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​Stoke The Fire Athlete Edits: Caite Zeliff

It’s only her second year on the TGR roster, but Caite Zeliff is not taking her foot off the gas. Two-time Queen of Corbet’s Couloir, she’s made quite the name for herself among local Jackson folk and beyond. Not to mention she’s a superstar on skis, skiing for The North Face and Scott. This year, her upbeat energy followed her to Alaska where she explored and was challenged by the mountains of Seward and Talkeetna. Her drive to seek new thrills and master new skills is inspiring and displayed in full force on the big screen in Stoke the Fire. We caught up with her recently to hear about her journey with the film, her thoughts on fear, paragliding, and next year’s projects. Stoke the Fire tickets are on sale now, and is available for digital download!

TGR: What was your favorite aspect about filming for Stoke the Fire?

I feel like I finally got to go on a trip, so going somewhere with TGR was really sweet. Flying in a helicopter with three of their seasoned veteran athletes was pretty rad. I think just stepping up from a Jackson segment to an Alaskan segment felt really good and was really enjoyable.

It's not just about the skiing in AK - downdays usually involve visits to some stunning locales. | Eric Parker photo.

TGR: Was this your first time filming in Alaska?

Yeah, for video. That was my second heli trip, but my first real video project. It was pretty full on just seeing what it actually took to make it happen with conditions and figuring out zones. Watching the athletes, especially Griffin, dial in with maps to try and understand the way the sun hits certain slopes at certain times and how we have to go back when the light is perfect was all really cool. There was a bunch of stuff I didn’t realize went into creating a film like this.

TGR: Tell us about your favorite line this season.

I think I actually crashed on my favorite line. It was kind of this funny space up in Alaska where the conditions weren’t great, so we were slowly stepping up and it was really scary to push the boundaries. When we were in Seward everything was sliding and a lot of the conditions were super icy so you never knew what you were going to get and no one was going big. Then we flew North to Talkeetna and it was really sharky (there wasn’t a ton of snow so the rocks were lurking closely underneath the surface), so sometimes you’d hit something and catch rock. We weren’t really stepping up all that big, but we got to this one zone and the snow looked really good. I pieced together a line that was a bigger chunk than I had been skiing in the days prior. Unfortunately I did get caught by those sharks and I landed on a rock and crashed, but the takeaway for me was the slow step up and how Alaska works. 

Dodging shark attacks on a big AK face. | Eric Parker. photo.

I picture a bell curve-- I was slowly building confidence the whole trip, I found this line that I knew I was capable of skiing but was outside of my comfort zone, then I kind of met that boundary edge of “oh shit you have to listen to conditions but also push yourself.” I was incredibly humbled and started building again. That might not have been my favorite line that I skied, but it was something that really stuck with me because I learned a lot about the progression of Alaska and how quickly things can go wrong.

TGR: What is your mental process for dropping into something sketchy like that?

Up until this year I had a pretty set mantra that was a meditational thing. It was “I release all my fear to my higher self with love and light as a chosen experience.” But then I started paying attention to how fear worked in an actual scientific way with the mind. I learned that if you actually let yourself be scared, the emotion runs through you for only 30 to 90 seconds. After that 90 seconds, if you really honor that and let yourself feel that, it goes away. For years I thought if I allowed myself to feel that it would be a bad thing or mess with my head, but up in Alaska I came to terms with the whole “oh shit I’m scared, this is really scary” and I just had to look it in the eyes and realize what I was about to do was scaring me and that was okay. After that flood of fear it did kind of subside and from that point on I really was just focusing on my breathing. I think it’s really funny because either the GoPro is really incredible or my breathing changed a lot. Up in Alaska I was just noticing full and deep breaths when normally I hold my breath. There was kind of this understanding that I’m scared and allowing myself to feel that and then letting it go and trying to clear my mind. Up there it’s crazy because it’s so steep that you can’t see your line, so there’s tons of visualization going on hoping that you’re going to be in the right place. Before a big line it’s all about clearing and letting the mind take over.

Caite showed up to her second time in AK ready to pin it. | Eric Parker photo.

TGR: Tell us about one of your favorite moments while filming.

It’s kind of tricky because I filmed in Jackson as well on a personal part of the film. Jim Ryan, Veronica, and I all moved to town around the same time, we’ve been homies the whole time, we’ve been skids together working at restaurants, and we’re starting to be pro skiers together. We had this day up at the resort where we had a couple laps in this one spot and it was neck deep powder. We were just laughing and hanging out and had this cool realization that we all did it together and we’re here. It was a really genuine, cool, full circle day that I’ll never forget and it filled me up in different ways.

