Words: Mary Walsh
I’m sitting here in my hotel room at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain resort, watching snow dump outside my window. This morning was a full-on froth party; the ten or so projected inches had wildly increased overnight and the turns were no less than thigh deep blower. The runs were the kind that leave you breathless and covered in snow, delirious with happiness and excitement. Clades of the world’s best snowboarders scattered to all sides of the resorts—Sage Kotsenburg, Chris Rasman, Jamie Anderson, Gigi Ruff, Ben Ferguson, Elena Hight, Blake Paul—as Mother Nature, herself, encouraged the celebration of the first stop of the 2021 Natural Selection Tour to continue after yesterday’s momentous first day of the event.
In 2008, Travis Rice introduced the world to Natural Selection at his home mountain of Jackson Hole. The Quiksilver-titled event was the first of its kind, eschewing the trappings of traditional contests (manicured jumps, park rails, etc.) for the natural rugged terrain that Travis cut his teeth on growing up in the Teton Range. The contest brought together the litany of riders whose seasons are spent filming offered them a playground to ride together in a competitive setting akin to preferred alpine environment. Travis’ efforts were well-received and the event continued in 2012 and 2013 at Baldface Lodge in British Columbia on the infamous Scary Cherry run.
Fast forward to 2020, and the avant-garde brainchild of Travis and his collaborators Liam Griffin, Carter Westfall, and Circe Wallace, has been the most highly anticipated happening not only of the season, but arguably since the most recent edition of the event in 2013. Twelve years in the making, the Natural Selection Tour is here.
For the past few years, Travis and a dedicated crew that includes Mark Landvik and many others, have spent summers working on the inbounds area that is host to NST, working along with what the mountains have provided to shape take-offs and landings that run smoothly along the terrain. Since the snow started to fall in Jackson, the zone has been untouched by edges, seeing only the Vert footsteps of the crew as they patted down snow on take-offs to ready the literal launchpads for the riders.
On February 1st, twenty-four of the world’s finest snowboarders arrived in Jackson, eager to hit go on the first of three 2021 NST stops, the Yeti Natural Selection. On the women’s side, Robin Van Gyn, Hana Beaman, Elena Hight, Jamie Anderson, Marion Hearty, Hailey Langland, Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, and Anna Gasser were on deck, with Mary Rand as the alternate. On the men’s side, Gigi Ruff, Pat Moore, Nils Mindnich, Ben Ferguson, Sage Kotsenburg, Werni Stock, Bode Merrill, Elias Elhardt, Mikkel Bang, Victor De Le Rue, Blake Paul, Austen Sweetin, Eric Jackson, Mark McMorris, Chris Rasman, and alternate John Jackson had arrived to meet up with Travis.
Natural Selection is its own breed of contest: while winners will be crowned, it is really a gathering of a group of snowboarding’s most talented and creative, collaborative in competition. The course provides the playground for the riders to display not only their personal prowess but to showcase the ethos of snowboarding: the interplay with mountainous terrain, the culmination of storm patterns and weather effects, the pure joy of unbridled powder turns. It is the snowboarding we all aspire to do with our friends, and while not all of us are comfortable pointing it into a 70-foot jump called the Aircraft Carrier, the feeling of navigating snowy terrain, figuring out our lines, and catching a little air (no matter how big or small it may be) is why we keep strapping in, day after day, season after season. The NST is the culmination of that combined essence, but of course, ramped up to a level executed by the best-in-class riders. With over forty features of varying shapes, sizes, and transitions speckled among the trees, the Natural Selection arena is a behemoth just waiting for be explored and on Thursday, February 4th, just two days into the waiting period, the skies calmed, the snow had stacked, and it was time to go.
The night before the contest, the NST crew gathered for the seeding event, in which a computer generator picked individuals at random to select their drop order. Partway through the event, Gigi Ruff stepped up to drop first. The crowd cheered. In the women’s bracket, choice by chance made every match up a duel between a backcountry filming veteran and a contest queen staking claim out of bounds. Near the end of the night, with only two spots left to be filled, Whistler-based Manboy Chris Rasman took on Travis Rice, sparing Rice and Blake Paul a first-found Jackson Hole locals’ showdown. The crowd cheered even harder.
As day one of the Yeti Natural Selection began, the sun was peeking out behind clouds, the air was crispy, and the energy in the riders’ tent at the top of the course was high. Gigi Ruff opened up the event by floating a seven and all the anticipation of the past few days (and the previous years) washed away. The Natural Selection Tour was on. For nearly six hours, the matchups went down. Jamie verses Hana. Ben Ferg verses Bode. E-Jack verses McMorris. Gasser verses Haerty. By the time Nils Mindnich and Pat Moore closed down the contest with two of the best runs of the day, it was further clear that the NST is an event all its own. After each run of every heat, the two riders vying to advance met at the bottom and congratulated one another. They compared lines, trip-ups, and brushed powder off their faces together. There were congratulations. There were jokes. It was a sight not generally seen at the bottom of a contest run. Even though every heat was competitive, it was also 100% collaborative as the assembled, world-class snowboarders picked apart the features at Jackson and embraced every descent together.
It was an insane energy, palpable through the cameras pointed at the crew. It showed the harmony between friends who have dedicated themselves to the mountains, that even when bragging rights and prize money are on the line, it is the shared experience that comes first. This may sound trite, but I assure you, it’s not. The vibes were high, catalyzed by Travis Rice’s own perspective, which he so readily has shared throughout his entire career. The Natural Selection Tour is but the next iteration in his snowboard legacy and it’s ultimately clear after the first day of the first stop of the first tour that Natural Selection is going to change the way we look at contest snowboarding. In fact, it already has.
Stay tuned for day two of the Yeti Natural Selection at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. The contest waiting period runs until February 9, 2010, so follow @naturalselection on Instagram for updates each day on when the event’s second day will run. You can watch day two of the competition exclusively on Red Bull TV.