Worth the Hangover | 10 Takeaways from the YETI Natural Selection Jackson Hole

Sage's domination, Marion silencing the critics, Longo's launchpad and the mother of all hangovers - Drew Zeiff runs through the highlights from Jackson

Above: Dustin Craven boosting into his finals run at Jackson Hole (Image courtesy of Yeti Natural Selection)

The dust has settled in Wyoming. Worthy champions have emerged after an all-out brawl. As we pop Advil, shake off the multi-day hangover, and ice our injuries, let’s take a look back at the absolutely rowdy week of snowboarding that went down at the YETI Natural Selection Jackson Hole.

1. Sage Kotsenburg is Gladiator

At last year’s YETI Natural Selection Jackson Hole, Sage Kotsenburg reportedly watched Gladiator before his heat with Ben Ferguson, seeking inspiration. The tactic didn’t pay off, and Sage fell to Ferg’s Burton blade in the quarters. This year, though, was a different story—Sage met Ferg, bested him in battle, and won it all. Now that I think of it, Sage’s quest for revenge and glory echoes the arc of Russell Crowe’s Oscar-winning epic.

Sage realising he’ll battle not one, but two Fergusons.

For those unfamiliar with the film—spoilers and tangent to follow—Russell Crowe’s character, General Maximus Decimus Meridius, is a war hero cherry-picked as an emperor’s successor over the emperor’s own son, Commodus. Commodus, asphyxiates his father and crucifies Maximus’ family. Left for dead, Maximus is seized by slavers and forced to become a gladiator. He fights his way out of hell before exacting vengeance.

“Behold the fall from grace, the rise from rubble. Here he stands: a gladiator”

To be clear, Kotsenburg’s family is fine—as far as I know, they were in Jackson enjoying the event. And Ben Ferguson seems like a genuinely nice dude. But when Ferg trounced the 2014 Olympic gold medalist and two-time rider of the year last winter, he might as well have left Sage for dead, his Park City vegetable garden burnt to ash.

This year, Sage emerged from the backcountry bloodbath on day two of Travis Rice’s spectacle redeemed, triumphant, clutching his J.Stone-forged, still-unreleased K2 broadsword in one hand, a crystal trophy in the other. He went through Gabe then Ben Ferguson, then Mikkel Bang, then finally Jared Elston, dishing out chicken wing tweaked sevens and cab nines like Maximus dealing death blows in the pits. Behold the fall from grace, the rise from rubble. Here he stands: a gladiator.

Sage Kotsenburg stomping his way to victory (Image courtesy of Yeti Natural Selection)

When I interviewed Sage about Natural Selection for the Whitelines Annual this past summer, he seemed uncannily locked in, stewing over film like Tom Brady the year after a Super Bowl loss. “I literally think of it every single day. I watch the event in the summer and I am obsessing over it, just because I’m such a fan of it,” he said, in between mountain bike rides, marathon training, and brutal sessions at SLC’s pro-approved gym, The Sect. “It’s something that I definitely want to win and I definitely want to take home the overall trophy.”

“It’s worth noting, he and Ben Ferguson are one for one head-to-head, and if the commentators have anything to say about it—they most definitely will—this rivalry could have more legs than a prosthetic factory”

The field is on notice. A once-dormant, ultra-competitive, plant-based apex predator is wide awake and shot-gunning Monster. Building off the momentum of this win, Kotsenburg is an obvious favourite in Baldface. Also, it’s worth noting, he and Ben Ferguson are one for one head-to-head, and if the commentators have anything to say about it—they most definitely will—this rivalry could have more legs than a prosthetic factory. I’m here for it.

2. Jackson Hole is a Colosseum

Thought we were done with Gladiator references? Ha! Think again.

Viewers in the Continuum Hotel.

I spent most of the event in the proverbial stands—sipping espresso beneath the jumbotron in the Continuum Hotel, oohing and aahing and questioning judges’ decisions with the crowd. Easy to have an opinion from the couch. But once the event wrapped, I slipped into the gladiator pit.

To the looker’s right of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s Teton Lift, on a swath of cliff-rich terrain known as the Moran Face, is a work of art that lends itself to the art of war. Travis’ Colosseum. Reimagined by the Art of Flight architect himself after last year’s trial by fire and sculpted from earth, stone, timber, and snow by the tireless Jackson Hole Park Crew, this venue has more features than a Wu-Tang Clan tracklist. It’s got more takeoffs and landings than Heathrow during the holidays.

Mark Landvik, Robin Van Gyn, Spencer Whiting, Tom Monterosso and Marion Hearty giving a little perspective (Image courtesy of Yeti Natural Selection)

On the big screen, the features look big. In person, they’re laughably enormous. Riding by the bigger hits is like showering next to Shaq—for god’s sake, someone get this unit a beach towel. This was clear to me last year. But last year, the conditions were blower. The everyman could imagine, “Yeah, you know what, if the cameras were on, and Travis Rice invited me to hit this shit, and Red Bull was covering my hospital bill, I’d huck my meat off that.”

