Culture Events

That’s It, That’s All | Natural Selection Alaskan Finale Goes Off With A Bang

We chat to the winners and the Natural Selection Tour's mastermind, Travis Rice, about the contest that changed snowboarding

Travis Rice’s Natural Selection Tour is all wrapped up—like a HempFusion-hawking helicopter—and the “superfinal” ended with a bang. Despite a three-week drought leading up to the event window, the third stop of the tour, which took place in Alaska’s Tordrillo Range, lived up to the hype: it had tasty turns, baffling tricks, harrowing bails, and movie part-worthy lines.  And unlike the second stop, which frankly couldn’t hold Jackson Hole’s jock strap, the final had drama, as the tour returned to a head-to-head format to crown champions.

If you haven’t watched the final broadcast, do so here. Consider this spoiler alert a resort boundary—duck the rope if you must, but do so at your own risk. We are no longer liable.

Seven shredders earned invitations to Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountain Lodge for the HempFusion Natural Selection championship. Of course, there was the Burton brigade: Mark McMorris, Ben Ferguson, and Mikkel Bang, who swept the Jackson stop in first, second, and third, respectively, and Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, whose win in Jackson was a ceiling-smashing moment for women’s backcountry freestyle. Chris Rasman and Robin Van Gyn muscled through a stacked crop of Canadians in the Baldface video shootout. Marion Haerty was invited as well, but COVID restrictions kept her from fleeing France, so Hana Beaman gladly took her place. It’s worth noting that while Sadowski-Synnott smoked Haerty in the Jackson finals, if there was a venue for the French freerider to showcase her strengths—speed, fluidity, line selection, and staying on her feet—it was certainly in the Tordrillos.

“Alaska has, since the beginning of snowboarding, been our land of milk and honey. It’s a hallowed destination, sacrosanct, visited by all sorts of powder-worshipping pilgrims”

Ah, the Tordrillos. After 2019’s Curt Morgan-directed masterpiece Dark Matter, the very word “Tordrillo” triggers a Pavlovian response in snowboarders worldwide—we salivate, our veins flood with adrenaline, and the slightest dribble of urine escapes the urethra, ever so involuntarily. We simply cannot help it. As a whole, Alaska has, since the beginning of snowboarding, been our land of milk and honey. It’s a hallowed destination, sacrosanct, visited by all sorts of powder-worshipping pilgrims, from stickered-up pros flush with heli budgets to dank dirtbags content to cuddle three-deep in soccer mom minivans in the Thompson Pass parking lot and earn their turns on foot.  To Travis Rice, the brain behind the tour, hosting the final in Alaska was a no-brainer.

“It’s tough to see it run any other way,” says Rice. “I mean, don’t get me wrong—the interesting thing that happens when you compare locations in snowboarding is that it’s so condition-dependent. You can have the most incredible day at a myriad of locations around the world. I think the biggest differentiator with Alaska is two factors. The first is the scale and that there are no trees, so you end up having planar topography—a lot of other places are bumpier, with much more undulation. And then the other piece of it is being low elevation. One of our venues, the finish was at 2,500 feet,” he laughs. “And there’s a close proximity to the ocean so there’s a high moisture content in the snow, which allows the snow to stick to such steep faces.”

But it isn’t just the topography and meteorology that make Alaska the perfect venue for the finale—there’s a mythology, too. “Culturally, there’s a rogue, wild, independent heritage,” Travis explains. “There’s this unbridled, progressive nature where anyone is capable of anything.

Ben Ferguson throws a huge method. (PC: Red Bull Content Pool)

Semifinals: Anyone’s Game

The semifinals day took place on the Montrachet face, which offered a main course—a meaty, spiny pyramid—and an hors d’oeuvre of mellower gullies out of a secondary start gate to riders’ left.
Ferg kicked off the action against Rasman with a method into madness, overshooting the tranny and tomahawking into oblivion. The heat heated up with his second run, as Ferg earned a high score of 90 and a win over a faltering Rasman by dicing sections of spine, flipping off a crippling cliff, and adding a cherry-on-top three down low.

