January 10, 2013
The cyclist who comes to Peru having heard warnings about malaria, rain and polluted water may be as alarmed as I was as we descended from the mountains into a landscape of flailing-armed cacti, spiny succulents like giant artichokes and sand dunes like mountains. Peru’s coast is home to one of the most barren, most imposing deserts I have seen. No place in Greece or Turkey compares in dryness, and even other bona fide deserts, like the cacti wonderland of Baja California or the shrubby sprawl of the Kalahari, cannot match this one—called the Sechura Desert—in sheer lifelessness.
As we crested out at sea level and began our northward advance along the Pan-American Highway, fantastic scenery unfurled—miles and miles of sprawling sand hills, some of the dunes hundreds of feet high, and running all the way from the eastern horizon to the ocean. In places, settlements of inhabited shacks clung to the mountainsides, with rags, bags and torn burlap flapping in the wind. We have come more than 200 miles in two days on the coast, and for much of that distance we have seen not a living blade of grass—just barren scorched rock and dunes. We saw four huge, soaring vulture-like birds yesterday that may have been condors, a few dogs and too many roadside human memorials to count—the sad reminders of traffic deaths. We know the land will turn green eventually, as we have heard Ecuador is a tropical haven, and we’re anticipating that transition. So far the desert shows no signs of relenting, outside of occasional green and irrigated valleys of mango and avocado orchards.
The Sechura Desert is truly an anomaly of a place. Look at the other great deserts of the world. There is the Atacama of Chile, the Kalahari of southern Africa, the giant Sahara of northern Africa, the Mexican-American Sonoran Desert and the great desert of Australia. For all their distinguishing points, these regions all have one prominent feature in common—their latitude. Each one is situated between about 20 and 30 degrees south or north of the Equator. This is no coincidence. Rather, this latitude zone is simply where deserts happen. It’s a function of wind patterns and sun, high pressure and a persistent absence of cloud formation. (There are a few exceptions to this global pattern—namely the mid-continent, high-latitude deserts of Asia and the American West, these areas denied water largely due to their distance from the sea and moisture sources.)
But the Sechura Desert lies between about 5 and 15 degrees latitude south. Why? The Andes. They tower just a few miles to the east, 15,000 to 20,000 feet high all the way from Ecuador to central Chile, creating in certain places what geographers call a rain shadow. That is, air coming from the east via the trade winds waters the Amazon basin generously, as well as the east-facing slope of the Andes. Here, the air rises and cools. Condensation occurs, and clouds drench the mountains. But as that air begins to descend on the west face, cloud formation halts as the air warms. Rainfall ceases. And at sea level, there is a desert, waiting for the water that rarely arrives. The Sechura receives just ten centimeters of precipitation each year in parts.
The beauty of this place is fleeting yet very real in an almost horrifying way. Thankfully, we have had a screaming tailwind for days. Yesterday, we averaged almost 15 miles per hour—great time on loaded bicycles. At about 3 p.m. we passed Paramonga, a town that probably would have had a cheap hotel or campground. But it was too early to quit. “Should we get water?” Andrew suggested. “We have two liters, and we’ll hit another town before long,” I said. But we didn’t. About three hours later, a road sign told us that the next big town—Huarmey—was still 75 kilometers ahead. The afternoon shadows grew longer and the road continued seemingly without end. In places, it shot ahead like an arrow—as often as not uphill. We began to tire, and we wondered where we would sleep, and whether we would have dinner. At last, after ten miles of unhappy silence between us, we saw a truck stop ahead. It was a cluster of restaurants and grocery shacks. We bought water first, then purchased the only onsite food that we considered safe from microbial dangers—beer. A truck driver eating dinner observed our obvious hunger, went outside to his truck and produced a bag of apples and peaches. We thanked him profusely, then thought about bed. It was too late to continue, and we asked the owner of one of the café shacks if we could camp out back. Without a thought, he waved us in. He and his family lived without running water on a bare earth floor. In back, in a yard of trash and blown sand, was a small clay and wood shack. ”How much?” we asked. He waved away the mention of money. We settled in, had our beers and fruit, and read our books until we nodded off. We learned our lesson and will keep a supply of water and food available. I am not afraid of sleeping in the wild, but to finish 100 miles without a dinner is not my favorite sort of suffering.
