Force of Nature | The Natural Selection Tour

After its barnstorming debut in 2021, can Travis Rice’s Natural Selection Tour save competitive snowboarding?

Above: Mark Sollors threads the needles at Baldface, BC. Photo: Chad Chomlack / Red Bull.

This article first featured in the Whitelines Annual, Issue 122. Pick up your copy here.

Bye-bye Beijing

Host nation China and the IOC are billing the Beijing 2022 Olympic big air venue as an environmental triumph – and the perfect setting for a snowboard competition. Yeah, right.

“Key to the competition’s success was a completely reimagined competitive format that borrows heavily from surfing”

Built on the site of an abandoned steel plant, Shougang Park is now home to the world’s first permanent big air structure (as opposed to traditional scaffolding setups). But new construction, especially on this scale, is hardly eco-friendly – even if the organisers claim to be regenerating the landscape. And while the backdrop of rust, smog and looming cooling towers might suit a stark urban shoot, the overall aesthetic is post-apocalyptic. Snowboarding is meant to be fun, remember. Few, if any, will watch the ultra-talented big air competitors approach 2000 degrees of rotation above Shougang’s oxidized hellscape and say to themselves, “Damn, that looks fun. I’ve got to take a snowboard trip to Beijing.”

In sharp contrast to that Mad Max-meets-Max Parrot industrial installation is the Natural Selection Tour. Natural Selection aims the spotlight on some of the planet’s best natural terrain and rewards pure, stylish backcountry freestyle over dizzying, spin-to-win gymnastics. After a mid-COVID, trial-by-fire debut last year that included stops in Jackson Hole, British Columbia, and Alaska, the tour is steamrolling into its second season. And with the first two events bookending the Beijing Olympics (Jackson Hole actually clashes with X Games) the disparity between elite level powder riding and established, mainstream snowboard contests will be on full display.

Sage Kotsenburg, Anna Gasser, Pat Moore and Travis Rice inspects the course during the preview for the Natural Selection Tour at Jackson Hole. Photo: Dean Blotto Gray / Red Bull.

“The Natural Selection actually was meant to be complementary, not counter, to current freestyle events like pipe and park,” says tour mastermind and Jackson Hole local Travis Rice. “I come from pipe and park and it’s incredible what riders are doing with these disciplines now. But if we use the word ‘authenticity,’ there’s a Winter Olympics being held on the desolate, ice-cold east coast of China, where there’s almost no natural precipitation… it’s pretty fucking far-fetched. Snowboarding lends a lot more credibility to the Olympics than the Olympics is lending to snowboarding.”

“BC flopped compared to the other two events, largely thanks to COVID-related difficulties”

His sentiment has echoes in Terje Haakonsen’s infamous boycott of the 1998 Nagano Games, although Rice opts for more tact and less middle finger: “While I don’t necessarily support the Olympics personally, I certainly support all of the riders that are going there.” In a 2014 op-ed for //Whitelines// titled “Why I Still Hate the Olympics” Haakonsen put it more bluntly: “There’s just no respect for the history and culture of snowboarding at all. We don’t need FIS or the IOC. We can handle snowboarding ourselves.”

That is, essentially, what Rice has done with the Natural Selection: taken matters into his own hands. It’s something he’s done time and again, starting with video projects including the //Community Project, Art of Flight, That’s It, That’s All, The Fourth Phase, Depth Perception//, and //Dark Matter//. Each of these movies helped define Travis’s unique vision of snowboarding and showcase its almost limitless potential in the backcountry. Then there were the one-off events which effectively tested the waters for the current tour: the 2008 Natural Selection, which took place in two of Jackson Hole’s historic powder zones, Dick’s Ditch and Casper Bowl; followed by the 2012 Supernatural and 2013 Ultra Natural, both at Baldface, which puckered sphincters globally thanks to the colossal Burning Man-esque wooden structures that dotted a 45-degree pitch christened Scary Cherry. An entire career, in short, spent laying the groundwork for Rice’s pièce de resistance: a tour of the world’s best riders, from all disciplines of snowboarding, pitted against one another in natural coliseums worthy of such a battle.

The Blueprint: Jackson Hole

The tour’s first stop at Jackson Hole last February was arguably the most compelling competition in the history of the sport. A big factor in this was the state-of-the-art racing drones and camera wizardry from production contractor Uncle Toad’s Media House. With their help, organisers were able to beam continuous live streams of top-to-bottom freeride lines across the globe. It doesn’t matter how remote or hostile a contest venue is, today’s fans demand live coverage, and the footage coming out of Jackson was a game changer.

