Words: Mary T. Walsh
Cover photo: Dean Blotto Gray/Natural Selection Tour/Red Bull Content Pool
On Friday, April 16, the third and final event of the Natural Selection Tour wrapped up the season in the Tordrillo Mountains of Alaska, crowning the two overall champions of the event’s inaugural year. For Travis Rice, Liam Griffin, Carter Westfall, Circe Wallace, and the rest of the Natural Selection crew, it was an accomplishment just over ten years in the making, a collective effort to showcase backcountry snowboarding in a completely new and dynamic way. Through this earnest endeavor, Travis and crew shifted the paradigm, introducing some of snowboarding’s key players to a previously unfamiliar audience, providing a platform for snowboarding’s rising riders to literally and figuratively launch themselves off of, and lighting a fire that stoked the energy of such an integral part of snowboarding, all while exciting the community by celebrating snowboarding’s inherent beauty.
To say that it was a heavy lift to execute a three-stop tour, especially during a pandemic, would be an understatement, but Travis is immediate to credit his collaborators and supporters in the success of Natural Selection. As the final stop came to a close at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, we caught up with Travis to gain some insight on the tour’s maiden voyage.You just wrapped the first season of the Natural Selection Tour. How are you feeling right now, overall?
Well, it’s nice to take a few deep breaths. I’m super proud of our whole team and everyone that had a part in bringing this season to fruition because it was not easy. The amount of flexibility and pivoting needed to run this event during the current climate that we had…I mean, I kind of still can’t believe that we pulled it off. We’re just really happy, honestly. We’re really proud of it happening. We knew it was not going to be easy this winter and there was a huge risk in deciding to proceed but oftentimes, without risk, there are not these dynamic opportunities.
You, Natural Selection COO Liam Griffin, and the rest of the NST crew have been working on this for a long time—really since the first iteration of the event in 2008. What was it like to realize a concept that you all have invested so much time and effort into over the decade-plus?
We spent years in development of this. I think we worked through a lot of components of the intentions around the event, right? Like what we were trying to do, why we were trying to do it, and how we felt we were in a unique opportunity to provide value and give back to an industry that we are all so passionately involved in. I think at the end of the day, one of the reasons that I think we were successful this winter, was due to all the support we had from our partners and especially, the riders. At the end of the day, this thing is successful because the riders believe it’s successful, and more than that, this thing works because people tune in and watch it. This is going nowhere and it’s going to fall flat on its face if it’s just top competitors loving it. Without the broad spectrum fanbase and people literally tuning in and sharing and telling their friends about it, this thing is dead in the water.
Through the riding and the way you have showcased the event through the broadcasts, Natural Selection has deftly spoken to core snowboarders as well as the non-endemic population and shared snowboarding, genuinely. Backcountry snowboarding was introduced to so many people in a new way, while keeping the ethos of what it means to the most dedicated intact. What are the things that you and NST crew took into consideration to create a program and experience that would accomplish that? That would be able to speak to both the core and the mainstream at the same time and do it well.
Look, it’s a knife ridge that we’ve attempted to traverse multiple times. At the end of the day, I really do think that the hardcore and the mainstream are so far apart. While it’s so easy to break them into two completely separate factions, if the narrative is good and it’s authentic, and the visuals are immersive and hold weight on their own, and the creative expression of the subject matter is palpable and obvious when you watch it, I really think that it’s not too far-fetched to be able to please both groups. I think there’s benefit in trying to find where that common middle ground is. There’s a component for the mainstream that we want to share how beautiful and poetic snowboarding can be and that at the end of the day, it’s really fucking fun. If we can share a little bit of a glimpse into the magic of what we love to do, I’m all for it. Being able to leave an open invitation for people to come and try. For the hyper-core, it’s like, thank you. Don’t change. Stay critical. That’s a positive attribute. I think that if we can create something that is respected by the hyper-core, then we’re doing it right and our priorities are in the right place. Ultimately, let’s be real, we are doing this event for core snowboarding. That has to be first.
That’s where the authenticity comes from.
Yeah. The one thing I’ll add, is with the team that we have and the network that we have helping on this project, I like to think that we’re the first ones that are able to call bullshit if and when we step out of line. Don’t get me wrong, this first year was great, but I could definitely go through and throw darts at multiple components of what we did this far. This was not a perfect season for us. As we go through and get feedback from everyone involved, including the fans, we’re just going to be able to improve upon it.
Another interesting aspect of the Natural Selection Tour is the duality of opportunity that the event provides. Natural Selection shines a light on riders whose snowboarding may be well-known in the endemic landscape but less so in the mainstream, and at the same time, also offers an avenue for riders who are newer to the backcountry, many of whom are embedded in the traditional contest circuit, to get deeper into the backcountry, which can often be challenging to break into. How do these aspects intertwine in what you hope to achieve with Natural Selection?I
think, inevitably, the goal of the competitive side of Natural Selection and the full spectrum snowboarding that is demanded for a rider to make it on top of the podium…. Quick side note because we’ve been using that term a lot this winter, “full spectrum snowboarding.” I want to just throw some credit out to Absinthe Films, Shane Charlebois, and Justin Hostynek for coining that phrase. But I just think that as the skill level continues to boggle the mind from park and pipe riding, nothing but the utmost respect for that, I think that there’s this needed component of being able to take that skillset and bring it to the mountains. I think that this event did a great job in bringing together the top tier snowboarders on the planet who are where they are regardless of if they made it through freeriding and filming or competition, or both. I think that’s going to be one of the really fun storylines that we’re going to continue to follow: how do these different riders stack up at different locations and under different riding conditions. I’m so psyched to see the competitive top tier riders on the planet continue to infiltrate into the Natural Selection ranks.
