Natural Selection was everything we absolutely love about snowboarding
Against the backdrop of the incredible Teton range, Travis Rice's dream for the ultimate snowboard contest finally came true in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Get the lowdown on all of the action right here.
Last Thursday saw day 1's qualifying rounds go down on the incredible 'naturally enhanced' contest course. Two dozen of the world's best snowboarders battled it out in near-mythical powder conditions as the rest of the world watched the live drone footage in awe. "Best contest ever!" competed with "It's like watching a video game" for the most often-repeated comment.
Five days later, 12 riders remained for the finals and after days of near-constant snowfall, the course was fully reset and the powder was deeper than ever.
Missed anything? You can replay every second of Day 2 below and watch the highlights in the video above:
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Rice and McMorris: G.O.A.T. vs G.O.A.T.
The quarter-finals saw the biggest match-up of the day – Travis Rice versus Mark McMorris. Talk about a once-in-a-lifetime battle. Rice: the greatest backcountry freestyler of all-time, event founder and probably the second most competitive human in the world, after his rival today. McMorris: the greatest slopestyle competitor of all-time, who, after winning every title in his world, was now after Natural Selection's unofficial ranking of best snowboarder in the world
Despite winning two of the four previous editions of this contest, Rice was understandably cautious about the impending battle: "To go head-to-head against 'Sparky', seeing how much he’s progressed over the years – it's one of the toughest draws I could go against."
To go head-to-head against 'Sparky', seeing how much he’s progressed over the years – it's one of the toughest draws I could go against
Run one. His deeper backcountry experience and terrain knowledge shining through, Rice drew the more innovative lines, but his final 900 was landed slightly sketchily. McMorris landed his tricks cleaner and squeaked ahead. On his second run, Rice knew he had the world's greatest slopestyle rider following him down the hill and went all-in on the last jump, with a huge Double Backflip – and sketched out. He'd left the door wide open and McMorris charged straight through for the win, progressing on to the semis against Norwegian video star Mikkel Bang.
A judge's nightmare
Judging snowboarding is hard. Judging a snowboard contest held in natural terrain and allowing full improvisation is even harder. Judging a contest featuring riders with the diverse range of skills and styles as seen in Jackson Hole? Bordering on impossible, but this was the task ahead of the judges at Natural Selection Tour.
To make things simpler for the judges and easier for the audience, Rice chose to go with a head-to-head system, where two riders would each take two scored runs. For the quarter-finals, the rider with the highest single run score would proceed to the next round. In the semis and the final, if both riders won a round, creating a tie, then there would be a third and final tie-breaker run.
D.A.V.E.: Difficulty, Amplitude, Variety, Execution. The four criteria the judges would be using to score each run. Unlike a regular halfpipe or slopestyle contest, where the slightest mistake means a throwaway score, judges were prepared to forgive a mistake if the overall level was high.
This served Mikkel Bang very well in the quarters. Despite having fallen in both his runs, he knocked out Pat Moore, even though Moore had nailed a clean run. However, once Bang faced off with McMorris in the semi, things got even harder to call.
With McMorris ahead after run one, Bang went all-in on his second run and pulled off what had to be the most exciting trick of the day: a mid-air Nose Tap 360 on a cliff side. It wasn't executed perfectly, but it did show amazing creativity and flair.
McMorris answered back – of course – with an ultra clean and technical run. Everything was stomped perfectly, but all following the same line he'd been riding the whole contest. In other words, the judges now had to choose between incredible variety and incredible execution. They chose execution, because after all, when it really comes down to it, a stomp is a stomp.
The final selection
Finals time. Ladies dropped first. Talk about opposites. Zoi Sadowski-Synnott is 19 years old and had the least powder experience in the event: just raw freestyle talent and the youngest legs. Meanwhile, three-time Freeride World Tour champion Marion Haerty is a purebred big mountain rider who earned her stripes in the Freeride Mecca of Chamonix, France.
Sadowski-Synnott had made it into the contest as a wildcard and her route to the final was all about combining solid freestyle fundamentals with a powerful, hard-charging approach. Haerty's route was all about picking the best lines, going the fastest and staying on her feet. Her weakness? Freestyle. While all the other riders come from a freestyle background, Haerty is clearly a pure freerider and her airs lacked the grabs, technical difficulty and style needed to win in Jackson – this is, after all, a backcountry freestyle contest.
In the final, Haerty knew she had to step up her freestyle game to beat Sadowski-Synnott, but the harder she tried to send it on the jumps, the harder the crashes became.
So, with the win assured, Sadowski-Synnott took her victory lap. Talk about saving the best for last. She roared through the course, stomping huge tricks, including a Backflip Wildcat at the top and a massive 360 on the final booter. She was awarded a score of 96 points and the wildcard rookie underdog was now in pole position for the title of best female snowboarder on the planet.
And then it was time for the grand finale: a match-up between McMorris and American Ben Ferguson.
One of the best halfpipe riders in world when he decided to quit the contest trail in search of pow, Ferguson has since transitioned into one of the most complete backcountry snowboarders in the world, with ultra smooth flow, high technicality and perfect reading of terrain. His path to the final had seen him post the biggest men's score of the day (93) and he was absolutely on fire all day. There was little doubt that if anyone could beat McMorris today, Ferguson was that man.
Mentally, McMorris is the toughest rider in the world. We've seen it with his incredible contest career; we saw it as he won an Olympic medal with a broken rib and we saw it again with his inspirational comeback from a life-threatening crash. He's also the best jumper in the world – and the most consistent.
Ferguson went first. Whether it was down to nerves, or tired legs, he fell early in his run, leaving the door wide open for McMorris. And he never turns down an open invitation. McMorris's run also had a couple of falls, but these were mostly to do with getting caught in old tracks and his jumps were stomped. Run one went to McMorris then.
Ferguson had the style, the flow, the lines and the power, but after five heavy assaults on the mountain, did he have enough gas left in the tank to stomp every trick on run two?
Almost, but not quite. His final run was looking great until he fell on his very last jump. All McMorris had to do was put down a cleaner run than Ferguson, but he wasn't settling for that. His sights were resolutely set, win mode was initiated and his huge Double Wildcat on the first jump raised the bar yet another notch.
This is the true essence of snowboarding: freeriding with freestyle components – a true, true snowboarding event
A new kind of snowboard contest
The best terrain you've never ridden. The best snowboarders in the natural world. Camera angles that put us mortals right into first-person player mode. Was this the best snowboard contest ever? Let's leave that verdict with the winner on the day: "This is the true essence of snowboarding: freeriding with freestyle components – a true, true snowboarding event."