The Fourth Phase, Travis Rice's snowboarding film

Travis Rice Pushes the Limits in The Fourth Phase

words: Andreas Tzortzis   
photography: Scott serfas, Tim zimmerman

Travis Rice is the man behind the biggest snowboarding films of all time. Now in The Fourth Phase, his relentless drive to go big – and the consequences that come with it – take center stage. But what happens when big air isn’t enough?
Tim Zimmerman
Tim Zimmerman

Photographer Tim Zimmerman, part of the media team we owe these stunning pictures to

Though he’s at the center of two snowboarding films that have forever altered the sports-documentary landscape, Travis Rice remains an enigma of sorts. For two decades, the Jackson Hole native has been the byword for going big in the backcountry. He chooses lines down peaks that only a handful of his peers would conceive of, let alone attempt. That’s It, That’s All [2008] and, five years ago, The Art of Flight brought his skills on a snowboard to mainstream audiences with the cinematic treatment typical of Hollywood blockbusters.

But very little was revealed about Rice himself, a deep thinker who chooses his words carefully. In The Fourth Phase, which debuts October 2 on Red Bull TV, Rice’s snowboarding vision, and the drive that allows him to break boundaries, are firmly in the foreground. 

The film’s main narrative involves Rice’s 3.5-year quest following a weather pattern around the Pacific Ocean:

  • from Tahiti
  • to Japan
  • to Russia 
  • and Alaska 
  • before returning home to Wyoming

But it’s also the story of Rice the man, a seeker attempting to come to grips with the fact that the relentlessness that has defined his career might have limits. 

© Youtube // Red Bull

THE RED BULLETIN: You grew up in Jackson Hole—a place that features prominently in all of your films. Snow sports must’ve been a given.

TRAVIS RICE: My dad was a ski patroller. My mom was the first one to get me on skis at 2 or something. I skied until
I was 12, 13 years old. I wanted to try snowboarding. It looked super fun, and I was kind of torn because I had skied forever.

Also, your dad being a lifelong skier …

The unsaid was kind of, “Are you sure you want to do that?” In the end it was the simple fact that I didn’t get much pleasure from just turning on skis—it had to be an epic powder day. When I was snowboarding and starting out, it was a challenge, the simplicity of making a turn. There was a joy and thrill about getting the nuances of a turn dialed. Snowboarding is asymmetric. It’s a little more awkward and harder, but with that comes this sort of art form of leaning into a single-rail turn. 

The film’s narrative arc traces the path of the North Pacific Gyre

The North Pacific Gyre

The film’s narrative follows the path of the North Pacific Gyre, the Earth’s largest ecosystem. Starting in the South Pacific, the crew journeys to the Japanese Alps, the volcanic Kamchatka Peninsula and Kuril Islands in Russia and through the Alaska Range near Anchorage before coming home to Jackson Hole—all in the name of finding bigger and more remote riding. 

Is it like trying to find a rhythm, trying to find the music in it?

One hundred percent, and the beauty of finding a rhythm with the turn is, if you listen to a song, it usually stays to this 4/4 measure and there’s something consistent about it. While there are patterns, Mother Nature is not consistent. You find the rhythm but it’s spaced differently than a structured song. Because as you’re going down, you’re playing with the topography of the land, so your rhythm is constantly in flux.

Travis Rice, portrait

Travis Rice

One of the best big mountain snowboarders of his generation, Rice grew up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a region that features prominently in his three films. A big-air prodigy as a teenager, he continues to push boundaries with his backcountry escapades

Translating that approach to the big mountains you ride, do you have to have some sort of topographical recall in order to know what’s next?

You get really good at eyeing things up. Through trial and error you get better. On the lines we ride, we are rarely winging it. When you scope your line from afar, it’s about picking out landmarks and monuments. As you go down, you have a lot of blind rollovers—you can see 20 feet in front of you but after that you can’t see anything but the bottom of the valley. So you focus on sections. You know that blind rollover, that’s a landmark. You remember that landmark and you let go of any type of fear of going over it. And once you go over it you find your next landmark. That’s how it works.

