I arrived back in France on June 3rd and was immediately pleased with the transformation that had taken place. Gone were the grey skies and cold, clammy weather, replaced with the gorgeous European summer. Donna was doing great at INSEAD, having hit an awesome stride with school, new friends and the French lifestyle. One of her new friends whom I hadn’t met is an Englishman named Jim Sellars. I arrived back on a Wednesday and by Friday we were on the “Chunnel” train from Paris to London to visit Jim and his wife, Rebecca.
Our stay was short but sweet. First off, a big thanks to Jim and Rebecca, who kindly put us up in their London apartment. I’d like to be able to say where in London Jim and Rebecca live, but unfortunately my understanding of London geography remains anemic as every time I visit I experience various awesome places I feel like the Tube rides leave my actual comprehension of where I am in the city disjointed and confused. At any rate, when we visited, Rebecca was 6+ months pregnant and as I write this Jim is the proud father of a 4-month boy, and future captain of England’s rugby team, named Harry. Donna and I can’t wait to meet him!
The first evening Donna and I went to see a play, probably the only theatrical production I’d happily subject myself to: The Book of Mormon. Donna had received the play tickets from her INSEAD friends as a collective birthday gift and we loved the show. It was hilarious and reached went far beyond the edge of political correctness. Ironically, after the play, I observed Mormon missionaries in London recruiting outside the playhouse; I thought, “how smart”, get ‘em while they’re probably more curious about Mormonism than ever before!
The next day Jim and Rebecca gave us cruise-y tour around London. We brunched (Donna had her first Scotch egg and thought it was pretty good), visited Hyde Park, the Natural History museum, and had a couple of pints at one of Jim’s favorite pubs. We finished the day with a nice dinner at a restaurant Rebecca recommended.
The following day was similar with Jim and Rebecca kindly continuing to be gracious hosts for us. I think we hit a brunch spot and then walked to some other cool London locations. Then that evening Donna and I visited a friend and former work colleague who had recently moved to London with his wife and 3 kids. Dan BBQed meat and Kate, Dan’s wife, kindly prepared awesome fixings for a North American style meal (I say North American because Dan is actually Canadian). It was great to catch up with Dan and to get to know his whacky kids a little bit better.
And just like that the short trip was over. We were back on the Chunnel train the next morning where Donna needed to attend some classes. We often forget the real reason for the sabbatical is school, ha!
Note: I didn’t take many photos on the trip, but here a some of the few I did take.
Walking over the river Thames. You can see Big Ben off to the right.
Big Ben closer up
Brits are huge fans of British history and especially the monarchy. This is one of England’s most revered monarchs, King Albert.
Cruising through the “wilds” of London in Camden. You can see Jim in the background, one of the only photos I took of him, and Rebecca is behind Jim.
Donna and I at Hampstead Heath, one of the highest points in London
I left France in late March and headed back to San Francisco. I had a return ticket to France ~8 weeks later, set to arrive at the beginning of June back in Paris. Originally my plan was to spend a week in SF, then 2 weeks with Brant in Chile, then back to SF, then another surf trip to Mexico or Central America, then back to SF and then finally return to Paris. But, as you saw in my previous posts, I ended up spending 6 weeks in Chile & Rapa Nui instead of 2 weeks, and so when I finally came back to San Francisco I only had a little over a week before I needed to head off to France. Nonetheless, in the couple of weeks that I spent in Cali bookending my trip to South America, I managed some fun trips that are Radical Sabbatical worthy.
Rob Fan’s Bachelor Party
My friend Rob was to be married in the summer and it was time for a bachelor party trip to Park City as soon as I got back to SF. I flew with Rob and Roger Neel, Rob’s friend who became my friend the previous year on a backcountry ski trip to Iceland. We met up with Grant and started the trip off with a guided day of exploring the backcountry behind Alta. Our guide took us on a few runs, the best of which was has us riding various couloirs in the Wolverine Cirque. A few inches of fresh pow had fallen the night before in the Wasatch which made the turns nice and buttery – we all considered this rather fortunate considering the 2014/15 ski season in the western half of the USA had been pretty miserable and we were already in April when we showed up.
The rest of the trip proceeded as it should have. All the guys met up and we cruised the mountain as a big troop. We drank copious good beer, ate good steak meals together, told stories and laughed much.
I had to sneak into 1st class to take this photo of The Bachelor & Roger
Leaving the gorgeous Bay Area for Utah
In Utah you can only buy 3.2% or lower beer… unless you go to the microbrew source for dinner. We loaded up.
Backcountry skiing the Wasatch. We got a lucky dusting of fresh snow the night before to make things a little better than average (for that year)
Rob and Grant repelled into a sweet couloir in the Wolverine Cirque
The start of the couloir was hairy.
Good times with the boys. It was bluebird for the 2 days we skied Park City.
Below is a video of Rob, Roger, Grant and myself skiing during the bachelor party:
Of course I had to take Joyous for a few cruises while I was in town. Thanks to a website called BoatBound, which is like an AirBnB for boats, I was able to do this and make money at the same time by captaining 2 charter cruises. For each of a Saturday and a Sunday I was paid ~$400 to take groups of young San Franciscans – probably tech workers – out on the Bay doing what I would’ve been doing anyway. They enjoyed their time and I got good reviews.
Just another Golden Gate photo op on Joyous
Chris demonstrating how to cruise on the bow
Charter group #1 leaving the dock after a successful cruise
Charter group #2 styling on the way back to Pier 39
A guest of my slip
Abalone Diving and Spearfishing in Sonoma
I managed to get out to the Sonoma coast with my friends Todd and Theo for a weekend camping trip of abalone diving and spearfishing. On the first day we checked out a new spot, plenty of abalone there, and then on the second day we went to our usual haunt and found more. The highlight was that I shot my first lingcod, which rang in at a barely legal 24”. Todd had a BBQ the next day and I made fish tacos with one of the fillets and then the following day my friend Stephanie made sashimi out of the second filet. Without a doubt lingcod is the tastiest shoreline fish in NorCal waters and the only kind I want to hunt with a speargun up here.
My first lingcod. A barely legal 24″
I also got a few abalone. One was much bigger than the other two; here seen with the lingcod filets
The shell of the bigger abalone was particular round and beautiful. I gave the abalone meat and the shell to my friend Stephanie who undoubtably made something delicious from it
Oh my tasty fish taco, with Todd and his cousin Brent coming inc for a closeup
Helicopter Flying with Luke
I decided to squeeze 4-day trip to Southern California in for my time back in California. I drove down to Huntington Beach and spent a little time with Mom and Dennis. Then I met up with Luke, a friend who I met when he became a roommate at the Beach House in SF. After graduating from San Francisco State University in 2012 Luke moved to Long Beach to pursue a career as a helicopter pilot. At this point he is a basic instructor to new students and was licensed to take me up in a R22 Beta gasoline powered helicopter. We cruised from Long Beach along the coast and then over the Santa Monica Mountains to an airport in Ventura, and then back. Luke even let me take the controls of the helicopter and I was flying it for a while and I only got us into one unsafe decent one time before Luke deftly took the controls and corrected my mistake. We also cruised directly over LAX, which Luke assured me was counter intuitively very safe. It was pretty amazing to be in such a small craft flying around. I’m stoked for Luke and his future career, his job is going to be pretty sweet!