We took a break at the beach for a morning in Tortugas, a beautiful bay on the Pacific ringed by rocky shores and cliffs and restaurants. We went for coffee at the El Farol Hostal and chatted with our waiter about local fish species, diving, spearfishing, the average visibility in the water and other elements of the seascape. He told us the water is cold enough to require wetsuits—even just several degrees from the Equator. He also said halibut live here—a pleasant surprise for Californians who grew up pursuing the local rendition of the fish. We wished we had time to stay in Tortugas, but we’ve discovered that cycling from Lima to Quito in 20 days means booking it in high gear.
Aside from scattered moments of rest and joy with coffee or mangoes or lucumas on a plaza bench in the shade, the nonstop tailwind is our chief joy out here. Yesterday, as we went the last 15 miles to the town of Casma, we rode for five full kilometers on level ground without pedaling at all, watching with laughter as each kilometer marker came sailing past. I’ve never known a wind to fly so forcefully, so directly along a roadway as this wind does. We have made incredible time with the southerly in our favor, and we’re especially glad to see this desert go by, although at scattered vista points we can’t help but stop and remark that this lifeless, endless landscape is amazing to see. But the desert is wearing us down—especially the daily skirmishes we have with each big town. These are nightmares of congestion, dust and discomfort. Consider one recent image seared into my mind: On a hot, windy day in Huacho, we were battling the frantic heat and dust, looking for a fruit market and dodging the aggressive three-wheeled moto-taxis. Then, across the raging boulevard, I caught a glimpse of a girl, seated, holding a smaller child in her arms. The bigger girl’s head hung in despair—and I noticed then that the smaller girl sagged limply from head to toe. Scores of people were walking past. Wasn’t anyone going to help them? I wasn’t sure what to do. Somewhere else I would have stopped immediately—but here, in Huacho, Peru, four lanes of snarling traffic separated us from the girls. Neither Andrew nor I had a cell phone, spoke fluently in Spanish or knew where a hospital was. A moment later, a blast of heat and dust from a passing bus swept the sight from mind, and we continued forward, battling the streets in defense of our own lives, and hunting for a watermelon.
January 7, 2013
That there could be anything in the world but dust, rubble, traffic, burning trash heaps, mangy dogs and slums seemed impossible as we rolled northward through Lima. Andrew and I had just unpacked and assembled our bicycles in the airport terminal after 13 hours in the air. We were dehydrated, hungry, sleepy and, now, trying to steel ourselves against this grimy ugliness. We found a two-gallon jug of purified water at a gas station, the tap water being off-limits to foreigners preferring not to risk getting sick, and moved north along the Pan-American Highway. Through the polluted hazy air we saw the brown ghosts of mountain peaks towering just east of the city—the abrupt beginning to the Andes. But here, we were all but blinded by traffic, noise and ugliness. I assured myself that the city would soon give way to countryside—it always does, whether leaving Madrid, or Athens, or Milan, or Istanbul—but the sprawling slums seemed endless. Dust plumed into our faces, cars honked, dogs barked. We grew sticky and filthy with sweat, sunscreen and dirt. For several miles we followed a bicycle path—a heartening gesture by this monster of a city—but trash heaps blocked the way in places.
At some point we saw a patch of green grass. Later, we sat on a grassy road median to eat a cluster of bananas. I recall hearing a bird chirp farther down the road. A farm appeared, and trees. We both took notice at once of a soccer field in a green river valley. Trees by the road sagged with mangoes, while others were studded with ripening figs. We found ourselves riding side by side—for the traffic had thinned. The transition was complete. We were, finally, in the countryside, with Lima a horror we hoped not to see again soon. By evening we were crawling uphill, well on our way to a mountain town called Canta—though it was still a vertical mile above and 50 miles ahead. Near dusk, with fruit and canned tuna and wine for dinner, we rolled through the gate of a campground, called Sol de Santa Rosa. “Showers and bathrooms are back toward the orchard,” our host said in Spanish. “Camp anywhere you like on the green grass.”
