In the days leading up to March 6th, nerves began to rise. Photos had been circulated of the venue for the second stage of this year’s Natural Selection Tour and the zone was rowdy, to put it mildly. Stacks of story-sized pillows, bands of cliffs, runnels, and ridges were arranged like a Jackson Pollock painting on a wide swatch of terrain in the Revelstoke backcountry. Trees covered the face, making route-finding extra tricky without familiar landmarks. The only thing connecting the varied dreamscape all together was the fact that entry into the guts required navigating down a bowling ball-like convex roller, a blind ride into the fray.
Boulder Park, the chosen venue, is a tenure of Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing fifteen miles deep into the backcountry outside of Revelstoke Mountain Resort. The face is archetypal of Interior British Columbia, where a beautiful texture of pillows, gnarled outcroppings, and indents cover the topography. To say that the terrain is complex would be an understatement. The selected face fit where the crux of NST exists at the intersection of rider and mountain, where opportunity for creative interpretation is plentiful. Boulder Park was teeming with possibility. And exposure.
Travis Rice and crew had selected the zone for the second event of the Tour in true meticulous fashion. Nothing Travis does is without careful consideration and ten-steps-ahead scrutiny and vision. When the eleven other riders arrived in Revelstoke for the event window, they were given photos and 360 drone footage, as well as a scout day to check things out from the flanks of the face in order to prepare. Studying terrain, selecting lines, and scouting are all hallmarks of backcountry riding, but Boulder Park is an unusual behemoth.
“Over many, many years of coming to the Interior, more often than not, this is the stuff that we get most gerked out on,” Travis explains about the venue. “We get so excited about finding these complete oddities: super-stacked deep snow, crazy pillow lines. There’s just this other-worldliness of challenge and approach to riding that comes with a super technical, steep pillow face with trees.”
Fluency in this sort of terrain is a skill that has been deeply pursued by relatively few. (Opportunity, skill, access, and resources all come into play here, as well as the expanse of other types of terrain to master. In the case of Boulder Park, Selkirk Tangiers Heli had not guided anyone, ever, to this particular zone due to its complexity.) Travis, devout in his vision of the possibilities in snowboarding, saw promise in this arena that could be tapped. When the bracket draw went down on Friday, March 3rd, Travis elected to set the first track.
Selecting to go first in the drop order wasn’t out of the ordinary for Travis. He’s comfortable at the tip of the spear, though always egalitarian in how he operates. Looking back at his career so far, each iteration of exploration, movie, and milestone includes others. Travis is never singular in his approach; he is constantly bringing collaborators and friends along with him to remote mountain ranges and on meaningful projects. There’s an understanding among anyone who has had the pleasure (and at times, friendly trepidation) of being involved in any of Travis’ machinations: Travis sees possibility in ideas, and even more importantly, in others, often even before they see it within themselves. It’s a dedicated “rising tide that raises all ships” ethos that is never mentioned, it’s just how things are. And three seasons into a event series that has been building since 2008, snowboarding saw in stark relief the fruits of this labor at Revelstoke.
On Monday morning, a universe of conditions aligned; the weather and complex event logistics were underscored by a bull’s eye read on the snow, providing the perfect set up for a game-changer of a day. As Travis took his first run and was followed without hesitation by Ben Ferguson, the knife’s edge of nervousness flipped to focused energy while a live feed from deep in the BC backcountry broadcast the most savage snowboarding ever seen as it was happening.
“It was wild,” says Travis. “Everything was so much bigger than a lot of us thought from photos. When all of the riders did our first scout and we rode both sides and traversed in underneath the features, it became pretty apparent, ‘Holy shit, this stuff is quite a bit bigger than we thought it was.’ Boulder Park is a venue that…photos look really cool, but it’s not until you get to see that place in person that you realize just how dramatic it is.”
To see the contest unfold was to watch the elevation of snowboarding in real time. Twelve of the most talented backcountry riders faced terrain that exerted pressure on what is possible, and every single person pushed back, stepping to complex and consequential lines steadfast and thoughtfully. Within the most demanding situations is the most opportunity and NST Revelstoke provided both with abundance. Everyone challenged themselves. Everyone rose to the occasion. It was snowboarding at its finest, and it felt like things were just getting started.