Luke gassing up the bird
Selfie while flying a helicopter!
Cruising over the industrial area of Long Beach.
Ahh, we made it to the coast and did some low altitude flying
Malibu point looking mighty fine from the air
The Santa Monica Mountains
Dropping into the agricultural Oxnard flats
Cruising home directly over LAX
I made it as far south as San Diego. I stayed with Brant and we surfed a fun session at Bird Rock in La Jolla. James Holmblad cruised out as well and I was happy to get the opportunity to ask him to be a groomsman in person. I also met with a surfboard shaper Chris Diercks and order up 2 custom surfboards that I thought would treat me well for the inevitable trip to Indonesia the coming fall.
Surfing the retrofish at South Birdrock
A trip back to San Diego is not complete without visiting Zibby!
Zibby being evil. It was good to see Alex and his girlfriend Kayla.
Countless fun was had on my return – really reinforcing to me how great California is! I’ll let the photos and captions do the rest of the talking…
I ran into Danny Hess just after visiting 3 surf shops looking for a good 6’8″ to buy for my trip to Chile. He told me he had one board — exactly a 6’8″ — for sale from a recent batch. It is the “Banjo” model, and this is Danny (who is 6’4″ himself) holding his dog, Banjo, while posing next to the board
Some decent surf at OB while I visited. Rare form for the middle of spring
I got to see Babar
After 3 months in France I was REALLY craving a proper burrito. La Playa delivered.
On a random night The Simpkin Project was playing in Oakland so Bruce, Chris and I went to the show!
I had a fun session at good ol’ Huntington Beach Pier one afternoon while visiting Mom & Dennis
I visited the Davis family one evening in San Francisco and was amazed to see how much it seemed that Katya had grown!
Beating Dave Simpkin in a doubles round of frisbee golf and winning $2 felt pretty good!
Brant and I left Rapa Nui and spent 3 more days chasing surf together in Chile. I chronicled what we found in my previous Chile post, Chile Redux, Part 1. After I dropped Brant off at the airport, I was scheduled to have only a few days left in Chile myself…
At this point it was Monday and my flight from Santiago back to San Francisco was that Friday evening. My plan was to spend the rest of my time in Reñaca catching up with my Dutch cousin Matti – remember her from my time in Chile back in 2014, which I wrote about in a post called Welcome to Chile. I had returned the Dodge Durango when I dropped Brant off at the airport so I was now cruising via public transport, but this isn’t so bad in Chile as Santiago has a good subway system and the intercity buses are cheap and very comfortable. The plan was to hang with Matti and her husband Berner for a few days, surf the beach at Reñaca and then fly back to SF that Friday.
By late Monday afternoon I made it to Reñaca and met up with Matti at her apartment. She had some good news for me: her restaurant was open and doing well, plus she had adopted several new pets: 2 cats and a dog. Matti is an animal lover. When she first arrived in Chile she spent some time working at an animal shelter so it is no surprise that her pets are adopted off the street. The dog’s name is Bella and she looks kind of like an Australian shepherd mut of sorts. Bella has the best temperament of any dog I’ve met. She never barks and is very chill, actively seeking to avoid confrontation with other street dogs when I took her for neighborhood walks. She must’ve learned these conflict resolution skills from her tough days as a stray! The first of her two cats is a female tabby named Jules. Of course, and unknown to Matti although Berner had his suspicions, Jules was pregnant when Matti adopted her off the street. Matti kept the single surviving kitten, a jet black cutie named Billy. I affectionately named her 3 pets, whom eagerly await her every arrival to the apartment, “The Farm”. And a further update as I write this in June: much to Berner’s chagrin, it turns out that Bella was also pregnant when Matti adopted her off the street. Bella had a puppy named Sami and now The Farm consists of two dogs and two cats… Matti is happy, Berner was right and The Farm gets bigger!
Matti and me with Bella
Jules and Billy
Sami, Bella’s pup and the newest addition to the Farm who wasn’t born yet while I was visiting Matti
The last time I visited Reñaca, Matti and her husband, Berner, were in the midst of creating Matti, the sandwicheria that is named after my cousin. Now the restaurant is open and serves delicious gourmet sandwiches, salads and deserts. The shop is small because the restaurant is to-go only but everything is top notch quality and very tasty. Matti has several employees working for her and her Spanish has improved even more since last time I was in Chile; she is now truly fluent in Spanish. Matti and Berner came to the concept of quality, to-go food by studying the market in Santiago and the business model seems to work well in affluent, beach-side Reñaca. They have plans to create more Matti Sandwicherias in other locations, including Santiago. Meanwhile, the restaurant that Berner and his family own, Delirio, also continues to be lively and do well. I’m very proud of my cousin!
Matti working in the kitchen of her sandwicheria
Matti Delivery, Renaca, Vina del Mar, Chile. Delirio, Berner’s restaurant. is the adjacent building in the background.
Matti and Berner had to work much of the time I was there, but that was no problem as I just spent time surfing the Reñaca beachbreak. There wasn’t much swell, but Reñaca was still pretty fun for groveling and catching a bunch of short rides with other groms. Of course I checked the surf forecast constantly, and by midweek it was clear that there was about to be a long run of good swell for Chile. I started having doubts about flying back to California that Friday…
Back along the boardwalk in Renaca
The beachbreak at Renaca never was really good for the few days I surfed it, but I still had fun schralping the small, fast waves with the groms.
The big decision I had to make was whether or not to fly back to San Francisco given I had a job interview with a solar financing marketplace lender scheduled for the following week. The job opportunity came to me without me really looking for it thanks to a friend’s recommendation. The job itself was as a product manager, a perfect blend of my technical and finance skills, and a direction I thought I might want to move my career once I was ready to restart. Plus the company was growing fast and working towards the environmentally noble goal of bringing solar energy to more households across America. However, there was a big question I needed to answer: was I ready to start working again in Oakland, given Donna and I still had plans to move to Singapore together while she finished up the second half of INSEAD? I spent many hours talking to Donna, my dad and my stepdad about what I should do. I was surprised when both my dad and stepdad gave me the same seemingly irresponsible advice: stick with your lady, keep the sabbatical going and find a job later. I took their advice, cancelled the interview entirely (after I had previously pushed it back 2 weeks to stay in Rapa Nui) and extended my return ticket another 2 weeks. The bonus of my irresponsible choice to pursue life instead of career for the time being: I would be scoring more Chilean pointbreak surf!
