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Riders Ben Ferguson, Bode Merrill and Pat Moore came to help out the course building crew for a week this past summer. Photo: Ben Gavelda

Mountain Landscaping

Transforming Jackson Hole Mountain Resort for Travis Rice’s Natural Selection event.

Thick thuds vibrate the boulder field, then a shuddering crack of rock is followed by cheers from the crowd. The crew building the Natural Selection course at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR) are rolling boulders, tossing logs, cutting through brush and removing dangerous debris. I’ve come to call it “mountain landscaping.” The build crew has been hard at work all summer long constructing landings, clearing out deadfall, and turning this swath of hillside into an earthly snowboarding playground that will soon be open to the public to shred.
This process is more than simply enhancing existing terrain. It’s a long-held vision from legendary rider Travis Rice finally coming to fruition and full circle here in Jackson Hole. The inaugural Jackson Hole Natural Selection event in 2008 was a never-been-done blend of competition and enhanced natural terrain features. Rice, who spent many years on the international contest circuit, saw a need for diversity.

Ben Ferguson and Sage Kotsenburg haulin’ logs. Photo: Ryan Dee
Ben Ferguson and Sage Kotsenburg haulin’ logs. Photo: Ryan Dee

“There came a point where there was a real desire from a lot of riders for something different,” he says. “Most of them would spend half the season competing in halfpipe and park, and the other half filming and riding backcountry. I wanted to find a way to meld these two worlds.” With support from Quiksilver and JHMR, the first now-legendary event was held on a stormy, powdery day in Dick’s Ditch.

The feedback was immense and positive. There had been nothing like it before. But Travis had a bigger goal. “I thought it still kind of came up short in terms of a competition-style venue with film-level riding,” he says. “We learned a lot from that contest and stepped back.”

Many years went by before the event resurfaced again. In that time there was a lot of searching. “It’s so specific what we’re looking for,” Travis says. “It’s a game of probabilities. The terrain is also very specific. I understand you can do this riding anywhere, but for the event it was more about the probabilities of it being successful. The elevations can’t be too high or low, the aspect can’t be too far south or north, it goes on. On top of that it’s all dead in the water if you don’t have a supportive partner.”

Travis Rice lays out a backflip at the Natural Selection test event. Photo: Ben Gavelda
Travis Rice lays out a backflip at the Natural Selection test event. Photo: Ben Gavelda

In 2012 the event relaunched as the Super Natural, and the following year, the Ultra Natural. “Super Natural was many years of me looking for areas that had more of a Pacific Northwest snowpack,” he says. “I looked in Washington, Oregon, Coastal BC, Interior BC, I looked everywhere in the northwest. It took five years. I finally landed on a face at Baldface Lodge and kicked off a lifelong partnership with Jeff Pensiero. With the support of Red Bull, we spent about two years building the event. We had a crew of 10 of Canada’s finest arborists and lumberjacks and safety personnel.”

Now many years have passed since the Ultra Natural event, and Travis has been scheming all the while. His grand view was to create an event tour. It’s finally coming to realization this season, back where it all began.

“Jackson Hole Mountain Resort actually came to me to see if we could bring the event back here,” he says. “It took me a bit to be convinced that we could actually do it. There’s a lot going on at the mountain and to plug this kind of event into the resort is no small task. We’ve spent the last several years preparing to run it here. This season we are kicking off the first-of-its-kind Natural Selection Tour. It’s a three-stop tour that starts with Jackson Hole, February 3rd-9th 2021. There will be a full field of athletes and there will be a livecast of the event aired on Red Bull TV. Several weeks after will be another event at Baldface in Canada and the third and final event will be at the Tordrilllo Mountain Lodge in Alaska.”

Pat Moore piecing together a skinny launch pad. Photo: Ben Gavelda-
Pat Moore piecing together a skinny launch pad. Photo: Ben Gavelda

As Travis says, it all comes down to terrain. There’s been a lot of buzz about what’s happening in the rocky zone rider’s left of the Teton Lift over the past few summers. Wooden structures are now visible from the parking lot. “The Teton Lift opened up some of the nastiest and most exciting terrain on the mountain,” he says. “There are also a lot of hazards there. So many broken trees, stumps, sticks, big bushes, a lot of sharp and jagged rocks. It’s the kind of run that even in mid-winter you ride pretty defensively.” Stumbling around the tumbling terrain of the Moran Face in the summer it’s quite obvious how nasty the run is. Rideability and safety are the main goals.

“The mission is to leave as much as we can of the natural variability and dynamic uniqueness of what nature has created up there,” Travis says. “It’s going in and trying to interpret what Mother Nature has already created and making it as rideable as possible. For us to make some enhancements on natural terrain so that we can have enough variability of A+ features on an event venue that it helps support and showcase the creative expression of all the individual riders. At the end of the day there are two goals: to have a contest venue that is incredible and exciting, and to create this new type of area on the mountain that’s an enhancement for the general public.”

Sage Kotsenburg airing one of the large gaps at last year’s test event. Photo: Ryan Dee
Sage Kotsenburg airing one of the large gaps at last year’s test event. Photo: Ryan Dee

Back at the Moran Face venue, riders and crew are sweaty and scraped, with clothes dabbed in pine tree sap and sawdust. They gather chainsaws, breaker bars, backpacks, and loppers, and begin the scramble back up the mountain. The hillside is an unstable boulder field that’s filled with a few tree islands, thick brush, downed trees, and cliffs. It’s ankle rolling paradise. The interesting thing is, come wintertime, few will know anything happened under the snow.

It’s a ton of effort for one vision and one event, but it’s 13 years in the making, a pure study of progressing riding and terrain. The group continues clawing their way up the mountain while dense smoke from record-breaking forest fires on the West Coast fills the valley. The mountain has evolved.

If you look up Ben Gavelda in the dictionary it says “mountain man.”
@bengavelda