Cherimoya season is on here in the mountains, true to our hopes. The big, green, heart-shaped, alligator-skinned creatures are heaped on tables at roadside fruit shacks, with painted signs telling passersby that the fruits are ripe. When Andrew and I first saw a sign reading “Chirimoya madura,” we pulled over in a hurry. Five soles per kilo, the man inside the shack told us. About $1 per pound. I told the vendor that this was very exciting for us, that cherimoyas are an exotic fruit in California, where most are imported and sold for at least $8 each. “Here,” the man said, “we are in the center of production.” We each bought a three-pounder for dinner, and that evening in camp sliced them in two. A ripe cherimoya is pliable, like a ripe avocado. Inside, the flesh is snow-white and studded with raisin-size black seeds. The flesh is intensely sweet, fibrous near the stem and otherwise seamless and creamy throughout. It tastes like pineapple, banana and bubble gum. Cherimoyas are native to the Andes, and the season here runs December through April. We’ve landed in a bed of roses.
We’ve also taken a liking to a new fruit called lucuma, a round, greenish-brown tree fruit with a smooth, plastic-like hide and starchy, sticky pumpkin-colored flesh, somewhat like a hard-boiled egg yolk. The fruit is a Peruvian specialty, made into sweets and ice cream and virtually unknown in America. Mangoes, too, are superb, here—with brilliant aroma and a fresh, tangy, concentrated flavor. We’ve found avocados cheap and abundant, and heaps of grapes, which we won’t touch, guessing they’ve been washed with local tap water. As we move through each small village, we ignore the smells of cooking meat and vegetables from restaurants, and we pass by the offers from sidewalk vendors selling tamales and hot drinks. One vendor sliced us a piece of cheese as we looked over his fruits—and we all but ran from the place. Ceviche, too, is another local food we won’t touch—not yet, anyway, as we’ve been advised repeatedly not to eat anything potentially contaminated by dirty water or sloppy handling. But the cherimoyas almost make up for our losses.
The season here has us confused. We are in the Southern Hemisphere by about ten degrees of latitude, and so we would expect this to be summer. But folks are telling us we have come in the winter, that July in the Andes is summer and that when it is summer on the coast it is winter in the mountains. We got hit by a thunderstorm as we crawled uphill toward Canta, and as we wrapped tarps around our bikes we saw that we may need to work out a better rain gear system. Locals say the rain is heavy this time of year. Dense fog enveloped us at about the 9,000 foot level as we crawled onward, and we are feeling the altitude—gasping to recover our breath each time we speak or have a drink of water. We have each taken a dose of altitude pills, and we hope not to get sick, as the only certain cure for altitude sickness is to turn around—and we don’t wish just yet to see Lima again.
We finally made our arrival in the much anticipated town of Canta, and to our alarm there is almost nothing here—nothing, after 80 miles of following road signs and mile markers and believing we were on our way to a mountain hub of activity and recreation and great outdoor markets and vegetarian yoga communes with food to share and Internet cafés and shops offering wireless 3G plans. Nothing, that is, except for fruit shacks, tamale vendors, a cheap hotel and the high Andes surrounding us. Now, considering the many dismal shades of Lima, nothing doesn’t seem bad at all.
Further Into the Andes
Ahead we see on our map Lago Junín, a large high-altitude mountain lake, the sizable towns of Cerro de Pasco and Huanaco and the great mountain pass of Ticlio, or Anticona.
January 3, 2013
For those who grow dreamy-eyed at thoughts of high mountains, vacant wilderness, quinoa on the camp stove and the ever-present chance of seeing a puma, Peru is gold country. The nation encompasses a substantial portion of the low-lying Amazon rainforest as well as a balmy coastline 1,400 miles long—the destinations of jungle explorers, bird watchers, river adventurers and surfers. But it’s the Andes that constitute the nation’s heart. This longest of the world’s mountain ranges runs thousands of miles north to south and largely defines the landscape and the spirit of Peru. In these high Peruvian elevations are sites like Machu Picchu and Cusco, almost endless wilderness, wild cats, guanacos (the wild relatives of alpacas and llamas) and a species of unusual bear and dozens of peaks higher than 18,000 feet. But—good news for travelers—these mountains are not inaccessible. Navigable roads crisscross the spine of the Andes, providing access to some of the planet’s most tremendous and inspiring scenery.