The plan was a repeat of what Brant and I did, head to the Promised Land, but this time I’d be solo. I rented a Wicked Campervan, this time instead of Elvis I got “Vansky”. I drove to Pichilemu, where I knew from Instagram that my friend Kyle Thiermann would be. My first night there I slept in the van in the parking lot at Punta Lobos and the next morning the surf was good. I found Kyle in the lineup while surfing, the most awesome way to meet up with a surfer friend in a far away destination! Kyle is a professional surfer and personality behind Surfing for Change, a non-profit that aims to spread the message of environmental activism through surfing media. Recently Kyle has decided he wants to be a big-waves surfer and so he was in Chile to tackle the juice at Punta Lobos. His main sponsor is Patagonia, and thus while in Chile he was hanging out with other Patagonia sponsored surfers including Ben Wilkinson and the surf jefe of Chile, Ramon Navarro. After the session I cruised with Kyle, Ben and a few others back to a beautiful house with an amazing view of Punta Lobos where they were staying. We had a good lunch and watched as a new swell filled in and Punta Lobos grew in size.
Vansky, my transport and home for the next week and half
The back of Vansky. The Spanish says “Honk your horn if you made love last night” … now it makes sense why I kept getting honked at by passing cars!
Punta Lobos with a solid swell filling in
I snapped this photo of Kyle (rightmost dude), Ben Wilkinson (next to Kyle) and the crew while we were eating lunch together. From Kyle’s Instagram account.
Shortly after lunch Ben and Kyle were frothing to get back out into the water. The waves were now 20 foot plus on the faces with good shape: this is what they came for and I felt like charging too. I drove Vansky to the point but somehow lost the crew as they prepped for battle. I was on my own. I cruised over to the Los Morros and plotted how to paddle out.
In my previous post I mentioned that Mataveri on Rapa Nui had the most difficult exit of any wave I’d surfed and big Punta Lobos the most difficult. Even when Brant and I had surfed Lobos at half the size it was kinda sketchy. I had learned previously through observation of the locals that the preferred way to get out at Lobos is to jump off the very tip of the outside morro, timing your jump to be during a lull, lest a wave come and smash you into the rocks behind the jump-off spot. What I didn’t realize is that this is really the only way to get out once Lobos gets much bigger than about 15 foot. For my first attempt to get out I tried the “cheater” way of getting out by jumping off the inside part of the second rock. This route is much safer because if a wave hits you, you won’t wash into rocks. It works when Lobos is medium sized, but as I learned when Lobos is big, like it was this day, the sweep of waves down the point can be too strong to allow a paddler to make it to clean water. I jumped off this cheater section and paddled my ass off for 15 minutes only to be swept over a mile down the vast point without every being able to get past breaking waves. I made it to the beach a good quarter mile from the point itself and spent 20 minutes walking back to the top of the point. I decided to try again at the same spot, still lacking the courage to jump off from the riskier but correct spot. On my second attempt I managed to make it to clean water, but only after I’d been dragged two-thirds the way down the point. It was another 20+ minute paddle back up the point. Once I was out there I caught 2 waves and then the sun went down. It was a humbling experience, but I learned. I also learned that Kyle, Ben and the other pros had all taken jet skis out to the lineup!
Bigger afternoon surf!
Los Morros. Getting in requires swimming across the channel to the left and getting up on the ledge, then jumping off the backside tip of the Morro to the right
Surfers getting ready to swim across the channel. This gives a better perspective of what’s it’s like! Those are big waves breaking beyond Los Morros.
That evening I hung out with Kyle and his crew. We had a pizza dinner and I was invited to stay in the nice house with them, so I didn’t have to sleep in Vansky. They were up the next morning, keen for more big wave surfing.
The house had a rather nice view of Punta Lobos, don’t you think?
Posing with an alaia that I found in the house. I’ve always wanted to try surfing one of these.
Ben Wilkinson’s asymmetrical gun. I saw him crack some serious off the lip turns on this thing in 20 foot surf.
I rose with them and drove with Kyle in Vansky to the point. The waves were even bigger and the conditions even better, very clean. I snapped a few photos and got ready. Ben Wilkinson was the first one out. Kyle was right behind him. They both quickly and deftly climbed down the cliff, paddled across to Los Morros, clambered to the outside morro, waited briefly for a lull and made the jump into the water, both of them making it out quickly and cleanly. The tide was low now, which was making things easier, at least compared to the previous afternoon, but it was still a harrowing experience. I made my way out to Los Morros and began to wait for a lull. A few other surfers with 10 foot boards joined me to wait for their window of opportunity. Mistakes were made. I saw one guy too exposed when a set came and he got swept off his feet by the rush of whitewater over the rocks and flushed into the crack between the two Morros where his leash got tangled around a rock and he was stuck for about 30 seconds, getting pounded by waves and unable to get free. Eventually his leash came free and he was instantly swept away, gone down the point. Another guy got swept into the same crack but at least avoided the leash entanglement. The procedure resembled the game Mario Brothers: the surfers, behaving Mario or Luigi while trying to jump across perilous obstacles, would creep and then run forward when they thought they saw a calming in the waves and either commit to the jump or rush backward to safety on a higher part of the rocks when they realized waves were coming and making the jump into the water would be a bad idea. A few guys successfully made it out. I played it super safe, and spent a long time on that rock. The entire time the tide was rising up and it seemed to be getting more and more difficult to find a good opportunity. Eventually I seized upon a window and made it out to the lineup with my hair dry. Ben paddled past me in the lineup and I exclaimed that it had taken me 45-minutes on the rock to get the balls to make the jump, to which he replied, “Glad to have you out here, but mate, that was longer than 45-minutes!”
The morning session: big and clean. When it’s breaking that far beyond Los Morros, you know it’s serious.
The waves were solid and dudes were charging. I was stoked to catch five waves, all of them 15 feet or so, and make it out of the session without any scary moments. My takeoffs were about even with the Los Morros and I milked the waves far down the point. It would’ve been easy to milk the waves all the way to the beach, but then the paddle back would’ve been too long and I may not have made it back out. My board felt undergunned; it’s amazing how quickly even an 8’2” feels small in big surf. The guys getting the big set waves were fearless and it was cool watching them commit to dropping in on big waves behind Los Morros. Kyle was one of those guys and I saw him take off deep on one and pull into a huge backside barrel and get completely swallowed. Kyle has a YouTube channel that he put a video up about the session, you can check it out with this link. At the beginning of the video, he’s actually in Vansky riding with me to Punta Lobos, although you never see me. Around minute 1:00 you can see the big barrel I saw him bag and get swallowed by. And around minute 5:00 he describes what happened on his 2nd session on this day, when he mis-timed the rock jump off Los Morros with Ben and they got swept into the rocks! Gnarly!!
