Wave Pools & Climbing Walls

Source: Vimeo - Kelly Slater Wave Company
This wave could be in Kansas. Source: Vimeo – Kelly Slater Wave Company

My social feed’s been gushing with articles about a new artificial wave pool from the Kelly Slater Wave Company. The company’s promo video shows some sort of underwater wave-making apparatus spinning up a ripping righthand barrel in cola-colored water at an undisclosed location (rumors put it in Lemoore, California). The 11-time World Surf League champion Kelly Slater christens this wave with some snappy turns, then tucks into the tube and hangs out for a while before emerging, victorious as usual. Could this be the beginning of a new era in surfing? If so, climbing might have some lessons to offer, for the road ahead is long and fraught.

“This is the best manmade wave ever made, no doubt about it,” says Slater at the end of the video, which is appearing as free content on all the endemic surf sites and finding its way into the flow of general interest pubs like the The Washington Post, the The Huffington Post, and Men’s Journal. The headlines, in typical hyperbolic fashion, declare this latest iteration of wave pool technology a “breakthrough” that “could change surfing forever” or even “change the world.” Web commenters, meanwhile, have voiced more mixed (though generally positive) perspectives.

On Kelly Slater’s Facebook post, a commenter wrote: “One of the most important aspects of surfing for me is the connection with nature, the respect and admiration for its awesome beauty and power … Isn’t this eroding the soul of the sport we love so much?” This comment, which garnered nearly 500 responses in a few days, is a perfect parallel to the climbing purist’s lament. We can see the surf community working through the ramifications of an easily accessible, consistent, manmade surfing experience decoupled from the sea.

Aside from killing climbing’s soul, rock gyms also offer many benefits, such the ability to train and enjoy climbing regardless of weather, season, or proximity to rock. The overall level of pure climbing ability has rapidly risen thanks to gyms and their near-ubiquity. If wave pools like Kelly Slater’s really do catch on, they will likewise allow for a much more concentrated experience. Instead of bobbing in the water for hours, waiting for your moment in the lineup, you’ll have access to a predictable, on-demand wave, accelerating technical riding skills. On the other hand, these wave-pool earned skills could make for a lopsided surfer, one who hasn’t had to deal with the vicissitudes of the ocean.

Climbers at the Psicocomp deep water soloing competition in Park City, Utah.
Climbers at the Psicocomp deep water soloing competition in Park City, Utah.

“If this catches on, and these things are built all over the inland empires of the world, they will be training hundreds of thousands of kids to surf,” wrote a commenter on surfermag.com. This potentially portentous statement describes precisely climbing’s glide path in the gym era. Most in the climbing community feel gyms are directly responsible for increased crowding—and also accidents—at the crag, which is why new climbers are currently the target of multiple “gym-to-crag” educational campaigns. The climbing community has taken the tack of education and mentorship to address the growth of test tube climbers (those born in artificial environments)—perhaps surfing will have to follow suit.

Also like climbing gyms, high-quality wave pools could help surfing find its way into the Olympics. In September of this year, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee proposed both surfing and sport climbing be included in the Olympic Games. An artificial, standardized playing field allows both sports, despite being rooted in wild and unpredictable settings, to fit more easily into the competitive structure of the Olympics. Like climbers, many in surfing see the Olympics as anathema to the lifestyle they know and love. Regardless, the draw of Olympic gold is strong, and both climbing and surfing seem to be moving in that direction, for better or for worse.

At the end of the day, its impossible to conclude that climbing gyms have been either good or bad for climbing. Climbing is not a single activity, nor do climbers all share the same interests and goals. Some will forever feel that plastic climbing robs the activity of its soul, while creating overcrowded and dangerous crags. Others see climbing gyms as the very future of the sport, to be celebrated and cultivated. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, understanding that gyms have advantages as well as disadvantages.

If the Kelly Slater Wave Company really is poised to bring a string of world-class, artificial waves to the world, the surfing public will have to cover much of the same terrain climbing has been covering for the past 25 years. Should be an interesting ride.

Let My People Go Flailing

Wipeout - Lennox Head Surfers - 7 Mile Beach. Photo: Neerav Bhatt via Creative Commons
Wipeout – Lennox Head Surfers – 7 Mile Beach. Photo: Neerav Bhatt via Creative Commons

“So do I wear clothes under this thing or…?”

“Nah, you can just go buck. That’s what most people do,” said Jimmy, handing me a beach towel-poncho hybrid I was to don for coverage while changing into a borrowed wetsuit in the busy parking lot at Ventura’s hyper-popular C Street surf break.

I took off my glasses and immediately realized I’d be flying, or rather floating, blind during this exercise, my first foray into art of riding ocean waves. (“It’s the hardest thing ever,” my climbing buddy Alex had explained, perhaps in an effort to save me from underestimating the nature of the challenge.)

A short wrestling match later and I was in the wetsuit, feeling both comforted and constricted by its strange, rubbery embrace. I hoisted the huge, glaring white foam beginners board up under my arm, barely spanning its breadth. Down to the water we went, picking our way over waterround rocks and into the shallows, where I could not keep my footing on the slick bed of uneven cobbles obscured by recurring washes of whitewater.

It all started that morning in the office when, in true Patagonia Let My People Go Surfing fashion, my boss declared it was time to hit the waves. I closed my laptop and packed my bag, feeling excited, a little nervous, but hopeful. I ended up feeling like even more of a beginner than I imagined. A super beginner. A true gumby (or “jerry,” if you will). Alex estimated he was a 5.8 surfer. I’m not sure I’d even be able to locate myself in the fifth-class scale.