One of the very highest paved passes in the world is just 80 miles from Lima—Ticlio, or Anticona. Now, as I make final arrangements for a trip to Peru with my bicycle, the temptation to ride directly to Anticona is strong—but my brother Andrew, also on this trip, and I have thought better of the idea. The overall climb and the final altitude of almost 16,000 feet on day one just might kill us. Altitude sickness is a very real concern in places like Peru for people like us, who have spent our lives mostly at sea level. To treat this ailment we are packing pills. “Take 1 tablet orally 2 times a day starting 1 day before reaching high altitude, then continue for at least 3 days,” the bottle of Acetazolamide directs us. Yet the best cure may be preventative—becoming acclimated over time. For we would prefer not to subsist on a diverse diet of pills—we also have pills to treat our water, pills to fight stomach bugs, pills for typhoid, anti-inflammatory pills and malaria pills. By remaining high enough—5,000 feet up seems to be the magic number—we can avoid disease-bearing mosquitoes, but that brings us back to those altitude pills. We may just have to take our medicine.
Andrew returns to the States from Quito, Ecuador, three weeks from now, which gives us something of an objective—a 1,100-mile trip to this lofty city (altitude 9,350 feet), arriving by no later than January 19. En route, we’ll have many opportunities to climb two-mile-high passes—and we may try and grab a glance of Mount Huascarán. If we were climbers, this might be our target conquest. Huascarán is the highest mountain in Peru, the highest in the tropics and the fifth highest in all the Andes. It stands 22,205 feet (6,768 meters) above sea level and is preserved within a national park of the same name. The energy costs of cycling on loaded bikes across this sort of terrain may amount to about 4,000 calories per day (we will probably consume about 60 calories per mile of pedaling), which has us already thinking about food. Peru is tropical, and we anticipate a fantastic selection of fruits at outdoor markets. We hope to go especially heavy on cherimoyas, an Andean native that is too costly (often $6 per fruit or so) to buy more than a few times per year in the States. But food, especially fresh produce and the stuff of street vendors, must be treated with caution in Peru. It’s a tall order for travelers fighting a constant calorie deficit—but it is, in fact, our doctors’ orders. Anything with a thick peel should be safe, they have advised us, but raw vegetable salads will wait until we’re home again. We’re not to drink the water, either, and have been advised by experienced travelers to only drink purified water from sealed plastic bottles.
In Turkey about 15 months ago, I had the pleasure of a meeting a brown bear at midnight just outside my tent and then enjoyed a rousing slapstick time of ducking under the bullets of poachers who began firing at the animal. But bears are abundant in Eurasia, while in South American they are not. The spectacled bear lives in much of the northern Andes, but its population consists of just several thousand animals between Bolivia and Venezuela. The spectacled bear is the last living descendant of the enormous short-faced bear, which vanished from North America 12,500 years ago. The odds of seeing a wild bear in Peru are tiny, but the fact that it’s possible elevates this land into a realm of wildness that places like England, Holland, Kansas and Portugal lost long ago, sacrificed for agriculture and towns. Bears, like no other creatures, embody the spirit of wildness (never mind the trash-fat black bears of America’s suburbs and national parks). The world is a richer place just for having these big-muscled carnivores at large—even if we may never see them. Other Peruvian wildlife viewing possibilities include tapirs, anacondas, caimans, jaguars and an incredible wealth of river fishes—including the giant arapaima—in the Amazon basin. In the highlands live guanacos. Tiptoeing through the mountains are also pumas (same species as the cougar or mountain lion), and condors fly overhead. I once read somewhere that hikers in the Andes can be tipped off to the presence of a puma by the sudden appearance of one or more condors ascending into the sky—presumably chased off a half-eaten kill by the returning cat. I’ll be bird watching if it may help me see a cat.
We’ve kept our gear as basic as can be without unnecessarily sacrificing simple comforts. We are packing a bug-proof and waterproof two-person tent, powerful sunscreen, a camping stove, sleeping bags, books, basic bike repair gear and our decadent pill rations. We’re rolling on essentially flat-proof Armadillo tires—and I’ll be writing about our travels from cozy mountain campsites. I’m a Luddite in many ways, but 3G Internet access is a modern miracle I welcome, from the fringes of the civilized world.
