When discussing snowboarding, it’s tough to bring up the name Travis Rice without also discussing Shaun White. They are hands-down the two biggest names in the sport, but also operate on opposite poles: both are extremely driven, smart and talented, but the similarities don’t extend much past that. White is the contest guy, riding with a competitive fire that has earned him Olympic gold. Rice, while not contest averse, is known more for his adventurous freeriding in far-flung locations that are chronicled in his film projects, the latest of which The Fourth Phase premieres on Red Bull TV on October 2.
Each style of riding has its merits and aesthetic appeal, but Rice’s encompasses the human struggle in a much more visceral way. Watching him hop out of a helicopter onto the top of a razor’s edge peak in Alaska, everything is at play: man versus nature, man with nature, man versus himself. The Fourth Phase relays that struggle and the quest to find meaning beyond “It’s fun!” in a way that the trio of movies that preceded it (The Community Project, That’s It, That’s All, The Art Of Flight) do not. Those movies raised the bar of what is typically called “snow porn.” Using the most advanced cameras, shooting the most progressive riding in the the most exotic locations, they captured snowboarding in a way that had never been done before. Imagine the Planet Earth series, but with insane stunts.
This latest film doesn’t sacrifice the riding by any means. If you just want to watch sick tricks, you will get that. But it also showcases how far one man (and a huge support crew) are willing to go to fulfill a vision.
Over lunch at Locanda Verde in New York’s Tribeca (he arrived by skidding onto the sidewalk in a bike he’d borrowed from his hotel), Rice discussed the evolution of his riding and his films, and how far he is willing to push it.
How is Fourth Phase different from your previous movies?
In the past, the primary focus has been sharing the message that snowboarding is fun. This is a much more personal story. Ultimately, snowboarding is the vehicle that takes us out into the backcountry to have these experiences. With this film, we’ve let go of the more surface level “Hey, snowboarding is fun” because we’ve established that and tried to go a little deeper into the path of someone who’s centered their life around not only snowboarding, but trying to come in sync with the biorhythms of the planet and develop a better understanding of these hydrological processes.
How has climate change impacted some of those processes and your quest?
Tahoe is the perfect example. What was it, three seasons they didn’t have a winter? It was insane. It’s normal for places to have abnormal years. The pendulum does swing. But I’m thinking directly about some of the locations we visited. We pretty much encountered abnormal weather for the entire filming of this project. There’s no doubt that [climate change] is real. Take Alaska this year. From January 1 through the end of May, the average temperature for those five months was 12 degrees fahrenheit above average and all five of those months were record breakers, historically speaking. I don’t think snowboarding or winter sports is by any means doomed, but that will continue to become more of a reality.
What were some of the craziest adventures you had while filming this movie?
Setting out, I made a pact to myself that we wouldn’t ride anything we had ridden before. Not just to go after first descents, but we wanted to take a more uncertain path. If you look at action sports as a whole, it’s so often about the location that people go ride, or surf, or skate. Usually it’s 80-90%, going to the same spot. We wanted to push ourselves to change the whole paradigm. It was way more work. This is the hardest project all of us, crew included, have ever worked on. We also got way more out of it. You find you get the most out of situations where shit does not go the way you hoped that it would. That’s one of the really big lessons that comes through [the movie].
Were there any specific moments that stand out?
Many, my friend. On our trip to Kamchatka [in Russia], there were a ton of question marks. The helicopter we had is called a Mi-8. Going into it we thought: this is a sketchy Russian helicopter. But I ended up loving it because you can fit 15 people and all the gear. Plus, I knew that we were going to be operating on the coast so I brought a bunch of Lib Tech surfboards and Quiksilver’s thickest wetsuits. One day we were going up to ride this volcano. It was the coldest day of the trip, -40 degrees fahrenheit. In the U.S., the helicopters probably wouldn’t even start up. As we were headed up these clouds form and it’s like OK, let’s turn around. But I could see on the ocean that there was some swell lines. I said let’s fly to the coast and see if we can find a surf break. We found a couple beautiful ones, but they had too much sea ice. Finally, we got around this corner and there was one bay that had no sea ice. We waited a couple minutes and a set came through and we all just lost it. It was perfect. We ended up having almost a 3-hour session out there. The water temp was between -1 and -2 celsius. It was so cold. For me that was the highlight of my trip to Russia.
Just a side note, we were with a surfer who lives in Kamchatka. He said for sure nobody has ever surfed this wave before so we were able to name a break. We ended up naming it bearskins because when we first flew in we didn’t realize there was this little hunter’s shack. Once we got in the water, this guy comes out, an old Russian dude in military garb, so weathered. We’re 25-30 miles from the nearest road. He comes out looking super shifty-eyed and ends up talking to our guide and the pilot and told us he’d trade us a full-size grizzly bear hide for two bottles of vodka. But we didn’t have the vodka. We were so pissed. We ended up naming the wave bearskins and the rest of the trip we flew with two bottles of vodka but never made it back to make the trade.
How has your riding changed since your first one of these movies, The Community Project?
I would like to think of it as becoming more integrated into an all-mountain approach. I come from a contest background so trying to implement the freestyle elements and trickery into big mountain riding has always been the goal. I find that is the most fun type of riding, trying to draw your own line down the mountain.
What was the most memorable location you visited filming for this project?
Being in Japan we hiked out to some pretty wild shit that we never even thought was in Japan. Kamchatka, we didn’t get it as good as we wanted. But I know that it does get good there. In Alaska, we spent four years trying to get to a zone called So Far Gone. For about six years I’ve been looking at this area, trying to get out there. It took us several years just to get a permit. One of the biggest goals of the film was to make it out to this place. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever come across and no one has even been out there. We were poised to go out there for three years and never made it. This last year it was shaping up really nicely. The conditions were coming into alignment but you’re just going to have to watch the film [to see what happens].
Where did your interest in sailing develop?
I started sailing when my dad started. He just went for it when I was 15 or 16, starting in Florida and the Bahamas. I got hooked on the lifestyle. Why I stuck with it is that as everyone continues to be more and more busy, it’s harder to have real experiences with people that last longer than a meal. I got so much out of taking a few weeks and going [sailing] somewhere and spending time with close friends and family. While they’re so different, snowboarding and sailing, they’re also similar because you’re usually with a close group of people that you dearly care about. And you’re out at the mercy of your own decision making, living outside of the inflatable bumpers that is society these days. I find that I learn the most about myself in those situations where you can’t ask other people for help.
That idea of self-reliance seems very core to your pursuits.
It’s been a long road for me. When I was a kid, my dad was a fly-fishing guide—I would always help him in the summers. Adventure was this intriguing thing, going to new places and seeing new things, meeting new people, having new experiences. It gave me a perspective that I really valued. But honestly, at a certain point, it became apparent that adventure for adventure’s sake was this linear pursuit that there was no end game to. It wasn’t necessarily taking me to this realization of anything more than the grass is greener. What I’ve appreciated about the time that we’ve had to work on this last project is that things started to shape up about how so much of adventure is this kind of internal exploration. I think the more appropriate word would be ‘inventure.’ That has a lot to do with the real point of this.