Travis Rice drew on the. huge respect he’s earned – and a lot of old fashioned elbow grease – to make his dream tour a reality. Photo: Chris Wellhausen / Red Bull .

In addition, Rice and a crew of diggers had meticulously prepped the course, moving mountains of earth, stone, and timber over the previous summer and fall to form the foundations of various hits and landings. Come winter, they sculpted and stomped the snow to ensure safe avalanche conditions and send-friendly transitions. If the Freeride World Tour appreciates strictly natural curves, T. Ricky and co. have no problem enhancing Mother Nature’s already-bodacious bosom.

“The competitors in Alaska exhibited the kind of style and self-expression seldom seen outside of video parts”

It also helped that a knowledgeable selection committee consisting of Rice, COO and Co-Founder Liam Griffin, longtime editor of //Snowboarder// Pat Bridges, iconic pro Barrett Christy, and //Looking Sideways// podcast host Matt Barr hand-selected the field of 16 men and eight women. The chosen riders were heavyweights all, ranging from backcountry film legends Gigi Rüf and Hana Beaman to slopestyle podium regulars like Mark McMorris and Jamie Anderson. Even Terje himself received an invite, although he couldn’t make the event.

To cap it off, Wyoming’s Tetons were blessed with reset after reset, and a couple of clear days materialised throughout the weather window, making it easy to greenlight the contest. While conditions will inevitably be one of the biggest thorns in the tour’s side as it seeks to build on its debut, in Jackson the skies certainly cooperated.

Key to the competition’s success, however, was a completely reimagined competitive format that borrows heavily from surfing.

“Head-to-head battles are a simplistic format that’s easy to grasp and fun to follow,” explains Circe Wallace – Rice’s agent, right hand woman and fixer/executive producer on the tour. “Charlie was really the one who came up with that,” she laughs, referencing her husband, Chas Smith, the infamous //Beach Grit// scribe and vocal critic of the World Surf League. “We were at a retreat, and he was like, ‘You should just do man-on-man, because that’s what everyone wants to see.’”

If you built it, they will come. Travis Rice. Photo: Dean Blotto Gray / Red Bull .

Compared to Supernatural and Ultra Natural’s complex scoring structure, where the top-ranked riders after two runs earned a third run, the current format is binary. As Liam Griffin puts it, “You either advance or you don’t. It’s really exciting – like a bunch of miniature contests.”

Notable heats on the men’s draw included Rice versus fellow Lib rider and Truffle Pig Chris Rasman, Freeride World Tour champ Nils Mindnich versus pride of the east coast Pat Moore, and double-hucking event winner Mark McMorris versus Norse stud Mikkel Bang, whose switch methods and 360 rock tap made clear that his was an alternative, technical approach. In the final, McMorris got the win over Ben Ferguson, a worthy opponent who showcased masterful methods and high-risk, high-reward spins.

“Rumour has it the tour will try to on-board a European stop in 2023 and a Japanese stop in 2024”

On the women’s side, Hana Beaman’s wild cats, Jamie Anderson and Robin Van Gyn stepping to the money booter, and a final between New Zealand wunderkind Zoi Sadowski-Synnott and French freerider Marion Haerty were the standouts. Sadowski-Synnott, in particular, threw down a spectacular run.

“The goal is definitely preserving that [head-to-head] format,” says Liam. “The engagement that we got on [the live stream] surprised a lot of folks. People would tune in and they would stay tuned for really long watch times.”

With no injuries, no COVID cases, a rapt audience and rave reviews, it’s easy to chalk up Jackson Hole as a complete success. But like many elite athletes and entrepreneurs, Rice is a perfectionist.

Ben Ferguson, rolling in the deep at Jackson. Photo: Tim Zimmerman / Red Bull

“Last year went really well, especially given the climate that we were operating in,” he says during an off-season interview, sore from another day working a shovel. “But it’s my job to see all of the cracks and holes and areas for improvement. That’s all I focus on. This was the first time that everybody got to ride the venue, and I think the majority of riders took a pretty safe approach. Transitions can be improved. We did what we could last summer, and we certainly did everything we could in the six weeks leading up to the event. We made a lot of transitions out of snow, which works, but to fully realise and improve some of those transitions, we’re going to be doing some work this summer to build the course out a little bit better.”