It is so exciting to watch the possibilities when the platform exists.
Yeah, and I mean, even this year, it was so hard just getting to twenty-four riders. A prime example is Arthur Longo. He got an invite but wasn’t able to accept it this year due to some prior commitments. Being able to see him potentially join the tour in the future, up against someone like Ståle [Sandbech], there’s still so much excitement for how this thing is going to continue to evolve in the future. And it’s only getting better: the venues, the conditions, the way that we portray and showcase the contest. This year was only the baseline.
At the Yeti Natural Selection in Jackson, you were riding in the event and working behind the scenes on the debut stop of the tour, managing so many different things with the NST team to make sure everything was smooth and successful. How do you compartmentalize the responsibilities of all the different aspects of the tour while also riding in it?
That’s a good question. Frankly, I had a lot of support. Again, hats off to our team, and also, I think being able to plan for it. But at the end of the day, getting to ride in Jackson for this first year, for me, was the bonus. But my priorities were definitely on holding a safe and healthy event that was going to be as good as it could be. It was a proper juggle. I think it comes naturally when it’s something you’re passionate about and have experience doing. We had such a great team working on everything through all three of the events this winter. I wasn’t able to come up to Canada because I’m American, but Liam was able to go up because he’s a dual citizen, and we had Jeff Pensiero and Shin Campos help run that contest. We couldn’t have done it without those guys.
Looking back at finals, that stop of the tour took place in the Tordrillos in Alaska, a zone that is very near and dear to you. What does it mean to you to be able to share that place with not only the riders and event support crew who were at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, but also the greater community of snowboarding through the broadcast of the contest?
It’s a stunning, super beautiful place. It’s a spectacle in just the natural beauty of the area up there—the oceans of ice, the way that so many geological and hydrological factors come together to make that place what it is. And I think most of all, the team of people at the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, who I’ve had a pretty close relationship with for many years, also getting behind us and believing in what we’re trying to do. It’s an incredible veteran-level skier contingent up there. Those guys were so supportive of the event and us coming up there to completely take over for a whole week to do this snowboarding event. It speaks worlds to this not being possible without the effort and work of so many. Years of planning and preparation. It’s an incredible place, and hearing it from a lot of the riders, for whom this was their first time up there being able to ride in decent conditions in Alaska, is just second-to-none. Don’t get me wrong, regardless of where in Alaska you are, good conditions are good conditions. The terrain varies but it’s all pretty incredible. For us, the key component up there was the guiding team and the infrastructure that helped us do a contest a hundred miles into the backcountry.
It’s really telling that the first thing you mention about that area of AK is the majesty of the natural environment. Throughout each stop of the tour, Mother Nature takes center stage. Can you elaborate on the inclusion of Mother Nature in the storytelling and why this is so integral to the Natural Selection Tour?
Mother Nature is the main character. I think we are in a very blessed position doing what we do because of the incredible outdoors that we get to spend time in during winter. Winter in the mountains is special. It’s also ruthless and savage. But there’s often this inherent stillness and silence that provides these opportunities for people to push themselves beyond maybe what they thought was possible. It’s not any type of new statement to reiterate that ultimately we care about the things that we’re passionate about. We make decisions with how we spend our dollars quite often around the things that hold value to us. I think being able to have a higher level of conversation around being responsible stewards for this incredible world that we live in is inevitable for sustainably playing in the mountains and the outdoors, generally speaking. There’s so much potential in being able to bring entertaining education to all facets of the tour. I think that for our whole core team that is working on this project, we’re really excited to continue to build that aspect of this tour out as we move forward.
During the AK finals, Ben Ferguson said that winning Natural Selection would mean more to him than winning an Olympic medal. That, very succinctly, is such a testament and a reflection of what you and your team have been building for the past decade-plus. What does that sentiment mean to you?
It means the world to us. It means the world to me, especially coming from someone who has been to the Olympics. I think that it’s really easy to get sucked into trying to make comparisons about our event and other events. Ultimately, our goal is to just compliment the already incredible different avenues that snowboarding can take people, especially the most committed—the contest rider or the filmer. For Ferg to say that, I think about that applied effort and commitment to one’s craft to win the Natural Selection Tour. That a similar level, if not more, of a rider’s commitment to their craft has to be pursued in order to do well or win the tour. That’s kind of what I hear Ferg saying, and to hear him say that, that’s beautiful.
Is there anything else you would like to touch on?
I think just an extra level of congrats to Mikkel Bang and Robin Van Gyn. For me, what was crazy to watch was Ben Ferguson and Zoi [Sadowski-Synnott] both being in the final after such an incredible season. Frankly, I thought Ben and Zoi were the riders to beat. Seeing the way that it played out—and look, we had good conditions, but for the record, we did not have great conditions. A little bit of tricky snow, it hadn’t snowed in three weeks. That’s kind of the magic of some of the venues that we chose, playing this high probability of being able to still have a great contest venue in the scenario where we don’t have fresh snow. It worked out beautifully.