April 8, 2013
The concept is alluringly simple: Leave your home, your television, your laptop, your job, put on a backpack and walk from Mexico to Canada.
That, in a sentence, describes the experience of walking the Pacific Crest Trail. Usually called the PCT, this epic foot trail meanders 2,650 miles through three states, from Campo, California, to E.C. Manning Provincial Park, in British Columbia. Many thousands of people walk some portion of the trail each year, whether in California, Oregon or Washington, while several hundred attempt to go the full distance. Hikers intending to do so must be fit, brave, ambitious and—at least for a while—unemployed. They must also undertake some serious planning as they begin what will likely be the greatest outdoors adventure of their lives. The PCT is one of America’s three great long-distance north-south hiking trails, along with the Continental Divide and the Appalachian trails. The PCT passes among the world’s largest trees, some of the most fantastic rock formations and one of the driest deserts. It crosses one of North America’s largest rivers, and traverses a wide range of climates and landscapes, from low-lying to deserts to craggy high country to well-watered, mossy forests.
Most people who hike the PCT walk south to north, and for them, the adventure is about to start. Most will depart before May. This allows them to begin when the desert temperatures are still mild and progress northward rather in sync with the warming weather. The April-May start time also works out especially nicely by putting northbounders at the south end of the Sierra Nevada just as the high country snowpack really begins to melt, and if they stay on schedule they should pass through the Pacific Northwest before the first autumn snows.
Jack Haskel, a staff member with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, told Off the Road that several thru-hikers are already a few hundred miles into their walk.
“It’s been a low-snow year, which makes it a decent year to get an early start,” he said.
Hikers must handle some paperwork before they begin—but, happily, bureaucratic obstacles are quite minimal. The PCT Association will grant a PCT Long Distance Permit to anyone planning to walk at least 500 miles of the trail. This document is free, takes two to three weeks to process and paves the way for a hiker to walk every inch of the PCT.
Logistically speaking, now comes the fun stuff—bears, food supplies, dangerous terrain and running out of water. Haskel says there are, in particular, two waterless distances of about 30 miles in the Southern California desert where hikers must tote gallons at a time.
Once hikers reach the Sierra Nevada, a simple water filtering pump can be used at any of hundreds of lakes and streams along the way—but rations now become the biggest priority. North of Kennedy Meadows, hikers cross not a single road for about 200 miles and, unless they trek off-trail to a town, may need to carry with them some 60,000 calories of food a person. Such deliciously laden hikers are gold mines of goodies for black bears, which don’t pose much of a physical threat to people but may easily rob hikers of their supplies if they leave them unguarded—even for just a few moments, whether day or night. Bears, Haskel warns, can be especially problematic near the Rae Lakes in Kings Canyon National Park and in Yosemite National Park’s Lyell Canyon. In places, a plastic bear canister is required—and hikers would be wise to carry one of these bear-proof food containers throughout their journey.
About 1,000 people apply for thru-permits each year. Between 500 and 800 individuals attempt the journey. Fewer than half of them finish each year. The average thru-hiker will take about five months to walk the entire trail, averaging 20-plus miles a day after factoring in rest days. Haskel says many hikers begin at a pace of 16 or 17 miles per day but, by the time they reach Oregon, “are basically doing a marathon every day.” He says the PCT is “an amazing workout” and that thru-hikers can expect to arrive at the finish line “skinny” and, perhaps, fitter than they’ve ever been. Thru-hikers, by virtue of their lifestyle, become voracious eaters, burning 5,000 calories or more per day and, when they’re able, regaining this energy through glorious, face-stuffing feasts. Fortunately, hikers will encounter towns with quality stores and restaurants every few days for most of the PCT’s length. The PCT Association’s website offers guidelines and strategy suggestions for resupplying along the trail.
One need not be starving—just bored of couscous and curry—to stop and eat one of the most famous meals along the entire PCT, the Pancake Challenge at Seiad Valley Store and Cafe, on the Klamath River in Northern California. The Challenge consists of putting down five one-pound pancakes—a feat that perhaps only a thru-hiker (or a black bear) could ever manage. Walking Man Brewing Company, in Stevenson, Washington, is a popular watering hole for PCT hikers. Haskel also recommends Paradise Valley Cafe, near the San Jacinto Mountains in Southern California, popular among hikers for its burgers.
