Sage Kotsenburg is one of the hardest working dudes the snowboard world has seen. From pro circuit favourite and 2014 Slopestyle Olympic gold medalist to now backcountry dynamo and winner of the 2020 Rider of the Year award.
But the choice to give up the comp life and follow the allure of the backcountry is not as simple as it may seem. With outside pressure after finding overnight success that spilt over into mainstream media, making Sage a household name.
But Sage is now jumping back into the competition world by way of Natural Selection. And has released a snowboarding hypnosis film in the form of Halcyon… seriously, it gives a similar feeling as greening out. It’s magical.
Transfer: Sage, what’s up?
Sage: Yeah, what’s happening guys?
How’re you going?
I’m going good. I was actually shocked; I was just listening to Torah say she was 15 when she was in Salt Lake. Man, I’m 27 now, so I don’t know. I was definitely young (when Torah moved to Salt Lake) because I remember me and Scotty James started riding together when we were like, maybe 9 or 10, I think.
Oh my gosh, can you believe we were that young once upon a time?
I know. It’s crazy, and such a crazy era of Utah, so many people were coming in and out, the street scene was unreal, and the pipe scene was so good. So you’d see everyone from doing, like X Games to the Mack Dawg videos to just up and coming riders; it’s been unreal.
Utah was like the epicentre for a while. It was like, if you’re not there, you’re no one.
It was the centre of the snowboard universe for a while, for sure.
Is that where you are currently? In Utah?
Yeah, I’m in Park City right now. I just finished filming a Real Snow. I was in Wyoming quite a bit. I just wrapped up filming a couple of days ago, and yeah, I’m here now. I’m going to head out to Natural Selection tomorrow. I just got my COVID negative test, and yeah, getting ready to rock and roll next week.
Awesome, and is that what you’ve been working on since the snow started falling late last year, the Real Snow submission?
Yeah, they give you from the end of October till January 31st. Me and my filmer Jerm (Jeremy Thornburg), who filmed all the Lick The Cat stuff, we teamed up. We just wanted to do a full backcountry one. It’s a lot of work to do, we filmed from mid-December to January 24th, and it’s just a hustle. Just navigating terrain and the avalanche conditions were pretty gnarly, so yeah, it was good though, it’s a good hustle for sure. You know, a lot of things weren’t going down this year through the pandemic, I wasn’t going to really focus on a project this year or anything. So that just gave us a little fire under us to do something before going to Natural Selection.
Is it your first Real Snow?
It is, yeah, first Real Snow… excited.
Yeah! So when does that start coming out then?
They roll out in like a month, I’m not exactly sure of the day, but yeah, you have to submit the edits and everything by today, and then they roll them out in like a month, I believe. So look out for those; we definitely hustle.
Yeah sick, it’s good to get a lot of riding under your belt before Natural Selection.
Totally, we get to ride a lot of powder. We linked up with T. Rice a bit during it. We were with Mark Carter and Pat Moore as well. So we had a good crew behind us, and yeah, we had the Wyoming boys helping us out for sure.
So good, I guess while we’re on Natural Selection, it kicks off… what day is it today? February 1st, so in 2 days, right? It kicks off in Jackson Hole?
Yeah, the first day of the waiting period is on February 3rd, and it goes till the 9th. So, we’ll see which days are looking good. I’ve been starting to look at some weather. There’s a couple of days in there that look good; the 4th looks pretty good. We’ll just see when we get there, and yeah, I’ve been checking out the course a lot on PDF’s and everything. They filmed all this drone stuff that will be shown to us, we have every little feature we can pick apart and watch footage of. So I’ll be dissecting those the next couple of days, for sure.
That was a question we were wondering; this is kind of a new format. How do you go into it? Do you know the features you want to hit? Do you know what you’re going to do? Combo it with? Or is it a little bit more fluid when you get there?
Yeah, it’s interesting because with the format, 16 men / 8 women, and it’s all head-to-head. It’s best 2 of 3 runs, so if you beat the opponent the first run, then they win the second run, you guys go to a tie-breaker third run. As we’re doing that, some of the landings can get bombed out on a feature that you really want to hit. I don’t know, I’m looking at the whole course as my run. Just really looking at being able to hit any feature in there in the blink of an eye because someone could just trash a landing. And then you’re like, ‘well, I’m not going to jump into that anymore, I’m going to go this different way.’ Just got to be ready to do that.
