Even as it unfolded on Monday, it was obvious that what Natural Selection Tour was able to accomplish with its live-streamed snowboarding competition in the remote backcountry outside Revelstoke, British Columbia, was unprecedented—a twin achievement of progressive snowboarding and live sports broadcasting.
But as time goes on and the event takes its place within the context of live sporting events, it will almost certainly become cemented as the most impressive, against-all-odds action sports competition ever beamed out in real time over the internet.
Now in its third year, the Natural Selection Tour is the brainchild of professional snowboarder Travis Rice, cofounded alongside Tour COO Liam Griffin, Tour CEO Carter Westfall, action sports agent (including to Rice) Circe Wallace and Baldface Lodge founder Jeff Pensiero.
Rice, 40, is not someone who is easily deterred from trying to do things—within snowsports or outside of them—that have never been done.
In the 2008 film That’s It That’s All, which Rice co-produced, his part featured the first ever double cork 1260. His 2011 film The Art of Flight took snowboarding culture to the mainstream, utilizing the newest technology at the time—the Cineflex camera most known for giving Planet Earth its distinctive look and the slow-motion Phantom HD Gold.
The serial entrepreneur has launched numerous companies, including his latest, SENDY, an online marketplace that lets adventure sports enthusiasts buy, sell and rent gear.
But what Rice, widely considered the best freeride snowboarder of all time, has spent most of his career fixating on is the concept of a big-mountain snowboarding contest to end all big-mountain snowboarding contests, to definitively crown the world’s best male and female freeriders.
From the first test event in Jackson, Wyoming, in spring 2008 to two follow-up events in British Columbia—Red Bull Supernatural (2012) and Red Bull Ultra Natural (2013)—Rice has been chasing this goal for more than 15 years.
And 2021 marked the moment that may come to define Rice’s already decorated career—the launch of the Natural Selection Tour, the most robust iteration of Rice’s original vision to date.
Already, the Natural Selection Tour has progressed not only big-mountain riding—bringing together Olympic and X Games medalists, venerated snowboarding film stars and freeride veterans—but also the way live snowboarding events are filmed.
In 2021, the Tour and its production partner, Uncle Toad’s Media Group, won Clio Sports bronze honors; in 2022, they were nominated for an Emmy. And yet, what the group accomplished on Monday with the Revelstoke stage of the 2023 Tour outperformed even their own high standards.
Multiple professionals in live television production said they weren’t even sure what Natural Selection Tour planned to do this week—livestream a snowboarding competition from helicopter-access-only terrain 15 miles into the backcountry outside British Columbia’s Revelstoke Mountain Resort—was possible.
Not only did Rice and Co. prove it was possible, but the event went off about as flawlessly as it could have. And when you’re sending 12 riders into terrain that has never been ridden, along with thousands of pounds of cameras and gear and dozens of support staff, crew and media—with helicopters being the only possible mode of transportation—avoiding not only a spotty broadcast but injury to life and limb is in no way a given.
“Producing a live show from this incredibly remote of a location with unfathomable logistical challenges would be a huge lift on its own,” said Griffin. “Going live with a judged, competitive event on the most technical venue that has ever held a snow sports competition took a combination of the most dedicated and skilled crew, the latest technology and a little luck to successfully pull off.”
How was it possible? How long did it take to plan? How wrong could it have gone? Rice and one of the event’s EPs, Uncle Toad’s Media Group creative director and executive producer Chris Steblay, have those answers.
The groundwork for the Revelstoke event was laid more than four years ago, when Rice and Steblay met over tacos in San Clemente, California, to discuss Rice’s vision for the Tour and whether Uncle Toad’s might be able to help on the broadcasting end.
The first stop of the inaugural event in Jackson was streamed live in 2021 and then again in 2022—a logistical feat unto itself, but not unprecedented.
“Resort stuff is somewhat easy,” said Steblay, whose team has broadcast events like the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing and the Volcom Fiji Pro, innovating technology when necessary, such as creating customized camera rigs for operators stationed on jet skis. “But in the grand scheme, Travis really wanted to just drop a pin on a map,” Steblay added—a true remote backcountry snowboarding competition, broadcast live.
The Freeride World Tour delivers content in that vein, but that competition series is largely resort-driven. The face Rice was eyeing for this week’s event is 15 miles outside Revelstoke Mountain Resort, nestled in the 500,000-acre wilderness of the Selkirk Tangiers heli skiing tenure.
“We’re equating this to going to live from Everest, which is a big achievement that Nat Geo did,” Steblay continued. “But they didn’t have as many cameras, and they didn’t have sport. To do sport in the backcountry like this, nobody has an example of anything that’s been done like it. All the professionals we’ve talked to, all the technical people in sports broadcasting, they were like, ‘You guys are crazy.’”
