Travis Rice, Red Bull and the Future of Competitive Snow Sports

The Yeti Natural Selection tour is the purest expression of competitive snowboarding and a bellwether for things to come

February 9, 2021 10:43 am
Travis Rice jumps over Pine Island during day 1 qualifiers of the Natural Selection Tour at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Jackson, Wyoming, USA, on 16 February, 2021
Travis Rice jumps over Pine Island during day 1 qualifiers of the Natural Selection Tour at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Jackson, Wyoming, USA, on 16 February, 2021
Dean Blotto Gray / Red Bull Content Pool

To begin, I’d like to state for the record that I have no problem with the X Games. I love the X Games. Hell, I’ve been to the X Games. Multiple times.

But as a lifelong snowboarder watching it on TV recently, I couldn’t help but feel like it — along with Dew Tour, the Olympics, etc. — has become something increasingly distant from the core tenets of the sport I grew up enjoying on the mountains of Colorado. No doubt, watching athletes operate at the peak of their powers and seeing just how far they’ve pushed the sport is amazing and inspiring — one need look no further than this highlight reel to recognize that. But it’s also highly calculated, bordering on clinical. It’s the 10,000 Hour Rule demonstrated over and over in a controlled setting, largely disconnected from the creative expression and community with nature that birthed and nurtured the sport in the first place.

Enter Travis Rice.

Widely regarded as one of the most talented and influential riders to ever strap his feet to a board, Rice burst onto the contest scene in 2001 and before long had racked up an impressive collection of X Games medals and other contest accolades. In 2009, however, he elected to step away from the traditional contest circuit (after an X Games gold, no less) and focus his efforts on big mountain freeriding — not, at the time, what one would refer to as a “prudent career move” in an increasingly mainstream sport where contest wins are the surest conduit to notoriety, sponsorships and money.

Ben Ferguson during day 1 qualifiers of the Natural Selection Tour at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Jackson, Wyoming, USA, on 4 February, 2021
Tim Zimmerman/Natural Selection Tour / Red Bull Content Pool

Rice’s move proved fortuitous, however — the films he began creating in partnership with legendary action sports director/cinematographer Curt Morgan that showcased seasoned backcountry riders tackling some of the planet’s most formidable terrain caught the eye of Red Bull, who had recognized the value of jaw-dropping extreme sports content and were quickly cornering the market across various disciplines. Rice and Morgan’s filmmaking acumen coupled with Red Bull’s support yielded 2011’s The Art of Flight, a landmark cinematic achievement for the sport and to date the highest grossing snowboard film of all time.

Relationship cemented, Rice & Co. partnered with Red Bull on Supernatural, a backcountry freestyle competition held at British Columbia’s famed Baldface Lodge in 2012 and 2013. These events were a progression of a similar event Rice had thrown in his native Jackson Hole in 2008 dubbed Natural Selection, oft cited as the genesis of the “let’s take this thing to the backcountry” format.

Eight years later, Natural Selection is back, and it is obvious that Rice and his cohorts have made the most of their near-decade of planning/plotting. Sponsored by Yeti and airing on Red Bull TV, the unprecedented three-stop big mountain tour kicked off in Jackson Hole last Thursday, with stops at Baldface and Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountain Lodge forthcoming later in the season. And if early action is any indication, we are staring down the barrel of a new paradigm in snow sports competition that will take the action out of the park and pipe and put it back firmly into the hands of Mother Nature.

Rice has been quoted as saying the Natural Selection Tour “is designed with Mother Nature as the main character,” and the Jackson Hole course bears out that assertion in spades. Spread out over four-plus square miles of prime Teton terrain, the course comprises over 50 “features” that Rice and his team spent multiple years and thousands of man hours planning and building to augment the natural topography and give the riders a chance to showcase their stuff. The result: a never-before-seen big mountain playground where riders have virtually limitless options on their descent, choosing lines as they go and carving deep powder turns that routinely lead to formidable cliff drops or ramps sending them 70, 80, 90 feet through the air. 

Regarding those riders, Natural Selection has brought out a field that Snowboarder Magazine’s Tom Monterosso referred to during the initial broadcast as “hands down the greatest roster in competition history” — 16 men and 8 women vying to become what Rice has referred to as “the most well-rounded snowboarder on the planet,” all of whom boast impressive resumes featuring everything from Olympic medals to famed backcountry film performances. 

The contest pits pairs of riders head to head, with drone racers following on every run documenting the action and a panel of judges scoring a top-to-bottom appraisal. This is an arena where creativity and relationship to the terrain is paramount, and traditional contest prowess isn’t necessarily a guarantor of success (Jamie Anderson, who won two X Games gold medals last week and is the undisputed heavyweight champ of female competitive snowboarders, was eliminated on the first day). It’s a whole new world of competition, and one the athletes seem excited to embrace. “My drive stems from wanting to be the best all-around snowboarder I can be and my love for the backcountry. I would never want to be narrowed down to just a contest snowboarder,” Canada’s Mark McMorris told Red Bull TV. “Doing well at the Natural Selection tour would be a huge plus for me, just as I’ve never really competed all that much in backcountry snowboarding and I really love it and want to transition my career that way.”

Jamie Anderson during day 1 qualifiers of the Natural Selection Tour at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Jackson, Wyoming, USA, on 16 February, 2021
// Dean Blotto Gray / Red Bull Content Pool

The excitement of the riders to have a fresh new forum in which to demonstrate their skills — one that bears a much more striking resemblance to riding with friends than it does a traditional contest — was palpable throughout the first day, with hugs, high fives and words of praise between competitors on full display. It’s easy to see a world very soon where the Natural Selection Tour (and other events like it) might not supplant the X Games entirely, but certainly carve out some mainstream success for an expression of the sport that everyday riders can more readily relate to.

I’ll be the first to raise a Red Bull to that.

The Natural Selection Tour finals kick off this morning at 11:30am EST live on Red Bull TV and will be available directly afterward on the Red Bull Snow YouTube channel.

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