Instead of sticking around for more of Punta Lobos after the morning session I decided I’d had enough of the big stuff and it was time to head someplace else. I ate a solid lunch in Pichilemu and then drove north. At Puertocillo the surf was good, as expected, and I stayed the night there in the van after being treated to an amazingly colorful sunset. The next morning I was up early and I drove a little further north to another location I’d originally went to when I was in Chile the previous autumn. I checked the wave from the overlooking cliffs and I could see that it was good. There were a few surfers out as well as a jetski that appeared to be ferrying them back to the takeoff zone after long rides down the point. I parked the van, jogged 20 minutes along the beach out to the break and paddled out. As I was just making it beyond the first breaking waves, I noticed the jetski heading straight towards me and wondered if I was about to have an issue with the locals for surfing a ‘secret’ spot. I shouldn’t have worried, though, as the jetski rider greeted me with a friendly smile, invited me up onto the back of the jetski and brought me to the takeoff zone. I caught the first wave that came to me and surfed probably about 150 meters down the line, getting barreled along the way. As I was paddling back to the point the jetski again picked me up and towed me back to the takeoff. Apparently I was in the rotation with these guys and I couldn’t believe it, I was in utter astonishment at how awesomely friendly these Chilean locals were! In total I got about 5 or 6 rides back up the point before the jetski and the other surfers left and I was alone. I surfed for a couple more hours until exhaustion set in.
Ground level view
Another pointbreak. Note the jetski in the water down to the lower right.
Selfie up on the cliff after the session
At this point it was time for me to head far south to “The Promised Land”. I spent the entire afternoon driving Vansky towards the south until I found a decent spot to park and sleep. The next morning I took some photos of decent waves I found nearby and then kept moving south.
Overlooking beautiful Lago Vichuquen during dusk
Early morning photo of a spot near where I camped. This is an unnamed break (at least to my knowledge) and if it were not that there is a better wave nearby, it might actually get surfed occasionally.
The wave that Brant and I surfed a few weeks back. Obviously nobody out; there was a kind of morning sickness on it.
By midday I made it to one of the best waves in the region and also one of the most secluded. I met a friendly local who was also checking the wave and he showed me a better way to get down to the wave than Brant and I had previously discovered. The wave was pumping fast, thick barrels down the line, akind of like a Chilean version of Deadman’s, a wave I surf in San Francisco. There were only a few guys out, many of us blowing takeoffs but getting nicely pitted on the ones we made. One pro was out and he was killing it. When I finished up and got back to my car, I discovered I had one flat tire and another that was pretty low. It took me a few minutes to realize that this must’ve been the work of one of the locals out in the water, who obviously knew that the obnoxiously painted Wicked Campervan housed a foreign gringo here to take his waves. I later learned that a group of the Promised Land locals are known for these kind of shenanigans, and to be honest I can’t really blame them; I wouldn’t be very happy on my uncrowded waves being visited by foreigners either. Advice to anybody renting a Wicked Campervan for surf exploration in Chile: bring one of those cigarette lighter powered tire pumps because locals may let the air out of your tires. At any rate, I resolved to hang out for a bit, make lunch, and take some photos of his previous wave before I changed the flat tire to the spare and limped to a filling station to fill the tires up with air. Whoever did that to me at least didn’t get all 4 of my tires, which would’ve left me in a much worse position.
A beautiful path through the forest leads to the wave.
Umm, yess please.
Takeoffs are harder than they look. And they look pretty hard.
Another post session selfie. This is the shit eating grin of a stoked man who just got some good tube time.
The next 5 days I spent down south surfing several different amazing left pointbreaks. I stayed at a quant little hostel perched right in front of one of these waves, it’s amazing that such a nice place exists there. Here’s the website. Anyway, Brant and I had camped at this spot a weeks earlier, but it was different this time: the waves were bigger and there was much fewer people. Two Australian surfers stayed at the hostel and most sessions were just the three of us on the wave. We’d wake up a little after sunrise, eat a nice Chilean breakfast meal made by Carlina, chat in Spanish with Ruperto, Carlina’s husband, and surf a morning session until we were too tired to paddle more. Then lunch, a siesta and it would be time to take Vansky off to check some of the neighboring pointbreaks. One other wave in particular was working well, a wave that was dormant when Brant and I were here previously now had ample sand and was producing 500+ yard rides. It is amazing what a difference sand can make!
The upstairs of the hostel.
Sunset view from the hostel balcony.
Waves like this broke all day long with nobody around.
I snuck my camera out to take a few pics of Louis, one of the Australians who was at the hostel with me, surfing. He was stoked on the photos — the only he has from a long surf trip he’s on.
This is the wave that was dead flat when Brant and I were there previously. Now the sand was in and the rides were loooong.
Another sunset shot from the balcony of the hostel.
Me barrel hunting during the golden hour. Since I got good shots of Louis the previous day, I convinced him to snap a few of me.
And a third sunset-ish shot from the balcony of the hostel.
Eventually it was time to head north again. I could see from the forecast that down south was going to get some rain and north winds, which would likely wreck the waves at the southerly points, but it seemed that only a few hundred kilometers north the winds would remain relatively light. We were heading into the weekend, so I contacted Samuel del Sol to see if he would be going to his house on the coast that weekend to surf. He said he was busy and couldn’t make it, but he put me in touch with his friend Matias who would be there. I got ahold of Matias via WhatsApp and we made plans to meet up.
I hammered the entire drive out in one long haul after a morning surf session. At some point I picked up a Chilean hitchhiker who was trying to get to Antofagosta to visit his grandmother. He seemed like a young, poor farmer and eagerly ate any snacks I gave him. We chatted a bit, but mostly we just jammed out to rock music I was playing on the stereo from my phone. I dropped him off in Pichilemu, ate dinner, and finished the last 2 hours north late in the evening. I stayed in the van high on a cliff overlooking a good wave.
Lago Vichuquen from the opposite side. I took some sketchy dirt road around the lake this time.
Sunset over the ocean with a blanked of clouds during the drive back
The next day I met up with Matias and his crew. Matias lives in Matanzas and is all about kitesurfing and watersports, although I’m sure he kills it at skiing too. His crew of friends included a bunch of other Santiago based dudes who are also friends with Samuel del Sol and were out at Matanzas that weekend to surf. Most of the Santiago guys were actually pro or former pro skiers. Jorge Martinic was the elder and used to be on the Chilean national downhill ski team and was now doing some ski coaching. His family had a house in the neighboring town of Natividad and that’s where most everybody was crashing. The Carvallos brothers, Ben and Nick, are twins aged about 23 and in the process of transitioning from downhill racing to big mountain freeriding. Their plan was to spend the following winter in the Alps, so we chatted about skiing in Chamonix and Switzerland. Henrik von Appen is the current Chilean downhill champion, a solidly built, strong dude whom it made sense would be an awesome downhill racer. I was super stoked to connect with these guys (thanks Samuel!) and I know I’ll be in good hands next time I head to Chile on a surf or ski trip!
