Throughout this year’s Natural Selection Tour, Elena Hight was on one. She took first in Jackson. Second at Baldface. She ripped through challenging conditions in a way that looked effortless and composed. She was a force in the lineup—considered, smooth, and risk-taking, consistently seeking out the rewards of the line less taken and rising to the occasion across the Tour’s different venues. When she arrived at the third and final stop of the Tour in Alaska, the Tahoe native was first in overall Tour standings and was immersed in the extensive and complex AK terrain that drives her current path in snowboarding. There are so many variables in the backcountry and these contribute to the challenge and the excitement of the Tour—snow and weather conditions, terrain formations, etc.—and on top of that, there are so many individual aspects that affect one’s riding on a given day. During semi-finals, Elena had what she describes as an off day and ended the event in fourth place, sending the title up in the air. While the competitive outcome is definitely not the be-all-end-all for Elena, her riding throughout the Tour had so much momentum—so when the AK event was wrapped, Hana Beaman in first, Marion Haerty in second, and Elena’s overall points holding, earning her the Tour Championship, it was a testament to what she had done over the entire winter. While it could be said that Elena’s podiums in NST and her championship title are the culmination of her depth of experience in competition and her extensive talent on a snowboard, it’s really much more than that. In just four years of devoting herself to a new path in snowboarding, following what truly excites her and challenging herself in big mountain terrain, Elena is doing exactly what she wants and picking up more speed than ever before. We caught up with Elena to hear a little bit about her winter on the Tour. – Mary T. Walsh
With your background, coming up in halfpipe competition for so long and then pivoting to the backcountry, focusing on filming, and then joining Natural Selection Tour a year ago, where does being a part of the Tour and the Tour, itself, sit for you with your riding?
Gosh. It’s been a good, healthy challenge to get back into the contest world. Personally, having been a competitor, I really wanted to come into this Tour with a different mindset, less about the outcome and the competition side, and more about the entirety of the event and enjoying the process. I think that this event lends to that. There’s a lot of community involved. There are a lot of aspects to it that aren’t just about the competition. As a competitor, it was hard for me not to get into the “you have to win” mindset, but I really feel like I learned a lot and I pushed myself a lot. And I have had more fun competing in this than I’ve had in a long time. So where does it sit for me? I don’t know. It’s a hard question. It’s been a really great life experience, absolutely. When I retired from competing, I honestly never thought that I’d compete again, so it’s been a fun thing to get back into. I just love to see more opportunities like this popping up, especially for women. If I had had this opportunity when I was coming up in snowboarding, I may have gone a different path. And I think that with something like the Tour, it will hopefully give a whole next generation of girls just another outlet.
What was your mindset going into this year’s Tour after the experience of the first year?
The first year in Jackson was so different than this year. I think I went into that contest kind of with my halfpipe mindset of “This is a competition. This is how I know how to compete.” Reflecting after that first year, I realized that I wanted to approach it a bit differently and have it be more of a holistically, enjoyable event. Not that the first event was that enjoyable, but I think I just put too much pressure on the outcome. This year, my whole goal was to just enjoy it.
I’ve been a professional snowboarder for 18 years and have had a lot of highs and lows. I’m kind of at a point in my career where I’m doing this because I love it. I don’t feel like I need to prove anything to anyone, I hope. I’m trying to take that into any aspect of snowboarding I’m doing; if it’s a competition, not really giving that energy of having to prove myself to the judges or having to prove myself for my career. I’m really bringing just the love of snowboarding into everything I’m doing and trying to put that first, rather than in different points of my career, when it was much more about accomplishing things for me.
That’s an amazing place to be able to operate from, and you’re very deserving of that.
Thanks. I don’t know if I said it very eloquently but ultimately, I feel like I’m at a point where I’m doing it for me because I really do love the sport. Because these things excite me. The Tour excited me this year, so I wanted to put my energy into it. That’s how I choose the direction that I’m going these days—what truly excites me.
So obviously, this year’s event in Jackson went really well and you won. What was your experience at the first stop of the Tour?
I think everyone was challenged at that stop in more ways than one. It was a challenging stop with the snow, I think it kept us all on our toes. I had a lot of fun with everyone, regardless. I just love the camaraderie in Jackson. The bigger field is really, really fun, having everyone at the top rooting each other on, watching each other’s runs. I think that that’s a really special element that we have in Jackson.
I think that camaraderie really comes through watching the contest. So after Jackson, it was off to Baldface. You had momentum going into stop two and Baldface was also very special because women had never competed on Scary Cherry before. What was Baldface like for you?
Well, Baldface has a special place, I think, in every snowboarder’s heart. The soul of snowboarding is there. I had seen Scary Cherry multiple times on different trips and it was really cool to finally be able to compete on that face and ride it. It was overall, a really awesome week. I feel like being up at the lodge with the whole crew of people, we all really bonded, which was a special part of the Tour for sure. The contest was, again, a little challenging. We had some challenges as Mother Nature gives, but overall, I was really stoked with my riding, with the run that ended up getting me into finals. Unfortunately, I didn’t land a run in finals, but yeah… It’s a little out of my comfort zone, so I was stoked to be able to step it up there.
And you added a second trophy for the year in Baldface, so heading into Alaska, you were the leader in the overall Tour points. Where was your head at when you were heading into Alaska? Was the overall title on your mind at the time or were you focusing on just the AK contest, itself?
Honestly, the Tour title was for sure on my mind, having done so well thus far and feeling like I really shine in big mountains. I was really looking forward to Alaska, not only being ahead in the Tour but just wanting to shine there. And the venue was awesome. The snow was awesome. It turned out to be an amazing competition day and I just really had an off day. So the Tour title ended up being a little bit left up to fate. I was pretty gutted during the day, knowing that I kind of left it up to fate and that I had the opportunity to lose it. But sometimes, you have off days and it was an off day for me.
