Words: Chas Smith
The morning began auspiciously. I stepped, early, from the Continuum’s warm cocoon into a winter wonderland, bright blue sky, Tetons towering grand, not a sound in the air save a fine remix of the Basement Jaxx classic “Where’s your head at?”
Mine was thinking about day one of The Natural Selection Tour set to begin in a mere hour plus a hot cup of coffee. There’s a new kiosk at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Overview, and I’ve only had a better cup in Milan, Italy. Dark but not burnt, flavorful but not 3rd wave. Not warmed Hawaiian Punch. I sauntered next to Mangy Moose, where Overview is nestled, and saw three people milling out front, one being Travis Rice.
The rest of the work crew, production team, riders had been at the top of the Natural Selection drop in for at least half an hour. Travis, though, is unique. We spoke, laughed, but clear tension lined his face. For one, conditions on the course had caused much consternation. Last year, the tour’s first ever, the sky had opened and dumped endless powder. This year, the snow gods have been stingy but beggars can’t be choosers etc. and also Travis may have fumbled the Maori chant usually employed to call it in.
For two, he has business to take care of. Last year he won his first head-to-head matchup but lost his second on his mountain, at his event, in his world.
Heavy lies the crown.
But not that heavy. He skipped off with his coffee, smirk on face, and I slunk back to the Continuum in order to catch Natural Selection’s kick-off. The lobby restaurant was crowded as the event counted down from thirty, two twenty, to ten and then…
…there was Sal Masekela’s recognizable baritone lightly stumbling for the correct level of stoke and vocabulary to match. We were live. The course was not a giant pillow like it was last year but the sky was bright blue, and, my goodness if it didn’t just look like heaven. Oh, I’m not a professional snowboarder or even a professional snowboard journalist, I am a semi-professional surf journalist, and have no right to judge, or even comment upon, what spooled out before me but I was absolutely struck.
Dustin Craven dropped in to the untracked canvas and every bit of what is right and beautiful in our extreme sport was on display. Artistry, commitment, danger, superhuman soaring. It’s silly to call those invited to participate “athletes” but equally silly to call them “painters.” What they do, what Craven did, was phenomenal. What Jared Elston did next was even better and Travis Rice, flailing on his first run but soaring on his second was too much for me to take and so I sprinted back to room, roused sleeping daughter, threw her gear on then huffed and puffed to the Sweetwater Gondola, slid down to Teton lift and then into the competitors’ area. Inside that clear tension was also apparent. Competitors sat on the edge of their Yeti chairs watching their fellow competitors drop in.
Silent attention drilled to the action. Muttered pleas for speed when hitting features that needed to be hit fast. Full-throttled whoops after successes. Heartfelt groans after failures. The care paid is unlike anything I’d ever seen in our extreme sport and reflective of what has Natural Selection has wrought. Namely, a competition format that most closely mirrors the raison d’etre, the heart, of what we do, why we do it, and as a semi-professional surf journalist I grew jealous that there was nothing like it in surfing.
My daughter grew too inspired, after a few heats in the competitors’ area, and so off we went to slide, she never looking better, banking hard turns, searching out side hits. “What are you thinking when you’re riding?” I asked her on the chair. “That I’m Robin Van Gyn,” she responded.
We rode until day one ended, watched the competitors fly by us on their way to well-deserved rest, then rode down ourselves both only craving more.