Rice describes it as patiently waiting for technology to get to a point where the team was technically capable of executing its vision.
“It’s not to say that this technology didn’t exist, but it was, frankly, too big, heavy, and expensive to be a reality,” Rice told me. “People have been doing live sporting events for decades, right? But it was about being able to do those types of shows from a remote area and still considering a budget, because we are not ball sports—we don’t work with those kinds of budgets.”
Revelstoke saw the Tour one-upping even its own past broadcasts, being the first iteration of the event to go live fully relying on REMI (Remote Integration Model). That means the six cameras that were capturing live content onsite in Revelstoke beamed to a broadcast room 1,500 miles away in Los Angeles, overseen by Uncle Toad’s CEO and Natural Selection Tour EP Jordan Velarde. The stream latency of 60 seconds, given the remote location and distance to the main studio, is astounding.
The Uncle Toad’s production staff team on the ground at Revelstoke totaled 21, and about the same number were stationed back in Los Angeles. The Natural Selection operations team in Revelstoke added another 20.
Two of the production’s four Sony FX6 cameras were stationed, respectively, at the start line and at the finish line (with about 2,000 feet of elevation separating them). Two were long-lens-angle cameras capturing “barbie angles,” so called because their operators, stationed at set points on the mountain filming all day, would bring portable hibachi grills and barbecue their meals.
Each camera was equipped with a $100,000 antennae to shoot footage to the top of the mountain to the satellite transmit location. The small, packable high-end cinema camera kits were hand-built by Steblay, with weight being the largest factor, so operators could ride with them in a backpack. But engineers and DPs also weighed in on color and cinema glass, which was chosen for focal length and weight.
The technological innovation that has been instrumental in achieving Natural Selection Tour’s signature look is the high-speed racing drone angle, which garnered Natural Selection Tour and Uncle Toad’s their Emmy nom.
Drones comprised the remaining two of the production’s six cameras. The smaller racing drone used this year, which tracked riders as they dropped in from the start line at 7,100 feet, was a slightly improved version of the first-ever stabilized racing drone with a live full HD video feed that Uncle Toad’s custom built for the 2021 event. The heavy payload drone, which is bigger with a bigger camera, was stationed closer to the finish line.
Racing drone pilot and physicist Gabriel Kocher, PhD, helped develop the custom build.
“Part of the magic there was obviously with Gab, our drone pilot, who is just an artist in his own right with how he flies and captures,” Rice said. “And the fact that he’s also a snowboarder—we’ve danced for so many years with bringing mainstream professionals into our world to try to capture snowboarding and, I’ll be completely honest, it never works.”
In live action sports broadcasts like snowboarding, authenticity—a topic that came up again and again after the 2022 Beijing Olympics broadcast—is key. The Natural Selection Team could—and has tried to—bring in the best gimbal camera operators who have shot Hollywood films, but the results are always poor. Camera operators who have never shot snowboarding don’t understand how to ancitipate where the riders are going to go or how to frame it properly, Rice says.
“And so we’ve had to kind of cultivate a lot of experts from within our space versus being able to just outsource to professionals that are at the most experienced at handling some of these camera systems, drones, whatever it is,” Rice added.
As Natural Selection Tour head of competition Sandy Macdonald told me last year, “I can count on two hands who does these sort of things.”
Mainstream snowboarding broadcasts love what those in the industry call the “guy in the sky” angle, a tightly cropped shot that can wow audiences but doesn’t provide any context—and isn’t compelling to look at. That’s true in slopestyle and halfpipe events, but it’s especially true in big-mountain contests, which are anchored in being able to see a rider’s entire line from start to finish.
The Natural Selection Tour’s camera angles are constantly compared to a video game, and so much of that is attributable to the drones that follow a rider’s every move and provide plenty of contextual framing.
“The classic barbie shot, it’s really hard to have an empathetic experience watching something like that,” Rice said. “It doesn’t really make a lot of sense; there’s not an emotional feeling attached to it.”
For the two or three years Rice and his team were building out their plan for Natural Selection, they used a specific shot to illustrate what the racing drone would look like. In actuality, since that drone technology didn’t yet exist, Rice shot that clip—of Bryan Fox riding a beautiful line in Galena, British Columbia—with a painter’s pole and a gimbal GoPro.
“We never blatantly lied,” Rice said with a chuckle. “But this is our signature shot, what makes it an immersive experience.”
A year’s worth of preparation went into this week’s event, and the Selkirk Tangiers crew monitored the snowpack at the chosen face throughout the entire season.
But even after all that, it still wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the competition would run at this site that Rice handpicked for its sheer size (up to 45 degrees, with an 1,800-foot vertical drop—four times wider than any previous Natural Selection venue) and number of features, from cliffs, massive pillow lines, chutes and trees.
“You have to get through 20 green lights that lead all the way up to running the event,” Rice said.