Now cruising with this local crew of extreme sports aficionados, we headed to a hard to access left pointbreak known as El Secreto. We cruised along dirt roads for awhile and then booked across the beach in Matias’ light Toyota 4×4 truck for a mile, then we climbed up and over some bluffs to find lumpy but good waves. The dudes were impressed with some of the late drops I made; it was good to see that all the surfing I’d been doing lately seemed to be resulting in improvement! Afterwards we headed to the house to refuel and relax for a bit and then we cruised to the nearby pointbreak. This time I avoided the long beach walk since I was with guys who had 4x4s! The fog was in but just thin enough that once you were out you could see everything you needed to in order to surf. The waves were going off: it was low tide, dead calm winds and plenty of swell. My first wave resulted in 2 barrels and a 500+ yard ride. I did laps. I took off really deep and barrel rode into oblivion. There was never a crowd and everyone got the waves they wanted. It was a sick final session to end the trip.
Getting ready to surf El Secreto with the boys
Benjamin Carvallo took this shot of me with Vansky and my quiver. All of these boards got some tube time while in South America!
I stayed with the guys that night in Jorge’s house and it was good to get to know everyone even more. The next day was Sunday at time for me to go. My flight was in the evening and so I drove back to Santiago, returned Vansky, got to the airport and flew back to San Francisco. And thus ended what was probably the best 10 days of surfing I’ve ever experienced.
Below is a video I cobbled together of clips from my 6 weeks in Chile & Rapa Nui. It’s 15 minutes long because I didn’t care to edit it down to something meant for mass consumption… it was more meant for me to remember the good times later on!
This is a glimpse into the surfing that Rapa Nui offered Brant and I while we were fortunate to be there for 3 weeks. As I mentioned in the previous post, we didn’t even surf during the first week, but then things got interesting…
If only they knew… although photos can be deceiving with respect to how surfable this wave actually is
Brant and I’s unofficial surf ambassador for our time in Rapa Nui was a surfer named Rene. His wife Carolina and him own one of the best restaurants in Rapa Nui called Te Moana, which is located directly in front of the ‘town’ surf breaks of Hanga Roa. Brant and I became friends with Rene after being on the island for less than an hour. We were picked up at the airport by Pato, the groom, and whisked away to a lunch at Te Moana where we met with Dani, Pato’s, and several of their friends. With our big surfboard bags still on top of Pato’s jeep, Rene took notice and began chatting with Brant. “Whoa, you guys have big boards!” Rene said to Brant, and he told us that it’s not very often that “serious” surfers, especially non-Chileans, come to Rapa Nui to surf. In fact we never saw any other tourist surfers on the island the entire 3 weeks we were there. We later learned that one of Rene’s surfer friends was at the airport when our plane arrived had already alerted Rene that two gringo surfers with big boards had arrived on the island! That this kind of news spread to Rene so quickly is not entirely surprising considering how small an island Rapa Nui is and that the daily LAN flight arrival from Santiago is one of the most important events each day for the island’s impotant tourism industry. Rene told us to keep in touch with him about the surf and we exchanged WhatsApp contact info. Brant and I were stoked have connected with such a legit dude.
Rene explaining to Brant and I that we should extend our tickets an extra 2 weeks and SURF
Rene has been surfing in Rapa Nui since he was a teenager and now, I guess aged somewhere in early 40s, he is at the top of the Rapa Nui surf hierarchy. Every local surfer on the island knows each other but in the water Rene seemed to have a gravitas that nobody else had. The Rapa Nui people have a deep connection with the ocean and much of the young population are in the ocean either surfing or boogie boarding a couple times per week, but it turns out that very few tackle bigger waves of consequence. Mostly the locals stick to the relatively mellow breaks in town rather than risk injury and broken surfboards in the heavy, barreling and dangerous waves that one finds on the south shore or Mataveri. But Rene, another local named Uti Araki, and a few other adrenaline junkies charge the big and juicy surf – these are the guys holding up the Rapa Nui banner high. Check out this video and this video for what I’m talking about. I should note that I did witness a few young rippers out in the water, launching airs and laying down sweet hacks and carves, so I’d expect that over the next decade there will be an increase in local surfers tackling the big stuff. One such grommet is Rene’s 14-year old son, who unfortunately had a broken arm during our visit so we didn’t get to see him surf, but he was already competing and set to surf in a contest in Chile a month after we’d leave. Rene and Uti are also hosts and friends to a small cadre of professional big wave surfers who make regular stops at Rapa Nui. Of course the Chilean contingent tops this list; Rene and Ramon Navarro are friends and check this out for an example what Ramon and his buddies are no stranger to taking a 5-hour flight from Santiago. Another regular to the island is Kohl Christenson, who at one point spent almost a year living ion Rapa Nui and returns every now and again to reignite his fling with waves like this. I also heard the Long brothers like to visit.
At this point a brief Rapa Nui surf geography lesson is in order.
There are basically 3 zones of surf. See below.
the 3 sides of Rapa Nui, a very triangular island
Zone 1 on the west side of the island is where most all the surfing happens. The Hanga Roa “town” breaks I mentioned are consistent and never really get too big, even with a massive swell, while at the same time always producing something fun even with meager swell. I believe the town waves can work on north and as well as south swells, but we only surfed them on energy from the south since April marks the emphatic beginning of the southern swell season and the definite closing of the North Pacific storm track. The northernmost town break of Tahai, right in front of where Pato and Dani were married, looks like a sweet righthander that only activates on a big, clean north swells; we never saw it break properly. All of these spots prefer easterly offshore winds, but accept southerly winds as well.
Rene surfing at the left in front of his restaurant, Te Moana. This wave is actually an A-frame and the right was super fun too. They call it Motu Hava.
In front of Motu Hava is a nice place to park and hang out before and after a session.
This is the town right called Papa. This wave just got more fun the smaller it got and was perfect for logging when really small.