December 11, 2012
As polar bears watch their winter ice recede farther and farther from boggy Arctic shores each year, skiers may notice a similar trend occurring in the high mountain ranges that have long been their wintertime playgrounds. Here, in areas historically buried in many feet of snow each winter, climate change is beginning to unfurl visibly, and for those who dream of moguls and fresh powder, the predictions of climatologists are grim: By 2050, Sierra Nevada winter snowpack may have decreased by as much as 70 percent from average levels of today; in the Rockies, the elevation of full winter snow cover may increase from 7,300 feet today to 10,300 feet by the year 2100; in Aspen, the ski season could retreat at both ends by a total of almost two months; and throughout the Western United States, average snow depths could decline by anywhere between 25 and—yep—100 percent.
These, of course, are just visions of wintertime future produced by climatologists and their computers—an easy venue for climate change naysayers to assault. In fact, a recent report commissioned by Protect Our Winters, an environmental organization, and the Natural Resources Defense Council on declining snow levels also noted that annual snowpack depth has remained stable or even increased in parts of California’s Sierra Nevada. Another study, published in January in Environmental Research Letters, foresaw similar outcomes, predicting that global warming could trigger counterintuitive winter cooling in certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere. But those findings seem tantamount to just the tip of the iceberg—which is undeniably melting. Because the thing is, global warming has already delivered serious wounds to the world’s ski industry. Europe, especially, has been hurting for years. Back in 2003, the United Nations Environmental Program reported that 15 percent of Swiss ski areas were losing business due to a lack of snow. A few years later, in 2007, one ski resort in the French Alps—Abondance—closed down entirely after a 40-year run. The closure came following a meeting of local officials, who reluctantly agreed that there simply wasn’t enough snow anymore to maintain the Abondance lodge as a ski operation. For several years, low snowfall had been attracting fewer and fewer tourists, and Abondance—once the recipient of millions of tourist Euros each year—began stagnating. The Abondance lodge and the nearby town of the same name lie at a little over 3,000 feet above sea level—low for a ski resort and, so it happens, right in the hot zone of 900 to 1,500 meters that climatologists warn is going to see the most dramatic changes in annual snowfall.
But more alarming than the Abondance shutdown is that which took place at almost six times the elevation, at Bolivia’s Chacaltaya Lodge, once famed as the highest ski resort in the world. Here, outdoorsmen came for decades to ski the Chacaltaya Glacier, which historically flowed out of a mountain valley at more than 17,000 feet. But that wasn’t high enough to escape rising temperatures. The glacier began retreating markedly several decades ago, and over a course of 20 years 80 percent of the icy river vanished. The lodge, which first opened in 1939 and was a training ground for Bolivia’s first Olympic ski team, closed in 2009.
Similar results of global warming can be expected in the American ski and snow sports industries. Already, as many as 27,000 people have lost their seasonal jobs in poor snow years in the past decade, with revenue losses as much as $1 billion, according to the recent study conducted for Protect Our Winters and NRDC. The study cites reduced snowfall and shorter winters as the culprits. In total, 212,000 people are employed in the American ski industry.
The irony of the ski industry’s impending troubles is the fact that ski resorts, equipment manufacturers and skiers themselves have played a role in fueling the fire that is melting the snows. The carbon footprint of the ski industry is a heavy one. Seventy million people visit the Alps alone each year to ski or otherwise play in the snow—and travel to and from the mountains is recognized as perhaps the most carbon-costly component of the industry. But excluding tourist travel, lodges and ski resorts are major users of energy and producers of trash. A 2003 book by Hal Clifford, Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment, details the many ecological and cultural problems associated with the skiing industry. Among these is clear-cutting to produce those dreamy treeless mountainsides that millions of downhillers long for on many a summer day. The ski resort Arizona Snowbowl, for one, was lambasted last year for plans to cut down 30,000 trees—a 74-acre grove of pines considered holy by indigenous nations. And just prior to the kickoff of the 2006 Turin Winter Games, in Italy, The Independent ran a story under the headline “Is it possible to ski without ruining the environment?” The article named “ski tourism-induced traffic pollution and increasing urban sprawl of hotels and holiday homes in former Alpine villages to the visually intrusive and habitat-wrecking ski lifts” as faults of the industry. The article continued, noting that with the “spectre of global warming … now stalking the Alps,” the ski industry of Europe “is waking up to its environmental responsibilities—just in the nick of time.”
