Rice discovered snowboarding at age 10, when the sport was still young and the community of riders in Jackson was small.
BY ANNIE FAST
IN THE YOUNG SPORT OF SNOWBOARDING, there’s something of an accepted—or expected— trajectory for a professional’s career. It’s safe to say that it usually doesn’t start on the top of the X Games podium, and it certainly doesn’t progress upward from there.
In this respect Jackson, Wyoming’s Travis Rice is an anomaly. His 15-year snowboard career has evolved beyond the sheer athleticism that landed him contest medals and in celebrated video parts. His resume now includes producer credits on big budget film projects and event organizer of an innovative freestyle contest.
He’s succeeded in making a huge impact in a sport that usually only sees the mainstream spotlight once every four years—and he’s done it on his own terms.
Rice was raised in Wilson, Wyoming, down the road from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort where his dad was a ski patroller and taught him to ski at a young age. Rice discovered snowboarding at age 10, when the sport was still young and the community of riders in Jackson was small. “That was a great scene to come up in,” Rice says, “I was just making it up. It was always this very open-ended experience without limit or rule.”
"I’ll never forget it, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I’d never seen anyone ride with so much raw talent. He had power, style and control and he was still in high school."
The local crop of riders included Bryan Iguchi, a top professional and transplant from the exploding Southern California scene. Iguchi, both a mentor and contemporary of Rice, remembers the first time he saw Rice hit a jump.
“I’ll never forget it, the hair on the back of my neck stood up,” Iguchi said. “I’d never seen anyone ride with so much raw talent. He had power, style and control and he was still in high school. I knew at that moment he was destined for success and was going to change snowboarding.”
Rice’s ascendance from talented local rider to worldwide acclaim was quick. In the spring of 2001, shortly after high school graduation, his big break came at a contest hosted by Snowboarder Magazine. Rice threw a backside 540-degree spin over a 114-foot jump in front of the entire industry, besting the efforts of the top pro riders.
Snowboarder Magazine Creative Director Pat Bridges was there, and recalls, “Travis was that rare talent who seemed to be playing with a different deck of cards than everyone else.”
As usual, Rice is in a good mood when we chat over the phone in September. His cheerful voice a perfect match to his looks, which haven’t changed much over the years—the blond hair, bright blue eyes, and his signature wide, dimpled grin. A smile that can move mountains—and move people to perform beyond their limits.
Rice will be the first to share credit for many of his accomplishments, which he believes are achieved only through the effort of like-minded individuals. “I fit in there as this ultimate motivator,” says Rice, who has earned the nickname “Optimistic Prime,” a reference to his willingness to push himself and others to believe extraordinary results are never out of reach.
It’s these results that Rice is after as he immerses himself in the editing process of his latest film, Depth Perception. This movie is a total departure for Rice—a full-length feature with limited fanfare and a bare bones production crew. The fact that the editing bay is in Bozeman, Montana, instead of downtown Los Angeles, is indicative of this sea change.
“This film was a concept I came up with years ago that we initially thought was going to be a short art film,” he said. The project evolved into a full-length movie shot entirely in the British Columbia interior along with three other riders, Bryan Fox, Austen Sweetin and Robin Van Gyn. The premise, Rice says, is “both a whimsical and scientific look at the symbiotic ecosystem of the interior B.C. rainforest.”
The ecological focus of the film is reflective of Rice’s ongoing interest in the larger biorhythms of the planet, which he also explored in his 2016 release, The Fourth Phase, a four-year project produced by Red Bull Media House and Brain Farm Digital Cinemas. In the film, he pursued the ambitious goal of following the hydrologic cycle in the North Pacific.
“You could call [Depth Perception] a rebound project,” he says, referring to the immense challenge posed by The Fourth Phase. Rice is proud of that movie, but seems to have been exhausted by the process that was crowded with, in his words, too many cooks in the kitchen.
"Travis was that rare talent who seemed to be playing with a different deck of cards than everyone else."
This isn’t surprising, as The Fourth Phase followed on the heels of arguably the most successful snowboard movie of all time, The Art Of Flight. The 2011 film brought the thrill of the sport to a mainstream audience—it was the No. 1 iTunes movie in the U.S. at its release and earned Rice a nod as a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year.
The Art Of Flight was a bold endeavor, bringing viewers on an exploration of remote terrain paired with incredible feats of big mountain snowboarding, with Rice as both narrator and standout star of the film.