Rene carving a stylish turn at Motu Hava
Beautiful backdrop at the Hanga Roa breaks
Turf mats, always coming in handy
And then also on the west side, right next to the start of the airport runway, is beautiful Mataveri, the crown jewel pointbreak of Rapa Nui. This fast lefthander breaks over boulders and can result in long barrels. There are actually two distinct wave zones to Mataveri, but nobody really surfs the outer section
as it closes out into a rock outcropping halfway from the top of the point, which is marked by a rock island. Rene told us that one time they tried tow surfing the outer Mataveri and ended up losing a jet ski to the rocks after trying to make a rescue; the guy that needed rescuing ended up being fine. The outside Mataveri section is about 800 meters long and the inside Mateveri section, where all the surfing we saw happens, is also about 800 meters long. See the above video links (if you haven’t already) for what this wave looks like when its working — it’s a sight to behold when it’s working and is a big reason why Brant and I were stoked to come surf Rapa Nui. I should also mention that Mataveri has the sketchiest spot exit of any wave I’ve ever surfed (the sketchiest entrance I reserve for Pichilemu, in a story I will describe in my next post). Getting in at Mataveri is easy: you just jump off a lava cliff into the bay, although of course Brant and I didn’t realize this on our first attempt at surfing Mataveri. When we naively tried to walk down to the boulders and paddle in from the shore where waves were breaking the locals kindly corrected us. Anyway, to get out of the water at Mataveri you have swim up to a sometimes submerged rock, get up on it, climb up about 6 feet of wet lava rock onto a ledge while leaving your board floating in the water, and then once you’ve ascended the ledge you must haul your board up by it’s leash. But your not done yet — after this you must scramble across more lava rock to finally climb up yet another rock ledge, this time climbing with your board under one arm hand. Only once you’ve made this secon climb are you truly safe from getting blasted by any set waves that might catch you offguard and wash over the entire zone. If one of these waves hit while your doing this crab scamper across lava rock, it would be a very painful ordeal since the porous rock is super sharp and at the end you’d probably end up cut and washed back into the sea where you started.
Mataveri is a fickle wave and needs a rather big swell to work. The more west the swell the better it will be. It prefers easterly winds and can also handle southerly winds as long as there is no west. The ideal Mataveri swell is big, but not too big unless you’re a madman (see below), comes from a westly angle and is accompanied by light E, ENE offshore winds.
This is what Mataveri looked like for the first 2 weeks we were checking it.
Mataveri starting to activate, barely
This is a mega ISO shot of Mataveri after an evening session. That session saw us get the best waves we got at Mataveri. Those lines are bigger than they look.
Mataveri, nobody out
The morning of the big day. Again, much bigger and gnarlier than it looks. Those waves are solid 21+ second energy.
I snapped this shot after Brant and I’s last Mataveri session, the day after the big day.
Zone 2 for surf is the south side of the island. Rene calls the south side the “wild” side. It picks up significantly more swell energy than the west side and the coastline consists almost entirely of jagged, urchin-covered lava rocks meeting the sea, making merely entering or exiting the water tricky. We constantly checked the south side but never surfed it. The most obvious wave we found was Papa Tangaroa, a Pipeline-esque A-frame with a hallow right running into a super shallow closeout death section after about 50 yards and a left that is kamikaze only (ask Pete Mel, who Rene told us went left while filming Step Into Liquid and wound up getting completely hammered before being rescued by Laird). We saw Papa Tangaroa multiple times with perfect offshore winds, but even at 8′ foot faces it seemed too dangerous to surf, breaking in very shallow water. One afternoon we snorkeled the wave while a few boogie boarders were on it, and we saw from beneath how the 6-8’ waves streaked across the lava rock, urchin covered reef in 2 feet of water, which made us feel prudent in our decision not to surf what superficially looked like a very good wave. Brant ended up getting a bunch of urchin spines in his feet while getting out of the water from that snorkel session.
Papa Tangaroa. Heavy. Sahllow. Beautiful offshore winds. Off to the left you can just make out the top half of a boogie boarder, which provides some scale.
Papa Tangaroa on an even smaller (and therefore more shallow) day. It’s not really an A-frame, but a few people have gone left… and paid the price.
I’m not even sure where this particular wave is on the South Coast. It definitely wasn’t (remotely easily) surfable on this day.
Hanga Nui A-frame
On the big day one could begin to make out a reverse Mataveri called Rua Marengo (at least according to WannaSurf). This wave has probably only been surfed a handful of times. It is WAY WAY bigger than it looks.
We saw many spots where it seemed like other waves were, but we never identified any other wave we wanted to surf. The south side needs westerly winds to be offshore, which we had for the first week of our stay, but the swell seemed to small to make the waves safe to surf; they all seemed too shallow and dangerous or just not that good. A large swell would mean all the waves would be too big to paddle and you’d need a jet ski. The south coast seems very tricky: needs moderate swell, west winds and big but not too big of swell. Of course, if you’re a tow surfer you want big swell, and when big swell with good conditions hits the south side, Rene and his buddies are on it with the jet skis. Rene’s favorite wave in Rapa Nui is a lefthander slab on the south coast called Pakaia that throws a huge barrels and then tapers off into deep water.
Winds are tricky to forecast in Rapa Nui, but fortunately it’s a small island and thus the wind should, in theory, be good somewhere. The trade winds in Rapa Nui are generally easterly. This is why it is so amazing that the Polynesians discovered the island in the first place: sailing east into the wind from where they came is significantly more arduous than would be sailing west downwind. However, the trade winds are anything but permanent and our experience was that the winds in Rapa Nui actually shift a lot. Brant and I experienced a week of westerly winds that shut down the west coast followed by two weeks of variable SW to SE winds that enabled us to surf the Hanga Roa breaks and Mataveri. In general I think the pattern of easterly trades is strongest in the southern winter, but overall the trade wind pattern seems rather variable in Rapa Nui. Further, winds are often affected by local phenomenon like passing squalls. Rene described that oftentimes he’d surf on one side of the island in the morning and then the winds would shift and he’d go surf the other side in the afternoon. He said that pattern of shifting winds can sometimes go on for weeks. From a seasonal perspective, I feel that one actually stands a chance of getting good surf pretty much anytime of the year in Rapa Nui. It is in an ideal location, as the South Pacific is very active year round, bigger north swells also work, and winds are probably offshore somewhere on the island on any given day. Further, the island is so small you can check all the spots on the island in about an hour!
Zone 3 is on the north side and we never saw any waves on this side since there was no north swell activity while we were there. Rene’s son, who is 14 and rips, told us that there are one or two spots that can get good, including the only beachbreaks on offer on the island. Maybe one could hope to get a piece of the action on the north side if visiting Rapa Nui during the Tapati festival in early February…
Anakena beach, which apparently can get waves on north swells
The smallest beach on Rapa Nui, which does get waves on a big north swell.
Originally Brant and I did not intend to stay in Rapa Nui for 3 weeks but Rene convinced us we needed to stick around after we got skunked without any waves the first week we were on the island. We had both purchased round trip tickets for a stay lasting just over 1 week. We decided to extend our trip only two days before we were supposed to leave. Our reason was simple: we got skunked the first week, and then, once it was time to go, the forecast showed a very large swell incoming along with more favorable winds. Rene explained it best, effectively saying, “You’re here now, it’s going to be good, and you don’t know when you’re ever going to come back… you should stay!” Now that’s some good logic for surfers to hear! Another bonus was that we didn’t have to pay anything to change our return tickets to a different date, which seems to be a perk of the Rapa Nui LAN Airlines travel office. So Brant and I both rearranged our lives a little, including both of us delaying job related activities, and we geared up for some good surf.