“Without a doubt it was the most challenging venue that we’ve ever run an event on, just because it was so big,” explains Travis. “Sometimes, whether filming or competing, you can kind of plan out the run that you want to put together, and this venue was so big and complicated that no matter how much you studied, it was still mega. You were forced to try to find that in-the-moment flow of action/reaction. You couldn’t out-think the venue.”
Ideologically, Natural Selection seeks to put riders in a position where a line within the event would be worthy of the ender of a video part. Consistently, this has proven to be true throughout the Tour’s stages, but the element of the contest changes things. While the Revelstoke contest’s inspiration was steeped in filming in big mountains, the contrasts were also significant.
“I think that can be some of the beauty of competition,” Travis reflects. “It pushes you to be in a place that you aspire to be that without it, you might not rise to the occasion. Take film for example. There’s a lot of free will in film. You pick the place, you pick the time, and you ultimately decide if you want to drop or not. Whereas, in competition, you don’t really have all of that choice, right? When the starter looks at you and says, ‘Alright, you’re good—drop,’ you let go of doubt and uncertainty like, ‘Alright, I’m going to do this.’ I appreciate what that mentality can do and what it does for many competitive individuals, not just in snowboarding.”
As a spectator watching Travis as he dropped into his finals runs, that mentality was clear. It looked like he had pushed into a new gear. Watching him ride an absolutely massive line of pillows was not only a moment of beauty, but one you could imagine playing in college psychology courses as a concise example of the possibilities of flow state and peak experience. It was a fifteen-second run of what can happen when possibility, potential, and drive align—and it was just one sharp example of this intersect, the high-scoring conclusion to what the entire crew of riders had been putting out collectively all day.
“Riding that venue, I felt every single rider, myself included, was getting better and progressing their own snowboarding in real time. Straight up. I mean it’s not often that any of us get to ride such a big face that’s so complicated. When you’re filming and riding terrain like that, usually you step to simpler things. No one really films that complicated of terrain in one go. So, I think that it was a pretty monumental day. If you erase everything—the show and the competition—and just focus on the riding itself, I think everybody came away from that day having learned something about their equipment, about their approach, about their line choice, about the line that they thought they were going to ride, how they rode it, and how they could have done it better. I think that everyone had such standout highlights and there were some really standout runs, but I believe wholeheartedly that every single rider that rode that face, myself included, is capable of more.”
And there’s the crux. A foundational element of the whole Tour. Not only does Natural Selection provide a setting to allow for interplay with Mother Nature. Not only does it showcase snowboarding in a true-to-form way and let it speak for itself. But it also supplies snowboarders with all of the elements to shine and blow past preconceived possibilities. Rice is steering Natural Selection toward the complex and variegated topography that different ranges of mountains offer, and also toward untapped potential that affects the greater collective.
Travis is the king of taking big swings, whether it’s finding lines in the spiciest, most unruly terrain; imagining a multi-stop backcountry event that evolves in surprising ways every year; catalyzing the first-ever live sport broadcast from a remote setting; or gathering people around him to execute these ideas and to find their own dichotomies of risk and reward. Each winter of the last three, Natural Selection has pushed snowboarding beyond its comfort zone and we’re ever better for it. In Revelstoke, everything leveled up again, and he’s the first to credit all of the riders and the entire NST team in this.
So where do things go from here?
“You know, we stay open,” remarks Travis. “We’re constantly learning. We continue to stay open to feedback from the riders. We continue to stay open on everything. We learn a lot from every single event we run. I think the exciting thing with the way that Natural Selection was set up is that it’s never going to be without evolution because the backdrop of everything is natural terrain and snow conditions, and there are so many cool variables of topography, location, and inevitably the hydrology of different areas. I think there are an infinite amount of places that it can go, so I’m just excited to see it continue to showcase different styles of riding. That’s the beauty of it, right? We try not to get stuck into one rut. If you look at the juxtaposition of what the Jackson event is and what this event is, there are pros and cons to each one. I look very forward to having another venue like the Jackson one again at some point. And I’m sure we’re going to have venues that are still unlike anything we’ve run on before and I think that’s the fun part. That’s what keeps it really interesting.”
Huge thanks to all of the riders who were a part of the Yeti Natural Selection Revelstoke; the snowboarding was unreal. Thank you to the entire Natural Selection Team, Uncle Toad’s Media Group, Revelstoke Mountain Resort, Selkirk Tangiers Heli Ski, and everyone involved in making NST happen.