A Great Separator

Stop One of the 2022 Natural Selection Tour at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort

“The course was savagery, to put it mildly,” Travis Rice said.

Not one to mince words, Travis was visibly relieved, sitting on a snowmobile next to the “Temple of Stoke” start shack atop Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s Natural Selection Tour venue. With a tired smile, Travis watched the NST diggers drop alongside Zeb Powell for a soul lap. The contest had just ended. A pair of riders with competitive roots had won—Elena Hight and Sage Kotsenburg—but dedicated backcountry riders Robin Van Gyn and Jared Elston took second place, respectively. (They’ll be going to the second stop of the tour at Baldface Lodge, along with the rest of the top half of the field.)

Pre-dawn atop the Natural Selection course at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, with diggers and media already putting in work. Photo: Colin Wiseman

Travis was overlooking a venue that, despite everyone’s best efforts and a handful of new features, had only received six inches of snowfall the whole month of January. It stood in stark contrast to the multiple feet of snow that graced the inaugural NST stop at Jackson Hole in January 2021, providing a study in extremes for how this step forward in backcountry-focused freestyle competition could go. Despite mother nature’s stingy offering, it worked. And that’s a testament to both the level of riding and the level of execution by builders, diggers, media and production crew.

Now, that whole crew was doing their best to track out a run that had taken so much effort to build, to prep, to preserve, which still offered fresh tracks—at least a few inches of fresh over a variable base, that is.

Liam Griffin, the Chief Operating Officer, chimed in: “It was rowdy out there, and I’m pretty happy no one got hurt. And you know what? We saw some really high-end riding.”

Liam, of course, was aware of the contrast between ‘21 and ’22. “We went from full blower last year to highly variable conditions—as good as it can get and as bad as it can get—and it shows that we can make this happen at both ends of the spectrum,” he continued. “It was still a really fun event for people to watch and participate in, and now we know we can run in almost any conditions.”

Cold, clear, firm—classic Wyoming, minus the blower. Travis again: “It goes to show the skillset and tenacity of the riders… it was tricky, it was challenging. With perfect pow, yeah, it’s easy, but these conditions were a great separator. That no one really got hurt goes to show just how good these riders really are.”

Jared Elston was one of a few folks to step to Booster Shot, maybe the biggest hit in the course. Photo: Tim Zimmerman / Natural Selection / Red Bull Content Pool

Before the event, I talked to a handful of those riders. Their general vibe was cautiously optimistic. “I feel excited, yet nervous,” Jared Elston said, “that course is intimidating and there are a lot of riders [competing that] I look up to.”

Then there was Robin Van Gyn: “My plan is no plan. Actually, the plan is to land everything, both because I don’t want to fall in these conditions, and because I want to win.”

As for Marie-France Roy, she decided to go first when her name was pulled early at the opening draw: “I just want to focus on my own riding, get it over with, and party. The course, the conditions, the TV, the hype… we’re going to need to ride with precision.”

Marion Haerty, the four-time defending Freeride World Tour Champion, was off the FWT in Jackson fully focused on NST. “I feel good,” she said, “I can’t wait to ride. The strategy is no strategy. I just want to be proud of my run.”

She referenced the camaraderie of the crew, the film-focused vibe of the riders she was competing with, as the main attraction: “The girls are showing me a way to express myself on snow that’s different from what I have at home.”

Expression. Maybe that’s the fine line the Natural Selection Tour walks between your typical contest regime of forced repetition and the months-long process of building a video part. The riders would have to figure it out on the go, but they had time to study the features, as well—a hybrid approach. Friendly one-upmanship. There was a communal vibe in there because hey, everyone must ride the same course, but everyone there, obviously, wants to win.

Rob Kingwill, who was manning the start shack with his usual positive energy, talked to me about, well, energy: “Why is this going so weird? Mercury is in retrograde. And there’s nothing you can do about it. These are the snow conditions we have, and you’ve gotta appreciate what you have, and do what you can with it. We’ve come back to reality, but I have every confidence that Travis and everyone else built such an optimal course. If you adjust your perspective and approach the terrain in an appropriate way, you’re gonna have a blast.”

To the actual contest: I’m not going to walk you through any play by play, because there were a multitude of drones and broadcast cameras and photographers onsite to give you a better visual representation of What Went Down than I ever could in 1,000 words or more. (Watch the replays here if you wanna see that.)

But I will talk about the energy, too, building with each trip through the gates. Jared Elston pounding on the walls of the Temple of Stoke before he dropped. The rider’s tent erupting as Robin Van Gyn threw a fakie underflip to kick off her run, the finish corral full of tense appreciation as they called the very close scores from Austen Sweetin and Ben Ferguson’s third and final runs to close out Day 1. Then a hug, and smiles.

That energy, I hope, translated to the audience watching real-time in living rooms near and far, a glimpse into a world of high-end riding that has rarely been made-for-TV. I hope my mom tunes into at least a bit of the replay to get an idea of why we’re out there all winter, freezing hands and toes, trying to capture this side of snowboarding that can be hard to quantify.

Kinger again: “Adapting to the terrain, adapting to the conditions, that’s what Natural Selection is all about—it’s just like life. Things won’t always be perfect, but if you make the most of it, it will be fun. And it will be even more fun if we make the most of it together.”


Travis Rice exhales and prepares to take a final lap through the course after the contest has ended. Photo: Colin Wiseman / Natural Selection / Red Bull Content Pool

A huge thank you to Travis Rice, Liam Griffin, the diggers, the riders, the media crew, title sponsor Yeti, communications savant Lora Bodmer, Carter Westfall, Circe Wallace, Jess McMillan, and all who helped make it happen at the Natural Selection Tour’s first stop of 2022 at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Watch for more from the second stop at Baldface Lodge which runs February 20-27 and the tour finals in March in the Tordrillo Mountains at naturalselectiontour.com


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