Snowboarders were, as one announcer put it, “choking on powder” on day one of the Yeti Natural Selection at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
Snowboarder and Jackson local Travis Rice, the mastermind behind the competition, couldn’t have dreamed up better conditions for the first-ever all-mountain, freestyle snowboard tour.
Fourteen inches of freshies dropped on the resort 24 hours before Day One — the men’s qualifier and women’s quarterfinal rounds — according to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s Twitter account. Day Two came on the heels of the resort’s deepest week this season.
Natural Selection is taking place in the 16-acre Washakie Glade off Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s Teton lift, a backcountry zone that the resort’s Park and Pipe and the Natural Selection’s build teams have embellished with over 50 jumps, landing pads and transitions.
“This is hands down the greatest roster in competition history,” a Red Bull TV announcer said at the beginning of the first day. “It’s really going to tell us who the all-around best snowboarder on planet Earth is.”
And the tour’s format, a best-of-three, head-to-head bracket that is unorthodox for snowboarding competitions, gave riders the space to show off their backcountry and freestyle backgrounds. Snowboarders had two runs to try to get out on top of their competitor, with a third tie-breaker run if necessary. Twenty-four riders pulled out the stops on first day, but only 12 — Zoi Sadowski-Synott, Austin Sweetin, Hana Beaman, Blake Paul, Ben Ferguson, Sage Kotsenburg, Mark McMorris, Elena Hight, Travis Rice, Marion Haerty, Pat Moore and Mikkel Bang — advanced to the finals, which took place Tuesday off the Teton lift. The finals wrapped up past press time.
“Just getting an invitation to this contest felt like a win in itself,” rider Pat Moore said.
Rider Hana Beaman is a force to be reckoned with in the backcountry. Recognizing her strengths and weaknesses on Day One — As she put it, “needing to tighten up and make sure I’m hitting the jumps I want to hit with the right amount of speed” — Beaman felt ready to take on Zoi Sadowski-Synnott when she spoke with the News&Guide the night before Natural Selection’s second day.
“Tomorrow is going to be a surprise, but I’m looking forward to still having good landings and snow to ride,” Beaman said. “I’m just going to have to make the call right before I drop in.”
“Zoi has all kinds of tricks under her belt,” Beaman said. “And I’m really respectful of that. But she doesn’t have as much experience in powder and backcountry, so I’m hoping that plays to my advantage.”
Beaman took to Instagram to show her appreciation for her head-to-head matchup: “Never imagined I’d have the chance to compete against @zoisynnott but man am I honored and excited to shred some runes with this ripper,” she wrote. “This is just the beginning.”
Natural Selection is using the Overall Impression Judging System, which takes into account execution, amplitude, variety, creativity and progression down their backcountry line of choice.
Jackson local Blake Paul showed his comfort riding at his home base on the first day. But, knowing the road to victory would be tough with Austen Sweetin in his way, he remained focused going into Day Two.
“I have a lot of respect for Austen,” Paul said. “I’ve watched him throughout the years, so just to have the opportunity to go against him is awesome. He’s known to go pretty big.”
Paul defeated Sweetin on Tuesday morning, advancing him one step closer to the finals.
Natural Selection barred spectators from viewing the event in person to remain in accordance with local and state COVID-19 guidelines. Despite the lack of a crowd, Natural Selection hasn’t compromised fans’ viewing experience. Custom-built racing drones developed by world-champion racing drone pilot and physicist Gabriel Kocher alongside Uncle Toad’s Media Group followed riders down the course, livestreaming the event to homes across the world through the competition’s partnership with Red Bull TV, according to a press release.
Beaman said she could barely hear the racing drones while riding.
“Once you get through the third gate and focus on your run and pop in, you get in that tunnel vision and don’t hear anything,” she said.
Although some riders who competed at Natural Selection feed off in-person energy, most remained unfazed by the dearth of hoots and hollers.
“We’re in an era where people can livestream from anywhere,” Paul said. “Everyone can see everything you do in your run. So there’s definitely nerves.”
With all levels of snowboarders, from pros to newbies, tuning into Natural Selection via Red Bull TV, Travis Rice believes that everyone stands to take something away from the competition.
“This event is artistic in a sense where it’s about creative expression, and we have the venue to do that” Rice said days before he dropped into Washakie Glade’s powder. “It’s set up in a way that pays attention to the natural terrain and conditions and provides a dynamic canvas for these international riders to showcase a life of learning and experience. There’s a lot of gratitude and appreciation here.”
Riders who reign supreme will compete at the next stage of the tour taking place at Baldface Lodge in British Columbia, Canada. Natural Selection’s final stop will be Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, Alaska.