But we’re talking about mountains with 100-foot drops off of cornices and cliffs and incredibly steep angles. How do you make those quick adjustments?

That’s the beauty that we’re trying to find up there. People are trying to find that flow, where you’re not trying to cognitively compute. It’s just action, reaction.

At the top, how much nervous energy is there? Is it about controlling fear?

It’s a beautiful thing where you have to make fear your ally. Because fear is not a bad thing—it’s there to keep us alive. The primal fear that is there, it’s there for a reason. I love it. You got to love it. It’s like an old friend that you’re embracing again. I’m definitely not fearless. I have a healthy relationship with that fear.

“You run the thing over and over in your head. You convince yourself that you can do it.”
Travis Rice

So how do you actually work up the courage to drop in?

You run the thing over and over in your head, you convince yourself you can do it. Fake it till you make it [laughs]. You kind of let doubt wash out. For me it’s crucial to always let it all go. The 10 to 15 seconds before I drop in, I’m thinking, I’m analyzing, I’m doing all these geometric equations in my head but then I’ve got to let it all go, I have to clear my mind. The last couple of breaths is to bring that angst and energy from your cranium and throat and upper chest and bring it back down into your stomach. It’s more a place of certainty.

The Fourth Phase is all about you coming to terms with being a seeker, as someone who is always looking for the next big challenge on untouched terrain. When did that begin?

I think it started for me at a young age. My father, in the summer, was a fly-fishing and backpacking guide, and so we were always doing adventuring on some level. I would work for him in the summer when I got older, when he did pack trips. I was able to be the llama boy. I would lead the llama train and take care of them. It’s still one of my favorite jobs of all time. It was so simple: You were the caretaker of these beautiful, majestic, honorary, stanky creatures that would spit at you. 

The Fourth Phase, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Rice’s proving grounds since he was a toddler on skis.

But secretly they probably appreciated you.

By the end of the trip they would know I was responsible for the food, the water. They spit on other people. So going into the backcountry was the product of a lifetime of adventuring.

So what are you seeking?

We’re looking for these geological oddities. We want weird. Weird is good. You spend enough time in the mountains to look for weird topography or features to play on. The glimpses of weird are few and far between, but you know they exist. You know that if there’s a small example of weirdness and it’s perfection, there is more out there. Ultimately it’s about finding these topographical oddities that are aligned with other elements, like the right amount of snowpack, the right temperature, protection from wind …
the factors have to all line up.

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The Fourth Phase, Hakuba, Japan at night

hakuba, japan

The forest sessions in the Japanese Alps are the film’s most visually stunning segment. Local Shin Biyajima gets deep after dark.

But is it about being the first to descend that particular mountain? Or is it about finding solitude?

It’s the fact that we, as snowboarders, are trying to find creative expression, an interpretation of how to ride the mountain. When you ride a plainer, beautiful flat mountain face, you can work on the nuances on how you turn. But the weirder it gets the more you have to interpret.

It’s these strange perversions of landscape that provide this puzzle that you have to pick apart and that’s what I love about the weird factor. Now, the solitude aspect, that’s one of the reasons everyone I know likes to go into the backcountry. It isolates you and usually a couple of your dearest friends and let’s you get together and experience and problem-solve and co-create. It’s that magic of being separated out and getting to do things as a small group. 

The Fourth Phase, Hakuba, Japan

Hakuba, Japan

Mikkel Bang in the treetops

For this film, you’ve brought several fellow riders along. There’s a great quote from you: “There’s something amazing about being with someone who’s gone somewhere they never anticipated going.” Expand on that.

I think it’s about sharing human growth, as individuals. In my own life, I’m constantly presented with things I’m not comfortable doing. It’s so easy to just walk away and say, “Naw, it’s cool. I’m not into that.” Because deep down, there’s this deep-rooted fear with any of us of getting it wrong or looking like an idiot. And if you’re willing to try you always get something out of it, even if it’s not positive. And I have done a lot of the going into the uncomfortable zone. That’s why I’m good at snowboarding. I went there at one point. I think it’s amazing to witness someone basically just say “f*ck it” and give it a try.

