It’s the stuff of dreams: sixteen acres of untracked inbounds terrain at Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, flocked in feet of sparking fresh powder, untouched save for the towering transitions and takeoffs scattered across the slope.
This is the setting for the opening stop of the Natural Selection Tour, an invitation-only freeride snowboard contest set to kick off this week at professional snowboarder Travis Rice’s home resort. You might know of Rice from his many achievements, spanning from X Games gold medals to remarkable film productions such as The Art of Flight, The Fourth Phase, and most recently, Dark Matter. What you might not know is that Rice has also been actively developing this freeride contest since launching the first iteration of the event way back in 2008. Now in 2021, Rice has finally found what he believes to be the secret sauce for this big-mountain freeride contest—and no global pandemic is going to foul up his plans. And lo be, he’s actually pulling it off.
On Tuesday, the invited riders—16 men and 8 women—got a first look at the course under brilliant blue skies. What they found brought out pre-game nerves in some, while others were left giddy. A launchpad blasting across a 70-foot span here, a sheer rock face there, jumps that you can only assume must go over the trees: The only thing that’s clear is that there is no easy way down. Some riders will take an almost mathematical, calculated approach to their lines; others will find their flow and send it with instinct as their guide.
There’s nothing like this event in the world. Think of it as a hybrid where X Games slopestyle progression meets the sheer faces of Alaskan big-mountain riding. And that’s the exact range of riders you have competing in this week’s event: from X Games slopestyle gold medalists Mark McMorris and Jamie Anderson, and Olympic slopestyle gold medalist Sage Kotsenburg, to Freeride World Tour champions Victor de Le Rue and Marion Hearty, to a large contingency of riders who’ve made a name for themselves filming for celebrated snowboard movies.
This two-day event runs during a designated contest window from Feb. 3-9, with the first day of competition set for today (Feb. 4), and the final day to be determined in surf-contest fashion, allowing the competitors to take advantage of the best possible conditions. The contest will be broadcast live on Red Bull TV offering viewers uninterrupted front-row seats to the evolution of snowboarding.
What To Watch For:
- This contest will run in a head-to-head, two-run format, which means riders will be paired against each other with judging based on overall impression. Only eight men and four women will advance into semifinals.
- Unlike most other snowboard contests, riders will not be given the chance to ride the course before their judged runs. That means you’ll be seeing live snowboarding, which Rice claims is one of the most exciting aspects of this event.
- The live broadcast on Red Bull TV will itself be unprecedented and worthy of your rapt attention. The Natural Selection tour will be using first-of-their-kind, custom-built racing drones piloted by two World Champion Drone Racing pilots, Gabriel “Gab707” Kocher and Jordan “Jet” Temkin, to capture each riders’ contest runs. The drones will be fitted with high-def cameras, resulting in incredible video game-like, third-person views of the riders descending the course in real-time.
- In the men’s field, there’s a mix of riders who embody the term ‘style master’ and those who are better described as ‘powerhouses.’ The style masters to watch out for are Ben Ferguson, who’s expected to unleash some trademark floaty, tweaked-out airs. Likewise, Kotsenburg, Gigi Rüf and Blake Paul are expected to bring a creative flow to their runs. For sheer brute force, watch for Chris Rasman to manhandle the course with big airs and stomped landings, along with Austin Sweetin, Elias Elhardt. And of course, Rice himself is also in line to absolutely charge through the course. Enjoy the contrast of riding styles on display.
- In the women’s category, it’ll be fun to contrast the styles of an established big-mountain freerider like Marion Hearty, a repeat Freeride World Tour champion, and Austrian rider Anna Gasser, who Rice has dubbed “the most dominant women’s freestyle snowboarder on the planet.” And likewise, Jamie Anderson, who holds the record for most X Games medals. Or, will the ladies who spend their days filming in the backcountry (like Robin Van Gyn, Elena Hight and Hana Beaman) have the competitive edge?
The competition begins today (Feb. 4), at 9:30 a.m. PST; tune-in to the YETI Natural Selection at Jackson Hole live-cast on Red Bull TV, or from YouTube (below) to follow all the action. Check back here and MJ’s Instagram feed, as Contributing Photographer Chris Wellhausen provides on-site coverage of the final event.
Following Jackson Hole, the three-stop Natural Selection Contest Tour continues on to Baldface Lodge, a snowcat-accessed ski lodge deep in the interior of British Columbia, and culminates at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, a remote heli-ski destination in Alaska surrounded by towering peaks.
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