Words: Pat Bridges
On February 4th, 2021 an elite cross section of the most accomplished freeriders in the world, including Mark McMorris, Jamie Anderson, and Sage Kotsenberg heeded the call of Travis Rice to unite behind his vision of the future of contests, one where nature’s raw and unrefined elements challenge competitors and organizers alike. This is the 2021 Natural Selection Tour.
The reaction from both the participants and public to what went down in Jackson Hole in the first round of the Yeti Natural Selection has been unanimous in its praise for both the execution and the entertainment value. This undeniable success has surely resulted in what one can only assume is a huge burden being lifted off of the shoulders of the catalyst, Travis Rice, as well as his key collaborators like Liam Griffin, the COO of the NST, Travis’s agent and Tour Producer Circe Wallace, and everyone else who tirelessly toiled to take an aspirational idea all the way to the point of proof of concept. To execute on such a high level is arguably miraculous given all the factors that had to go right to make it happen—COVID protocols, cooperative weather, resort support, sponsor subsidies, etc… And then there are the pros themselves, who had to, well, land! Which, trust us, is no small feat considering that there are no practice runs or warm-up laps. When your time comes, you just have to strap in and send it.
Yet, when it comes to this next chapter of competitive snowboarding, the fourth time’s the charm, so to speak. What we all witnessed go down among the Tetons on February 4th, 2021 was the culmination of a journey that began in 2008 with the inaugural Quiksilver Natural Selection event that was, dare we say, most notable for the scourge of Norwalk Virus that plagued a majority of participants, causing more riders to shit their pants on the sidelines than above any features. Alas, the notion of using technology to highlight a side of snowboarding often misunderstood or underappreciated by the broader sideways standing populace was cemented on those same Jackson Hole slopes thirteen years ago, with semi-reliable cable cams being the cutting edge when it came to capturing the action. While the subsequent Supernatural and Ultranatural events in British Columbia, which relied on helicopters and Wescams for coverage, furthered the cause, each of these precursors to the latest iteration suffered from being ahead of their time in terms of technology. This year’s event, however, benefits enormously from advances in video technology, and the advent of drones has ultimately helped fulfill Travis’ vision of the event and its presentation. In other words, The NST has paired FPV with SFD FTW.
Of course, there is more depth to the disruptive layers of the Yeti Natural Selection Tour than merely the aesthetic execution. Format, for instance, is unique, with the head-to-head eliminations both injecting drama while also making the contest more discernible by providing an apples-to-apples dissection for the audience. With the runs broadcasting in real time and being judged succinctly, there is very little disconnect from what the layperson sees and the jury rewards. “This is the first time I’ve ever judged a head-to-head contest,” says NST judge Chad Otterstrom, a legendary rider in his own right and perennial X Games, Dew Tour and US Open jurist. ”It’s great for the riders because they get judged on the conditions of the course in the moment. Features get tracked and lines get rutted, therefore it is more fair, rather than someone who drops last being gauged against the person who got to drop while everything was perfect.” Furthermore, strategy plays a big factor, because who a rider is up against and what went down in their counterpart’s attempt all affects how a contestant approaches their own line. “I think head-to-head is exciting but it can be nerve wrecking depending upon who you are up against,” explains Mark McMorris, who bested Eric Jackson to make it to Day Two. “For example, Nils Mindnich would probably have advanced had he not gone up against Pat Moore who went psycho. I’m really stoked to watch Sage and Ben!”
Lastly, there is the venue, with its manicured, man-made enhancements enveloped by pristine, untouched snowpack, a course the riders helped sculpt over the summer of 2020. Although not entirely unique in 2021, given what was witnessed years earlier on Baldface Lodge’s Scary Cherry during Supernatural and Ultranatural, or even at Jackson Hole in the Burton Stash, the event is still pretty damn impressive in a number of ways. For one, it invokes a full-on FOMO for fans of this type of riding, which given the hype surrounding the success of the 2021 Yeti Natural Selection at Jackson Hole, is surely growing exponentially!