Natural Selection 2022: Event One - Highlights

Let’s look back at a week of snowboard mastery and world-class athleticism from the first stop of the 2022 Natural Selection Tour held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Someone rides downhill setting off a spray of powder. The Natural Selection logo is added on top of the image in white.

Photo courtesy of Academy Snowboards with added logo

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Sunday night's awards and closing ceremony marked the end of another week to be written into the books—not only the snowboard history books but the actual, literal history books. Ladies and gentlemen, Travis Rice has done it again, and snowboarding, the world of action sports, action sports events, media, and possibly the world in its entirety may never be the same and will almost certainly be better for his herculean efforts to bring the tour to this point.

Not only did the first stop of the Natural Selection Tour bring us the most progressive snowboarding contest venue, event format, and field of backcountry riders alive, the event itself—much like the rider’s on-snow performances—seems to have defied the absolute laws of physics this year. It would appear that the tour's sustainability department has been hard at work, and to my amazement, the tour’s carbon footprint has actually been, not just eliminated, but reversed. Complex calculations to measure the entirety of carbon produced by each stop on the tour, combined with a series of carbon-eliminating measures means this year's Natural Selection Tour will actually improve the environment and remove twice the amount of carbon from the atmosphere than it will introduce. Cutting edge and quite mind-blowing, commendable work, I must say.

Without fail, Travis remains on the cutting edge, and this year he has brought the tour far beyond the three physical stops and straight into the Metaverse, with the introduction of the NST’s NFT’s. These non-fungible tokens being introduced focus on renewable energy and low-impact mining. They will be exclusive digital and physical works from artists and riders within the snowboard community.

When you look back on all the incredible athleticism, the commitment to sustainability, the bold vision of a bright future in the Metaverse—it is safe to say the first stop of the Yeti Natural Selection Tour has one hundred percent pushed the limits of what is possible and has left many of our minds absolutely melted in its wake. So, without further ado, let’s get to the on-snow highlights, shall we?

Sage Kotsenburg jumps above an untouched hill.

Sage Kotsenburg riding for K2 Snow. Photo by Jeremey Torburg

First off, I would like to give my respect to all of the snowboarders that competed in Jackson this week. Conditions were not exactly premium, and to really show up and give it one hundred percent required true athleticism and heart. Compared to last year's event, which consisted of very deep, high-quality snow conditions, this year it hadn’t snowed more than a few inches in weeks which forced riders to take a bit lighter and more calculated approaches to their runs.

The head-to-head format always keeps it interesting and at times it can knock some of the riders that put down the strongest runs just because of who they got matched up with, so nothing is guaranteed. However, the imperfections on the course this year did not slow down much of the field, and despite the many challenges, the riding level remained quite high throughout the competition. Riders that don’t make it through this first round of competition are eliminated from the tour and do not go on to the next stop at Baldface, so there is a lot of pressure to perform here in round one. With some new features added to the venue and some new faces added to the NST roster, the event was without fail another major fan favorite, leaving many of us reeling for the next stop to get here already.

Day One

Part One - Men’s Qualifiers

Tuesday, Day One, was worth the wait, and it was Dustin Craven and Danny Davis that opened up the course, really revealing the first look into the conditions the riders would be facing. It was Craven’s get-it-done approach to backcountry riding that gave him the win this round.

Next up were Jared Elston and Chris Rasman. Separated by over a decade in age, Elston, the young bull, is ready to charge and tells Rasman something to the effect of “watch out old man” before he eliminates him with a level of mastery, usually only found in someone far beyond his years. Rasman even referred to it as being “cowboy,” and the riding venue would certainly be keeping it western for all of the competitors. At times it looked as though riders were atop a bucking bronc, or even functioning as human pinballs when navigating their way down one hell of a course.