Heat two came with a burning reminder: Mikkel Bang just makes sense in Alaska. The towering Norseman rides a 170w Custom—Burton’s beefiest board—and seems to belong in these high peaks. Still, on Mikkel’s first run he underestimated the height of a cliff and bailed on a three that seemed to go on for eternity. He held it together on his second run, stomping a couple of cliffs and comboing a three into a debonair butter to get the win over his teammate Mark McMorris. Sparky was certainly more technical throughout the heat—hucking wildcats and whirling the now-expected back seven—but he couldn’t keep his legs under him.

“Ferg kicked off the action against Rasman with a method into madness, overshooting the tranny and tomahawking into oblivion”

On the women’s side of the draw, Hana Beaman gravitated towards the mellower gullies—which, honestly, weren’t mellow at all. Her first line, through a banking corridor, was certainly more approachable, but the snow was killer and offered the opportunity for the high-speed rooster tails every snowboarder daydreams about. Her turns—transcendent and froth-inspiring as they were—weren’t enough to get past Sadowski-Synnott and RVG. While RVG impressed with a technical spine line into a sizeable cliff drop followed by a few high-speed slashes, Sadowski-Synnott dominated the semis. You wouldn’t guess it was her first trip to Alaska by the way the young New Zealander managed sluff, blasted through variable snow, and tweaked grabs off blind takeoffs.

And like that, finals day was set. Bang versus Ferg—two of the most stylish snowboarders to ever strap in, going mano a mano. And RVG versus Sadowski-Synnott—a veteran freerider riding high after her Baldface redemption versus an electric young gun who blew away the field in Jackson Hole.

Mark McMorris stepping up to the drop. (PC: Red Bull Content Pool)

Men’s Finals: Crossing Swords in the Tords

As the rising sun tinged the Tordrillos purple, orange, and indigo, lighting up the peaks like the Mike Parillo paintings that grace T. Rice’s Lib Tech topsheets, Rasman opened up the final’s venue in spectacular fashion. Between a couple of greasy threes, a blind drop, and a staunch commitment to the fall line, Rasman clearly recovered from his wobbly semifinals start. Despite battling with Mark McMorris for the third spot on the podium, the guinea pig was a good sport, radioing up to the competitors yet to drop and passing along beta on the rippable—yet variable—snow conditions.

In answer, McMorris soared off a fatty to flatty, causing a collective wince amongst viewers who have endured any sort of ACL injury. Sparky stepped back up to the heavy cliff in a later run, earning a “He stomps the shit out of it!” from Travis Rice in the booth (Rice, thankfully, has not been domesticated by tour execs and should plan to announce full-time alongside a grey-bearded Selema Masekela when he retires from competing at the age of 69 and his newborn baby boy is all grown up and dominating the field. But I digress.) The line also earned Sparky a hard-fought third place over Rasman, whose miller flip off a cornice in run two and front three stale in run three belong on the highlight reel.

“Perhaps you caught the cheeky spoiler in the first sentence and title of this article, but Bang bested Ferg with a stellar second run of his own”

Ferg’s tweaky flavor, jungle cat speed, and edge-to-edge precision were on display in the finals. It’s no surprise that he’s many of your favorite snowboarders’ favorite snowboarder, including, funnily enough, Mikkel Bang. Ferg’s second run in the finals was his best, with a textbook method, barrel roll backie, and high-speed three.

Perhaps you caught the cheeky spoiler in the first sentence and title of this article, but Bang bested Ferg with a stellar second run of his own, thanks to a strategy he carried over from his memorable Jackson performance. “I did a trick and landed switch,” Bang explains. “So that’s definitely what gave me the win.” The poked front three didn’t hurt either, which was masterfully framed by racing drone pilot Gabriel Kocher, but it was the backside five that earned high-pitched squeals from the announcers, high fives from his compadres on the valley floor, and high scores from the judges.

Mikkel Bang (PC: Red Bull Content Pool)

Bang had been planning to spend the winter filming in Canada, but those plans, like so many others, fell through due to COVID. When I couldn’t get into Canada, the Natural Selection saved my winter,” he says. It’s been eight years since I competed. And obviously I would consider this my biggest win in my career. Before, my biggest win was the U.S. Open in 2010.”

“Honestly, I’m still soaking it in, but it definitely means the world to me. Just getting invited to this event in the first place was an honor and then making it all the way to Alaska and being able to land a run and get away with a victory means everything to me.”

