Contributing Gear Editor
Travis Rice Talks Natural Selection Tour and What Snowboarding Really Needs

Travis Rice, the man with the vision. And it’s safe to say that vision has come to fruition in the best possible way. Photo: Natural Selection Tour

While the general sports public turned its attention to mountainous Beijing, China for the 2022 Winter Olympics (sarcasm, folks), a much different brand of snowboarding contest played out in North America. With two parts of the 2022 Natural Selection trilogy now complete, we await the finale in Alaska’s Tordrillo Mountains March 20-27.

If you haven’t been paying attention, you’re missing out. The first stop at Jackson Hole was a live, head-to-head tournament in conditions that tested the resolve of even the most adept backcountry riders. The next stop was just outside Nelson, British Columbia at Baldface Lodge – the ultimate bucket list destination for any snowboarder. Both contests showcased the now-signature creative comp riding of a series fast becoming must-watch for anyone with even a remote interest in seeing the world’s finest backcountry snowboarding talent throw down at venues where Mother Nature (mostly) plays architect.

Travis Rice is, of course, the key visionary behind the tour. The sheer volume of quality content he’s put out over the past 20 years has pushed the sport to a whole new level of attention and helped preserve its soul. I’m not exaggerating here. Snowboarding as a whole has a bit of an identity issue at the moment. While it’s true that mainstream attention via the Olympics and X Games has helped keep the industry afloat, the reality is that what riders do on man-made courses — while unquestionably impressive — arguably misses the mark of snowboarding’s essence. It’s a bit of a paradox trying to out-spin, or out-flip the guy next to you. Because at its core, snowboarding is still about fun. And most of us would rather spin into powder or ride fun lines than bang ourselves up in an icy terrain park or pipe.  Travis has helped preserve that essence by bringing backcountry riding to the living rooms of the world via Natural Selection.

I spoke with Travis on a down day as he prepped for Alaska.

Now that the Baldface contest is out for the world to see, how would you say it went?

These events are always so damn dynamic. I think the event ran as good as it possibly could for the conditions we had — so many people and so much production going on. The venue itself was in as prime of conditions as it’s ever been. And the first day we were looking at running it, we had a pretty brutal windstorm hit us from the north that scoured the venue. We had like 20-30 mph winds at -20 Fahrenheit. So we actually went and tried to run it on one of the first days of the event window and canceled it right away, right before people were about to drop in. Just decided it was too brutal.

The fresh wind press is really challenging snow to ride. But we knew that we had four days of high-pressure air and cold temperatures. And snow has a unique ability to heal itself – it’s pretty interesting how snow works. Energy is almost imbued from the wind into snow. Fresh wind press can be very reactive and can have this energy propensity within it. With letting (the venue heal with) days of cold air temps, the top layer of the snow actually dissipates that stored energy in the form of dehydration and it’ll break down a wind press into more faceted snow. So we moved the event to the end of the window and snow conditions ended up quite a bit better.

So while conditions weren’t perfect, it still ran really well. And it’s kind of the dynamic component to these events that we run –  sure there are perfect conditions, but when you have variables in the conditions, it makes things interesting. It makes riders have to rethink their approach, what lines they’re going to pick, and how much they’re going to push it. It’s one of the differentiators between the riders who do well and the riders who struggle.

Do you see that as a challenge to educate the people watching online who might not have such a keen sense of snow and climate dynamics as yourself?

It’s one of the opportunities for us. Education is one of the things that we try to build this event around. I think when it comes to the hydrology and climatology of these events we go to it’s on us — being one of the opportunities to help convey this messaging. When you watch the show, there’s quite a bit about that in there.

The NST camera work has been impressive. What’s behind conveying the scale of how truly gnarly it is up there for the people watching at home?

Yeah man, I think that’s a challenge we’ve been trying to tackle for over 20 years now with the cinematography.  How can you make the experience immersive? How can you convey what it’s like to be riding these types of faces and terrain in these types of conditions? I think that’s brought out with the types of angles we select with the aerial gimbal system. And especially what we’ve developed with Gabriel Kocher, the drone aficionado, that we’ve worked with for the creation of this signature look that we continue to tinker with and improve. That’s added a component of being able to watch these events and have a bit better feel for what it’s like.

You’ve done a lot at Baldface over your career, and always seem to come back. What is it about the place for you that sets it apart from other backcountry operations?

 Jeff Pensiero and his team, and the legacy that is Baldface, approached (backcountry outfitting) from a very different angle, and a very authentic angle, not only in trying to provide an amazing experience for the clients who spend their hard-earned dollars to go on a catboarding trip. I think there’s a cultural component too of supporting those in the industry and providing a snowboard-centric mentality to how they go about their business. It was much more of a family business that supported snowboarding. And in turn, snowboarding supported it. And I think that’s just had a resounding impact. There are a lot of operations, and there are areas with much bigger terrain and tenure. But I think it circles back to the experience. A lot of that comes from the staff and JP as just the unique visionary that he is.