Right: “Just in the nick of time.” That article came out almost seven years ago, and look where we are now. The earth, by most measures, is warmer than ever, and snow is declining. A study just published in Geophysical Research Letters reported that locations in Eurasia have set new records for lowest-ever spring snow cover each year since 2008. In North America, according to the same report, three of the last five years have seen record low snow cover in the spring. It shouldn’t be any surprise, then, that commercial use of snow machines is on the rise. These draw up liquid water and blast out 5,000 to 10,000 gallons per minute as frosty white snow. It may take 75,000 gallons of water to lightly coat a 200- by 200-foot ski slope, and the energy-intensive machines have been blamed for their role in pollution and excessive water use. And while snow machines can serve as a crutch for limping ski resorts, the snow they produce is reportedly quite crummy in quality—and they’re anything but a cure for the greater problem.
Where do you like to ski? Have you seen more exposed rocks and muddy December slopes and snow machines at work? This article offers a summary of how several major ski regions in the world will feel the heat of global warming. Every mountain range around the world will feel the heat.
Will warmer winters mean richer skiers? In 2007, the mayor of the French Alps town of Abondance, Serge Cettour-Meunier, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Skiing is again becoming a sport for the rich,” explaining that soon only more expensive, high-elevation ski resorts would have enough snow for skiing.
December 6, 2012
The start of the northern meteorological winter on December 1 will bring with it short days of darkness, blistering cold and frigid blizzards. For many people, this is the dreariest time of the year. But for a small niche of water-happy athletes, winter is a time to play, as ferocious storms send rippling rings of energy outward through the ocean. By the time they reach distant shores, these swells have matured into clean, polished waves that barrel in with a cold and ceaseless military rhythm; they touch bottom, slow, build and, finally, collapse in spectacular curls and thundering white water. These are the things of dreams for surfers, many of whom travel the planet, pursuing giant breakers. And surfers aren’t the only ones with their eyes on the water—for surfing has become a popular spectator sport. At many famed breaks, bluffs on the shore provide fans with thrilling views of the action. The waves alone are awesome—so powerful they may seem to shake the earth. But when a tiny human figure on a board as flimsy as a matchstick appears on the face of that incoming giant, zigzagging forward as the wave curls overhead and threatens to crush him, spines tingle, hands come together in prayer, and jaws drop. Whether you like the water or not, big-wave surfing is one of the most thrilling shows on the planet.
The birth of big-wave surfing was an incremental process that began in the 1930s and ’40s in Hawaii, especially along the north-facing shores of the islands. Here, 15-foot waves were once considered giants, and anything much bigger just eye candy. But wave at a time, surfers stoked up their courage and ambition. They surfed on bigger days, used lighter and lighter boards that allowed swifter paddling and hunted for breaks that consistently produced monsters. One by one, big-wave spots were cataloged, named and ranked, and wave at a time, records were set. In November 1957, big-wave pioneer Greg Noll rode an estimated 25-footer in Waimea Bay, Oahu. In 1969, Noll surfed what was probably a 30-plus-footer, but no verified photos exist of the wave, and thus no means of determining its height. Fast-forwarding a few decades, Mike Parsons caught a 66-foot breaker in 2001 at Cortes Bank, 115 miles off San Diego, where a seamount rises to within three feet of the surface. In 2008, Parsons was back at the same place and caught a 77-footer. But Garrett McNamara outdid Parsons and set the current record in November 2011, when he rode a 78-foot wave off the coast of Portugal, at the town of Nazare.
But these later records may not have been possible without the assistance of jet skis, which have become a common and controversial element in the pursuit of giant waves. The vehicles first began appearing in the surf during big-wave events in the early 1990s, and for all their noise and stench, their appeal was undeniable: Jet skis made it possible to access waves 40 feet and bigger, and whose scale had previously been too grand for most unassisted surfers to reach by paddling. Though tow-in surfing has given a boost to the record books, it has also heightened the danger of surfing, and many surfers have died in big waves they might never have attempted without jet-ski assistance. Not surprisingly, many surfers have rejected tow-in surfing as an affront to the purity of their relationship with waves—and they still manage to catch monsters. In March 2011, Shane Dorian rode a 57-foot breaker at the famed Jaws break in Maui, unassisted by a belching two-stroke engine. But many big-wave riders fully endorse tow-in surfing as a natural evolution of the sport. Surfing supertstar Laird Hamilton has even blown off purists who continue to paddle after big waves without jet skis as “moving backward.” Anyway, in a sport that relies heavily on satellite imagery, Internet swell forecasts and red-eye flights to Honolulu, are we really complaining about a little high-tech assistance?
