Last week, standing at the bottom of a particularly bad halfpipe competition, watching riders fall one after the other on soft walls into a flat-bottom made of slush, I had a sort of existential crisis. The idea of having to write a story about the contest that described who was a better snowboarder that day suddenly just seemed ... ridiculous. And that thought, once unleashed, turned into a monster.
In snowboarding, the only competition that should ever matter is the one where friends push each other to see who can have the most fun. And yet we've set up a contest machine that is turning our next generation of snowboarders into aerial skiers, because it names winners and losers based on minute details, like where in a trick someone has placed his or her hand. This focus on precision over style will eventually lead to the death of snowboarding.
As I boarded a plane to the next contest in this winter's seemingly endless series of them, it occurred to me that it might be time to just go get a job selling coconuts on a beach in Mexico, rather than to continue to be a part of the system that is killing the sport that I love. But when I landed at the next competition, it was in a helicopter, at the base of the Baldface backcountry lodge's "Scary Cherry" run -- better known as the home of Travis Rice and Red Bull's Ultra Natural. And then I remembered a lesson Rice taught me last year:
Competition itself isn't bad. In fact, it can elevate the level of snowboarding itself if the people who are behind the events put some conscious thought into why they are creating the contests in the first place.
Here's who won: last year's second- and third-place winners Gigi Rüf and Nicolas Müller moved into first- and second-place positions this year. Late wild-card entry (Snowboarder Magazine pick) Bryan Fox, of Drink Water fame, rounded out the podium in third. Terje Håkonsen would have taken the whole thing if he'd landed his trick off this really cool transfer over a hip no one else hit, but he didn't, so he came in fourth.
Mark McMorris, who got in as a wild card for winning the X Games Aspen slopestyle contest, placed in the top 8 -- which means he's automatically invited back to next year's event. Travis Rice did not make the top 8, which means someone's going to have to give him a wild card next year to get into the contest because he's not on the automatic invite list.
Last year, when Rice debuted what was known then as the Supernatural, details lined into place so perfectly -- from the blue-sky weather to the unreal snow conditions to the happy vibe off hill at the lodge -- that the whole event took on an almost magical quality.
Though Rice and the Baldface crew had spent two years building the features that make up the course, no one, including Rice himself, had ever ridden it before, so the excitement of the group over being able to hit it for the first time was palpable. It was less like a contest and more like a group adventure.
The thing about "first times" is, though, they only happen once. Comparing that experience to all that come after it is a pointless exercise. It hasn't been the best winter up in BC, so the snow conditions up at the venue aren't what they were last year, nor was the weather near as optimal this week. After much agonizing over when, if ever, they were going to get a patch of sun during the week-long cloud-afflicted window of time set up to allow for the best chances of getting some good weather, the call was made to run the contest on Sunday.
First runs went down fine, but clouds rolled in for the second run, killing the light and hardening the snow. Scary Cherry is a steep 45-degree face that throws riders faster and farther down slope than they ever anticipate. Add low visibility to the mix and it is a recipe for some spectacular crashes. Due to this, Rice, who reigns as king in the land of perfectionists, was visibly bummed out by the conditions in which his friends had to ride at the end -- to the point of wondering aloud at the end of it all if it could even be considered a success.
But this event will always be a success, because of the fact that it happens at all. Rice has created a run that is as close to something like surfing that snowboarding is ever going to get. In surfing no two waves will ever be alike, so there is always an element of chaos that a surfer has to react to spontaneously and creatively, in a manner that is always unique to each person.
There are hundreds of ways to ride down the Ultra Natural run, and because the weather and snow conditions will change from year to year, no two contests will ever be alike. Even snowboarders who now have the benefit of having ridden the course the previous year have that advantage stripped away by the fact that Mother Nature has completely changed the layout and dynamic of it all.
The Ultra Natural is an event that gives the best snowboarders in the world a canvas and asks them to paint us a picture. It doesn't compare one blue line to a blue line in someone else's picture, or deduct points because one has a more precise edge. It looks at the beauty of the picture as a whole.
Every rider has a different style, a different way of looking at a mountain and deciding how best to ride down. Snowboarders like Rüf and Müller are so light of frame that they just play, effortlessly popping off little features here and there in funny little ways that elicit gasps and giggles of admiration from those watching. Riders like Lucas Debari like to pick the biggest features on the course they can find and just send it. Both are completely different ways of getting down a mountain, and are equally as fascinating to watch.
Setting up a venue for the world to see this side of snowboarding is such an incredible gift that Rice has given us that there may never be an event here that won't be considered a success.
"It's still remarkable how all the logistics come together to come such an event off, to manage this with Nother Nature, which is unpredictable," said an always-humble and happy Rüf, after the awards ceremony. "I had an advantage of having participated already last year, but I'm just honored to be able to come back for a third time, and hopefully be able to make my visions clear and adapt my riding to whatever conditions we find next year."
Because style is such a subjective thing that is almost impossible to judge, legendary style masters Peter Line and Jamie Lynn were brought in to join Andy Hetzel and Temple Cummins and Tom Burt in the judging tower. Because of this, almost every rider threw a method -- not because they talked about it before hand, but just because, individually, it seemed like the right thing to do.
"Who uses the flow, does tricks, does something big and has style and puts it all together in a way that's fun to watch. That's how you judge a contest like this," Burt explained when asked how the judges approached the task of looking at a field of the world's best snowboarders, all with different styles, and deciding who rode the best. "Mountain experience plays in too because it was a variable course. All those guys are incredible riders, but you have one chattered turn and it screws your line up, and your line is done."
Of Rüf's win, "It was unanimous," said Burt. "He buttered the top, a massive mute over the pillow ... butter 3'd the cliff in the middle, there was a backside 180 Japan, nose press off the cabin at the bottom to 180 out. The amount of tricks he did, the amplitude, and the fun overrides other people's more conservative runs. The style that Gigi and Nico ride -- they make a run fun from top to bottom. And that's what this is all about."
Amen. Already can't wait until next year.
The Red Bull Ultra Natural airs March 30 at 1:30 p.m. on NBC.