Women Big Mountain Skiers Love Cliffs But Not The Wage Gap

Jan 11, 2019

Mary Beth Coyne's post on Instagram helped draw attention to disparities in prize money for male and female big mountain skiers.
Credit Mary Beth Coyne

Last February, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort launched a new extreme skiing and snowboarding competition. 18 men and seven women competed to be crowned the King and Queen of Corbet's. At the awards ceremony, the top male won $5,000 more than the top female finisher. The incident drew attention to the fact that there's nothing in place to guarantee equal prizes in big mountain freeskiing.

Caite Zeliff soared off the same snowy cliff as her male counterparts. She pulled a shifty — kicking the tails of her skis to the left and straightening them again — as she dropped what looks like 20 feet into Corbet's Couloir. Flanked by rock walls on either side she stuck the landing, took some graceful turns and launched off a jump into a spread eagle before cruising across the finish line.

For that stellar run, Zeliff was crowned Queen of Corbet's Couloir and handed a check.

Zeliff said, "I was so blown away by what that meant for my skiing, and what that meant for me, and potentially my career, and all these other things, that I didn't even look at what my check said."

But other people noticed that her check said $3,000 while the King of Corbet's held a check for $8,000. An Instagram post with images of the checks called out Jackson Hole for perpetuating the gender wage gap. By the next day, Jackson Hole had fixed the disparity, but that wasn't the end of the discussion.

"What was interesting was the next day when I was getting phone calls, and texts and emails," Zeliff said people were asking if she was pissed. "I was like whoa. I didn't even think about it to be honest with you."

As a 24-year-old skier just entering her pro career she was excited to be winning any money at all. She admitted it was important to bring this incident into the public eye because that's what leads to change. Tom Winter agreed.

"It's good to see people having these conversations, because obviously awareness that things could be done better... helps you look for solutions," said Winter.

He's the Americas Manager for the Freeride World Tour. At the annual series of competitions, the top freeskiers vie for the World Champion Title. But to get on the world tour a skier must qualify, and Winter said the prizes aren't always equal at the qualifying level.

"Usually when you have events that are fueled with entry fees that impacts prize purse funds on offer for athletes," said Winter.

In other words, the more athletes who pay entry fees to compete in a given category, the more money they are competing to win. Winter said that puts women at a disadvantage because fewer of them sign up.

"We need to start asking questions of event organizers about parity and participation," said Winter.

The International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association sets guidelines for the qualifying competitions, but nothing requires resorts to provide equal prizes. If they did, Winter said it would entice more women to pursue competitive big mountain freeskiing. He pointed out women can't be expected to achieve the same degree of athleticism or take the same risks as men if they don't have access to the same resources.

There are resorts who have committed themselves to prize parity. Grand Targhee in Alta, Wyoming is one of them. So is Crystal Mountain in Enumclaw, Washington where Brianna Stoutenburgh is the events coordinator.

"The men and the women are skiing the same terrain," said Stoutenburgh. "So it's really important to me, as an event coordinator, that we provide the same payout to the men and the women."

I asked Stoutenburgh about Tom Winter's point that when fewer women compete there's less prize money to go around. She said there's an easy fix: pool the entry fees from the men and women together. Then divide accordingly to provide cash prizes to the top female and male finishers. Men might get less with this equation, but Stoutenburgh hasn't heard complaints.

She said, "It seems to have worked for our resort and our athletes for the last five years or so."

Stoutenburgh said freeskiing should take a lesson from the World Surf League (WSL). In September, the WSL announced that starting in 2019 male and female surfers would be getting equal prizes at its competitions.

I also reached out to the Crested Butte Mountain Resort and Taos Ski Valley, but I couldn't get a clear answer on how they handled prizes at the freeskiing qualifiers they host.

Winter said consumers can help promote good practices by supporting the resorts and event sponsors who do the right thing.

"I think consumers should be activists," said Winter. "They should be engaged. That's how change happens."

Caite Zeliff — the 2018 Queen of Corbet's — said she sees change happening fast. This week she competed in the Freeride World Qualifier at Revelstoke in British Columbia. She sent this text to say how it went: "Got third place and the prize money is equal!"