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Chris Rasman and Mikey Ciccarelli believe in Natural Selection

Both Whistler snowboarders recently competed in Alaska at the final stop of the Natural Selection Tour

Pro snowboarders have a lot of options these days. Established competitions like the FIS World Cup, X Games and Dew Tour are still going strong, and the Winter Olympics has delivered freestyle to more mainstream audiences since 2014. Of course, those who prefer mountain faces to artificial ramps can instead prove their worth on the Freeride World Tour (FWT).

Yet for Whistler residents Chris Rasman, Mikey Ciccarelli and many of their peers, no event holds more weight than the Natural Selection Tour (NST). 

Natural street cred

Founded by American snowboarding icon Travis Rice, the NST is an invite-only circuit that combines the natural splendour of big-mountain riding with some of the tricks found in freestyle. Each year, it showcases Olympians and backcountry film stars alike as they carve their way through some of the world’s most picturesque, snow-covered landscapes. 

All trails ultimately lead to Alaska, where champions are crowned at the end of each season. 

“I would say, like, 75 to 80 per cent of snowboarders that do contests visualize themselves one day filming backcountry video parts, predominantly riding powder and expressing their creativity in video and photo-captured form,” Rasman opined. “Because [the NST] is that, but in a contest format, it just has the street cred that all of those athletes want.”

Ciccarelli, a former Team Canada freestyle athlete, agrees. 

“I got to watch a lot of sick films as a kid growing up that not only had the competition side of it, but also had the big-mountain video parts, the backcountry kickers, and I was always drawn to that,” he said. “It was definitely hard to leave the [freestyle] side. I turned down going to the Olympics and all that kind of stuff, but my goal was to get to Natural Selection and this new chapter of competitive snowboarding.” 

On April 26, Rasman and Ciccarelli joined six other elite men and four world-class women in Valdez, Alaska for the NST’s final 2023 stop. After a day of navigating the huge lines and breathtaking spines that define Alaskan backcountry, two victors stood above the rest: Rice among men, plus New Zealand’s Zoi Sadowski-Synnott among women. 

"Just being able to take runs on terrain like that is really inspiring," said Rice in a press release after his second consecutive NST Alaska win. 

Having already won the Olympics, X Games and World Championships in freestyle, Sadowski-Synnott is thrilled to add an NST title to her resume. “It means so much to win the event because Natural Selection Alaska, I think, is like the pinnacle of backcountry competing,” she said. 

Rasman fell in a tightly contested two-run quarterfinal against Rice, who pulled off a 78-point high score to the Whistlerite’s 74 points. 

Ciccarelli was likewise eliminated in his quarterfinal heat, as his top number of 81 wasn’t enough to overcome American Jared Elston’s 87. 

Dustin Craven of Revelstoke was the only Canadian to make the semifinal. After beating Blake Paul of the United States, he lost to Norwegian sensation Mikkel Bang, who threw down a 90-point second effort against Craven’s 80.5-point first run. Bang would finish second behind Rice, leaving the British Columbian in third. 

Pushing boundaries 

Despite competing in Alaska for the 2021 NST, Rasman wasn’t supposed to be there this year—not as an athlete, anyway. 

Being eliminated in 2022’s qualifier round would normally have forced the Whistlerite to the sidelines for one year. He flew to Valdez expecting to be part of the tour support staff—up until Torstein Horgmo of Norway withdrew from the event due to injury. 

Rasman’s phone rang one morning at 6 a.m. He was in. 

“I’m not going to pretend to be badass and be like: ‘oh, hell yeah, everybody wants that opportunity,’” he admitted. “I considered saying no. There’s a lot of mental preparation that goes into what we do … and I wasn’t mentally checked in. I hadn’t done any studying, watched any drone footage, or picked any lines yet.” 

Fortunately for Rasman, the event was delayed three days due to adverse weather and snow conditions, giving him time to research the intimidating Valdez venue. He hoped to prove that he still belonged at the highest level of backcountry riding—not that anyone underestimated him.

In fact, Rice considers Rasman to be “one of the greatest snowboarders on the planet.” 

“[Rice] has been pumping my tires for a while, and I’m super grateful for that,” the Whistlerite said. “To be fully honest, the imposter syndrome does kick in because every pro snowboarder is their own worst critic.” 

Ciccarelli, meanwhile, is a first-time contender who went head-to-head with X Games record holder Mark McMorris in NST qualifying this year. Although McMorris won their duel, he—like Horgmo—got injured, which ended up giving Ciccarelli his inaugural taste of Alaska. 

The 26-year-old didn’t know what he was getting himself into, facing Valdez terrain that yields bigger and longer runs than most others on Earth. He resolved to approach the challenge with an open mind nonetheless. After all, Ciccarelli wants to keep snowboarding at a high level into his 40s (like Rice), and the NST was a big step in that direction.

“I looked at it as a stepping stone, an opportunity for me to really learn and grow and become a better snowboarder,” he said. “The biggest takeaway for me was just realizing what I’m capable of, because I definitely felt like I was able to push my own boundaries and get out of my comfort zone [in Alaska].

“If I can make that my new normal and take that into the next season, I think I’ll be even better off than I am now.”