For those wishing merely to watch big waves and the competitors that gather to ride them, all that is needed is a picnic blanket and binoculars—and perhaps some help from this swell forecast website. Following are some superb sites to watch surfers catch the biggest breakers in the world this winter.
Waimea Bay, North Shore of Oahu. Big-wave surfing was born here, largely fueled by the fearless vision of Greg Noll in the 1950s. The definition of “big” for extreme surfers has grown since the early days, yet Waimea still holds its own. Fifty-foot waves can occur here—events that chase all but the best wave riders from the water. When conditions allow, elite surfers participate in the recurring Quicksilver Eddie Aikau Invitational. Spectators teem on the shore during big-swell periods, and while surfers may fight for their ride, you may have to fight for your view. Get there early.
Jaws, North Shore of Maui. Also known as Peahi, Jaws produces some of the most feared and attractive waves on earth. The break—where 50-footers and bigger appear almost every year—is almost strictly a tow-in site, but rebel paddle-by-hand surfers do business here, too. Twenty-one pros have been invited to convene at Jaws this winter for a paddle-in competition sometime between December 7 and March 15. Spectators are afforded a great view of the action on a high nearby bluff. But go early, as hundreds will be in line for the best viewing points. Also, bring binoculars, as the breakers crash almost a mile offshore.
Mavericks, Half Moon Bay, California. Mavericks gained its reputation in the 1980s and ’90s, during the revival of big-wave surfing, which lost some popularity in the 1970s. Named for a German Shepherd named Maverick who took a surgy swim here in 1961, the site (which gained an “s” but never an official apostrophe) generates some of the biggest surfable waves in the world. Today, surfing competitions, like the Mavericks Big Wave Contest and the Mavericks Invitational, are held each year. The waves of Mavericks crash on a vicious reef, making them predictable (sandy bottoms will shift and change the wave form) but nonetheless hazardous. One of the best surfers of his time, Mark Foo died here in 1994 when his ankle leash is believed to have snagged on the bottom. Later, the waves claimed the life of Hawaiian surfing star Sion Milosky. A high bluff above the beach offers a view of the action. As at Jaws, bring binoculars.
Ghost Trees, Monterey Peninsula, California. This break hits peak form under the same swell conditions that get things roaring at Mavericks, just a three-hour drive north. Ghost Trees is a relatively new attraction for big-wave riders. Veteran surfer Don Curry says he first saw it surfed in 1974. Decades would pass before it became famous, and before it killed pro surfer (and a pioneer of nearby Mavericks) Peter Davi in 2007. For surfing spectators, there are few places quite like Ghost Trees. The waves, which can hit 50 feet and more, break just a football field’s length from shore.
Mullaghmore Head, Ireland. Far from the classic Pacific shores of big-wave legend and history, Mullaghmore Head comes alive during winter storms in the North Atlantic. The location produces waves big enough that surfing here has become primarily a jet ski-assisted game. In fact, the event period for the Billabong Tow-In Session at Mullaghmore began on November 1 and will run through February 2013. Just how big is Mullaghmore Head? On March 8, 2012, the waves here reached 50 feet, as determined by satellite measurements. A grassy headland provides an elevated platform from which to see the show. Bundle up if you go, and expect cold, blustery conditions.
Other big wave breaks:
Teahupoo, Tahiti. This coveted break blooms with big swells from the Southern Ocean—usually during the southern winter. Teahupoo is famed for its classic tube breakers.
Shipsterns Bluff, Tasmania. Watch for this point’s giants to break from June through September.
Punta de Lobos, Chile. Channeling the energy of the Southern Ocean into huge but glassy curlers, Punta de Lobos breaks at its best in March and April.
Todos Santos Island, Baja California, Mexico. Todos Santos Island features several well-known breaks, but “Killers” is the biggest and baddest. The surf usually peaks in the northern winter.
There is another sort of wave that thrills tourists and spectators: the tidal bore. These moon-induced phenomena occur with regularity at particular locations around the world. The most spectacular to see include the tidal bores of Hangzhou Bay, China, and Araguari, Brazil—each of which has become a popular surfing event.