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Ride to Survive

The Natural Selection Tour pushes snowboarders beyond their comfort zone. The start line? A helicopter.

Natural Selection Tour

REVELSTOKE, British Columbia — The snowboarding contest began unlike most. Twelve of the world’s top snowboarders were dropped off by a helicopter high in the mountains of British Columbia last Monday with one mission: Get to the bottom.

Below them were some 80 acres that dropped about 1,800 vertical feet. An open top section with few consequences gave way to steeper slopes where riders would lose sight of what was below. There were endless options to navigate, some possibly fatal, none easy.

Their attempts would be judged and streamed live for the world to see. The contest was called Natural Selection.

The directive from Travis Rice, the American snowboarder who created the event, was clear. “You can do dangerous things in a safe way,” he said.

Chad Chomlack/Natural Selection Tour

Natural Selection Tour

Even at 40, Rice has been setting the bar for what is possible, inviting top riders to perform at his level. The goal is to push the riders beyond their comfort zones, he said.

The Natural Selection Tour, now in its third year, is a world away from what snowboarding fans see at the Olympics and in traditional competitions. Instead of manicured courses or halfpipes, the event is held on natural mountainous terrain, challenging athletes to face what Rice calls “geological oddities” as part of the dynamic playing field. With limited time to prepare, using only photographs and videos of the course, riders must memorize a run that will make a unique impression on the judges while avoiding rocks, cliffs and trees. It is a set of skills not often used in competitive formats.

The course for this event, chosen by Rice, included a peculiar feature called pillow lines, a phenomenon in which cliffs gather snow in a way that resembles a staircase made of marshmallows. This is no smooth ski hill: To make it down this kind of terrain, riders bounce their way through until they reach the bottom.

Matt Ruby/The New York Times

Dean Blotto Gray/Natural Selection Tour

“There’s going to be people flying like 100 feet thinking they were going 20, myself included,” Jared Elston, 24, said while looking up at the mountain, trying to find a way down that would suit his skills.

He wasn’t alone in his trepidation. A who’s who of the world’s top snowboarders expressed some doubt while planning daring paths from top to bottom that would yield high scores and minimal injury.

Ben Ferguson and Hailey Langland, both American Olympians, were anxiously awaiting the challenge before them. Ferguson said he wasn’t “super confident navigating.” Langland admitted that she had just started riding terrain like this a few weeks ago.

“Hopefully the viewers understand how difficult it is because they look so soft and playful,” Blake Paul, a 28-year-old competitor from Jackson Hole, Wyo., said of the pillow lines. “But it’s really like if you fall off one of those things, you end up in a hole.”

Dean Blotto Gray/Natural Selection Tour

Matt Ruby/The New York Times

For the first time, the tour’s production team was tasked with broadcasting a livestream not from the base of a ski area, but directly from the remote mountain landscape.

Chris Steblay, an executive producer who oversaw video production, had three different radios strapped to his chest. “Nothing like this has really been done before, especially in snowboarding,” he said.

Plotting a schedule for a broadcast from an uncontrolled environment is a guessing game, said Liam Griffin, a founder and executive of the Natural Selection Tour. The biggest unknown, he said, is that “no one has ever ridden this before, so hopefully I guessed right.”

Chad Chomlack/Natural Selection Tour

Tom Monterosso/Natural Selection Tour

On Monday morning, there was a collective level of anxiety about what was about to unfold. Many riders thought there was a high probability of serious injury.

Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, an Olympic gold medalist in slopestyle from New Zealand who has won previous Natural Selection events, described her mind-set as “probably the most stressed out I’ve ever been at a contest before.”

As riders began making their way down, some said they had gotten lost trying to find the route they had chosen. “It’s way bigger than it seems,” Elena Hight, an American Olympian and X Games veteran, said after making it to the bottom of her first run.

Ferguson found himself stuck to the side of a cliff for a brief moment before regaining his composure and making it down safely. “It definitely does push you to be a better snowboarder,” he said of the event.

Matt Ruby/The New York Times

Tom Monterosso/Natural Selection Tour

After a few close calls early in the morning, the tension eased as the field grew more comfortable finding the limits of the course.

Proving that youth can dominate experience, Sadowski-Synnott won the women’s event on her 22nd birthday. Rice, still at the top of his game, walked away with a definitive win in the men’s field, admitting that he thought he could have ridden a bit better but that the terrain was “rowdier than we thought.”

The event went so smoothly that even its organizers were a bit surprised. There were no injuries. The action was streamed online successfully, using radio frequency transmission and satellite hookups from the field and commentary and graphics from California.

Tom Monterosso/Natural Selection Tour

Natural Selection Tour

“I have a sense of satiation and just feeling amazing that not only did our entire production team deliver on all of their challenges, but then also every rider has standout highlight clips and everyone’s healthy,” Rice said. “So for me, that’s the win.”

The bar has already been raised for the next event, too. “I know that every one of the riders is capable of more than the runs that they did, myself included,” Rice said. “So I think everyone has a little bit more than they showed.”

Kimmy Fasani, a 38-year-old competitor from Mammoth Lakes, Calif., said the Natural Selection Tour was pushing the boundaries of the sport.

“In just a fraction of a moment,” she said, “it’s just progressed snowboarding in a whole new way.”

Tom Monterosso/Natural Selection Tour

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