So there’s a bit of tactic involved in this, you know?
Yeah, there’s full tactics for sure. I’m excited because I’m like a really competitive person, and you know when I stopped doing Slopestyle’s, actually and Big Air, as well. It just wasn’t in my heart anymore, and I really wanted to explore backcountry riding, like so many people before me, like Travis Rice. Now to bring my Slopestyle contest background and my backcountry skills into one, it’ll be super fun. Just a new set of contests for everyone; I think it will be really exciting.
Yeah, well, I think you’re going to be a force to be reckoned with. Because you’ve got that heavy competitive side, you know; you’ve won gold at the Olympics, you’re at the top of slope and big air for so long. A lot of these guys competing, they’ve come from that comp background, but they have been dabbling in the free-ride scene for quite long now and haven’t been competing as much. Are you feeling at all nervous about getting back into the competitive side of things?
I think I’m more excited than nervous. But I don’t want to get overzealous on anything and just really take it as it comes when we get there because it is a whole new format, a new contest. As much of an advantage it is at having a competitive background. It almost evens out because it’s so new for everyone. When you get to the top, and you really haven’t ridden the whole course, no one has. It’s kind of anyone’s game at that point, you know, snow conditions come in, is it 3ft deep or is it 1ft deep? Can you blast off everything and trick, or is it going to be a more fluid, mellower run going down? So, just getting there and diving in and immersing yourself in the event is key.
It’s funny because I was talking to someone the other day, and they were like, ‘oh for sure, so-and-so’s going to win,’ and I was like for sure? It can be anyone’s game, and it’s something so new for everybody.
For sure, and I think a lot of people are saying that with Trav, everyone’s like, he’s been in the course, this and that, he knows so much about it. And from a rider’s perspective, that’s true, but at the same time, we’re all going to have the same amount of info once we get there, and it going to be anyone’s game, straight up.
You went to the test event that they held early last year at Jackson.
Yeah, around this time last year.
Is the vibe in the competition element similar to what it would be standing at the top of the course at X Games, or is it more like encouragement going down? It seems like it’s quite a friendly group of riders.
Right, yeah, I think it is. It’s a little more friendly than being at the top of X Games or Air and Style or something like that. But at the same time, it’s the inaugural event; everyone’s going to want to win. There is going to be this camaraderie of everyone being in it together. But also, I think when it’s one run in, it’s going to start cracking, and people are just going to be kind of dogging each other.
There’ll be this stealth killer instinct coming out.
Yeah, for sure, it’s dog eat dog out there. Everyone’s an enemy from here on out.
Who are you most excited to see, like, male and female?
I’m really excited to see Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, actually. She is an awesome snowboarder all-around; she can ride transition well and ride Slopestyle and Big Air. And also like, Robyn Van-Gyn and Elena… all the women I’m excited to watch, and then… To watch Trav in real life is just always a pleasure. I’m also excited to watch my boy Nils and Blake Paul. I grew up with those guys riding so, it’ll be cool to be with those guys as well. Yeah, definitely a good cast of riders out there, though.
Sick, looking at the cast of riders, it’s like, it’s so hard in the wildcards where people were voted out, it’s like oh my god!
The wildcards are knockers, it could’ve been an event by its self.
Yeah, I’m like, they should all be in there. Are you kidding?
For sure, I know, people we up in arms, ‘everyone should be in!’ but I think as the tour moves on, more people will be invited anyway. I think they’ll probably include some qualifying events, I’m guessing, in the future. I have no idea, I’m just going off script there, but I think that would be the plan. So, I look forward to seeing those riders in as well.
Yeah, that would make sense in the future. Really, this is like the first of its kind, the first that ever… yeah, this is part of the building blocks.
Yeah, and actually, I went to the Super Natural up in Baldface the first year they did that one, in 2012. Me and McMo (Mark McMorris) went up there, and we got the wildcards spots to the event. I remember going and shitting my pants being there. Now I look forward to being on that course, but when I was 18, I was like, what am I doing here. I was sharing a room with Kazu, and I was just like, what am I doing here. Felt like a fish out of water but now confident in my riding on free-ride terrain.