Or how wonderful it is to suck at something again?

Yes, amen, whether it’s your first time or whether it’s something you’ve done your whole life, but maybe not think you were capable of it. I’ve lived a life where I’ve had incredible breakthroughs doing that, and being with friends and knowing that they’re capable of it, they just don’t see that. For me, there’s almost nothing more rewarding than being with somebody and helping them into this place that they didn’t know they could go.

That’s one of the threads in the film, too. You’re bringing people to these unique locations based on what you think their potential is on a particular mountain.

Yeah, and this is the tough thing with this film. I set out for this film to be about not just me but about my people, my brothers in arms, the fellas I look up to and like to ride with. But it’s always tough when the film, at this final stage, narrows its focus. This film is about these places we go, these people we’re with.

The Fourth Phase, Kamchatka, Russia

kamchatka, russia

A volcanic peninsula that juts out into the Pacific Ocean, its unpredictable conditions demanded a lot of downtime.

You don’t think your life is interesting enough to merit a film?

I think I’m the wrong person to ask. If it were up to me—which is probably good that it’s not—this film would be more equally distributed, and unfortunately there’s just not enough time. I created and ideated this journey that we go on and I was lucky enough to have the privilege of inviting these other guys on these trips, and I do that because I’m a huge fan of all the other guys on this film. They’re all dynamic and unique humans in their own way and I love them very much. But maybe that’s the next chapter.

“We want to keep it challenging, and it evolves into this ‘little bit further, little bit bigger, little bit harder,’ trying to prove mind over matter.”

These guys also say of you that you don’t stop until you get what you want. What is it you want?

I want an idea to go from nothingness to somethingness. Aren’t we here to create and to show and to share?

Sure, but you seek it out on 10,000-foot peaks and ridges with deadly drops.

That’s something that’s been progressive. It’s something I’ve done for so long, and you get comfortable doing one way and you want to take it a little bit further. Ultimately we want to keep it interesting, to keep it challenging, and it evolves into this “little bit further, little bit bigger, little bit harder,” trying to prove mind over matter. It just progresses.

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“I realized that my early innocent, open-minded, open-hearted exploration had shifted into a little bit more of an escape.”

That sounds taxing.

It’s incredibly satisfying, and at a certain point you realize that it’s linear. You realize that it has no end. It’s this reciprocal loop that just continues for as long as you want it to continue, and I think at a certain point it gets to a certain place of “What is the point?”

Tordrillo Mountains, Alaska

Tordrillo Mountains, alaska

Photographer Tim Zimmerman takes it easy down the precipice 

When did you arrive at that place?

Tordrillo Mountains, alaska

Tordrillo Mountains, alaska

The infamous ‘Crack’, which Rice first rode in 2014 and skier Cody Townsend descended shortly after in a POV video that went viral

I’m still trying to hit it. The realization first rose quite a long time ago, because I’ve been driven to explore and I’ve been a seeker for quite some time. I think at a certain point I realized that my early innocent, open-minded, open-hearted exploration had shifted into a little bit more of an escape. I could either deal with the blandness of answering emails and dealing with the mediocre madness of my day-to-day or I could go and do something more exciting. It became more of an escape.

Could you have a day job? When did you realize you could make a living off of this?

I didn’t realize I was going to be a snowboarder until quite late. I was doing construction in the summer so I could afford to do some travel in the winter. Beyond that I was interested in the natural sciences.

Your respect and love for nature is a constant thread throughout, but how do you get closer to that by snowboarding down mountains?

The snowboarding aspect is just the vessel, just the tool to be able to spend time outdoors. Spend the time to be able to go into the eye of these storms and see nature at its rawest.

You’ve run into your fair share of avalanches as well. What are the aftereffects?

It’s a beautiful reminder of the raw forces that exist that we’re constantly trying to dance around out there. We have a big crew and we have a lot of people on the mountain, especially in a camp-type situation where everybody is hiking, everybody is walking. It’s a lot of exposure. For us, the most important element is getting people home at the end of the day. For me that experience was this gift— bring this with you on your next journey to keep everyone out of harm’s way.