A small fraction of PCT hikers—perhaps just several dozen people—hike the trail north to south, starting at the Canadian border and walking to Mexico. Such southbounders often opt for this route plan due to their calendar schedule; if they cannot break away from school or work until June, they simply can’t begin the journey in the desert, where June temperatures can be crushing. They will also have a poor chance of reaching the Canadian border before winter if they depart from Campo in late June. But hiking in this direction introduces some unique challenges. Most southbounders start after June 15—but even then, much of the trail will still be covered with snow. Southbound hikers can expect not to see the trail itself for snowy sections as long as one mile or more. Thus, getting lost is likely, and many southbounders carry GPS devices for this reason. By July and August, the high country snows will have mostly melted—but October will be just around the corner, and the highest passes of the entire journey lie very much toward the end of the trail, in the Sierra Nevada. Forester Pass—at 13,153 feet—is the giant of them all. It stands 780 miles from the finish line, and southbounders generally aim to cross this beautiful but potentially perilous obstacle before October.
From here, much of the remaining country is desert, which by autumn is mild, dry and beautiful. Many southbounders slow to an easy pace here, Haskel says, as the race against winter is over. Fifteen to 20 miles a day—child’s play for hikers who have come all the way from Canada—brings them in a month or two to the Mexican border at Campo, where a taco—plus a dozen more and a few beers—may never taste so good.
The trail runs 2,650 miles.
The trail leads through 26 national forests, seven national parks, five state parks and three national monuments.
The trail’s midpoint is at Chester, California, near Mount Lassen.
The highest point along the way is Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevada, at 13,153 feet.
Fewer than 200 hikers finish the PCT each year.
About 5 percent of thru hikers walk north to south, considered the more challenging direction.
The first person to thru-hike the entire trail was Richard Watson, in 1972.
The fastest time was set in 2011 by Scott Williamson, who hiked north to south in 64 days 11 hours, averaging 41 miles per day.
A few speed hikers have finished so-called “yo yo” hikes, reaching the end, then turning around and walking the entire PCT again in the opposite direction.
Cyclists may attempt a bike-friendly, 2,500-mile parallel route called the Pacific Crest Bicycle Trail.
February 12, 2013
A crisp, clear stream flows out of Cajas National Park on a 20-mile circuitous route down to the town of Cuenca—but few fish live in these wild waters. Yet the Quinuas River Valley it forms is a hot destination for sport fishermen. They come by the hundreds each weekend, mostly from Cuenca, seeking the most popular game fish in the world: the rainbow trout.
“What kind of trout live in here?” I ask a young man who serves me coffee at Cabana del Pescador, the campground where I have stayed the night. I am only curious how locals refer to the species Oncorhynchus mykiss, which is native to North American and Siberian streams that enter the Pacific but has been introduced to virtually all suitable habitat on earth. In Ecuador, the species first arrived in the 1960s.
“Normal trout,” he says.
I aim to catch a few fish today and have them for dinner, but I move on, up the road, looking for a happier place to fish. The pond here is muddy, surrounded by concrete and a chain-link fence. Trouble is, I won’t find much better. This valley, though populated by a few wild trout in the streams and lakes of Cajas National Park, is a busy center of aquaculture. Trout farming is generally considered a clean and sustainable industry, though it isn’t always pretty. For a stretch of seven or eight miles downstream of the park, nearly every roadside farm has a handful of concrete-banked pools on the premises, fed by stream water and swarming with trout about 12 inches long.
Up the road, after passing a half dozen possible fishing sites, I pull in to one called Reina del Cisne, at kilometer 21. It is a restaurant and sport fishing “club,” as the sign tells visitors. I have coffee—Nescafé, as always—inside. When I am finished, I ask if there is an opportunity to fish here, and the teenage waiter beckons me to follow. “It’s 50 cents to rent a pole,” he says. “Then, we weigh the trout, and you pay $2.25 per pound.” The biggest fish in the ponds out back are more than ten pounds, he tells me.
He pulls one rod from a heap of several dozen—a broomstick-like pole with a stout line tied to the end and a silver barbed hook at the tip. He quickly mixes up a bucket of bread dough to use as bait, drops a hunk into a shopping-style woven basket and hands me my tackle.
“What kind of trout are these?” I ask, still fishing for local lingo.
“Salmon trout. They have red meat,” he says. He adds, “Good luck,” and returns to the restaurant.
