Welcome to part two of our five-part series, looking at some of the world’s best ski and snowboard tours. Our goal in this series is to look beyond traditional alpine racing and bring some of the most inspired competitive freeride skiing and riding happening today.
Snowboarding’s Big Problem
The snowboarding community had a serious problem. Not long after the birth of extreme snowboarding in the 1980s, and the inaugural World Extreme Snowboarding Championships in 1992, the sport splintered under the pressures of competing interests. Propelled by increasing popularity and behind the success of companies like Teton Gravity Research and Matchstick Productions, the snowboarding community fragmented into different styles like; slopeside, big air, halfpipe, terrain parks, and even big mountain riding. With so many kinds of talent competing, it was hard to say who was the best. And that was the problem. The best at what was the answer you’d often get in return.
It eventually took someone special to solve this riddle. Someone with extraordinary talent, a background in filmmaking to draw upon, and a bold creative vision to put it all together. That call was answered by none other than legendary snowboarder Travis Rice.
Meet Travis Rice
Meet Travis Rice, arguably one of the best all-around snowboarders in history. Over those last 20 years, Travis Rice has pushed the limits of competitive snowboarding in innovative ways many thought was impossible at the time while staying true to his mountain roots and his love for the sport.
A Mammoth Rodeo
Travis Rice first captured snowboarding stardom in one of the most unusual ways possible, and perhaps not matched since Glen Plake poached the speed skiing course at Les Arcs [VIDEO]. Growing up with a dad on ski patrol, Rice was given plenty of opportunities to ride and learned quickly. However, with a reputation mostly confined to the greater Jackson Hole area, the snowboarding scene-at-large remained unaware of Rice’s precocious talent. That, however, was about to change.
In 2001, at 18 and in a contest where he showed up uninvited, Rice sent the first ever backside rodeo over a 117-foot gap jump at the Superpark contest in Mammoth, California. The snowboarding world shook in excitement as this young kid who seemingly came out of nowhere successfully laid down such a massive air.
Reflecting on his record-setting jump, Rice shared in another interview,
“… my mind was blown that week… such a dream setup, and the people that were riding that week, were the best in the world. I was lucky enough to get a tap on the shoulder and I got invited up to do a sunset shoot on the last day. At a certain point, it’s kind of like a hail mary… I kind of just sacked up and dropped in and kind of gave it everything I had on the progression.”
VIDEO of Rice’s Mammoth big air…
In the crowd at the time was Absinthe Film’s producer Justin Hostynek who immediately recognized Rice’s talent and asked him to come to Alaska and film. That film shoot later became the movie Transcendence and catapulted Rice into official snowboarding stardom.
Riding the momentum of his popularity, his movie experience, and several snowboarding championships over the next couple of years, Rice transitioned into filmmaking, working as both producer and star in the 2008 film That’s It, That’s All. Here Rice once again stretched the limits of what was thought possible, landing a first-ever double cork 1260.
The Inaugural Natural Selection Tour (2008)
Now standing on his filmmaking success and unparalleled talent, Rice partnered with Quicksilver in 2008 to create the first-of-its-kind Natural Selection contest at Jackson Hole Resort, Wyoming. Accentuating a natural backcountry face with man-made features in an open freestyle competition, Rice easily attracted the world’s top snowboarders. It was a unique attempt to find out who’s the world’s best snowboarder.
Back to Back
Following the inaugural 2008 Tour’s resounding success, Rice brought it back again as SuperNatural in 2012 and then UltraNatural in 2013. This time, however, Rice brought the event to a new venue, Baldface Mountain Lodge, known for its steep, backcountry face. It also expanded into a two-day event and was again a massive success behind its top-notch lineup of competitors and a live viewing broadcast.
Rice’s Next Evolution
Taking a hiatus from his Tour to do more filmmaking and spend time with his family, Rice eventually returned in 2021 with a renewed passion for his beloved event. He vowed that the subsequent versions of the Natural Selection Tour (2021, 2022) would be different, and they were.
The newest evolution of his event followed a Triple Crown style with three stops instead of one. It also included a head-to-head format where the two riders would each take two scored runs. Each competitor’s run was judged according to four criteria (difficulty, amplitude, variety, execution), and the season’s cumulative point total decided the overall winner.