I think that’s part of the beauty of Natural Selection being a proper Tour is that you can have that happen, you can have off days, which is just realistic.
Yeah. I mean, it’s not a tour if you don’t have that. It’s not a tour if it’s not a combination of points and awards—you see it in every other sporting event that they throw out highs and lows and it evens out. So I think it is really important that is highlighted.
When you look back at the first time you were Alaska until now, what has been your overall experience so far riding there?
This trip to the Tordrillos was my fourth time to Alaska. I would still consider myself a full novice there. I mean, I look at some of the riders that I hold in the highest regard in Alaska and they’ve put a lifetime in toward that place, and it really shows in their riding. People like Travis, Nicolas Mueller, Gigi Rüf, Jeremy Jones—they’ve spent twenty-some years dedicated to Alaska, mostly because it’s just so different than anywhere else in the world and it takes a lot of commitment, care, and just humbling experience to be able to understand how to snowboard there, and be able to work with the mountains in a way that you feel confident riding them. I was lucky to go to Alaska with Full Moon the first time I ever went. After I left that trip I was hooked. I had never had any interest in big mountain riding before that because I think I just didn’t understand it through watching films. After actually being in those mountains in Alaska and experiencing the energy and power there, I had a whole new respect and immediate affinity for it. You have to have so much presence and intention to be able to ride them and ride them safely. It really drew me in. So I would say, I don’t know that my outlook has changed over the past few trips from then until now, but I think I just keep exploring and increasing my knowledge of the area. Honestly, it’s just like an endless school up there.
What was it like for NST Alaska kind of camping out on the glacier and being immersed right at the base of the mountains? Have you done that in AK before?
Yeah, my last trip to Alaska, last year, was actually a base camp. So I had done that before. Camping is one of my favorite ways to experience the mountains. It’s hard, but it’s definitely worth the work, in my opinion, because you just can connect with the mountains so much more. And this camp was definitely something special. I mean, I’ve never camped with that many people anywhere, in any scenario, so having a camp on the glacier with like fifty people was definitely unique and super fun. It was really fun to share the camping experience with some people who had never done it before.
So back to semifinals day. On your first run, at one point you were on top of an area with a lot of exposure. What was that run like?
Honestly, there were a lot of runs being done on the same face and so I was looking for a line that other people weren’t going to ride. That’s kind of what drew me into what I was doing. I got a little lost at the top and had to slow down and then the exposure—that type of riding, you end up having to ride slower. It’s just kind of the nature of freeriding, and I definitely rode it slower than I wanted to.
When semifinals was decided, how much was the overall Tour Championship in your mind at that time or were you trying to just be in the moment and not worry about how things were going to shake out?
I mean, I was definitely thinking about it, but it was one of those things—you can’t control anything, so you can’t worry too much about it. Marion [Haerty] has been riding really solid all winter. Hana [Beaman] is one of my closest friends and honestly is one of the main reasons why I ended up moving into the backcountry, so I’ve been rooting for Hana since this thing really started. I think that she has all the talent in the world to be able to win every event. And so, to see her ride so strong in semifinals, I was really, really stoked for her to win the event just because I know she wanted it, and she hadn’t been able to really put it together yet. I know how that feels, when you’re so close, but just not really putting it together. And she got a couple fourth places—fourth place is the worst place in a contest, you know? So yeah, I was rooting for Hana, because I just wanted to see my friend succeed. Of course, I think that Marion’s such a strong rider and she obviously is going to do her thing, as well.
That’s what is so cool about NST, even though you guys are all competing against each other, being connected to the people that you’re riding with is so vital to everyone’s success in the backcountry. And then you put this group of people together who are used to that kind of situation outside of competition and it really creates an environment where even though on an individual level, I imagine everyone wants to succeed, everyone is so stoked for their friends, which is the coolest thing.
Yeah. I definitely feel that. I think that competition is held with so much regard in our society in general, and I think that collaboration is oftentimes overlooked and, like you said, in the backcountry, no one succeeds unless there’s collaboration. So to see collaboration and competition come together, I think it’s really cool.
And then of course Hana won AK, Marion earned second, and you won the overall title, which is amazing. What does it mean to you to be crowned the Champion of the Tour this year?
I’m really stoked, to be honest. To come away with the overall title feels unbelievable. It’s been quite the journey to get here and not something I expected out of the season, especially with so much talent in the field and still feeling like a rookie in the backcountry. I would still consider myself very much learning, so to be able to come away with the title is very, very cool.
Each location of the Tour has such unique character of the terrain. Watching you ride each stop, you really are able to find a harmony in each setting. Do you have a preference for any of the locations in particular when it comes to the terrain, feel more or less comfortable in any of the locations, more excited or challenged?
I think that Jackson is the closest to a slopestyle event and so for me, that is probably the farthest out of my comfort zone. Over the past four years, I have really dived into big mountain snowboarding, focusing on lines and technical riding moreso than jumping. Obviously, I have a freestyle background, but that just isn’t where the path has led me over the past few years. I really love Baldface because it combines a more big mountain feel and read of the mountain—you have to have some sort of read of the mountain to be able to get on that course—plus a freestyle element. Baldface really excites me and definitely pushes me in a lot of ways. And then Alaska is just, for me, the pinnacle. If I could just ride Alaska all year, I would. But I think what I’m most drawn to in the backcountry is more of the big mountain stuff, with some freestyle elements, so the Alaska venue and hopefully future venues in Alaska lend to that really well.