For an angler who has fished in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and Alaska and New Zealand, this is a sad comparison, and I feel a strange desire to either cry or laugh hysterically. This would make a perfect opportunity for kids, but I know what real fishing, in real waters, is. Here, I have three ponds to choose from—two of them rectangular, concrete basins, the other a muddy, oval-shaped pool 30 feet across with grassy banks. I flick a piece of dough into this most natural-appearing of the options. Several trout dart from the murk as the white ball vanishes in an instant. I bait my hook and fling it into the middle of the pond, slightly embarrassed that I am participating in what locals advertise as pesca deportiva—or “sport fishing.” A similar flurry of fish attack and strip the hook. I re-bait and try again and this time hook instantly into a feisty rainbow. I drag it in and onto the bank, whack it cold with a stick and drop it in my basket. One down, and in another five minutes I have a second fish. I could take more but, frankly, this isn’t fun or engaging. A year ago exactly I was cycling around New Zealand, casting flies at wild trout six times this size and immeasurably more thrilling to catch—wary, elusive, picky and beautiful. The challenge of enticing one to strike made success an accomplishment. Best of all was the experience of being there, fish or none, standing in crystal clear waters surrounded by green meadows and the tall peaks of the Southern Alps. Indeed, fishing is largely about interacting with the environment, and if one catches no trout on an expedition into the mountains, something else is still gained.
But no matter how big a fish one may pull from a concrete-lined pond, using dough balls for bait, the experience feels as hollow as shopping in a supermarket. While I’m here, I hope I might tangle with an eight-pounder, but no such beast shows itself. I wonder if perhaps they tell all guests that giant trout live in these ponds to encourage business. But back inside the restaurant, my hosts show me the de-boned meat of a 14-pounder caught the day before. The meat is thick and heavy and a delicious-looking salmon red. I ask what the trout eat. “Natural food,” owner Maria Herrera tells me.
Down the road, at kilometer 18, I visit a government-run fish hatchery. I roll down the dirt drive, across the stream on a wooden bridge and up a short rise to the facility. I introduce myself to two men in yellow slickers, ankle deep in a muddy concrete basin full of thrashing foot-long trout. The station director, Lenin Moreno, tells me that more than 8,000 adult fish live here. He and his colleague, Ricardo Mercado, are currently trying to get an exact head count in a tank swarming with, they guess, about 300 fish. They take a break and show me to the laboratoria—the hatchery. In the trays and tanks of this covered, concrete-walled facility, 1.3 million juveniles are produced each year and sold to aquaculture operations in four provinces, Moreno tells me.
Outside, they show me a rectangular basin teeming with huge rainbows, green-backed, red-sided beauties that remind me of the two-foot-long giants of New Zealand. Visitors may come here to buy these trout, Moreno tells me. The fish go for $1.50 per pound.
I ask if the meat is red like salmon. “No—it’s white,” Moreno tells me. “But at the fish farms they feed the trout pigment.”
This doesn’t surprise me. The rainbow trout I grew up on were generally white-fleshed fish. Only occasionally on family camping trips as we cleaned our catch would we discover with excitement that the trout had natural pink meat, which tends to be richer and fattier than paler flesh. But in Ecuador’s many fish markets, I have not yet seen a trout fillet that wasn’t colored like salmon, and I’ve suspected all along that this attractive color (which I’ll admit has drawn my wallet from my pocket more than once) was artificially induced. I recall seeing the fillet of a trout caught in New Zealand just outside the outflow of a Chinook salmon farm that was clearly affected by such pigment—probably either synthetic astaxanthin or canthaxanthin, both used in most commercial salmon farming operations (and the latter of which may cause retinal damage). The trout had presumably been eating pellet feed that escaped from the salmon pens, and the meat was partially colored, patchy red and white like a tie-dyed shirt. Yuck.
I poached my farm-caught trout in cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc at my hostel in Cuenca, just off the main street of Calle Larga. The meal was fine and exactly what I had been aiming for when I plunked that ball of dough into the pond at Reina del Cisne. But the fish didn’t quite taste up to par. Because although pink-fleshed trout are a sure catch in the mountain fishing ponds of Ecuador, something else, less easy to describe, native to places like Montana and British Columbia, may evade you with every fish landed.