Rice says he juggled many roles in that multi-year project. “I was sharing directorial/producer roles, essentially where we went, how we went about it and the riders that came with us was usually all up to me.” Rice continued in that robust role during all four years of The Fourth Phase, which serves to explain his embrace of the scaled-down production of Depth Perception. “It reminds me of the old days of snowboard filmmaking,” he said.
The “old days” would have been the early part of his career when Rice, one year into his snowboard career, earned a 2002 X Games Slopestyle gold medal—a first for a rookie rider. The win exemplified Rice’s natural talent, combining technical skill with a willingness to go really, really big.
He followed his X Games win with a series of equally groundbreaking accomplishments including a harrowing feat in 2004, airing over a 120-foot manmade jump in the Utah backcountry dubbed Chad’s Gap while filming for Absinthe Films. The jump had previously been hit by pro skiers, but there was serious doubt that snowboarders could manage the speed—estimated at nearly 50 mph—needed to reach the landing.
"Out on the ocean, with a tight group of friends, at the mercy of your own decision making—it’s hard, it’s a lot of work but incredibly rewarding. And it’s a good balance from being in the mountains."
Rice was naturally the first snowboarder to hit it, easily clearing the gap and nearly overshooting it. This session essentially defined the sport that winter and was captured on magazine covers and in his memorable film part.
Soon afterward, while filming another Absinthe project, Rice landed a new trick—a frontside double cork 1080. While riders had been doing 1080-degree spins, what set this trick apart was the double cork, essentially an off-axis rotation thrown into the spin. This trick was remarkable for ushering in the era of doublecorks, a progression that will be on display in the 2018 Winter Olympics Snowboarding Big Air. Look for riders to execute variations on Rice’s trick, which has evolved to now include quadruple corks and 1800 degrees of rotation.
Rice could easily be competing in the Winter Olympics, but it’s not really his style anymore and he’s conflicted about the direction of the sport’s competitive side. “The talent of the next generation of snowboarders is incredible, but,” he carefully adds, “it’s gotten so specific.” He shares a common critique of modern freestyle snowboarding: a lack of creativity brought on by stifling judging and rotational one-upmanship.
Rice sees other opportunities to evolve the sport, especially as an event organizer. In 2008, he launched the first incarnation of his ideal contest at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, aptly dubbed Natural Selection, which mirrored his own pioneering style of combining progressive tricks and steep, untamed backcountry slopes.
This contest evolved into Ultra Natural, held in 2012 and 2013 at Baldface Lodge, a backcountry cat skiing destination near Nelson, British Columbia. Ultra Natural aired on NBC as well as worldwide on Red Bull TV.
Jeff Pensiero, owner and operator of Baldface Lodge, worked with Rice and a burly crew of Nelson-based builders. “It took me a month to even understand what [Rice] was talking about— jumps 60 to 80 feet off the ground,” Pensiero said. “After we had the first few done, we had Rice out for a visit. He looks at these gnarly mountain guys, and says, ‘All these need to be higher—10, 20, 30 feet higher.’
“The guy has vision,” Pensiero says.
Rice still sees these past contests as “beta events” leading to a realization of his ultimate vision. He’s actively on the hunt for a remote new location, one where he can execute a bigger, steeper, wilder contest to further challenge the skills of the top snowboarders in the world.
Despite having a full slate of projects on his plate, Rice still finds time to focus his attention on sailing, another hobby he picked up from his father—and he’s gone big with this pursuit as well. He sails a 48-foot gunboat, a high-performance cruising catamaran that has served as his second home for the last six years. He counts two-time America’s Cup winner Shannon Falcone among his friends and mentors.
Following our September conversation, Rice was setting sail from French Polynesia to Hawaii with big wave surfer Ian Walsh. In sailing, he sees parallels to backcountry riding. “Out on the ocean, with a tight group of friends, at the mercy of your own decision making—it’s hard, it’s a lot of work but incredibly rewarding. And it’s a good balance from being in the mountains.”
And then? Rice will follow the hydrologic cycle back to Jackson Hole for another winter pioneering the sport of snowboarding.
Annie Fast is an outdoor adventure writer currently based in Bend, Oregon. She started writing while studying at Montana State University, documenting the exploits of inspiring locals, while herself exploring the surrounding mountains on her snowboard. This led to a 10-year tenure at TransWorld SNOWboarding magazine, where she previously served as the editor in chief. She’s still an avid snowboarder and still in awe of the talent of those around her.