There are the three stops; there’s Jackson this week, there’s Baldface again, and then there’s Alaska. You’re doing the full tour, right?
So this year, it’ll be set up a little different. Just with COVID and everything, there’ll be the 16 men and 8 women in Jackson, and then as of right now, 8 men and 4 women would go to Baldface. And then 4 men and 2 women would do the final event in Alaska.
Oh, so it’s an elimination?
Yeah, elimination this year, you know, with everything going on. That’s what also makes Jackson kind of gnarly because you want to get into that top 8 if you’re the men and top 4 if you’re in the women.
Oh, that’s something I don’t think I clocked the way it was running.
Yeah, you don’t want to go down Jackson, you know, 120%, but you also don’t want to end up doing a safety run and not making it. At least that’s not how I roll. I usually try to stand up pretty hard, I don’t know. I’d rather go down trying.
Okay, so tune in; Sage is sending it.
Yeah, we want to go big!
Going back a step a little bit, the film that you dropped, kind of around November/December, called Halcyon. I watched that for like the 5th time last night, and man, it’s unbelievable. Not only the riding, but it puts you in some kind of trance. Like, we haven’t been snowboarding for a while now… a long time… we’ve been stinking it out in the summer here in Australia. It could be worse, but watching the video again last night, just put me in a full trance mode, like I was out on the mountains. The music, the editing and the riding was so well compiled and put together.
Who’s the guy who filmed and directed it?
So the main filmer and he edited it was Tyler Orton, so he did all of that. Then Jeremy Thornburg, who filmed my Real Snow, he filmed all my second angle stuff and some of the main angles of some stuff. But yeah, those two crushed it so much filming and then Tyler just editing with the music. Our whole vibe was to not really do this ‘AH-HA’ snowboard movie. It just kind of put you in more of a trance, you know. Throw it on, you don’t have to literally pay attention to every single thing, but you know you really immerse yourself in it when you are watching. Yeah, thank you, that’s means a lot. That was the vibe we were going with.
I definitely got that too, and when Richie said this morning it was a trance, I was like, yes! That’s the word I couldn’t find, its almost like the music was the certain hertz that did put you into this trance, and I was like, I think I need to pause, and rewind and slow-mo to even break down what you were doing. Because I was like, whoa, everything you were doing was beautiful visually… in every kind of sense. The music, I don’t know it was just beautiful.
For anyone who wants to get a bit of snowboarding bliss that’s missing out on it, go watch it.
Yeah, check it out. It’s on Monster’s YouTube, it’s called Halcyon, and as they said, it’ll put you in a good vibe and get ready to go snowboarding for sure.
So, the name, I want to hear your interpretation of the name. Because I had to actually Google what Halcyon meant, what’s it mean to you, and why did you name the movie?
Yeah, totally, so halcyon is the past in an idyllic time is the definition of it. We didn’t really mean for it to be like that of everything happening now and last year was an idyllic time or anything. But, it’s was funny, we had the name last year before any of the pandemic happened, and we were just in our own little world. We had a 5 person crew that just rolled everywhere together. It was so weird because normally, when you are out filming the backcountry, usually you’ll see a bunch of other crews out there, and you are kind of racing them. I don’t know if it was just our timing with the year; everywhere we went, we didn’t see one crew, and it was just us out. We were in our own little world, so we kind of just had this halcyon vibe going, it just fit accordingly. Now it’s just a little bit more ironic the name too; it goes pretty good.
It’s pretty impressive, we were talking about the competitive side of snowboarding and how you were at the top of your game for so long, and you were just doing that, right? You were on tour, so you were just travelling and competing, and mainly riding resorts. Then you’ve jumped into the backcountry the last couple of years and to be able to put out a 20 minute, not just a part, but a 20-minute full video. That’s a huge accomplishment, and then you had two other riders, right? In the film, you had Gabe Ferguson and Jared Elston. I think Jared Elston has some kind of Australian tie.
Yeah, his dad is from Australia, actually.
Yeah, I think he actually was out competing and riding with N-Swiss one year.
I think so, I think you’re right. Because his dad is full Aussie, maybe his mum is as well, and they live in Bend, Oregon, right now. But I’m pretty sure his dad’s full Oz.