Bang famously walked away from the competitive circuit, but that competitive background was just as key to this victory as his experience in the backcountry, he says. “If I went back in time 10 years and would have done this competition, I would have ridden completely differently.”

“Being in the backcountry, you definitely learn how to ride the variable snow and read lines and come up with creative ideas. I think that helped me,” he says. “But also, I do think that having competed in the past also helped me in this event, too. Because when the contests were on, I was always very good at calming my nerves and not being stressed out or anything.”

“Bang famously walked away from the competitive circuit, but that competitive background was just as key to this victory as his experience in the backcountry”

Bang agrees with Rice—Alaska is the only place for the finals. “Alaska is the dream. And it’s difficult. You can’t really prepare for Alaska, you know? I mean, you can, but there is nothing quite like it. So when you get there, you just need to go for it. And I think it’s a really good place to have the final in terms of making a bigger challenge for the riders.”

“This event is so good for the progression of snowboarding. We get to show a different aspect of snowboarding. It’s really cool how you can gather all types of riders—pipe riders, slopestyle riders, Freeride World Tour riders, people who film—all together in one event and it’s just as difficult for everybody.

As far as his prize? Bang is over the moon. “Dude, I’m so stoked. I actually really needed a car,” he laughs. “I have a friend that actually works for a dealership in Norway and he sells Fords. So he’s currently talking to Ford right now to see if I can get some sort of help to get it shipped over here. I think it will be the only Bronco in Norway.”

Robin Van Gyn on the way to her winning run. (PC: Red Bull Content Pool)

Women’s Finals: Rookie Versus Veteran

The question, going into the finals, was could Sadowski-Synnott keep up her dominant pace from the semis? An immediate faceplant on her run one drop-in suggested otherwise, but she took it on the chin, regained her footing, and popped a few airs that were dripping with steeze. She ended up taking the early lead over RVG, who also was stymied by a variable landing and thrown into a painful-looking tomahawk on run one.

“What you have to remember about Zoi,” points out commentator Mary Walsh, “This is her at twenty. Where is she going to be at next year’s Natural Selection? What about three years from now? Five?” Sadowski-Synnott’s potential is limitless, staggering, energizing—and exactly what women’s backcountry snowboarding needs, according to action sports spokeswoman RVG, who said the New Zealander pushed her harder than she’s ever been pushed before.

RVG, like Mikkel, proclaimed that her opponent was her favourite snowboarder, and like Mikkel, she found the win. Maybe RVG and Mikkel are simply gracious competitors who were battling against their riding heroes, or maybe we’re witnessing some Machiavellian, Sun Tzu-ian, “love your enemy” Jedi mind tricks? Coincidence? I think not!

Conspiracies aside, RVG’s swagger was no secret. Her second run started with a half-cab off the cornice, into a flowy air section, capped off by a drop off the grand kahuna cliff. She laced the cliff even better on her third run, but a butt-checked backie meant her second run was her highest score.

“To win the biggest event of her career—and arguably the biggest event in snowboarding—and immediately turn towards next year’s competition? That’s the mindset of an elite athlete”

“In both circumstances, both the qualifying and the final, I changed my run after the first go because I wanted to make sure that I was hitting the good snow,” says RVG, who continued her tactics from her successful campaign at Baldface Valhalla. “That was still my strategy, just to find a run that feels flowing and good that I could ride with confidence, do a clean line, and then improve as I did more did runs.”
“In the final, I actually ended up winning with my safety run because it was really hard to manage speed and landings with the different kind of snow that we were presented with. Obviously, that wasn’t the run that I would have loved to have won with,” admits Robin. “But I’m still so stoked to walk away from the event knowing I did my best and I have lots of work to do to step it up moving into next year.”

To win the biggest event of her career—and arguably the biggest event in snowboarding—and immediately turn towards next year’s competition? That’s the mindset of an elite athlete, what Kobe Bryant coined the “mamba mentality.” If you’ve got a boarding-friendly bookie, betting that we’ll see RVG return to the podium in the years to come is a smart wager. As a matter of fact, I’d bet that Sadowski-Synnott and RVG run it back to clash in an Alaskan superfinal this time next year. Any takers?