“Like festival-heads with nothing but a dusty baggy left and the headliner yet to play, event organizers rationed what powder remained”

The snow this year, according to riders and announcers, was “sporty.” Jackson received a paltry six inches of powder in the three weeks prior to the comp window. Like festival-heads with nothing but a dusty baggy left and the headliner yet to play, event organizers rationed what powder remained. They reserved the rider’s right half of the course for qualifiers and the rider’s left half of the course—hopefully more shaded and protected—for finals day. On TV, riders did their job and made the course look rideable. Rippable, even, so long as you had the volume low enough towards the end of the day and didn’t hear the scratch of edges on crust like a butter knife on burnt toast.

But those riders. They’re illusionists. Magicians, the lot of ‘em. I took two laps through the course, and the conditions were worse than variable. They were dogshit. Calling those conditions “sporty” is like calling instant ramen topped with diced Slim Jim “upscale Asian fusion.” Between the instantaneous speed generation, omnipresent chop, and snow that couldn’t seem to make up its mind, it was difficult to point it down a landing. I can’t fathom the confidence and skill required to spin fifty feet into that dumpster fire. As a matter of fact, it isn’t just Sage—anyone brave enough to enter the Temple of Stoke, pass through the portal, and drop into those conditions at full tilt is a goddamn gladiator.

He came, he stomped, he conquered (Image courtesy of Yeti Natural Selection)

3. Elena Hight is the Full Package

After squeaking through a close albeit somewhat lackluster first heat with MFR, women’s champ Elena Hight showcased both her backcountry acumen and freestyle tricks, particularly in the semi-finals against Hana Beaman and in the final run of her finals heat with Robin Van Gyn.

“If she brings her same line choice and bag of tricks to Baldface and manages to lock in her landings, she’s a threat for the overall Natural Selection title in Alaska”

The comfortability in powder is there. The mag-worthy method is there. The stylish three is there. And if you’ve been paying attention to Elena’s riding over the last few years, her studies with splitboard sensei Jeremy Jones are clearly paying off. If she brings her same line choice and bag of tricks to Baldface and manages to lock in her landings, she’s a threat for the overall Natural Selection title in Alaska.

Elena Hight flying towards victory (Image courtesy of Yeti Natural Selection)

4. Robin Van Gyn’s Back Three Belongs in the Royal BC Museum of Victoria

They say heavy is the crown, but you wouldn’t know it watching last year’s overall champ Robin Van Gyn. She was light on her feet in Jackson and arguably the strongest rider in the women’s field. In a heated semi-final against Marion Haerty, after the course seemed chewed to bits, Robin drifted a massive back three, grabbed her Jones Stratos smack dab in the swallowtail, and put it to bolts. It was a thing of beauty, the best trick of the women’s comp—followed, perhaps, by RVG’s cab underflip?—and it earned Robin the highest heat score of the women’s comp. Pay respect to the queen.

5. Marion Haerty Shuts Up the Haters

The four-time Freeride World Tour champ earned a second-place finish in Jackson Hole last winter, but it felt like there was an asterisk on her podium performance. The Frenchwoman took a direct, fast, freeride approach last year, and even commentators threw shade—she missed grabs, didn’t throw tricks, etc.

Haerty heard the hate, and like our old friend General Maximus Decimus Meridius, absorbed the hits and let them fuel her fire. Despite coming fresh off of an exhaustion-inducing COVID quarantine, she took to the course faster than the rest of the field. She threw a sizeable three and stomped a backflip—her first in competition.

Marion Haerty upped her freestyle this time around and is a serious force to be reckoned with for the remainder of the tour (Image courtesy of Yeti Natural Selection)

If you’ve been following Haerty on social, it’s clear she’s been training for this event. She skipped the Freeride World Tour for Natural Selection—a telling choice, seeing as she was a heavy favourite for a fifth title. When I interviewed her the night before qualifiers, she was amping. “I feel great, I’m really excited for tomorrow, to express myself in Jackson Hole,” she said, her motivation clear. “I try to add some tricks to my bag, because here you have to do tricks. I was not really proud of my run last winter, it was more of a freeride run, but I will try my best to express myself for freestyle.”

“You already know that if she gets through to Alaska, she will be absolutely deadly”

Haerty didn’t win the event, but she certainly won over any doubters. Her dedication to progression showed. Despite earning a third-place finish this year as opposed to her second-place finish last year, Haerty earns our unofficial “Most Improved” award. If she brings this same energy to Baldface, she’s a serious contender. And you already know that if she gets through to Alaska, she will be absolutely deadly.