Yeah, I remember him coming out, we shot a few photos, but he told us he could be competing for Australia. I love that, see you cant get rid of the Aussie ties.
I can’t, you know, I love it. I honestly can’t wait to come back now more than ever. I miss the Southern Hemmy so much.
Yeah! Your first time to Oz was when you were like, 14 or 15 or so?
Yeah, I think I was 14, or I might have just turned 15. Did the Burton Global Open event there. I was there mainly for halfpipe at the time. I was doing better at halfpipe competitions than I had been at Slopestyle at that point, and yeah, I got to ride Perisher. That was the first time I went there. Just the whole set-up was unreal. I remember being 14 and going… like the t-bar, the park right there, the halfpipe. I was just like, this is a dream scenario.
Yeah, it’s pretty unreal, and you’ve been to Australia like 7 or 8 times, yeah?
Yeah, I’ve been 7 or 8 times to Oz and then the same for New Zealand, somewhere around that. I love coming down and riding, seeing everyone out there. I’ve gotten to be good friends with Zoi, Carlos, Jye, Marcus Skin, and James. All those, I mean the squad keeps going on, but yeah, I’ve got deep ties down there. I like everyone down there.
Yeah, it’s pretty rad. It would’ve been probably around when that event kicked off. Just hordes and hordes and hordes of pro’s started catching on, and Snow Park became less of a thing. Perisher was really stepping it up in terms of Front Valley, the park there. I saw it as like a decade in New Zealand, where everyone came for the Southern Hemisphere winter. Then it shifted, and then it’s been like the last decade where everyone has kind of come to Oz.
It’s incredible for the Australian scene, you know when you have everyone that’s Australian ripping up at Front Valley. Then you guys come through and kind of own it in spring. It creates the best vibe up there.
Yeah, it is—Thredbo’s awesome too. I’ve plugged so much time down there, just hanging out with everyone, shredding, learning tricks. Yeah, once we can go back there, I’ll definitely plug a solid month-long trip down there.
Yes! Bring your surfboard too!
Yeah, I’ll bring my surfboard this time.
Someones that’s really kind of tapped into your side of things on the international scene is Marcus Skin.
He’s been filming the crew here in Australia for years and years and years, then obviously linked up with you guys and has been travelling now. Do you still like Marcus, or is he annoying you now?
That’s a good question; yeah, do I still like him? No, I love Marcus. Yeah, just getting to hang out with him. I met him, I don’t even know, years ago, and then we really got to start hanging out with him when we were all in New Zealand. And me and Zak Hale went down. We had nowhere to stay in New Zealand. We hit him up, and he was like yeah, I have a place through like New Zealand Tourism, come stay. At first, it was just me, Zak Hale and Marcus, and then Sam Taxwood came down, Spencer Schubert came down, Claude Benlova was staying there, Sebbe de Buck was staying there, Ethan Morgan came. We had like 9 / 10 people staying in this 2 bedroom spot, so we started calling it Skin’s Inn, we just became homies, and yeah, we can’t wait to get Skin’s Inn going again.
Yeah, it’d be a good vibe for you guys, right, because I guess pressures off a little bit, you’re out there, you’re riding. Not that you’re competing anymore, you’re not hounding and filming there, so it’s a bit more relaxing. You can just kick back.
Yeah, it’s so fun down there; that whole vibe is good. It brings you back to when you’re younger on those spring days riding with the big crew, everyone’s staying together; it’s like a summer camp almost. And yeah, some of the best boarding we’ve been doing is down there, honestly. Learning tricks and just having a good time putting out edits, so definitely looking forward to coming back.
Hell yeah! I got a question; so 2014, you won the gold medal in the Slopestyle, and it was like a full whirlwind for you. You were like on a Wheaties box, and talk shows. I think you even did like a mortgage commercial; it was wild for you. It was amazing to see because I think you’re an amazing ambassador for snowboarding.
Thank you, Torah.
And then you decided, later on, to stop competing, what was it at that time? Like, your heart wasn’t in it anymore? Did you want more out of snowboarding? What was it that made you go ugh, I need to do something different?
