Sunday afternoon saw the airing of the Bronco Natural Selection at Baldface, the second stop of the boundary-pushing Natural Selection Tour. Stakes were high as 10 Canadian rippers—Beau Bishop, Dustin Craven, Craig McMorris, Spencer O’Brien, Leanne Pelosi, Chris Rasman, Mikey Rencz, Marie-France Roy, Mark Sollors and Robin Van Gyn—gathered at Baldface Valhalla outside Nelson, British Columbia to compete for brand new Polaris snowmobiles and a birth in the Natural Selection Tour super finals: The HempFusion Natural Selection at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge. Viewer anticipation was likewise skyhigh, riding off the momentum of February’s Yeti Natural Selection at Jackson Hole, an event that grabbed snowboarding’s collective attention in a way unlike any contest in recent memory.
Like many things in the last year, the road to Baldface was littered with COVID speed bumps. These obstacles led to major changes in the event—the extension of Canadian travel restrictions in February prohibited incoming travel without quarantine, as well as events or contests of any kind, prompting an all-Canadian showcase and crew, as well as a reimagining of the event format—and forced the production team to pivot many times over in their effort to remain true to their vision, and adhere to pandemic safety protocols.
“The last year has basically come down to, ‘How flexible can you be to run an event in 2021?’,” says Travis Rice, co-founder of the event. “There were some principles that we were unwilling to compromise on, and many others that we were forced to. While this event looks very different from the event we thought we were going to do before the pandemic hit, I think that there are some principles that we were able to stick to.”
The Baldface stop introduced a huge new tenure in Baldface Valhalla, as well as a new contest concept featuring both video and full run components. “We wanted an event where the rider's unique creative expression came through,” says Rice. “(We were) also trying to bring the excitement of backcountry filming to an event format.”
Unlike the Jackson Hole stop, where riders were paired up in brackets and competed head-to-head, competitors at Baldface were judged on a split scale, 70% on a line of choice, and 30% on a video part. Riders had one day—three runs each—to dial in their lines, and, essentially, a day to work on their video parts. Rather than a live broadcast, the Natural Selection at Baldface was delivered episode-style, part behind-the-scenes look at the venue and riders’ approach to the course, part highlight reel. The judges however, Sandy MacDonald, Chad Otterstrom and Connor Manning, remained the same, as did the criteria, with judges focusing on the “rider’s chosen line and risk, flow and amplitude, creativity and tricks, and finally, control.”
And though both Jackson and Baldface were Natural Selection events, the Baldface venue was more “natural” than the course at Jackson Hole, where features were enhanced by human hand and the course shaped a bit more to facilitate a succession of features for top-to-bottom lines.
“The Baldface Valhalla stop was completely different from Jackson; it was a raw and untouched backcountry venue,” says Baldface men’s winner Chris Rasman, who competed at both tour stops. “We had to select lines from completely natural terrain; look for transitions, memorize the landmarks, not get lost, and stay on our feet for a nearly two minute top to bottom lap like I’ve never ridden before.”
These circumstances allowed for an appreciation (for the discerning viewer) of just how technical and gnarly this type of riding is, but also meant no cripplers, big spins, rock taps or double backflips and, generally speaking, more conservative approaches to unfamiliar terrain. (There were certainly some wild moments, Beau Bishop’s helicoptering of a tree and Dustin Craven’s hair-raising pointer among them.)
Once the event was on, it was rising temps rather than caseloads that were most troublesome, forcing the production crew to cut down both the venue size as well as production window. “Unfortunately due to avalanche and weather conditions, and rising temperatures—a heat spike hit us on Day 3 of a 7-day event—we had to greatly reduce the size of the tenure we were operating in,” says Rice. “This was kind of a group decision from riders and our production team up there. I think they did really well with what they had to work with.”
Broadcast on Red Bull TV, the highlight show was built for mainstream appeal. Though the narration felt a bit grandiose at times, like I was watching an NFL Films broadcast, or being sold a pair of Wranglers, the show boasted excellent production and impressive drone work. A fine job was done of setting the scene for less familiar audiences, and the show succeeded in lending an insider’s look at approaching the backcountry, including the safety measures that should be standard practice for all who participate. For their part, the riders banded together to attack the terrain in less than ideal circumstances, identifying and navigating some impressive lines and assembling cool 60-second video segments.
When the pow went hot and the curtains closed, it was Chris Rasman and Robin Van Gyn atop their respective fields. Rasman’s standout run—a super smooth cab 5 step down to start, to Miller flip over a pillow, back 360 off a ridge to front 3 popper, topped off with a laid out backflip—ensured his top spot, while it was Van Gyn’s overall power, style and consistency throughout her runs and video part that earned her the W. Both will need to free up some garage space for brand new 2022 Polaris sleds and prep for what’s sure to be a jaw-dropping finals showdown in Alaska.
It’s a bit ironic: in navigating its challenges, the broadcast inadvertently demonstrated two crucially important points about backcountry riding for the greater viewing public. For one, it exhibited how difficult backcountry riding of this caliber is, and how challenging it can be to just show up at a new zone and send it, something that is almost certainly underappreciated by most. Secondly, it reiterated the fact that success in this realm almost always comes with the acquiescence of Mother Nature. No matter how sharp your skills, or thorough your planning, you are invariably at the whims of the weather. Success rests on your ability to adjust and improvise. Valuable as these lessons may be, they came at the price of a more subdued show, one that felt more like a transition episode than a main event, though certainly not for lack of effort by any parties involved. Quite the contrary—it seems to me that this event happened at all because of the immense dedication of the production team and riders involved.
“Frankly, I would almost put it like we did in Jackson last year; this event was a really good testament, really good for us to stress test some ideas and concepts moving into next year,” says Rice.
Despite packing less action than its Jackson Hole predecessor, the Bronco Natural Selection at Baldface was an entertaining and informative watch, a bold leap into a brand new contest format and a tantalizing preview of what’s possible at Baldface Valhalla. Most importantly, it was plenty compelling to ensure viewers return for the grand finale, a venue teased in an absolutely bonkers POV clip released by Travis Rice last week.
Rewatch the Bronco Natural Selection at Baldface highlights here.
Rewatch the Yeti Natural Selection at Jackson Hole highlights here.