This article was originally published in the Revelstoke TIMES Magazine, available now at your local coffee shop, book store, or any other business in downtown Revelstoke.
With a crowd of more than a hundred people packed tightly into a bustling Rockford Plaza at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, Travis Rice stepped up to the top of the podium on a small stage to be crowned winner of the men’s Yeti Natural Selection Revelstoke to the cheers of the courtyard below.
The competition had taken place two days prior, high in the mountains, hidden amid the half-a-million hectares of land that is part of heli-ski outlet, Selkirk-Tangiers’ tenure.
With his trophy in hand, the throng of skiers and snowboarders below – now several beers deep into their apres – began to chant ‘speech’. Rice touched on a few things while addressing the crowd, including gratitude, surprise (at the amount of people), and a simple message about the future.
“We will be back,” he said.
From Norway to New Zealand, from Austria to America, and (of course) Canada — the Natural Selection Tour attracts riders from all over the world to compete in the unique snowboarding competition. This year’s contest followed a slightly different schedule from years prior for qualifying. Instead of multiple events with a whole roster of riders, the competition followed a “DUEL” format. Just two riders went head-to-head for a coveted spot in the Yeti Natural Selection Revelstoke, hosted by Revelstoke Mountain Resort, and Valdez, Alaska stops.
On the eve of competition, the riders planned and plotted their routes for the day to come. The night before the event was more like the night before a high school exam than the night before a snowboarding competition. Riders sat huddled in their hotel rooms studying the maps that they’d been given of the terrain they were going to be competing on.
“This type of face is not something that you typically host a venue on,” said Kimmy Fasani, a pioneer in women’s snowboarding.
The riders were struck during their scouting of the location two days before the competition by the scale of the terrain.
“It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen before,” said backcountry legend, Torstein Horgmo, adding “this is definitely the biggest pillow stack I’ve seen.”
It was a bright, brisk, and blue-skied morning on Monday, Mar. 6, when 12 of the best snowboarders in the world dropped into their runs just 20 km outside of Revelstoke for the event.
Travis Rice, Ben Ferguson, Mikkel Bang, Dustin Craven, Torstein Horgmo, Jared Elston, Blake Paul, Mikey Ciccarelli, Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, Hailey Langland, Elena Hight, and Kimmy Fasani were the brave riders who took on the course. With a combined collection of more than 100 international medals for various snowboarding disciplines and ages ranging from 22–40, the competition cast a wide net of extreme talent.
On her 22nd birthday, Zoi Sadowski-Synnott beat Elena Hight in the final for the women’s event with consistent riding that mixed in flips and spins that she landed well. Despite the loss, Hight rode well, opting for less tricks but bigger lines. One of Hight’s lines took her down a set of pillows down a cliff and had spectators holding their breath as she plummeted down for seemingly ages before rocketing out of a chute and sliding out. Sadowski-Synnott located several features in her early runs that guaranteed her airtime to perform tricks, choosing less pillow lines.
Travis Rice and Blake Paul clashed in the men’s final, though it could have just as easily been Dustin Craven’s spot over Rice’s in the final. Craven rode the home terrain incredibly well in the semi-final bout with Rice, navigating his way through big pillow lines and only slipping up slightly as his board slid out in the ride out of a chute. In the end, Paul dropped in first in the final, landing a clean run from top to bottom –a feat in-and-of-itself– for a score of 73.4 from the judges.
After Paul’s silky run laid the gauntlet down, Rice came out with a first run that could go down in the competition’s history. Navigating his way through the top section with ease and speed, Rice didn’t slow up as he approached an enormous cliff, blanketed by pillows of snow. Without pause, Rice expertly maneuvered himself down the face to an audible gasp from the announcing team. In the ride out from the cliff, Rice added a cherry on top of the run with a 360° spin off a lump of snow below. The judges scored his run a 90.8 and Paul couldn’t come back.
This year was the first time that the Natural Selection Tour stopped in Revelstoke, but with the testimonials from the riders about the incredibly challenging course, on top of streams of the event that have amassed almost a quarter of a million views, NST will likely be back.
Natual Selection Tour history
Back in 2007, Travis Rice had an idea for a new category of snowboarding competition.
Hot off successful film projects (That’s It, That’s All and The Art of Flight) that earned Rice global attention and further cemented the respect of fellow riders, he started to imagine a special type of competition. At the time, he described a snowboarding culture divided between adventure/backcountry riders like Rice, and the contest riders who competed in events like the X-Games, Dew Tour, and some Olympic events. He began to imagine a different style of competition to amend the fissure between the two worlds within the sport.
“A bridge to help bring all of snowboarding back under one flag again,” said Rice in a promotional RedBull video about the event.
The competition was called ‘RedBull Supernatural’ at the time and the goal was to bring the competition element of contest riding into the backcountry to create the ultimate freestyle snowboarding event.
It took place in Nelson, British Columbia at Baldface Lodge. Preparing for the event was months in the making and started before a single flake of snow touched the ground. The event needed to combine the jumps and features that contest riders were familiar with and the deep snowy landings that other riders were familiar with.
To put the ‘super’ in ‘supernatural’, a team of builders trekked into the backcountry to set up a terrain park of sorts made of trees that they cut in the area. The features were set several meters above the ground at the time, to account for the expected snowfall. With jumps, tabletops, and ledges suspended high in the trees, the naked course looked like an unattainable downhill mountain bike trail.
18 riders with backgrounds in the backcountry and the competition scene were the guinea pigs of the first event. Unsurprisingly, Rice took the win at RedBull Supernatural, with Gigi Ruf coming second, and Nicolas Muller rounding out the podium in third.