Describing the characteristics of each Tour stop, Rice explained in another interview,
“I would say British Columbia is one of the most consistent places for deep powder snow. Jackson Hole is one of the best places for the ability for the snow to stay soft for extended periods of time after a snowfall. Alaska has some of the largest snow formations. Each one of the places has its own unique characteristics and that’s really what makes what we’re doing interesting. What we’re trying to do is really celebrate the uniqueness of each location.”
Despite some of his previous successes, Rice also knew he had a problem… how to manage the sheer scale of the venues in these remote locations. With a background in snowboard filming, both producing and acting, and an appreciation of how the audience likes to view the action, Rice committed to a better viewing experience. He also knew trying to cover more than 60 features across a hillside and still get close-up action shots would be difficult. Traditional static cameras and follow-riders holding GoPros weren’t going to cut it. Rice watched an immersive experience, more like a video game.
In another interview, Rice talked about his unique broadcasting approach to the new 2021 Tour sharing,
“Over the years of trial and error with filmmaking, we realized pretty early on that the nature of this event, and how large and complicated the event venues are, meant it had to be captured in a special way. People are used to looking at that third-person shooter angle (following from a close-up read viewpoint) – that’s what video games are like. So being able to provide a really familiar way of experiencing and watching something, I feel like reduces this barrier to entry.”
The answer to his broadcasting dilemma came when Rice found Gabriel Kocher, a Swiss aerial cinematographer and professional racing drone operator (yes, there is such a sport.) Kocher built several custom drones for Rice, each specially designed for cinematography using an X8 drone platform, eight motors, a customized gimbal, a full broadcast system with a stabilization platform, and capable of speeds up to 100 mph.
Building these custom drones is one skill, and racing them is another. Capturing the right angle is difficult and can’t be left to a novice. Kocher described the challenges of his role in another interview, saying,
“It requires an athlete’s performance. When they (riders) run the easier line and they’re just going smooth, I’m trying to tap into my cinematography background, but sometimes they’re just gunning through the trees and I just basically need to throw the drone through some turns just to catch up with them. It’s definitely a culmination of the drone racing skillset and the love for riding and snowboarding, to see them and be able to anticipate what’s going to happen.”
World Class Competition
Tour competitors were handpicked by the NST committee, which comprised Snowboarder Magazine editor Pat Bridges and professional snowboarders Barrett Christy Cummins and Travis Rice. The invitees’ lists read like a who’s who in the world of snowboarding at the time, with top names like:
- Gigi Rüf: Film star of 9191, Supernatural(2012) 2nd, UltraNatural(2013) 1st place.
- Sage Kotsenburg: Star of JOY and 2014 Olympic gold medalist in slopestyle.
- Elias Elhardt: one of the world’s best freestyle backcountry riders.
- Nils Mindnich: 2019/2020 Freeride World Tour overall champion.
- Mark McMorris: 17 X-Games medals. 4 US Open, Olympic slopestyle medals.
- Ben Ferguson: Multiple X-Games halfpipe medals, 2018 US Olympic halfpipe team.
- Chris Rasman: Star of The Manboys film series and a Whistler backcountry freestyle legend (featured in Truffle Pigs with Rice).
- Travis Rice: Star of The Community Project, That’s It, That’s All, The Art of Flight, and The Fourth Phase and arguably the greatest backcountry freestyle snowboarder of all time.
- Jamie Anderson: Most decorated female X-Games athlete in history. 2014 and 2018 Olympic slopestyle gold medalist.
- Robin Van Gyn: Star of Full Moon and Depth Perception and one of the world’s most powerful and technical backcountry riders.
- Elena Hight: Star of 2020’s Blank Canvas. X-Games gold medalist. Olympian. And the first woman to land an alley-oop double backside rodeo in the halfpipe.
- Marion Haerty: Three-time Freeride World Tour overall champion.
Similar to FWT events, where competitors are not permitted to ride the course ahead of the event, NST riders were also relegated to only visual inspections of the course. This time, however, instead of binoculars and satellite maps, athletes watched Kocher’s drone runs using a virtual reality headset. Rice explained in another interview,
“It’s not a park, you don’t get a practice. This is really, really difficult. We’re going to be doing these drone flights and providing riders with a ton of education so everyone’s going to have the same amount of information and they’ll really be able to study the whole slope. But when it comes down to how the event runs and when you’re dropping, everyone’s going to have to be adaptable. You might have a line in your head and you’re like ‘I’m gonna hit this big gap at the bottom and that’s gonna be my line,’ but if you don’t go until the back of the field and say, someone bomb holes the landing out, it’ll be like ‘Oh, shit, I’ve gotta change my line.’”
