Chad Otterstrom judges ‘unreal’ Natural Selection snowboard event in Jackson Hole
While driving back from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, on Wednesday afternoon, Summit County snowboarding legend Chad Otterstrom reflected on the Natural Selection competition he just judged and contextualized what the acclaimed event could mean for the sport moving forward.
“I haven’t had my eyes peeled to a contest like that since I first started watching snowboarding as a kid,” Otterstrom said. “It gave me that kind of excitement.”
Twenty-four hours earlier, Mark McMorris of Canada and Zoi Sadowski-Synnott of New Zealand were crowned champions of the two-day tournament. During the competition, Otterstrom — a veteran judge of X Games, Burton U.S. Open and Dew Tour — joined Sandy MacDonald and Connor Manning as the event’s judging triumvirate.
Natural Selection’s freestyle, freeride element is the style of snowboarding Otterstrom said he goes after. That’s why judging it was so enjoyable to him, as he saw the world’s best riders — from Ben Ferguson to Hana Beaman to Natural Selection creator Travis Rice — take inventive approaches to a course that was manicured this past summer, when Rice and a crew of pro snowboarders and friends sculpted a daring dreamland.
“If you could envision a slopestyle course with powder, that was basically what it was,” Otterstrom said. “(Rice is) trying to make this an event like no other.”
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The features the riders hit ranged in design as much as they ranged in name, including Aircraft Carrier, Turtle Shell, Lando’s Hip and Pine Island. Then there was Kenny Chest-Knee, a play on the name of country singer Kenny Chesney and an homage to the difficulty of landing a trick off the feature. McMorris landed a switch, 900-degree spin on the feature, impressing Otterstrom en route to winning the title.
Otterstrom said he and the other judges decided to forgive falls and reward riders going for broke rather than playing it safe. Yes, the judges used the DEAL metrics for judging major competitions — degree of difficulty, execution, amplitude and landing — but Otterstrom said they leaned on those metrics only when judges hadn’t already clearly noticed a difference in head-to-head runs between riders.
On such a powder-packed course, Otterstrom said judges had to assess the inevitable falls and landings riders would have. That goes from harder, deeper falls — bomb holes — to out-of-control tomahawks, to wheelie-like maneuvers riding out of sketchy landings and — of course — perfect stomps. For a judge like Otterstrom, assessing the tricks was as important as assessing the difficulty of landing the tricks in the terrain they were riding.
Though Otterstrom never got the chance to ride the Natural Selection course — which opened up to the public after the event — he was well aware of the conditions in which riders competed. Days prior, he was out lapping Jackson Hole when he ran into a snowboarder riding the area for the first time: Shaun White. Otterstrom took a couple of laps with the American Olympic legend, enjoying the 4 feet of snow the resort was bombarded with in mere days.
But that didn’t mean the competition pros slogged through slow, bottomless pow. Rice conceived an event structure where athletes could wait a few days while the sunshine baked the fresh snow while resort personnel compacted landings and takeoffs to prevent snow slides on the human-made features.
It was in those conditions that the 19-year-old wild-card entrant Sadowski-Synnott wowed Otterstrom and others with her ideal edging and balance taking off and landing on the 4 inches of fresh powder that fell overnight on the course.
As for the men, Otterstrom loved Austrian Gigi Ruff’s first-day riding and described Ferguson’s switch riding and accidental switch backflip on the Aircraft Carrier feature as “brain melting.” As for McMorris — who competed in Jackson just days after a positive COVID-19 test forced him out of X Games Aspen — Otterstrom said his supremely improved backcountry skills are starting to enter him into the conversation of ultimate snowboard competitor.
Otterstrom would like to see the chatter about Natural Selection — which is set to take place at Baldface Lodge in Canada and Tordrillo Mountain Lodge in Alaska — expanding to a full circuit come to fruition, including stops in Japan and Europe. He’d like to see snowboarding as a sport head in that direction, and he thinks places like Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Aspen Highlands bowl and Breckenridge Ski Resort’s Peak 6 could host similar events if they choose to invest like Jackson Hole has.
“I’d like to see something like this in Summit County,” Otterstrom said. “… Have a full year-round, worldwide tour almost like slopestyle has with the (International Ski and Snowboard Federation), which has gotten pretty stale, to be honest, as far as watching. This was pretty unreal watching drones come through and follow people. It gave you the feeling you were there.”
Miss the Natural Selection final rounds? Catch the full replay broadcast of Tuesday’s final rounds here.
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