Over the next 11 years, the singular snowboarding event grew in popularity and evolved in its form. From Supernatural to Ultranatural to its contemporary title, Natural Selection Tour. Stopping in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the Todrillo Range in Alaska, and always a stop in British Columbia.
When the competition takes place in the backcountry, the uncontrollable variables increase ten-fold for both the riders, and those facilitating the event.
Hailey Langland explained how the transition to powder from slopestyle takes a toll on her legs.
“It’s a lot harder to land in powder. It takes a lot more muscle and different muscles to like– I swear, all I won’t ride powder for a while, and I’ll be riding at the resort for most of the season. Then I’ll come ride powder and try to hit jumps and my legs are just defeated afterward,” said Langland.
Adjusting their bodies to landing in the deep snow is key for the riders. A perfect landing in the park would be landing with the riders’ weight coming down through both legs at the same time, but a similar landing in the backcountry would send the riders over the nose of their boards.
Canadian rider, Mikey Ciccarelli, discussed how the tricks also change from traditional contests to the NST.
“It’s not as big of tricks, but the tricks you’re doing are more vital,” said Ciccarelli.
With the competition arriving after what’s been one of the deadliest years for avalanches in Canada for almost a decade, the location decisions were paramount. Dave Pehowich, general manager at Selkirk-Tangiers, talked about the logistics of the event.
Selkirk-Tangiers is no stranger to working with snowboarders, but Pehowich talked about the different challenges that the event brought.
“It starts out with some good scouting missions,” said Pehowich.
He said that Rice was familiar with their tenure, so working on finding a location was just a matter of time. Working with Selkirk-Tangiers, Rice isolated about a dozen locations that could be suitable for the event. Then, Pehowich’s team monitored and tested the sites until they landed on the course.
Once the location was picked, the next hurdle for Pehowich and the rest of the Selkirk-Tangiers team was transporting everyone in on competition day.
When the event takes place deep in the backcountry, so must the broadcast, which meant overcoming another technical hurdle.
As Revelstokians know, cell phone service in the area can be spotty, at best. Heading ten minutes in any direction from Revelstoke could quickly take you out of service. So, when a competition is live streamed to the world from an area that mightn’t even have cell phone service, there’s a long list of moving parts.
Although Revelstoke Mountain Resort hosted the event, Selkirk-Tangiers were the key facilitators, as they transported in all of the people and gear needed for the broadcast.
“We’re looking at probably transporting up to around 60 People in for the event, and that’s including the athletes. So, we’re moving a lot of people into the mountains and the big thing is just accounting for everybody and their safety.
Selkirk Tangiers and their relationship with RMR were integral in making the competition happen.
This was the first year that Revelstoke Mountain Resort hosted the Natural Selection Tour, but the resort said it’s a competition that they’ve kept an eye on and were keen to host.
Natural Selection in Revelstoke
“There’s a reason they want to come here. And there’s a reason we want to have them,” said Peter Nielsen, Vice President of operations at Revelstoke Mountain Resort.
While the terrain around Revelstoke offers unrivaled conditions, it wasn’t just the environment that decided where the competition would land.
The Natural Selection Tour’s team goes beyond the rider who founded it, but Travis Rice continues to play an active role in helping shape the future of the competition. Among the many ways that the competition aims to set itself apart from others is the impact it has on the community and the environment where it takes place.
With events for the public at the Roxy Theatre, Performing Arts Centre, Traverse Nightclub, Craft Bierhaus, and Rockford Plaza, the NST made its way around the city giving people the chance to take part.
Rice wants all the NST stops to be a “force for good,” including environmentally. Despite the tour’s flights, drives, and helicopter rides, NST will actually have a net carbon positive impact on the environment. With carbon offsets for every kilometer flown or driven, the tour will contribute to restorative ecosystems in the forests and oceans.
The goal of the competition is to not just “bring a bunch of people and have some huge parties and just run amuck,” said Rice, adding that the NST aims to bring a ‘holistic’ approach to the event.
Authenticity, Rice said, is something that NST takes very seriously.
“We’re not an X-Games, where it’s a major TV event by some executive company that doesn’t really care about the community,” said Rice, continuing “we’re by the riders, for the riders, so I think it’s beautiful and refreshing.”
Rice’s concern about community, and his reverence for RMR’s relationship with Revelstoke, comes from his upbringing.
“I come from a small community down in Jackson Hole, [Wyoming] and I’m very aware of the picture when that balance tips in the wrong direction. Frankly, I think that’s an example of something that has gone too far, and wasn’t handled or done very well,” said Rice.
Choosing RMR was a natural fit for the NST because Rice said that both the competition and the resort share a ‘coherence’ in their values and their interest. Nielsen explained how the Natural Selection Tour, like RMR, is famous for big mountain terrain, snow quality, and snow quantity.
“I think it’s a natural fit for Natural Selection,” said Nielsen.
Rice referred to this year’s stop as an ‘exploratory’ year—testing the limits of the riders with the terrain, the facilities of the host, and technical challenges of the broadcast. Revelstoke executed in all three aspects.
Rice’s expertise and his preferences factor heavily into where the NST goes. With locations around the world to pick from, Revelstoke has stiff competition, including Rice’s home in Jackson. Between Jackson and Revelstoke, asked which one he would pick if he had to, Rice’s answer was simple and may indicate the competition’s future.
“Well,” Rice said with a slight pause, “look where we’re at.”