The riders (PC: Red Bull Content Pool)

The Long Lens

While finals bets for next year might be a little premature, RVG says, “The Natural Selection is here to stay. The event is only going to grow and we’re only going to see progression. There’s nowhere to go but up from here.”

This year has given the Natural Selection a foundation and blueprint for success moving forward. “The excitement around Jackson Hole,” she says, proved “how good that event can be when it’s live. And then having the Baldface platform and seeing how that ran. I feel like the Tordrillos event was a mix of both. And I know that Travis’ vision long-term is to have all of the competitors at every stop. And I know that he would like to do them all live. I think we’ll get there. It’ll just take time and energy and a lot of support from the snowboard industry.”

Industry support is crucial. But so is support from you and I—the fans. “Ultimately, the success of this tour is entirely dependent on if people value it,” says Rice. “If people don’t tune in to watch this stuff, this thing’s dead in the water.”

Imagining the Natural Selection face down, floating in a Valdez boatyard, riddled with bullet holes, is a tragic vision. My hope is that this tour continues, as RVG predicts, not just to live, but to grow and prosper. It deserves that much. The tour is tapping into a side of snowboarding that has rarely been competitive, or mainstream, aside from, surprise, surprise, Travis’ blockbuster films. But that side of snowboarding has been there since the beginning, way before Jake Burton lobbied ski resorts to let us single-plankers onto the chairlifts. Back then, as Dave Downing once said, all snowboarding was backcountry snowboarding. The Natural Selection is a return to our roots, but propelled by Travis’ mad imagination, magnified by the ultimate venues, amplified by the envelope-pushing energy of the competitors.

“So thank you, competitors. Thank you, Travis. Thank you, Natty Select. Thank you, snowboarding.”

Freeriding, as Craig Kelly poetically waxed, will always be the driving force. We may as well take heed.

After all, doesn’t it make sense for Natural Selection to share some of the mainstream limelight? It’s always funny to me that most competitive snowboarding is not remotely aspirational to the average rider. I don’t watch a double cork 14 in a 22-foot superpipe and go into the garage and sharpen my edges. I don’t watch the ultra-talented tornadoes huck meat spin 1800s off the Big Air jump and get inspired to break myself in park. But watching the Natural Selection? Damn if that doesn’t make me want to go make a powder turn and jump off some shit with my homies.

“The goal is to bring snowboarding’s natural elements, and really what snowboarding is all about—which is riding powder—to bring that home for people,” says Robin. “I think that’s a lot more relatable for the average snowboarder who goes up to a resort on a pow day.”

Hell yes it is. I couldn’t agree more. Maybe that’s because I’m just an average snowboarder who was never any good at park. And I’m writing this at 1:48 AM, and there are splitboards and boots and piles of gear covering my floor, and a to-do list as long as this article on my phone, and I’ve got a flight to Alaska tomorrow. (You can’t really prepare for Alaska, you know?) And somehow, I’ve spent the day interviewing the best snowboarders in the world, and watching them tap-dance through the Tordrillos, and I’m inspired to ride. After watching this shit and writing this shit, all I want in the world right now is to make the pilgrimage to the land of milk and honey, stand atop the line of my life, and drop in.

And maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t that the point?

So thank you, competitors. Thank you, Travis. Thank you, Natty Select. Thank you, snowboarding.

And congratulations to Robin Van Gyn and Mikkel Bang—your 2021 Natural Selection champions, and two of the best to ever fucking do it.

More Like This:

Mastermind | The Travis Rice Interview

Two Tickets to Paradise | The Natural Selection 2nd Round Recap

From Ragdolls to Riches | Mark McMorris’ Natural Selection Crown

A Week to Remember | The Natural Selection Recap

Why Even A Freeride World Tour Title Won’t Guarantee Success At The Natural Selection Tour

Men's champion Mikkel Bang (PC: Red Bull Content Pool)
Women's champion Robin Van Gyn (PC: Red Bull Content Pool)
Hana Beaman (PC: Red Bull Content Pool)
Ben Ferguson (PC: Red Bull Content Pool)
Mark McMorris (PC: Red Bull Content Pool)
Newsletter Terms & Conditions

Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.

Read our full Privacy Policy as well as Terms & Conditions.