Couldn’t agree more. The finale of this year’s Natural Selection in Alaska: What goes into preparing for an event in the middle of nowhere?

I’m up here at Winterlake Lodge, and we’re just getting our glacier camp in. This year we’re running our backcountry finals event from a glacier. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. So it’s going to be a pretty cool and unique experience for all the riders this year.  Like coming out and literally camping on a glacier underneath the venue that they’re going to be competing on.

Sounds pretty rad. I’m more than a little jealous.

Yeah, it’s going to be pretty incredible. This is years in the making to get to this point. A big part of it has been selecting the camp and seeing what’s accessible. We spent quite a bit of time just in the pre-planning stages on how to go about it, what our safety protocols are, and the guides we’re working with. Inevitably just a lot of great resources and relationships with Alaskans and people who come up here and work in Alaska. I think a big part of it is still holding relationships from many years of trying to do good work up here. There are a lot of really talented people who love the hardship of Alaskan winter guiding. So for us to put in infrastructure and be able to come up here and base out of Alyeska in Girdwood, and then do a finals event 100 miles in the backcountry… it’s pretty incredible.

 I can’t wait to see what you guys pull off.

I can’t wait to claim that we pulled it off.

You’re talking about how long it’s taken to get the dream realized. You seem to be really good at having a vision and seeing it through to completion, and I’m sure there are changes and compromises along the way, but do you have any advice for people who maybe have a big dream and they feel intimidated by trying to make it happen? What is in that secret sauce for the recipe to see your huge ideas through to completion?

I think if I — and I say “I” as in “we” because I usually have a great team of people that I’m working with — decided not to follow through with these big ideas, we probably wouldn’t have accomplished anything we’ve done over the years, because people would look at it and say “yeah that’s not possible,” or “that’s too difficult.” And (chuckles) you just have to be recklessly optimistic about figuring out solutions to achieving these types of goals. I think the other part of it is, whether you have a budget or not, if there’s a will there is a way. There’s no truer statement. I think people sometimes easily get discouraged when things get difficult, but there is always a solution. You just have to get creative.

You had a child recently. How has that changed your level of risk and ambition to do these really big things, knowing there’s going to be someone waiting for you at home?

Having a child for sure affects all aspects of my life. And I think if anything it just adds another – and probably most important – reason to make good decisions when it comes to risk assessment, and how much risk one is willing to take in their daily life. For me, it’s in the mountains. So it definitely plays a part. It’s a natural evolution. It’s one of the most powerful motivators for decision-making, so without a doubt. So I’d say it’s an evolution, for even more mature decision-making.

Many people watching this could never dream of doing what the riders in Alaska will be doing. How do you balance the ability for this event to push the sport to its furthest, while also making it something that spectators can relate to and aspire toward?

I think there are a couple of things there. It’s in and around why we feel that this is an important event and an important direction for snowboarding and the bigger “alpine sports” world to move in. I think that the type of snowboarding that we are portraying is much more aspirational and much more achievable than even park and pipe. I mean doing the types of tricks that you see done at the highest competition level, I would argue is much more unachievable than riding powder with friends, doing more approachable tricks on terrain that frankly looks more fun. I mean, I think that the type of riding that we’re after is the type of riding that people aspire towards — to get a pow day with friends.

I don’t know, the nuclear tower in Beijing for the big air jump was quite scenic…

Well, that’s just it. I mean how many people, after seeing that event, are going to travel to China to try to ride that big-air jump? Versus the event we just did in B.C., how many people are now motivated to travel to B.C. to try to get some powder or try to go to a more local resort and try to get good conditions, get educated, and find more responsible ways to go into the backcountry?

When you’re running an event like this 100 miles into the backcountry, with helicopters, what do you say to the criticism of it being super carbon-intensive in a time with everything that’s happening? How do you address the carbon footprint issue?

Yeah, it’s something we’ve been talking about from the very beginning. I think there are pretty cool efficiencies in how some of these events, how we don’t have to blow millions of gallons of water to “create” these features. We don’t have to use hundreds of hours of cat time to build something that is only up for that competition and isn’t open for public use. Without a doubt, we have a footprint at Natural Selection. But I think that’s been a part of the “lead by example” approach that we’ve been trying to take. I think that offsetting your carbon footprint is just the start. It’s something that’s easy and is getting easier to do every year.

We also do a full drawdown event for the entirety of our footprint for the entire year that we track diligently. A drawdown event is where you sequester additional carbon beyond your offset, and so we do another 100 percent of our total footprint, beyond being offset. And on top of that, which I think is even more important, is just trying to bring awareness and education about being a responsible member of society. It comes from the type of partners and sponsors that we try to curate: working with Conservation International, to helping to support POW. You know I think that more often than not — as most people understand — we take care of the things we care the most about. Trying to forge a deeper bond with Mother Nature being one of the core principles of Natural Selection, we’re trying to motivate people to spend more time outdoors and to take care of the places where they recreate.


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