Critics Say Red Bull Contest is Super-Unnatural

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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.

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{ 16 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Louis Zuhr

    Is it really that surprising that the guy that couldn’t find good snow with millions of dollars to spend during North America’s best snow year in a long time would need to “build” a natural course?

  • David D

    North Van style riding doesn’t seem to inspire this much heat. Folks, it is foolish to think that wooden features are not already “organically” been built. You just don’t know about them. (Because they are “organic”.) Now, will the people go on a rampage? Probably not. This type of thing has been going on in VT for years, not without controversy, under a different banner. Cutting secret runs. And as any mountain bike builder will tell you, building a trail takes more effort then the masses are willing to dish out.
    Embrace fat skis, evolve and enjoy progression. There are worse culprits insofar as the environment goes, beleive me.

  • Craig Rowe

    Well, these kinds of parks have been around. Only now, it seems they’ll leave the stash and just become part of more mainstream, in-boundary parks, once the collective skill level of the masses catches up, of course.

    That’s the thing with outdoor sports, they are constantly evolving to meet the challenges of the environment. Waves are bigger and more dangerous, so we use skis and wetsuits with airbags. Ski resorts have become more crowded, so people resort to cutting paths through natural areas. Tough to say where the line has to be drawn. I know that I don’t know.

    At the very least, maybe Red Bull will make it known during the event’s broadcast how it all came together. And I only drink it with vodka.

  • Stev-0

    It’s not so much this particular contest, which was permitted, but expect pirate public land parks to spread from all the wannabes and network publicity. “Evolving snowboarding to another level,” and “there’s no limit to what is possible with a little creativity,” …puh-leeze. That’s such classic event organizer spiel. Building all those artificial features on one slope is simply a way to make it convenient for camera crews, and thus plaster far more logos over time-compressed action footage – from multiple close camera angles – so bigger stunts and more competitors can be shoehorned into face-kicking edits, thus firing up a customer base of teen male lemmings and drawing them into your guerrilla marketing scheme. It doesn’t run any deeper than that.

  • mike d.

    these parks are sick. live dave said, embrace the progression. if evolutionary steps like this never took place i’d still be riding a directional burton air 125 with 3 strap bindings. this isnt akin to deforestation, this is a mountain that has already had its ‘natural’ state altered. cutting down some trees and bolting them to their brethren to enhance an already unnatural setting is no different than racing down the piste on a meticulously maintained super g course. while i understand the perspective adverse to the pitch i’m making, i just dont see the reasonf or getting up in arms over this situation. i mean seriously, who doesn’t want to see trav huckin huge off these beasts ;) t-rice for prez 2032

  • Marc

    Didn’t Jackson Hole blow up part of Corbet’s Coulier so that tourists could get in there easier? Isn’t that Nat. Forest that’s only leased by JHMR? Don’t they chop down trees and put up chairlifts and trams? Isn’t that all just in the name “improving nature?”
    Seems like this Warren Smith dude has an axe to grind (pun intended) I just think that maybe there are some bigger fish to fry. What’s his message anyways “hey kids, don’t chop down trees unless you’re doing it on your own land or you get the appropriate permits!!”

  • Cbrody

    what?… they build HUGE stadiums for all the mainstream sports all over the globe and we cant build a few wooden kickers out in the back country?

    I mean the waste and hubris surrounding football, baseball, basketball, golf.. its astonishing when you really think about it… i could go on with so much worse, so more wrong, so many f’d up things in this world to complain about… whats wrong with building a few sweet ass parks for the snow riding community? If you really think this makes the world worse, take a good look around your own house and backyard you hypocrites.

  • David D

    @Stevo, It actually seems epic to me. There is a bit of hype involved, naturally, but I don’t beleive this a contest born solely out of media perspective. Because, for one, you cannot drive a truck to the spot. This cancels out most of the industry. And when you look at the list of featured athletes you realize something big is about to happen. They work for money, but this is a core group of snowboarders, and like the surf core, you have a lot of soul here.
    The next level will remain to be seen and judged, but prepare yourself to see change. Because one thing is for sure; nobody has seen this before.

  • Buzz

    This does not “evolve” the sport; it will cause the media, land managers, and the public to push back and put the clamps on. As they should.

    Nature is why we’re here. If you’re not working with and protecting nature, you’re blowing it.

  • rthdfgrfc

    I encourage everyone to build stuff 100% organic, no nails or screws, leave no trace, you can get a firewood permit for 4 cords for 20 bucks, and basically you are just staging your material out there. Remember, If you make it sketchy enough you always get 1st tracks, but if it’s perfect it just aint natural… When people say they are going to build stuff it’s all talk anyway, but I wouldn’t trust this generation of clowns in my woods, that’s for damn sure! Resorts need to harvest their resources before the users do! People want “stash” parks, not superpipes these days, but no clown suits allowed in the woods please.

  • D

    Travis is the man he is doing it like a real Wyoming local born and raised! I cant wait to see this. You guys need to get real, the bark beetle probably killed 1000000000 trees this year go protest that. Wake Up!

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