According to Rice (in another interview), success on Tour lies in the belief that,
“The Natural Selection Tour will reward the riders who are able to utilize the most lifetime experience on a snowboard. And all of these different backgrounds offer different advantages. It takes a lifetime of experience to do well at this contest with the variability of terrain, variability of conditions, to both plan a run down this course and to be able to on-sight when things don’t go according to plan on the way down. The rider who are able to make quick decisions and react without having to think it through, are the ones who are going to do well.”
2022 Tour Stop Profiles
The perennial first stop was Travis Rice’s home and one of the most iconic mountains in the lower 48. Of the three stops on Tour, Jackson Hole’s Moran Face is considered by many riders to have the most playful terrain and perhaps favor the freestyle-oriented riders. The course was augmented with more than 60 man-made features that turn this rocky hillside into a world-class playground and a truly unique riding experience.
- Annual Snowfall (inches): 458
- Summit Elevation (ft.): 10,450
- Vertical Gain (ft.): 4,139
In 2021, Jackson Hole received more than four feet of snow in four days. During the downtime, NST competitors decided to explore other parts of the mountain, including a local’s favorite called Dick’s Ditch. Named after the ski patroller who triggered and survived an avalanche in 1976, the gully is famous for its steep walls exceeding more than 80 feet in some areas and long runout. Jackson Mountain Hole Resort even holds an annual banked slalom competition in this same area.
Started initially as a cat-skiing operation because of its location with bountiful snowfalls and incredibly steep slopes, Baldface Mountain has long been a Natural Selection Tour stop since its early days in 2012. Rice partnered with Baldface Lodge co-owner Jeff Pensiero, who built a custom-made course in the heart of British Columbia’s backcountry. With more than 80 massive natural and hand-made features scattered across its 40+ degree slope, Baldface is another freerider’s dream course.
- Annual Snowfall (inches): 500
- Summit Elevation (ft.): 6,750
- Vertical Gain (ft.): 3,100
Riders adopted the name “Scary Cherry” to describe the course at Baldface.
The final tour stop is arguably one of the world’s finest playgrounds for big mountain adventures. The Tordrillo Mountain Range just outside Anchorage is where riders come to determine the world’s best, and with a 7,500-foot vertical drop, this competition gets heavy quickly. This stop requires riders to pick an excellent line and manage steep spines and sluff. They also need to control mach speeds just enough to pop a trick or send some serious air. Tordrillo is nothing short of a big mountain freestyle adventure.
- Annual Snowfall (inches): 600+
- Summit Elevation (ft.): 7,500
- Vertical Gain (ft.): 5,500
In 2022, SnowBrains founder Miles Clark worked as a professional mountain and ski guide with Rice and his Natural Selection team while in Alaska.
- Related: My Experience Guiding Travis Rice’s “Natural Selection Tour” 2022 in the Tordrillo Mountains, Alaska
2023 Tour Rumors
The 2023 tour schedule has yet to be announced. Rumors have also appeared suggesting that there will not be a Jackson Hole stop this year. We will keep you updated on any official announcements.
The Magic Of Snowboarding
Despite his massive success in the sport and worldwide fame in the snowboarding community, Rice remains grateful and grounded in the sport that has offered him so much. Sharing his perspective on the sport in another interview Rice professes,
“Snowboarding is active medication for me. It’s spending time outdoors in the forest in the weather with friends. It brings a lot of joy to my life and makes up for a lot of the work that I have to do. For me, Snowboarding has always just been about fun and creativity and there’s really nothing like it. I mean, being able to ride and interact with mountains out of high Alpine terrain or in these incredible old-growth forests… Riding this incredible substance, which is soft snow and powder. It’s just a pretty magical feeling.”
We would have to agree, Mr. Rice. It’s pretty magical.
Request To Our Readers
We hope you enjoyed reading and will follow us along in this series. The next article looks at the creation and success of The Dew Tour.
One last note. We want to ask for your help in completing this series. Our readers have some of the best resources we can think to provide, and we appreciate all of your help. Please share your comments below if you have any great ideas about ski or snowboard tours you would like us to consider covering. Thank you again.