6. Zoi and Mark Were Missed—Just Not by their Competitors

 After Zoi Sadowski Synnott’s dominance at last year’s stop in Jackson and her recent stint at the X Games, where she landed back-to-back dub tens in slope and a back 12 in Big Air for double golds, her presence was missed. Same goes for Sparky, who also took gold last month at X Games and double-backied his way onto the top of the podium in Jackson last year. Competitors were likely relieved that the Kiwi and the Canadian were off to Beijing, but thankfully for fans both earned automatic entries into the second event in Baldface.

7. Best of Three Format is Excellent for Viewers, Tiring for Competitors

We love the tiebreaker. It’s crack for viewers. But rhetorically speaking, on the men’s side, if quarters, semis, and finals all go to three runs apiece, a rider is looking at nine laps down the face. Nine. In conditions like we saw last week, that’s the big mountain equivalent of an ultramarathon.

Mitrani at the bottom of the course.

The extra run is clearly draining. Jack Mitrani nearly gave up interviewing riders at the bottom of the course, instead coaxing them to drink out of custom YETI canteens and wiping the snow from their goggles, seeming more boxing cutman than broadcaster. Of course, that’s part of the brutal beauty of this event: endurance is necessary to survival. The best strategy, then, is obvious: knock out your opponent with a one-two punch and save your energy for future heats.

“If quarters, semis, and finals all go to three runs apiece, a rider is looking at nine laps down the face. Nine… That’s the big mountain equivalent of an ultramarathon”

8. The Euros Showed Up

This year, the bracket was overflowing with heavyweight rookies from Europe. Arthur Longo, transition sniper, blasted the heaviest gap of the contest. It was a top-five clip of the event, reminiscent of Elles, Side Hits Euphoria, etc., but it didn’t get him through. Horgmo beat DC disciple Sebbe de Buck as well as event mastermind Travis Rice, and seemed like a podium contender before taking a gnarly slam and falling to Big Air Jare. Kevin Backstrom’s shifty three was one of the best tricks of the event, but unfortunately came up against Travis is round one. And of course, Natty Select veterans Marion Haerty and Mikkel Bang both earned third place. While we’re on the subject, Bang’s switch back threes from finals day… are you kidding me?

Torstein Horgmo – one of the heavyweight Euro contenders (Image courtesy of Yeti Natural Selection)

9. There’s No Better Platform for Film Riders to Gain Exposure

You’ve read this far, you know who the fuck Mikkel Bang and Robin Van Gyn are. But when the Norseman and the Canadian won the overall title last year, they received an outpouring of well-deserved attention that spread well beyond the core snowboard world. Filming may still be the zenith of snowboard art, but even filming video part of the year doesn’t get you an interview in Forbes.

Take event rookie Jared Elston, for instance. His Adidas opus, Hand Over Fist, currently has just under 20K plays on Youtube, and it’s been out for over a month. The full, shared Replay of Day 2 of Natural Selection on X Games YouTube channel has over 150K plays, and it’s been three days. Increased visibility, no doubt, will drive viewers to Hand Over Fist—a rising tide lifts all boats.

For young riders like Elston and Gabe Ferguson—who ripped, by the way, and gave Sage a run for his money in round one—and even more established film pros like Austen Sweetin and Blake Paul, or Hana Beaman and MFR, the quantifiable exposure of Natural Selection is unparalleled. It’s a marketing department’s wet dream.

Take Travis’ own film, Depth Perception, which was released four years ago and gave powder power couple Sweetin and Van Gyn valuable screen time. The flick has a respectable 327K views on YouTube, but that already pales in comparison to the impact of this event. Combine Day 1 and 2 of this year’s Natural Selection stream, and you’re looking at nearly 400K views—and that’s just on the X Games channel.

10. Natural Selection is a Party That’s Worth the Hangover

I left Jackson with a headache, some serious sleep debt, a few YETI mugs, enough stickers to stoke out the homies, and the realization that I’ve hit my 2022 partying quota and it’s only February. More than anything, though, I left with an appreciation for snowboarding.

Yes, conditions were shit, but the riding wasn’t. It was incredible. The event was insane. The community was alive and well. The fact that this comp ran so flawlessly, in such trash snow, is a testament to the format, the execution, and the vision of T. Rice and his team. More than anything, it’s a testament to the riders.

“Yes, conditions were shit, but the riding wasn’t. It was incredible. The event was insane”

With that, I’d like to raise one of those YETI mugs, filled now with detox tea, and extend a heartfelt thank you to Travis, the entire Natural Selection team, and the event sponsors—especially Backcountry and YETI—for making this magical week happen. Thank you to the park crew—you’re artists, the lot of you. Thank you to the riders, for putting it on the line—with style—in such trying conditions. And as always, thank you snowboarding.

Day One Yeti Natural Selection Highlights

Day Two Yeti Natural Selection Highlights

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