“The tour’s survival is data-driven. Are people watching?”

Liam, too, has plans to enhance the production side. “If there’s one thing that we know we need to improve on, it’s on-ground camera coverage,” he says. “The aerial coverage is great, but it’s limited in its ability to show you the scope and scale of some of the stuff. The problem is on-ground cameras. You basically need one for every feature in order to shoot it properly.”

These tweaks will be noticeable this coming season, but the biggest difference at Jackson 2022 may be in the fan experience. “We were able to hold a great snowboard contest on the mountain,” says Rice. “But what we weren’t able to do was bring people together to celebrate creativity, music, culinary arts, and education. That’s really one of the things that we’re focused on for our event next year – bringing this incredible experiential element to the week, to complement the riding.”

British Columbia: Stumble, Revert, Recovery

In truth, last year’s British Columbia event is hardly worth recapping. It flopped compared to the other two events, largely thanks to COVID-related difficulties. Aside from BC locals Rasman and RVG, the original cast of characters wasn’t allowed into Canada due to border restrictions. Baldface Lodge wasn’t operational either, and both live streaming and traditional competition breached the country’s COVID protocols at the time. The tour was therefore forced to pivot, inviting a crew of BC riders to snowmobile into Baldface’s new Valhalla tenure for an impromptu video contest.

Spencer O’Brien was one of the lucky few with a Canadian passport that were able to compete at Baldface. Photo: Chad Chomlack / Red Bull.

“We threw together the BC event,” says Griffin. “The other option was to cancel it.” While the tour’s agility was worth applauding, the final product was less so, and Griffin claims it’s unlikely we’ll see an event like that again. “Jackson is the model,” he affirms. That said, in order to make Natural Selection a “legitimate tour,” at least three stops are requisite. “One is an event. Two is a weird story. Three has a story arc to it.” This concept proved valid, as RVG and Rasman, who happened to win the BC stop, spiced up the narrative by joining invitees from Jackson in Alaska for the finale.

The Final: AK, OK?

It was only natural that the tour’s crescendo should occur in the fabled Last Frontier. There’s a magic, a mysticism, to Alaska that doesn’t exist elsewhere. As evental tour winner Mikkel Bang puts it: “Alaska is the dream.”

“Natural Selection aims the spotlight onto some of the planet’s best natural terrain and rewards pure, stylish backcountry freestyle over dizzying, spin-to-win gymnastics”

Despite a lack of fresh snow, Tordrillo Mountain Lodge delivered – as did the competitors, who exhibited the kind of style and self-expression seldom seen outside of video parts. But then, that was always the goal. “If what riders are doing in competition isn’t comparable to what you see in a film part, then we’re not at the level that we need to be,” states Rice.

From VHS tapes shot on 16 mm or Super-8, through Curt Morgan’s big budget //Art of Flight//, to the now-ubiquitous edits captured entirely on iPhones, film has always been the most sacred medium in snowboard culture. More so than contests and even glossy magazine photography, video footage has enabled riders to cultivate and share style.

“Back in the day, none of the major networks or traditional distribution outlets really cared [about action sports],” says Wallace, who was a pro snowboarder herself in the 90s and these days represents top-tier talent across surf, skate, and snow. Instead, riders took to the mountains and streets with filmers in tow, stacking shots and even editing as a collective, adding an artistic element to their athletic endeavors. “I hate to even call surfers, skaters, and snowboarders ‘athletes,’” says Wallace. “They are. But there’s also a layer of freedom of expression and creativity that allows for more fun and disruptive potential.”

Mark McMorris didn’t hold back at the tour finale in AK. Photo: T-Bird / Red Bull.

No one in Alaska better embodied that celluloid spirit than Mikkel Bang, whose poked front three and jaw-dropping back five were a revelation. “Style is so important in the backcountry,” he explains. “Style is the freedom to express ourselves, have fun, and snowboard however we want. That’s how I fell in love with snowboarding in the first place.”

“There’s a Winter Olympics being held on the desolate, ice-cold east coast of China, where there’s almost no natural precipitation… it’s pretty fucking far-fetched” – Travis Rice

This artistic, creative side of snowboarding is exactly what most rigid contest structures lack. In AK, many of the tricks could have earned clips in film parts. They had personality and energy – not least RVG’s cornice half-cab and XXL cliff drop that earned her overall victory in the women’s event. She and Bang were both rewarded with a new Bronco for their efforts, as well as a ton of exposure that Rice hopes will yield “fame, fortune, and satisfaction.”