February 4, 2013
At the Inca Lounge and Bistro, dozens of gringos–tourists and resident expats both–have squeezed into this popular watering hole just off Calle Larga and overlooking the river. It is Super Bowl Sunday in Cuenca, Ecuador–and though the kickoff is still three hours away, owner Mike Sena must usher in his customers early and shut the doors. The sale of alcohol is highly restricted in Ecuador on Sundays, and so Sena, an American who moved here four years ago from New Mexico, is keeping a low profile this Super Bowl and designating the evening a “private party.”
Only a few Ecuadorians have shown. One, a 37-year-old gold mining engineer named Pablo Crespo, was a soccer fan all his life but learned to love (American) football–and the Ravens–during the eight years he lived in Baltimore. “American football is more interesting than soccer,” Crespo concedes. “Every play is different. The players have to be smart, too, and need to read the plays and know what the other team is going to do.”
Soccer, he adds, “can be a little boring.”
London travelers Solomon Slade and his girlfriend Rebecca Wyatt, who have spent the past eight months cycling through Trinidad, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, are soccer fans and aren’t quite sure what to make of American football.
“Why do they need all the armor?” says Wyatt, 25. “Rugby players don’t wear protection.”
The two have claimed a table inside the bar and are prepared to spend the evening here, though they dread the prospect of a 60-minute game spread thin across more than three hours through timeouts and commercial breaks.
“American sports in general are hard to watch because they’re so stop-start,” Slade, 26, says.
Sena, pouring beers and mixing drinks behind the bar, says that football season generates a spike in his business here–largely from expat Americans but also among native Ecuadorians. He says interest in football among native Ecuadorians is growing in large part because many citizens here who worked in the United States before the economic crash have since returned home–and many of them as football fans.
But Pedro Molina, brewmaster at the nearby La Compañía Microcervecería, at the corner of Borrero and Vazquez streets, told me on Saturday evening that he sees virtually no interest in football among locals. His brewpub is closed on Sundays, and he said he had no plans to watch the game elsewhere–for, like most locals as well as hundreds of millions of people worldwide, Molina prefers the other kind of football.
“Soccer is the king of sports,” Morena said. “It’s a better game. It requires more technique and skill, because you can’t make physical contact.” It’s like a dance, he said–an almost nonstop, 45-minute dance–requiring agility, balance and fancy footwork. “How long is a game of American football?” Molina asked me.
Sixty minutes, I said, plus a couple of hours of breaks. Molina nodded, satisfied that he’d adequately assessed the two games–one a nimble sport of lithe, quick athletes, the other a brutish but slow battle of bellowing muscle-heads and lumbering jocks.
Earlier that same day I questioned three young men working out on the chin-up bars at the popular Parque Paraiso, on the north side of town. They said they knew about the Super Bowl but didn’t seem to think much of it and had no plans to watch the game. I asked which of the two sports–soccer or football–they thought was more challenging.
“American football,” Juan Merchan, 28, said. “It’s tougher on the body.”
But Merchan added that “futbol real” is more interesting to play and to watch since “it involves more improvisation and less plans.”
In the Inca bar, perhaps 200 people of every age category and many nations have crammed into the private party. Still, the Super Bowl has yet to begin. Elizabeth Eckholt, a San Francisco Bay Area native who has been in Ecuador for the past two weeks, says she is routing for the 49ers–though not passionately.
“I’m really here to see the commercials,” she says.
The game begins but plods forward slowly. Every few minutes, a break arrives and we are subjected to another series of ads for cars, beer and junk food.
“I can’t believe the unhealthy junk they advertise on this game,” says Wyatt, voice raised to be heard.
I have never spent six hours in a bar and I don’t plan to tonight. Last May, the Wall Street Journal‘s Bruce Orwall recognized the virtues of what he called “real football”, including soccer’s “subtle athletic grace, fierce national and regional rivalries and mercifully efficient, commercial-free matches.”
I, like him, I assume, am not entertained by Doritos and Calvin Klein ads. Okay–let Beyonce sing if she must, but this game should really be done by 8. I leave before half-time. In the United States, virtually every sports bar must now be crammed with football fans. But in Cuenca, beyond the Inca Lounge and Bistro, the Super Bowl may be happening but this world is not watching. The Sunday evening air of Cuenca is calm and still, the nation quiet on a day without drinks. In this land, soccer is the king of sports and athletes–not advertisers–kings of the airwaves. And for fans of futbol real, even after they watch a televised afternoon match, there may remain enough daylight to go play a game.
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.