For me, the Olympics was supposed to be the last contest I ever did, and when I was going into it, I was only 20. But I told everyone around me, I told my sponsors, everyone, just to let you know I think I’m going to do the Olympics, then I’m just going to start filming.
Then, I won. It just put this weird pressure to keep going on me. Not unwillingly but, I was young too, so I’ll just keep this going. But then I would show up to events, not practice much, not really care to be there. I came from three-week film trips to X Games and hadn’t hit a park jump all year and would just show up to X Games, get middle of the pack, maybe land a run. And I got to the point where I was just like, what am I doing? I told myself I don’t even want to be doing this. It was a hard one to let go because the potential was there. I was riding good when I wanted to, but my heart wasn’t in it. It was a hard decision to make. For sure, it’s easier on paper, I think to just say I’m over it. I’m sure you’d know that as well, Torah. Yeah, it takes a lot to step away from everything you’ve known and grown up doing. Because I’m such a competitive person, you know that I now click into full contest mode when I go film. When we’re building a jump or hitting a feature, I’m like, okay, this is it. I act like it’s the last run of an X Games contest. But that’s just kind of the evolution of the game, and that’s the way it goes, and you just got to roll with it and learn. Yeah, it was tough, but it definitely led me down this good path that I really love now, and I’m super happy with here I am with snowboarding. Every time I go and ride park now, I’m having a good time, and it just brought the love back to the sport for sure.
Sick, because I remember seeing that you were done with competitions and I messaged you, I was like, ‘how does it feel? Now that you’re done, it feels so good!’ Just knowing my journey and how much it took to come to terms with actually following and listening to my own heart and what I wanted. Not just other people’s expectations of what I could and couldn’t do, it was a hard one. So it was nice to hear that in your own words and good on you! Because you still got more to give, and you’re sharing so much with the world and the snowboard community.
Thank you, yeah and like I was saying before, going to the Natural Selection, I’m so excited to be competing again but with backcountry in it. It’s going to be good, the stoke is going to be there for sure.
Yeah, so now you’ve put out the big solo project, Halcyon. Are you in the mindset that you are filming and out in the backcountry? Are you more working towards more of those solo personal projects?
I think I’ll still do some personal projects in the future, but I won’t be focusing on them right now. Stuff like the Real Snow is awesome and just sinking the teeth into Natural Selection this year. In the future, I’d like to, but after doing Joy and Halcyon; just ready to do something a little bit different for a year or two. Then maybe sink my teeth into another project that’s bigger and better, maybe in a year or two. I’ve definitely got some ideas, but I want to make sure those ideas are well executed. Yeah, I just want to make sure everything’s lined up perfectly for those. Make it really special.
Yeah, if you do it, do it right. Where about were you guys because watching the film, it was cool because you didn’t have supers and texts thrown at you every two minutes, you know. You knew who the riders were. You were in this trance, and throwing that stuff on top of the snowboarding takes away from it, for sure. But what were the locations you guys hit for that film?
Yeah, we kept it very minimalistic, for sure. We were in Wyoming, we were up in Whistler and interior Canada, and then we went to Alaska for a little strike mission. Which was unreal! I got to go there once before, but the snow wasn’t good, so I’ve always just wanted to ride some bigger lines, and I’m so intrigued with that side of snowboarding. Getting to ride some lines like that was a treat, and I’d love to go back, for sure.
Sick, you were just talking about Alaska and riding some bigger lines. Have you got some older crew that have kind of show you the shining light the past few years and have helped you with the transition into the backcountry?
Yeah, I’ve definitely got a lot of people to thank for that. I’ve got Trav to thank for that, and Pat Moore has been such help, even down to guys like Gigi. Just chatting with them now on what to do. I spoke to J-Rob (Jason Robinson) when we first went to Haines, AK and his advice was more like ‘point it down the biggest thing that you can.’ Yeah, having those people to just bounce stuff off is so amazing.
I remember when J-Rob came out for the Transfer Banked Slalom. Terje’s won it, we’ve had Müllar there, and J-Rob came out for one of the first years. I remember he went and did this backcountry trip. We called it ‘Ozlaska’, and I was mindblown at the shit that he was riding. In Australia, it’s incomparable to Alaska but all means, but he was making it so gnarly. Like dropping in and jumping over rocks, into death pits, yeah, he’s a psycho.