“It’s for sure the biggest win of my career,” reflects Bang. “I’m still soaking it in. Last time I competed was eight years ago. Riding against all the invited riders that I respect so much was an incredible experience that I will never forget. It’s definitely helped my career in so many ways.”

Live (Stream) or Die

Only one aspect of the Alaskan finale was underwhelming: the absence of a live stream. It was understandably challenging to set one up at such a remote location. “A traditional venue, you cable everything,” explains Griffin. “At the US Open, for example, every camera (for the most part) is connected to a cable. Every cable is connected to the truck. You’re editing everything in the truck, building your graphics, doing your voiceovers, and sending it to space. And then, once it hits the satellite, it’s live to the world.” In Jackson, the process was adapted slightly, using RF transmitters to allow them to shoot beyond the ropes.

Rise of the machines: The live drone footage at Jackson was next level. Photo: Mark Clavin / Red Bull.

But with no infrastructure to speak of in the wilds of BC and Alaska, the challenge is far greater. According to Griffin, there are only two possible solutions. You can either fly out components and build the equivalent of an edit truck in a portable shelter, or “send all of the signals to space and then edit it somewhere else.” The latter technique, dubbed a Remote Integration Model (REMI), is the likely scenario moving forward, with the editing taking place at Red Bull’s in-house suite in Santa Monica. This in turn reduces the number of staff required on site, making the whole production more nimble. “That’s what we’re working on right now,” says Griffin. “The dream scenario next year is that all three are live,” although he notes it’s possible that only Jackson and AK will be streamed.

The Future of Natural Selection

Solving the streaming riddle may be the main focus this coming season, but rumour has it the tour will try to on-board a European stop in 2023 and a Japanese stop in 2024. Rice, however, is cautious to set anything in stone. “We’re still focused on slow and sustainable growth,” he says. Finding the right new venues is a challenge in itself, too, but he admits that each trip to Europe and Asia for the last decade has doubled as a scouting mission. “Paramount riding in different locations, different types of snow, and different cultures – that’s what we’re aspiring to.”

“Natural Selection was the most significant thing going on in snowboarding this past year, and maybe even in the last decade” – Mark McMorris

Travis isn’t the only rider to make Natural Selection his year-round focus. “I literally think of it every single day,” enthuses Sage Kotsenburg, surely a contender for the most motivated man in snowboarding. “I watch the events in the summer. I am obsessing over it, just because I’m such a fan of [the format] and it’s something that I definitely want to win.”

Alongside Jamie Anderson and Anna Gasser, Kotsenburg is one of a select few Natural Selection competitors to have topped the podium at the Olympics. He famously turned away from slopestyle and swore off competition following his victory in Sochi, focusing instead on the marriage of freestyle tricks and freeride terrain. Prior to the Jackson event, he even suggested that a Natural Selection title would mean more to him than Olympic gold. When we speak again over the summer, he doubles down:

“The Olympics are really cool in the aspect that they get a lot of eyes on snowboarding,” he says. “But Natural Selection is the epitome of what you want a snowboard contest to be. It’s a pretty serious statement to say, ‘Yes, right now, for me, this is way more important.’”

Mikkel Bang, the men’s tour champion. Photo: Dean Blotto Gray / Red Bull.

The most decorated man in slopestyle, Mark McMorris, shares at least some of Sage’s sentiment. “After all these years of collecting slopestyle hardware, to have an opportunity to compete in an event that’s like no other, that has so much respect from our peers, meant the world to me,” he reflects. “Natural Selection was the most significant thing going on in snowboarding this past year for sure, and maybe even in the last decade.”

“The dream scenario next year is that all three stops are live streamed”

Still, it’s hard to imagine that McMorris, who has yet to win Olympic gold, will skip Beijing or split his attention with another tour this winter. But while the five rings is still unquestionably the biggest circus in town, the high praise Natural Selection has received from snowboarding’s biggest names is a significant win. “We were all a little speechless when Sage and Mark and all those guys were talking about how they felt about this event,” says Rice. “Comments like that help keep us going, because this is not an easy thing to pull off.”

Someday, the tour may eclipse the Olympics, X Games and similar park events. It certainly has the potential to become the de facto league that the average viewer associates with the sport of snowboarding. However, there’s a long road ahead before that occurs. Tour CEO Carter Westfall is the man helping Travis and co to navigate that journey. He is a former collegiate football player who’s worked as a consultant for the Olympic games and on international business development for the NBA, so he knows better than most how to broaden the tour’s reach and turn it into an economically viable business.