The Fourth Phase, avalanche in the Tordrillo Mountains

Tordrillo Mountains, alaska

Avalanches constitute an occupational hazard for the crew 

You start off sailing around French Polynesia, where this hydrological cycle you’re following begins. You seem more at peace out there than in the mountains, where you’re always searching for the next big thing.

You’re forced into slowing down, you’re forced into dealing with all the inputs that you have at that single time and keeping a boat going at its slow speed. The wind’s constantly shifting, the weather’s constantly moving. And you are just a caretaker captaining this boat. There’s something beautifully simple about that.

Your last films were about capturing the spectacle of what you do on a mountain—was this meant to be different?

The last two films we felt that we did a good job of bringing crazy cinematography with incredible locations…the aerials, being able to immerse people and bring them along for the ride. After The Art of Flight, I didn’t feel the need to spend years making that film again. I think our crew was ready to try something a little more challenging. Ultimately, with a documentary-style process like this, we didn’t know where the end of this movie was going to take us. We didn’t know we were going to get shut down from doing this camping trip in this amazing area of Alaska. We thought three years was enough. We had these goals and principles we wanted to touch upon, but we definitely didn’t know how the film was going to turn out.

Tordrillo Mountains, Alaska

tordrillo mountains, Alaska

The Tordrillo Mountain range in Alaska offers some of the most remote, rideable backcountry in the world. It’s the reason why the region features heavily not just in Rice’s films, but in those of other riders and skiers as well. Here, Rice takes flight

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Filmmaking in leaps and bounds

In the three years Rice and director Jon Klaczkiewicz spent filming The Fourth Phase, a number of industry-wide advances in equipment enabled them to capture scenes they never could before. Hand-held gyro-stablised sticks on which they stuck a GoPro camera produced footage of Rice following a rider down a ridge “that looked like a video game”, says Klaczkiewicz.

New drones that were more stable and could carry heavier loads opened up the possibility of shooting Phantom camera footage at 4,000 frames/second from an aerial point of view – no helicopters required. “The tech right now is insane and the barrier to entry is getting lower,” says Klaczkiewicz. “It’s going to make the creativity and storytelling be more of a factor for a competitive advantage.” 

To what extent do you think about the audience in this? Do you create just to create?

We don’t think too much about how the outside world perceives it. We rely more on how we would like to see it. And it’s been a tough process, because we’re core- centric in how we look at things, and this film further walks the line.

But you’re not core-centric.

I’ve been watching snowboard videos since I was 12. I’ve been in it for so long that I need something more, but I still hold those core principles. But I think to put the core mentality in this box and label it that all we want is just hard music and action, that’s not the case at all. One thing the core does well is they live it. They appreciate the simplicity of a film that is good music and good riding … but then they go and they live the whole experience. They don’t have be told about how it’s so much more than that.

But you don’t want to keep it for yourself. You want that to get across to people.

I went into this project trying to allow an honest thing to come out of it. Which has been a taxing and challenging process this whole film. It’s been beautiful being able to go out on these locations, but ultimately, the toughest part is having to wrap it.

“It’s trying to share how I see snowboarding. I see it as this multi-dimensional thing. It’s so much more than guys doing triple corks at the Olympics.”

What do you want your legacy to be?

It’s trying to share how I see snowboarding. I see it as this multi- dimensional thing. It’s so much more than guys doing triple corks in the Olympics. You watch our film and it’s so much more than us in the backcountry, pushing against weather, hitting these jumps, riding these big lines. I think through the films we’ve tried to do, we go into the mountains and share with friends real intimate experiences.

If I can help portray that—because that’s why I got out of snowboarding—I try my hardest to pass that on and pay it forward. Snowboarding has done a lot for me, and if I can, through these films, spark a little bit of interest to go try that. Or beyond simply snowboarding—go find yourself out in nature a little bit. I think everyone in the end wins. 

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10 2016 The Red Bulletin 

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