“I’ve never been as nervous for an event as I was that morning,” Steblay confessed. “I was shaking; I couldn’t sleep. I was up at 3:30 a.m., and I didn’t have to get on a helicopter until around 7:45. I had to have texted our director, Lyle Fielmich, a million times saying, ‘Tell me it’s gonna work.’”
And it did, despite all the moving parts and everything that could have gone wrong with them.
Multiple Bell 205 helicopters, the civilian transport version of the military Bell UH-1 Iroquois, shuttled dozens of production staff, the 12 riders, assorted media and support staff and 16,000 pounds of gear to the remote venue site.
Starlinks provided internet 15 miles from the nearest infrastructure, while generators kept the feeds running. A heated tent and a toilet tent at the finish line provided the comforts of home.
The cameras successfully captured runs that were as long as two minutes from top to bottom, an eternity in a snowboarding competition. Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, who took the Revelstoke stage win among the four women, put that into context: when she’s competing in slopestyle events, her runs average 45 seconds. In a snowboarding film, a rider’s entire part might total two minutes of footage.
“At the end of the day, our goal is to set these events up where someone’s contest run could be a closer in a film,” Rice said.
Anything that could have gone wrong with the broadcast, of course, pales in comparison to the risk that was present for riders. The first few runs were difficult to watch—especially live—just given the sheer level of precariousness. (This venue was the “most dangerous” the Tour has ever chosen, Rice said—by default, not by design.)
Rice lauded the 11 other riders who became the first to ever drop into this venue for their professionalism and ability to push, but not exceed, their limits.
“It’s a testament to the caliber of riders that we have on Tour; they’re good decision-makers—these aren’t just crazy athletes all hopped up on adrenaline, just trying to go huck themselves,” said Rice, who won the Revelstoke event among the eight men competing. “These are consummate professionals that know how far they can push themselves and still be in a somewhat reasonably safe place.”
Rice stresses that this event would not have been able to happen the way it did without Revelstoke Mountain Resort, which housed the production team and provided a home base for viewers to watch the competition, with screens at the bottom and top of the gondola, and Selkirk Tangiers, which made the remote location accessible.
“Revelstoke Mountain Resort is such an amazing ski area that’s evolving in a lot of the right directions, and it’s refreshing being able to work with a host resort that also sees the vision of the future,” Rice said. “We want to work with progressive companies that are looking to do progressive things and support the continued evolution of adventure sport.”
While the Tour has its own partners, such as YETI, the title sponsor of the Revelstoke event, and Red Bull, which also sponsors Rice, he stresses that the Tour operates with quite a bit of flexiblity when it comes to host resorts. It was a good fit that Red Bull also has a presence at Revelstoke Mountain Resort. But the resort now has a new relationship with YETI that will outlast this week’s, with one activation including the resort’s ski patrol and avalanche dogs.
“We like to think that it’s in everyone’s best interest to be able to open up dialogues with leading brands that are supporting the industry, and since we have a strong collection of those leading brands that do value what it is we do, being able to make those connections with our host partners is our absolute pleasure,” Rice said. “We strive to be a symbiotic force for good, and so we hope everyone gets something out of working with us.”
By all accounts, the first year of the relationship was a success. Both Rice and Revelstoke Mountain Resort vice president of operations Peter Nielsen are already looking ahead to next year.
“We really thought that the two brands marry well—they’re putting on some of the best backcountry events in the world, and why not have it happen in the best backcountry in the world?” Nielsen told me. “As the event unfolded it proved to be one of the most spectacular things ever to happen in the backcountry, including the live broadcast.”
The overarching goal that made it all worth it? Producing a show that at once felt authentic to the core community of snowboarding and appealed to viewers who have never watched the sport.
“That snowboarding would have been historic without us there, and just the fact that we were able to go there and capture it was another historic achievement,” Steblay said.
“I think it was so impressive and progressive because the face that we were riding on, no one would ever choose to ride that but we were put in that position and it just gave us the opportunity to try,” said Sadowski-Synnott. “The runs that all of us came up with were something I would never have thought of when I first had eyes on the face.”
Sadowski-Synnott said not only does she think this is the most progressive women’s snowboarding competition that’s ever been staged, but the most progressive event, period.
Hailey Langland, who came in third among the women, agreed. “I grew up watching Supernatural and Ultra Natural, and to now be on the tour with Zoi and Kimmy [Fasani] and Elena [Hight], it’s extremely humbling,” Langland said. “I’m very proud of how far women’s snowboarding has come, and the progression of women’s backcountry riding is only going to go up from here.”
“At the end of the day, our goal is to try to advance our culture and snowboarding as a whole primarily because so many people within it really enjoy it and get a lot out of it,” Rice said.
The overwhelmingly positive feedback from both the endemic and mainstream communities, with nearly 1 million views across platforms, has borne that out.