Real Talk: Travis Rice Interview

Alaska, Photo: Scott Serfas / Red Bull

Travis is clearly a patient man. It’s 13 years since the Quiksilver Natural Selection event was first held in his home mountain of Jackson Hole, launching a revolutionary concept for a freestyle contest held where it matters the most – in powder. In 2021 the Natural Selection is back, as a three part tour. First stop is where it all started, in Jackson Hole, and it’s happening this week.

Red Bull will be doing a full livecast of the event, and you’ll be able to watch it right here on Pyramid magazine.

After that the tour will resume in March in Baldface, BC, Canada, the location of the 2012-13 Super Natural and Ultra Natural events. Then, it’s on to Alaska for the grand final. Travis Rice and 21 more of the world’s best powder hounds battling it out in deep powder, all captured on a live broadcast by the same crew who brought us The Art of Flight. What’s not to love about that?

Photo: Lukas Pilz/ Red Bull

With the first stop of the tour only a week away, how’s everything going in Jackson?
Well, I just got down off the mountain, and today was actually pretty monumental. We’d just finished all the work we needed to do on course, when a storm rolled in. It’s going to snow hard for three days, and we’re happy now to step away and let Mother Nature do her thing.

How about you give me two different pitches for the Natural Selection – one for snowboarders who don’t care about contests, and one for someone who’s only seen snowboarding via the X Games and Olympics?
To start with the first category, I think the beautifully dynamic, full spectrum kind of snowboarding that we’re aspiring to with the Natural Selection appeals to fans of backcountry riding and film. When you watch a film part someone’s spent a whole season on, you’re seeing the crème de la crème. For some riders, it takes a lot of tries, a lot of failures to achieve a few successes. But to really see riders going head to head in a live scenario… well, you don’t get three tries at a trick off a natural feature. So I think one of the most exciting aspects of this event is seeing some of the best backcountry riders in the world going head to head, stomp for stomp.

For an audience who only know the contest aspect of snowboarding, I’d want to talk about how hyper specific contests have become. When someone wins a major halfpipe contest like the Olympics, their title is the best halfpipe rider in the world.

But, when someone wins this Natural Selection event, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call that person the best rider in the world. Because to ride these venues well – it draws on a lifetime of experience. You can draw on it from street, or riding transitions in the pipe, doing tricks on a Slopestyle course. But, you also have to draw on it from riding backcountry – how to pick a line, how to ride variable snow, visualize it and execute.

I think the bottom line, is that this tour is set up to be very complimentary to the current competitive landscape. It’s something the best contest riders can graduate to, and the most talented can do well in, alongside their careers in halfpipe, or slopestyle competition.

Kootenay Valley, Canada : Photo Tim Zimmerman/Red Bull

How has the concept changed since the last Ultra Natural event, in 2013?
That run (Baldface) was a beast! It was literally a mile long, and took riders about two minutes to get down. The riders couldn’t even talk after they’d got down that run. It was epic, but what I took from it was it kind of made riders play it conservatively. Moving forward, I’ve been focused on making runs 50 seconds to a minute – that’s the target. And giving riders a little more leeway to feel comfortable pushing it more. So this one in Jackson is set up for shorter runs, more runs – and more riding, frankly.
Another change is the format. With the overall ranked run format, you can’t really remember what people did, so you end up just watching the scoreboard. So we wanted to do head to head. So rider A just has to compete against rider B, and the winner progresses to the next round. And we do it as a best of three, so if each rider wins a run, we have this bonus tie break round. I think it makes it a little more fun for everybody.

Holding a contest in steep natural terrain must come with a unique set of challenges. What’s been the biggest?
We have really high aspirations for how we’re going to broadcast a live show. Bringing the kind of technological solves we want to do, in full winter conditions, is huge. One of the things we’ve done is develop these camera drones, with world champion drone pilots. These drones have to carry serious technology, from the cameras and lenses we want to use, and special gimbals (stabilizer) with high quality live broadcast equipment on board.

Photo: Aaron Blatt / Red Bull

What do the three locations represent to you?
Well to start out in Jackson, with the run here we’ve got perfect elevation, aspect. I’d say that of the three venues, Jackson is the most freestyle oriented – it’s really dynamic terrain, and it’s taken us three years to build out the venue.

Moving onto Baldface, in British Columbia, the snow here is a little fluffier and stickier, which helps it to fill in all the gaps, and create pillow lines. In the area we’ve chosen it’s a little more freeride oriented. The pitch is consistent, and steep – some parts are 50 degrees. So you have sloughs, and you need speed control.

As the tour progresses, I think it increasingly requires freeride experience. Especially with the final being in the Tordrillo Mountains, Alaska. A savage area. Closer to the ocean, the snow has very high moisture content, which is why it sticks to the steep faces. The area we have, I think it’s one of the greatest freeride and freestyle faces on the planet.

Riders all have different approaches. I would say that it’s not as easy to see these differences in current freestyle events, as it is with ours. You’re really going to see it in the way they approach our courses.

Let’s say you get to add one more tour stop – where next?
I’d want to do it in Europe, for sure. Austria or Italy.

We’ve clearly got a great cross section of shredders in this. If you had to pick a winner for Jackson, who would it be?
It’s tough to pick just one, I’ll tell you that. But I’m excited to see Victor de le Rue. He’s such a solid rider, I’m curious to see how he does here. On the women’s side, I’m really excited to see how Marion Haerty handles the course. She’s such a dominant rider on the Freeride World Tour, but I think she does have a freestyle background, as well, so I’m looking forward to seeing a different side to her riding in Jackson.

Each rider brings something different to the table. So, which riders in this field best epitomise:
Creativity: Bode Merril. Reading terrain: Ben Ferguson. Flow: Sage Kotsenberg. Power:  Chris Rasman. Gnarly: Victor de le Rue. That guy’s f***ing gnarly. Style: Maybe Blake Paul, or Mikkel Bang.

Sage Kotsenberg also will be riding at Nature Selection.. Photo: Mathis

Can you tell me about some of the environmental initiatives you’re implementing in this tour?
At the end of the day, Mother nature is the main character, and from the get-go we’re using the riding as a tent pole to up-level the conversation within winter sports. So as part of the live broadcast for the event, we’re going to be broadcasting different speaker events in the evenings. Along with our partners, like Yeti and Conservation International, we’re setting out to make education entertaining.

Holding an event in natural conditions, you can’t help but talk about the current state of hydrology. Of the weather. Being an active member of the outdoor community – there’s a level of responsibility that goes along with that, and we’re all about people forging a stronger bond with the outdoors.

What aspects of women’s riding will shine in this kind of contest, as opposed to more traditional big air / slopestyle formats?
The venue itself is so open to how the competitors want to ride it. Unlike traditional events with set features, our event venue is so much bigger, like seven to eight times bigger than a Slopestyle course, if not more. There are so many more lines to be chosen, I think the women will be able to ride the way they want to ride, and are inspired to ride. Women’s snowboarding has absolutely been progressing faster than men’s snowboarding in recent years, and frankly? The women’s event is what I’m most excited about.

The Jackson Hole edition of the Natural Selection Tour will be broadcast live on Pyramid Magazine and Red Bull Tv on the two best weather days between February 3rd-9th – keep checking in for screening updates.

You can Follow Travis Rice on his Instagram here.
The Natural Selection Instagram is here.
Interview: by Jason Horton