Red Bull’s Supernatural snowboarding contest, the brainchild of rider Travis Rice, gets under way tomorrow in the Selkirk Mountains near Nelson, British Columbia, and it will include terrain enhancements the likes of which haven’t been seen in the snow world. More than 80 manmade jumps, ramps, and kickers have been built on the 45-degree Scary Cherry run at Baldface Lodge just for the contest, and the construction included topping 50 to 70 trees to build giant, hanging treehouse-like platforms throughout the forest, which is on public lands.
Although the response has not been as loud as when a Red Bull-funded film crew drilled bolts in Patagonia’s Cerro Torre and the climbing community screamed for a boycott of the energy drink, some are pushing back against the environmental impact, aesthetics, and precedent.
“How do we justify the cutting of live trees to ‘improve’ upon nature?” asked Utah snowboarder and backcountry advocate Warren Smith in a letter to Red Bull. “I’m not a bleeding heart tree hugger nor holier than thou but I’ve sat in meetings where land managers, politicians, and conservation leaders point to unsanctioned structures as reason to ban tax-paying recreationalists from public lands.
“The concern is that when NBC makes this look like the coolest thing ever [an] army of renegade wannabes will be greenlighted to embark on their own chainsaw ‘improvements’ in their local woods. Will we be seeing custom-made pillow drops in the photos annuals and videos from your backcountry backyard next?…Red Bull, Baldface, NBC, and the snowboard magazines do have an opportunity, no, the responsibility to address this method and message as it pertains to public lands going forward.”
Red Bull did not respond directly to Smith’s letter, but when contacted by Adventure Journal, a spokesman said, “Red Bull worked closely with the appropriate governmental and environmental agencies, as well as Baldface Lodge, to ensure that all proper approvals were secured and necessary precautions taken. For more than a year, Red Bull worked with local forestry officials and registered wildlife biologists to ensure that the build wouldn’t negatively impact wildlife habitat, species of trees on course, or watershed. After all precautionary steps were taken, only then did the course build begin.”
Jeff Pensiero from Baldface said, “If you can pull back in order try to keep this contest in perspective, we gladed roughly 50-70 sub-alpine spruce and fir trees and used the wood to build the platforms. We created 10 really good jobs in a really hurting local economy, we brought in 2 Million dollars in revenue for the area, which is really economically depressed, and we are evolving snowboarding to another level. Will it be copied? Perhaps it will, but there are already Burton stash parks, and buried mountain bike parks across North America and Europe, not to mention thousands of gladed acres across the world for the purpose of improving peoples experience in the backcountry. So, while I agree that we need to be responsible, I would counter that we are being responsible to our industry standards, and our land managers, and the local wildlife and the forest experts, and we are actually getting more use out of the gladed materials than just letting them rot on the ground.”
Supernatural raises points that make for a compelling debate over the appropriateness and scale of manmade courses in parks, backcountry, and public lands. Baldface Lodge, one of the most heralded and highly praised snowcat skiing outfits in the last decade, doesn’t exactly operate in what you’d call virgin wilderness. Its huge permitted area (32,000 acres, or 50 square miles) is crisscrossed with logging roads, and Scary Cherry itself abuts timber parcels.
“When selecting the run, ‘Scary Cherry,’ one of the things that was really appealing is that it ends in a large open area,” wrote Pensiero. “That large open area is an avalanche path that rolls into a massive cut block. Actually it’s three massive cut blocks that were heavily harvested this summer. We are not the only ones back here.”
Although the environmental impact is a factor, as with so many things Red Bull, it’s the exuberant self-indulgence of the contest, the Cirque du Soleil element, that seems to set critics on edge. Baldface worked closely with B.C. forest managers and went through all required processes and permits. Seventy trees in all of British Columbia isn’t many. But what Rice and Red Bull are doing with those 70 trees is highly visible and highly symbolic. Burton stash parks are built within the boundaries of ski areas, not the backcountry, and Supernatural is orders of magnitude larger than any pirate parks being constructed by self-motivated homegrown rippers. The media coverage will be massive – Supernatural is being aired by NBC and grandiosely being called “The Future of Snowboarding” — so it isn’t just the 70 trees, it’s the message topping those trees sends to the world.
On the other hand, is it really so different from the North Shore of Vancouver or Whistler Crankworx? Rice responds, “Inspiration for the course design came from nature, straight up, and the crazy features that I’ve seen people ride. Also, some inspiration came from what they are able to do with mountain biking courses, like building stuff through the trees. There’s no limit to what is possible with a little creativity and some will.”
Unlike the Supernatural, though, the North Shore stunts and ladders of the mountain biking scene developed organically through local riders using mostly downed timber. It’s true that the North Shore builds were unsanctioned, but the measured growth of such trails let land managers wrap their heads around the idea gradually, and in many places, including the North Shore, they’re working with riders to create sanctioned enhanced trails. Supernatural, however, drops an entirely new concept for backcountry riding like a bomb and uses one of the biggest media outlets available to spread the word. It’s one thing to build backcountry snow kickers that disappear in spring, it’s another to create structures that remain all year long.
As for what happens to the Supernatural course after this weekend’s comp, Red Bull hasn’t said. As for what happens because of it, it’s impossible to know.
Photos: Danny Zapalac/Red Bull
Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.