Just paddling was substantially harder than I’d expected, and I kept getting turned around or tipped off into the water. My shoulder muscles were depleted within minutes. I had to rest constantly and feared getting so tired I wouldn’t be able to slog my ass back to shore. The guys I’d started with were already long gone, fuzzy dots in a distant crowd to my uncorrected vision.

I floated around on the periphery of the lineup, trying to stay out of the way, then made a half-hearted effort to catch a wave. Really I was just hoping to get a boost in my landward quest. My arms were too tired to produce the necessary burst of speed to match pace with a cresting wave, much less pop me up onto my feet. I used up the rest of my reserve tank just returning to shore, belly firmly on board.

The concept of “beginner’s mind” is popular in Zen philosophy. The famous quote from Shunryu Suzuki goes “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” After my first experience with surfing though, I feel the urge to call bullshit.

While it’s true that I brought an unstructured approach to the matter, paddling into the ocean was so hard for me that I was almost completely occupied with basic survival. My “beginner’s mind” was rather narrow, in fact, focused as it was on not panicking or drowning. I felt none of the pliant openness a newbie supposedly brings to a task. I felt stiff and uncomfortable—flowless, if you will.

There’s a particular discomfort that comes when first trying something for which you have no aptitude. As a climber of 25 years, I’m accustomed to a certain level of comfort with vertical challenges, even ones that require serious effort to tackle. This makes starting at square one in the ocean all the more humbling.

So what’s the point?

The point is, I think, to face up to a new activity without needing to be good at it—in the near term… or maybe ever.  And because it’s not “my thing,” I look forward to using surfing as a way to practice an openness and humility that can be hard to bring to crafts with which I’m more familiar, like climbing.

Now that I think of it, maybe that’s the beginner’s mind Suzuki was talking about.

Where Surf Meets Stone

Surfers at a point break in Ventura, California.

The sun was setting on the Pacific Ocean as my wife and I took our first walk together along the beach in Ventura, California. We passed drifters talking in manic monologues, slowed to a crawl behind shuffles of retirees, and were passed by joggers hustling to make it home before the sun’s light fully faded. We strolled the paved promenade upcoast until we saw them: schools of waveriders undulating in the water at Surfer’s Point Park.

There we leaned on a fence railing and watched them for a while. Scattered unevenly outside the foamy chaos of the break, the surfers watched the horizon intently. Whenever a promising swell approached, a few would rotate and begin to paddle towards shore. One or two would find himself caught up in the lip of a cresting wave, at which point he’d kip up onto his feet and, depending on skill level and luck, catch a ride along shore. The repetitive dance of it was hypnotic.

In the parking lot behind us were old Winnebagos, Sprinter vans, station wagons, SUVs, and minivans, all converted in one way or another for surf life, with racks on top and livable (depending on your standards) quarters inside. There was even a bike leaned up against the rail that some dedicated soul had modified with an improvised surfboard carrier on the side, all plastic piping and foam and duct tape.

A couple of guys jogged up off the beach with boards under arm. At their vehicles, they began the process of peeling back wetsuits and rinsing off sea water. Chatting to each other about the conditions and the rides of the afternoon, they seemed so similar to the climbers I normally found myself with—the lifestyle of it, identities intermeshed with the activity itself, jobs and possessions carefully crafted to enable as much time in pursuit of the passion as possible…

Surfing and climbing have long invited comparison. Both are, despite wavelike peaks in mainstream popularity, largely countercultural, particularly when held up beside big-money sports like football, basketball, soccer, etc. Both are one-player games (the partnership aspect of roped climbing not withstanding). Both take place in natural settings and thereby encourage a certain environmentalist mindset. Both feature a heavy focus on flow states bordering on mysticism. Both inspire questing, dirtbag lifestyles, as acolytes seek out the next great spot—ideally one the crowds haven’t yet discovered.

Of course, there are many differences too, but the similarities are too numerous to dismiss. On the whole, those who live to surf and those who live to climb seem cut from a similar cloth.

I’ve been reading a book called Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, by William Finnegan. The author is a lifelong surfer and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and his book is an extensive memoir structured around the surf spots that were both backdrop to and integral part of his personal development. Throughout the book, there are passages that could as well be describing the experiences of a climber as a surfer. A few examples:

  • “I did not consider even passingly, that I had a choice when it came to surfing. My enchantment would take me where it would.”
  • “Waves were the playing field. They were the goal. They were the object of your deepest desire and adoration. At the same time they were your adversary, your nemesis, even your mortal enemy.”
  • “I did love the water, and even saw it, from an early age, as my own medium of escape from dull striving, from landlocked drudgery.”
  • “Chasing waves in a dedicated way was both profoundly egocentric and selfless, dynamic and ascetic, radical in its rejection of the values of duty and conventional achievement.”
  • “Being rich white Americans in dirt-poor places where many people, especially the young, yearned openly for the life, the comforts, the very opportunities that we, at least for the seemingly endless moment, had turned our backs on — well, it would simply never be O.K.” [This one is particularly interesting.]

I suppose my thesis is that climbing and surfing share a certain essential nucleus, even if their specific expressions are quite different. Living here in surf-centric Ventura, less than a half-day’s drive from Joshua Tree and Yosemite, I’m looking forward to testing this hypothesis on a more intimate level.

Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, too.