It’s only ten degrees but the action is heating up. Travis, the bear, narrowly escapes elimination at the hands of smooth operator Kevin Backstrom. It seems Rice’s ability to charge the mountain at unflinching speeds while still racking up the airtime was to his advantage. He edged out Backstrom who seemingly had a better performance when looking at the jumping alone, but his lack of speed and flow between hits relative to Travis is why the judges gave this round to Trav, allowing him to avoid elimination from his own tour.

Torstein eliminates Sebbe De Buck, displaying some serious promise at his long-anticipated return to competitive snowboarding.

Part Two - Women’s Qualifiers

The course only looked faster and more challenging the more tracks were being put down. The woman went between the two groups of men's heats and proved to be forceful riders, ready for the difficult and exhausting conditions that were at hand.

Legends Marie-France Roy and Elena Hight started things off for the ladies. Hats off to both of them, but ultimately it was Elena that brought some of the smoothest airs and turns of the day—moving on to the next round.

Spencer O'Brien and Hana Beaman representing Whistler, BC and Bellingham, WA, respectively, were a very strong matchup, and unfortunately, it was a crash and ankle injury that took Spencer out of the competition, sending Hana to the next round.

Zoi Sadowski-Synnott was unable to make it to Jackson because of the upcoming Olympics in Beijing, and her replacement, Stefi Luxton, is a strong rider and a fellow kiwi, in fact. A formidable effort from Stefi, but it is the reigning champ Robin Van Gyn that puts down the best runs to advance.

Making the rough conditions look easy it was four-time Freeride World Tour Champion Marion Haerty that had the upper hand over Cheryl Maas.

Part Three - Men’s Qualifiers

The final four heats of men ended the day. The course that originally looked pristine and inviting that morning was now starting to look pretty chewed up and intimidating. It did not slow these guys down, however, and it’s possible that the level of riding was even higher for the second group of guys as the course got a bit more ridden into a good groove.

Last year's champ Mikkel Bang kept things solid and consistent, knocking out fan-favorite Arthur Longo in round one.

Blake Paul had some of the most fluid and composed riding of the day and made quick work of his round-one opponent Torgeir Bergrem. Despite Torgeir putting down what was arguably the trick of the day, a clean cab nine off one of the main jumps, coined “The Great Wall”, it was Blake’s grace coupled with the confidence of having the home-court advantage that made for an easy win.

A couple more lively heats rounded off Day One. Sage Kotsenberg vs. Gabe Ferguson and Austen Sweetin against Ben Ferguson. Gabe brought silky smooth style to the course, and if it weren't for Sage’s flawless cab nine things may have gone differently. A valiant effort from all, however, it was good riding buddies, Sage and Ben, that would win the heats and match up to go head to head in the next round.

You can see all of these individual match-ups on Natural Selection's YouTube channel.

Day Two

A couple of down days between competition allowed some snow to refill the course and the riders to recharge a bit, ready to come out swinging Friday. The second and final day of competition here in Jackson opened up another portion of the course for the final day to ensure there would be some fresh landings and new terrain for the competitors.

Part One - Women’s Semifinals and Finals

The women started off in the semifinal round, and it was great to see the ladies find some fresh snow, new hits, and to open up a whole new section of the course.

Marion brought a strong attempt at incorporating some more freestyle elements in her riding, however, it wasn’t quite enough to get her to the finals. She will however be one to keep an eye on as we advance to the steeper, more technical venues on the next two stops on the tour. Hana couldn’t quite put together a clean run, so it was Elena and Robin that dominated and were slated to meet in the finals.

Both ladies pushed through the obvious fatigue this challenging course had induced. Robin locked in and stomped some sizable backside 360’s with a smooth tailgrab, and Elena answered back with some classic methods off of the same hit. Elena seemed to figure out a bit more of a flow with this course, finding the freshest lines and landings, bringing her a well-deserved win.

Part Two - Men’s Quarter-Finals

Men started off Day Two with the quarter-finals, and they held little to nothing back right from the jump. Elston proves yet again that the future is now and takes out yet another Canadian backcountry powerhouse, Dustin Craven. It's back-to-back runs in the 80s that sent one of Bend, Oregon’s finest, Jared Elston, to the semifinals.

