainstream because it’s entertaining and has a major “wow” factor. The team puts in a lot of work, and they kill it.
On the other hand, I think the event’s popularity within the snowboard community specifically is hampered by its association with skiing and its perception as a ski event, justified or not. I don’t mean that with any disrespect to skiing, or to take anything away from the event, that association generally just doesn’t track well in snowboarding.
I think separate divisions could help change this perception and present an opportunity for growth within snowboarding, potentially making Kings and Queens a must-hit stop on the calendar for more riders. It would be a chance to keep all eyes (and plenty of riders) on Jackson from Natural Selection through Kings and Queens. In a year without the Olympics, it’s not too hard to envision these events anchoring Jackson as the place to be from the end of January through the middle of February.
As it stands, Kings and Queens of Corbet’s offers a wild week in an incredible place, putting some mental snowboarding on display and a fat $40,000 up for grabs. However it shakes out, my sense is that there are plenty of riders willing to bite. Ultimately it will be the competitors’ making the call.
*Thank you to Jess, Eric and the Kings and Queens and Jackson Hole teams, and to Hende, Mitch and Mike at Meteorite PR for all their help, hospitality, and one hell of a good time.