Robin Van Gyn, the women’s tour champion. Photo: Dean Blotto Gray / Red Bull.

“We want to grow this into a global tour,” he says. “The fundamentals are the same [as those other events] in terms of how you deliver value to your distribution partners and sponsors.” Consequently, much of his time is spent negotiating and managing sponsorships and media rights – what he calls the “lifeblood” of the tour. Another key piece of the puzzle are individual investors who Westfall claims are “very passionate about snowboarding and the outdoors, and familiar with Travis’s career” – among them Michael Schwab, son of richer-than-fuck Chuck and Kelly Slater’s wave pool partner.

Core snowboarders, for the most part, were already following the Natural Selection last winter. It was well-advertised and an enticing clash of titans, especially during a pandemic. Growth, then, lies beyond our ranks, with the kind of viewers who don’t typically give the //Whitelines// annual a place of honor on the coffee table. This is a slightly uncomfortable prospect, as appeasing mainstream audiences tends to alienate core ones (see Smith’s repeated evisceration of the WSL).

“What gives riders and fans hope is the fact that Rice is at the centre of all aspects of Natural Selection”

The difference this time – and what gives riders and fans hope – is the fact that Rice is at the centre of all aspects of Natural Selection, from format and venues to staff and marketing. “We’re fortunate to have Travis as the founder. He’s got the convening power of the riders and the industry. It’s built from the core. Inherently, the product is going to appeal to the core because he’s always going to be that compass,” says Westfall.

So long as Natural Selection doesn’t drift too far from its mission, increased coverage for backcountry snowboarding in mainstream sports media is a huge positive. If you’d asked casual sports fans who the best snowboarders in the world were prior to Natural Selection, most would likely have listed Travis Rice (//That’s It, That’s All// and //The Art of Flight// did penetrate that mainstream market) then scrape memory banks for names of X Games and Olympic superstars: Mark McMorris, Shaun White, perhaps Chloe Kim or Jamie Anderson. Nothing wrong with that. But how many would list Mikkel Bang? Or Robin Van Gyn? Hopefully, Natural Selection can succeed in shifting some of that attention towards deserving riders who haven’t already built a widespread following, or even had a competitive platform for their chosen discipline.

Shot like this would historically never come from a contest; Natural Selection has changed all that. Pat Moore pokes out a beauty in Jackson. Photo: Chris Welhausen / Red Bull.

‘Natural selection’, according to the man who popularised the phrase, Charles Darwin, means only the strongest and most adaptable survive. Whether the tour lives or dies depends entirely on how it adapts and grows its viewership. As Travis Rice concedes, “[the tour] isn’t shit if the riders don’t believe in it. And it isn’t shit if people don’t tune in and talk about it.” Survival, in this case, is data-driven – an emotionless matter of metrics. Are people watching?

Ironically enough, it’s emotion that will grow that viewership. It’s emotion that will keep us tuned in, tracking forecasts, and cheering in our living rooms. Emotion is at the heart of it all: the bingeable head-to-head heats, the audacity of a live stream from a remote range, the idiosyncratic approaches and styles of our favorite riders. And then there’s this misguided thought that arises: that someday, in the right conditions, you could rip that Robin Van Gyn rooster tail, poke that Mikkel Bang frontside three, stretch out that proper, Ben Ferg method. We’ll never do it like the pros, but we dream just the same. That’s perhaps where the Natural Selection has its most crucial competitive advantage: it’s aspirational, a feeling that rarely surfaces during a modern pipe or park comp. And so long as the tour inspires us to get out and go snowboarding, we’ll keep watching.

‘Mother Nature is the main character’ is the tagline often touted by the tour’s organisers. During the final stop in Alaska, lit by the rising sun, her spines gleaming, cornices imposing, couloirs and cliffs beckoning like sirens, Mother Nature was indeed breathtaking. Undeniably the star of the show, she was a wild, beguiling antithesis to the monotonous, manicured groomers of Buttermilk or the skyscrapers and steel in Beijing. The location alone made us slobber. And as soon as the riders began dancing down her shoulders, all of us viewers, casual and core alike, were struck by the same realization: “Damn, that looks fun. I’ve got to take a snowboard trip to Alaska.”

This article first features in the Whitelines Annual, Issue 122. Pick up your copy here.


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