For the next 2 weeks we focused on surfing, with a little bit of sightseeing and nightlife thrown in as well. We surfed the Hanga Roa town waves twice a day pretty much everyday. But for a few days the elusive Mataveri came alive and we got a few sessions there. We never surfed the south side since the winds had switched to S, SE and so the south side was onshore. It was good times, as the photos demonstarte.
The big swell ended up being an absolute monster. The day before it hit Rapa Nui the World Surf League announced that the Punta Lobos Ceremonial big wave contest would be on. That’s when we really knew it would be big. The big day at saw 21+ second sets march in like freight trains from the top of outer Mataveri barreling all the way until running wide into the bay. It was very much bigger than it looked, as the below photos show. I was seriously considering paddling out and even suited up, before I saw Uti tow into a monster set wave that really revealed how big it was. Also, the locals implored me not to paddle out: it was too dangerous, with the rock climb exit being seemingly impossible to negotiate safely and the alternative a 2+ mile paddle around to the harbor. On the big day Brant and I ended up just surfing the waves in town, which were double overhead themselves.
There were actually 2 swells. The second swell was extra large because the first storm created an unsettled sea state for the second storm to blow over.
Here’s the period of the swells. Monstrous! That second swell peaked at 23+ seconds, which led to the Ceromonial running at Punta Lobos and created the biggest Puerto Escondido in decades. Rapa Nui is at about 27 degrees South and 110 degrees West — right in the impact zone of that long period juice.
Surfline forecast for Rapa Nui. 19′ @ 18s is pretty ridiculous. You can see that the winds were predominantely southerly; better would have been more easterly.
Brant took this photo of me considering paddling out on the big day, when Uti and Rene were towing. I’m not sure what I was thinking, those waves were not meant for me.
Rene and Uti did tow surf at Mataveri on the big day, but only caught 3 waves. Two jet skis were out there, with one towing and the other running safety on the inside. After Uti towed into only 3 waves, the safety jet ski piloted by Rene’s friend suddenly bailed and without the safety ski, Rene decided to leave as well. Rene later told me that he was bummed his buddy had bailed on the tow session, Rene hadn’t received any warning and he didn’t understand why his friend just upped and left. There were waves out there that would’ve been unreal to tow surf, huge 25’+ freight trains with monster barrels. It was epic mindsurfing: I imagined getting a barrel all the from the top to the inside. Whoa.
A big set coming in at Mataveri during the peak of the swell. The rock island out there is about 3/4 a mile away. There are only 4 waves in this photo… very long period energy. The waves are like 20+ feet on the faces and breaking top to bottom. An amazing sight.
Here’s some perspective for you on the size out there. Uti Araki, towed in by Rene.
This beast thing, completely unsurfable, was breaking like this around the corner from Mataveri
I’m not sure when surfing first came to Rapa Nui, but I can tell you pretty definitively when tow in surfing first came to Rapa Nui. That happened around 2002 when the crew filing Step Into Liquid descended up Rapa Nui, led by the legendary Laird Hamilton. Rene told us they arrived in a chartered jumbo jet and brought their own jet skis to the island. Given the Rapa Nui’s location smack dab in the middle of the South Pacific storm track, it is no surprise that huge, powerful and perfect waves grace the lava rock reefs of the small island. These waves are what led Dave Kalama, Pete Mel, Ken ‘Skindog’ Collins, and Laird Hamilton to make Rapa Nui a destination for their film. While on the island they pioneered tow surfing the powerful waves of Rapa Nui’s south shore. You can check out the Rapa Nui segment of Step Into Liquid here. Rene and his buddies had been surfing most all of the waves around Rapa Nui before Laird’s arrival, but once Rene saw that those waves could be tamed when they were too big to paddle, he knew he had to get jet ski for himself. At that point there were no jet skis on Rapa Nui. For a local a jet ski is a huge expense, but Rene was inspired to determination. He talked to Laird about buying one of the skis that Laird had brought to Rapa Nui for the film, but Laird couldn’t sell any because the film production company owned the jet skis. Instead Laird offered to give one of the jet skis he had in Hawaii to Rene for free if Rene paid for the shipping, but Rene realized that it would be cheaper for him to just buy one himself in Chile and have it shipped from Valparaiso rather than pay the high shipping cost from Hawaii to Rapa Nui. I’m not sure how long it actually took Rene to procure his first ski, but when I saw Rene in action towing Uti into waves at Mataveri that day, it was clear he’d had years of experience. At one point he invited Brant and I to his home, where he proudly showed us his current ski, tow-in surfboards and other equipment. As far as I could ascertain, at this time there are only about 3 or 4 locals actively tow-in surfing in Rapa Nui and only 2 jet skis, one owned by Rene and the other by his friend.
Brant and I hanging out in Hanga Roa for a post surf session feed.
Another glimpse of Queen Mataveri
Brant taking in the last sunset at Mataveri. I think we left the next day.
OK, this post is long enough now. If you surf, I’ve given you some good information about surfing on this beautiful island. I recommend you go; you will not be disappointed. Respect the locals. Enjoy the culture. Don’t share this post to unworthy people.
Brandon’s note, October 27, 2015. OK, OK, so it’s been over 3 months since my last Radical Sabbatical post and nearly 6 months since the events of this post transpired. I’m sorry! Turns out being in San Francisco for the summer kept me much more busy than I’d anticipated and I just didn’t make the time to sit down and finish up the numerous half written blog posts I have on my computer. At any rate, currently I’m in Singapore and after spending over 4 weeks surfing in Indonesia, a week in Myanmar and another week sailing in Thailand, I’m not imminently planning any more surf trips so I should habe more time on my hands to catch up on the blog. I’ll try to get at least one post out per week until I’m caught up!
Moai looming at Rano Raraku, which is the location where all the moai were carved from the soft lava rock found near this volcanic crater
I had travelled for 9 months once before in my life, when I was 23, and with another opportunity to be wanderlust I sought a different experience for the time I’d spend traveling now, at age 31. A decade ago I hoped to rapidly see many different places and I was thus frenetically moving from one place to another. This made me less able to absorb culture and get to know local people. Part of my desire for my “early 30s” sabbatical was to travel and exist in places for longer periods of time, make deeper connections with people, and really feel out the vibe of the places I would visit.
Between Brant and I is Rene, a Rapa Nui surfer and restaurant owner who befriended us, took us surfing, and taught us much about Rapa Nui.
Hanging with locals on a Sunday afternoon on the northeast part of Rapa Nui.