Next up were Travis and Torstein, two of the most decorated and respected snowboarders on the planet. They had the only quarter-final match-up that went into a third-round tiebreaker and ultimately it would be back-to-back 720’s from Torstein and a fall from Travis that would advance Horgmo and send Rice packing for home—which, lucky for him, is just down the street.

Mikkel shut down the other local Jackson boy, and despite Blake’s dominance over the field throughout the event thus far, it was his decision to play it safe with trick selection that kept him from advancing to the semifinals.

Both backcountry partners and 2021 tour rivals, Ben and Sage left nothing on the table. Ultimately, Ben didn’t find his rhythm and wasn't able to put down the frontside rodeo 540 he was trying on the first jump. Ben didn’t get a solid run in this round, while Sage was really just starting to heat up, taking out his second Ferguson of the week.

Part Three - Men’s Semifinals

Men’s semifinals put Torstein Horgmo and Jared Elston up against each other. Jared fired the first shots with a massive double backflip on the first hit, quickly followed up with a clean cab and a backside three off the biggest jump on the course, coined “Booster Shot”. Torstein shot back with both frontside and backside 7’s, navigating the rugged course with ease. It was a knee to the face that took Horgmo off his feet and off his game, sending the young bull, Jared Elston, to the finals.

Next up, we had the returning Natural Selection Tour champ, Mikkel Bang, and Olympic Golden boy turned mountain man, Sage Kotsenberg. Both of these guys were really getting into a groove, finding fresh landings to put down their tricks and powering through the now extremely bump-riddled rideouts. As Mikkel began struggling to stay in control and on his feet, it appeared Sage was just finding his flow and it was his athleticism that shined, carrying him through this round.

Part Four - Men’s Finals

Oh boy. Let’s go! If the men’s final was any hotter, the snow would have started melting. Full-on NBA Jam, and these two are officially on fire! Both riders had gotten very comfortable with this course and had been digging a little deeper into their bag of tricks all day.

Sage locked into his first run with slopestyle-like precision. Jared took the backside 360 off the Booster Shot into a 720—my personal favorite trick of the event—but over-sent the landing and was unable to put it down cleanly on the first run. Sage won the round, but Jared was coming for him, pushing him to take his front 3 from the first run into a 7.

Second run and Jared laced the double back again, straight into the cab 5, and boom stomps a massive backside seven off the Booster Shot jump. The technical tricks done with raw style and all linked together with a powerful edge and board control put Jared one up on Sage, in my eyes, during run two.

I was really hoping to see this heat go into a tiebreaker round, and it seemed that Elston may have taken it there. However, the judges gave Sage the advantage by less than two points, and right there he had added a Natural Selection win to his already stellar list of accolades.

Such a wild week in Jackson, and nearly too many firsts to count!

The main two firsts were Elena Hight and Sage Kotsenberg—both placing first in the contest. Two fierce competitors from the world of halfpipe and slopestyle events turned backcountry badasses, these two got to utilize both of these skill sets this week to bring them the victory.

The amount of progressive groundbreaking and cutting-edge stuff that went down both on and off the snow this week has left my head spinning faster than Sage’s cab 9. Luckily there are a few weeks before the next stop picks up where this one left off for me to adjust!

This week's rankings will follow the athletes that made it to Day Two into next month's Natural Selection Tour stop in Baldface, Canada. Keep an eye out, and as the next stop draws nearer I will be here to fill you in on what you can expect! If you're looking to get set up like a pro, reach out to me or another Snowboard Expert here on Curated!

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I've spent over thirty years on snow and a decade as a professional rider. Snowboard career highlights include standout video parts with Absinthe Films, 2016 Big Mountain Rider of the Year and two Snowboarder Mag covers. I pretty much grew up on the slopes in Whitefish, Montana and snowboarding has...

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