There was another moment in Alaska where I was standing on top of the steepest line I’ve ever skied with Johnny Collinson and Griffin Post. I didn’t grease it the way I wanted to, I skied it but I was so scared and having those boys up there to calm my nerves. Sometimes in this world you can get caught in just going through the motions then something like that you have to step back and realize “oh I’m on a spine line with Griffin Post and Johnny Collinson this is what I’ve been trying to do.” It was also cool because Elyse Saugstad has been a mentor of mine since I was a kid, so watching her get after it was special. There was one line where things were pretty sketchy and I did some sketchy moves and she told me I skied it really well and did the best I could’ve done in that situation. It was full circle mentorship and that Alaska trip was something I’ll never forget.

TGR: Did you have any goals for yourself going into this year’s season?

I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen this year because of COVID. Alaska has always been a goal of mine and I couldn’t have bugged these guys enough about it, so getting to actually go was a dream. To go up there and feel like I put in good effort for tough conditions was definitely a goal of mine. Being a skier everyone talks about Alaska as the pinnacle and I feel like for whatever reason it’s always been on my to-do list. That was definitely a goal this season as well as getting better on a snowmobile and skiing in different places, just kind of honing the craft is the overall goal every year.

Caite Zeliff's career has been one of seeking new thrills and mastering new skills. | Eric Parker photo.

TGR: We heard you’ve been into paragliding lately. How'd you get into that hobby?

My dad flew as a kid and I had always been interested in it. There’s not a ton of paragliding on the East Coast and I knew my dad did it and thought it was rad. When COVID hit I was recovering from a broken leg so I couldn’t do a ton and I had this weird day where I was really introspective. I was riding my bike and saw some ravens playing in a thermal and thought that flying would be cool so I called a local instructor and just started learning. My second flight was really sketchy with a crash landing which was a tough way to start, so for a while I didn’t get bit by the bug. I was doing it and I was going through the motions, but I was scared all the time. I started realizing that it was more of a mental task than it was a physical or athletic task. I’ve always been good at hand-eye coordination and landing on my feet, but this was a whole new challenge. I realized that and I was getting frustrated by it because I wasn’t good at it, so it fueled a stubbornness to figure it out. The whole winter went by and I started thinking about paragliding again. This spring I went to Florida with my dad and did this crazy course where you put your wing in the worst possible situations over water. It was all so rogue, but I learned a ton about paragliding and what the glider can do. Basically this summer I’ve been obsessed with it. It’s so wild because it’s so different from skiing or anything else.

Full speed ahead. | Eric Parker photo.

TGR: Have you ever thought about combining paragliding and skiing?

When I first started people would ask me if speedriding (putting a glider over skis) was my intention and I always said no. I never had much of an intention to do that, I just wanted to fly so I could learn something new, but I just got back from a trip in Oregon at Cape Kiwanda where I flew over dunes without shoes on. It was magnificent. It was a speed flying site, so it was a really playful and almost surfy/skatepark feeling and sparked the interest of what the possibilities on skis would be. As I start to realize what I like about skiing (I like to ski really big cliffs) but at a certain point you can’t land stuff and if you had a wing you could do both. My favorite part about skiing is skiing into something and I don’t love taking slams. My first year filming for TGR I broke my leg, nose, and smashed my face and it was a mess. It would be cool to get to a place with paragliding in which I could marry the two.

TGR: So I take it you’ve been paragliding all summer?

Yeah, it’s been kind of funky though. During that trip to Florida I crashed into a tree and ripped my wing. The company that makes my wing is in Korea so I had to send it back there so a buddy of mine from town has been letting me borrow his Ozone Swift. It has a way better ability to float, go faster, and penetrate air. Being an athlete I have the desire to push the limits of a sport so when I was on my A wing I was getting a bit bored, so now that I’ve been introduced to a B wing it’s really exciting and fun to see what it can do. I went up to Montana and flew a site recently and doing that feels pioneer-like. A lot of things have been done in the ski world, unless you’re going super aggro or out deep there are hardly any first descents left. Paragliding is fun because you can completely choose how you want to do it and where you want to do it. I’ve been skiing since I was two and obviously I love it--I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I didn't--- but there’s something very exciting about something fresh. Skiing will always be the number one but paragliding brings something new to the table.

Can you spot Caite in the wild? | Eric Parker photo.

TGR: So what can we expect from you next season?

I think a project that follows my journey of learning to fly and putting that to skiing would be really cool. I also have some ideas I want to pitch to TGR --I just got off the phone with a Canadian who’s super eager to do a girls sled trip that I would love to get after. I’m very torn with my desires because I really love skiing big lines (big meaning airs) but I also find what Christina Lustenberger and Ian Mcintosh are doing to be really inspiring. I’ve been spending a lot of time running uphill this summer in hopes of being able to crush those big mountaineering days too. I’ve got a lot of gears turning and I think making sure I stay true to my style of skiing and what I really love to do while still progressing is the goal for next year. 

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