Photo and Video Feature

Chasing Unicorns with Travis Rice

A Natural Selection 2023 Interview

Travis Rice had a good month. He won his opening round Duel with Red Gerard in the Wyoming backcountry on the 2023 Natural Selection Tour (NST), then went to the first on-site stop of the Tour with Selkirk-Tangiers heli at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, BC. There, it snowed.

Plan A worked out: a massive face, which started mellow, then rolled into complex pillow lines. The venue pushed riders to the edge. Kinda Travis’s comfort zone. He won the event on the Men’s side, besting Blake Paul in the finals, with Zoi Sadowski-Synnot taking out Elena Hight for the women. All who dropped found themselves in heavy situations (check Ben Ferguson’s opening run, for example). About as good as “competitive snowboarding” gets in my eyes.

A week later, I caught up with Travis over the phone. He was still in Revelstoke, prepping to ride a few things he’d seen during NST scouting missions, with Austen Sweetin. Judging by Travis’s Instagram post a few days ago, that worked out as well. He even got engaged to his long-time partner Brook Castle. A good month indeed.

As we roll into the Valdez finals for this year’s NST, Travis talked the new look tour, the logistics of running live from the backcountry, chasing unicorns, the specifics of pillow riding and more. One can only imagine what he and the NST crew have in store for Alaska.

The Snowboarder’s Journal: Austen [Sweetin] said he’s heading to Revelstoke to ride something with you this week?

Travis Rice: I’m always looking for a unicorn in the mountains. I think I found one of them. Figured we should go try to ride it.

Speaking of unicorns, how about that face for the contest? 

It was an amazing face that turned out to be a lot bigger than a lot of us first thought from looking at photos. The face was a beast. And we ended up having pretty much ideal pillow riding snow. You need a specific type of snow to step to stacks like that.

How would you describe that snow?

It needs to be deep enough that you can take pretty hard landings. If you look at the Merriam Webster definition of a pillow line, it probably says that it is just a series of flat landings (laughs).

We had three to five feet of snow in the week leading up to the event, and we pushed the event back an extra day to let the snow set up. On the first scout day the snow was so deep that it lacked a performance attribute. I’m sure you’ve ridden snow up so deep where you can’t really get speed—you’re more in the snow than on top of it. That ideal snow for pillow riding is settled enough where you can ride on top of it, but still penetrate deep into it. That’s the snow we ended up having for competition day. You need to be able to use variable edge pressure to ride that type of stuff. We had ideal snow to ride such an amazing face.

Mikkel Bang, Blake Paul, Jared Elston and Ben Ferguson deciphering the maze. Photo: Chad Chomlack / Natural Selection Tour

How was everybody feeling when they first had a look at the face? Were people tripping?

Yeah, people were definitely tripping a bit in the beginning. It was an excited trepidation—for me too. The face was extremely complicated. Which I think is a good thing for a contest. It’s the type of terrain where I think anyone who was out to film on that face would focus on specific features off the bench at the bottom, but the fact that you had to ride a thousand feet down through the forest and find your way to your stack’s location at the bottom, that made it amazing. But the field of competitors too, these guys and girls are some of the best at what they do. So I think it would come up short to serve them up with a simple venue that was easily approached.

Is the ultimate goal of Natural Selection to show the level people are at and what people can do given the right space and the right conditions?

Absolutely. I think people were progressing or at the very least learning throughout that entire event.

Ben Ferguson navigating heavy exposure. Photos: Daniel Stewart

How important was it to you to run the event live?

Important enough that we did it (laughs).

How hard was that? 

It was a pull, man. It was very different from the event that we were doing in Jackson, and frankly, I think the event turned out better than Jackson, looking at the live broadcast. The video quality and the way that the whole thing ran was leveled up.

Half the crew wasn’t even staged there, right? Can you break that down a bit?

It was a very technical lift by Uncle Toad’s Media Group, who’s our production partner, and this group called RF Wireless. I don’t think people really understand how challenging and how incredible the near perfect execution of that event was. Throughout the years, technology has been a big part of this event and trying to solve for the biggest challenge at hand, which is broadcasting from the backcountry.

Elena Hight knows how to flow complex lines and landed in second place. Photo: Daniel Stewart

I was kind of mind blown by it. Speaking of Jackson, why the change of venue and format—starting with duels, then going to Revelstoke? 

Rather unexpectedly, Jackson pulled the plug on us mid-summer last year. So, we set our sights on finding a better partner. Revy was just down with it. You had the heli access, you had the base camp at the resort and such a fun resort to ride throughout the week—Revelstoke is just in touch with the culture.

For us, too, we’re constantly trying to uplevel our locations and venues. There’s a reason that Revelstoke is such a sought-after place to go and have some of the best snowboarding of your life.

Regarding the venue, did you have a backup or were you guys all in on that spot?

We had several venues. If we felt confident in stability and it was sunny, we had a venue. We had a venue for if it wasn’t that deep. You can’t ride big critical pillows if it’s only six inches deep, but that’s still incredibly fun to ride, so we had a venue in case we didn’t have that perfect pillow snow.

What did you learn in Revy? What was the main takeaway from that experience?

We learned a bit more about where the edge is of that type of terrain and the size and scale of a big venue like that. The beauty of the event was that it showed a bit more of an authentic backcountry approach to riding that type of stuff. In all reality, that’s the type of terrain where you try and you try and you fall and you occasionally land stuff, then it goes in the films—you only see the landed version of it. The contest was much more honest. When you’re riding that big of a face with that many features, you can’t perfectly plan for every single turn or feature.

Travis Rice, full throttle. Photo: Daniel Stewart

It’s hard to find the right tree to drop from.

Yeah. I think we further reinforced why we thought it was a good idea to come up and work with Selkirk Tangiers and Revelstoke, because of their terrain and the type of snow they get up here. It’s pretty amazing, frankly.

Looking forward to AK, what can we expect? 

What I’m really excited about for AK is that it’s a full new location in Valdez in collaboration with Pulseline [Adventure]. We’ve got a number of venues. I think conditions have formed up pretty well. What to expect? The terrain is going to be different from last year. The rock itself in Valdez is different from the Tordrillos. In the Tordrillos, you have bigger chunks of granite than Valdez which is softer rock. I think this year there’s gonna be more opportunity for creativity because the faces we are working with have more opportunity to be ridden in different ways.

Zoi Sadowski-Synnot dropping into first place in Revelstoke. We can’t wait to see her rip Valdez. Photo: Tom Monterosso / Natural Selection tour

You can stream NST Revelstoke 2023 now on the Natural Selection Tour website, or NST YouTube. Natural selection Alaska will stream “as live” starting in mid-April on Follow Natural Selection Tour on Instagram for previews and behind the scene from Valdez. The window opens on March 25th.


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