J-Rob is unreal; his natural talent and his raw ability on a snowboard is, dare I say, unmatched.
Impressive, oh yeah, so you’re a big reader?
I’m a big reader
What’re you reading right now? Can you give us some good books to read?
Yeah, let’s see… I’m just finishing up a book called Outliers right now, Malcolm Gladwell. Yeah, a super good book, then next on my list is a book called Why We Sleep, so I’m very interested in that one. I like sleeping. I’ve heard it’ll definitely make you respect sleep a lot. But I just love reading any real stories, too; Phil Knights book, I just wrapped up Anthony Kiedis’ book, just raw life stories are always good too.
Phil Knights one’s incredible, I read that, and it put me on this turbocharge. I was like, ah, you’re being lazy, you’re being pathetic, fuck, what a story.
Right, I know, so many ups and downs too. Nike almost wasn’t a thing.
Yeah, just chipping away, every single day like, years and years and years. You’d think an idea like that would just pop and kind of come to life straight away. I had no idea he put in that much time and effort and got shut down so much, it’s pretty crazy.
Right, hard work and dedication can do so much.
Now that you’re in the backcountry, are you having to prepare off snow, physically and mentally? Do you put a lot of time and effort into that?
I’d say with the backcountry, so much of it is mentally planning where you’re going to go and how you’re going to get there safely, you know. So much of backcountry is trying to mitigate risk basically with your crew, avalanche terrain, where to build jumps, how to ride lines. So it is a lot of mental work, for sure. And then, physically, yeah, you definitely got to be in shape. Definitely something in contests, I feel like I wasn’t ever in the best shape, you know. Now I definitely respect fitness a lot more. Going into the backcountry, you know, if you go split board—it’s a long walk or snowmobiling—it’s a lot of energy. You’re building jumps. It’s a lot of lifting up; yeah, it’s a lot of physical and mental for sure.
Is there anything you miss from the contest circuit?
Totally, I miss the grind of being on the contest circuit. One thing that’s nice about it is it’s definitive. You have a schedule, you know where you’re going. Part of backcountry that’s so fun is that you don’t know where you’re going to go a lot of the times. But, it is nice to be on a calendar sometimes and know when everything is going down, watching peoples runs and trying to one-up it. Yeah, the grind is amazing. But hopefully, with Natural Selection Tour, there will be a bit of that as well.
The best of both worlds… I reckon you’ll be grinding in a few days.
Yeah, I think it’ll be game-on in a couple of days.
So you go to Jackson tomorrow?
Yeah, and it’s only like a 4-hour drive from my house here in Utah. So, drive out tomorrow, then we have a scope day on the 2nd, and also we get to see who we’re paired up against as well, I think on the second night. And then yeah, we’ll see when that weather lets us shred.
And I’ve seen across socials the last couple of days. It looks like Jackson has had a fair bit of snow over the past week.
Yep, Jackson’s snowpack is looking prime for the event. They’ve gotten good consistent storms all month, and it looks like they just got hit with a big one last week, so that’ll provide a very nice pillowy base.
Oh man, I can’t wait to watch it! We’ve had Laax Open, X Games, and watching that, it is kind of the same each year. It’s rad to kind of keep tabs on the new competitors and the new stuff getting thrown out. But this is something completely different.
And it’ll be cool. Year in year out, there will be different snowpack equals different terrain choices too. Some things will fill in differently, not a completely different vibe every year, but yeah, it’ll mix it up for sure.
When we were chatting with Travis, we kind of touch on how they’re streaming it. Travis is known for his epic cinematography and for bringing the best to his films. Apparently, the set-up they’ve got to film it and live stream it for everyone to watch is out of control.
Yeah, they’ve been showing us some of the stuff, and the behind the scenes is unreal, so kudos to all the people putting the event on. Seriously, it’s going to change the game. It’s not easy work. It’s getting so much of the unknown out of the way with filming this event a different way and setting it all up so everyone can enjoy watching from all over the world. So, kudos to the whole team behind Natural Selection for making this happen in troubling times.
Yeah, just to get it this far and on top of the worlds dilemma right now. In normal times to get it this far is a feat, you know. Huge props to the crew.
Yeah, a lot of hard work, round of applause