Along this vein I was very fortunate to spend three weeks in Rapa Nui, where I attended a Chilean wedding, learned much about Rapa Nui culture, made new friends and sampled some of the fine surf on this small island.
Standing alone someplace east of Hanga Roa where Brant and I drove our dirt bikes on a sightseeing adventure
In case you’re not familiar with Rapa Nui, I’ll start with a short geography and history lesson for you. Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, or Isla de Pascua in Spanish, is an extremely isolated island in the South Pacific with a unique and fascinating history. The island is some 2,500 miles west of the Chilean coast and nearly 2,000 miles from the Marquesas, which are the nearest South Pacific islands with any kind of significant population. Rapa Nui is only about 15 miles long at its widest point and one can easily drive around the entire island in about an hour. Polynesians who arrived in voyaging canoes after sailing from Mangareva or the Marquesas Islands first settled Rapa Nui around 1000 A.D. The original Rapa Nui inhabitants flourished on the semi-tropical island and spent enormous energy carving and moving to their ahu platforms the monolithic moai statues that Rapa Nui is famous for. To this day there are over a thousand moai statues scattered across the island! The Rapa Nui society flourished and the population rapidly increased, but eventually competition for limited island resources resulted in a bloody period of history. By around 1600 A.D. the island’s forests had mostly been cut down. Fewer trees meant fewer canoes, and less canoes meant less fishing, and less fishing meant less food for the people and more intertribal fighting for the limited wood and timber resources. Thus the population started to decrease. The Golden Age of moai carving in Rapa Nui ended around this time and was eventually replaced with what’s known as the Birdman Cult (more on this lo come). But as is a common theme for Polynesian societies, it was the arrival of Europeans that was truly catastrophic for the islanders. Imported diseases and forced slavery brought the population down to as low as about 100 individuals by the mid 1800’s. Then in 1888, at the height of the western Imperialism, the Chilean government took possession of the island and Chile still currently governs Rapa Nui today. The official and most commonly spoken language is Spanish, but the Rapa Nui people also speak the Polynesian language and many times on the island I heard conversations in the native language. The history geek in me certainly came out while I was exploring and learning about Rapa Nui. I think what made it all so much cooler was that the small size of the island meant it was so easy to see the places where all of the history I learned about actually occurred.
The most famous collection of standing Moai on Rapa Nui is at Tongariki
The Polnyesians have their own language and I’m not sure what that second letter actually is.
Me trying to pose as a moai in front of the actual Moai at Tongariki
The motivation for Brant’s trip to Chile and Rapa Nui was to attend the wedding of his friend Pato del Sol. Pato is a Chilean who spent a year studying at UCSD while both Brant and I were undergrads there. Brant lived with Pato in the International House dorms and the two became good friends. I met Pato a couple of times through Brant and also took an ungergraduate computer security class with Pato, who majored in computer science as I did. After Pato finished his year studying abroad at UCSD he went back to Chile, finished up school and a few years later founded, with his brother Felipe, an AdTech company called Admetricks in. It turns out that intelligence and entrepreneurialism run deep amongst Pato’s family and friends. At Pato’s wedding I met his father who immediately liked me and introduced me to his friends after learning that I had gone to Stanford and studied Management Science & Engineering, which he’d earned his Ph.D. in some 30 years before! I also got to know Pato’s fiancée, Dani, who is founder and CEO of a startup called BabyTuto that is the Chilean version of diapers.com and is currently very rapidly growing sales. A cousin of Pato’s, Samuel del Sol, is working at a Chilean solar startup called Solarity, which was especially relevant to me at this point as I had been talking to a solar financing startup in SF that was looking for a product manager with my skill set. I felt really fortunate to have met all these interesting Chileans, all thanks to Brant’s invitation for me to be his surf buddy and wedding +1 on this trip to Chile.
The wedding venue was near the Tahai ahu close in town. I was Brant’s +1
Pato reading his vows to Dani with Pato’s brother Felipe officiating
Samuel del Sol
This very nice wedding definitely gave me some ideas for my own!
The bride getting painted at the reception in preparation for participating in some local dancing
Local dancers performing at the reception. It was a damn good party!
For the first week we were in Rapa Nui Brant and I didn’t even surf once. This was rather disappointing but there was also so much amazing touring and wedding crashing to do that it didn’t really matter. We did constantly check the surf and found consistently beautiful light offshore conditions on the south side of the island, but the swell was too small for the breaks on that side of the island to work. At any rate, I’ll describe more about the surf we did end up finding in my 2nd Rapa Nui blog post.
Horses roam free around the island, which has very few fences or boundaries. When the owner wants to ride his horse, he just goes out and finds him in the grasslands.
Teaser for Part II. Note that this wave looks enticing, but was entirely too shallow and dangerous for Brant and I to consider paddling out.
So instead, for the first week, and to a lesser extent throughout our entire 3-week stay on Rapa Nui, Brant and I delved into the cultural side of the island, visiting the amazing archeological sites, hanging out with the Chileans who were there for Pato & Dani’s wedding, and making friends with Rapa Nui locals who showed us around and gave us a real perspective of the island and its history.
Exploring the “Moai Factory” at Rano Raraku
Atop the Rano Kau crater in the Orongo religious site, with all 3 Motu Islands (Motu Nui, Motu Iti and Motu Kau Kau) visible in the background.
Delay timer shot somewhere on the south coast of Rapa Nui on one of our many surf check circumnavigations of the island.
We needed to be mobile so we rented motorbikes. They cost about $30/day and were super fun for curising around the islan, especially on some of the dirt tracks we found. We rented these endure dirt bikes for about 5 days, and then when it was time to surf we switched to a small jeep, which was also about $30/day to rent.
One of our first motorcycle forays to the south coast.
Dirt track fun
All the cool kids on Rapa Nui ride dirt bikes!
For traveling with surfboards we had to rent this Suzuki jeep. It worked great for getting us everyone on the island.
For those interested in one day visiting Rapa Nui, a quick note on what it costs. In general, Rapa Nui is regarded as an expensive place to visit by visitors, most of whom are Chilean. Nonetheless, Rapa Nui being the “Chilean Hawaii” does certainly not make it more expensive than any normal first world vacation destination; the fact is Rapa Nui really isn’t that expensive. Round trip plane tickets from Santiago run about $400-600, which is pricey, but less so considering it takes a 5-hour flight into the middle of the South Pacific to get to Rapa Nui. The daily LAN airlines flight is from Santiago, but there are also flights to/from Papeete, Tahiti, a couple of times per week. The least expensive accommodation is live in a tent at one of the campsites, which will cost you about $5/day. Camping Mihinoa is the best campsite at a great location right in front of the water near the harbor. We stayed there, but instead of tents we paid about $30/day to rent a nice room with 2 beds, a private bathroom and a kitchen that we shared with just one other room. It was definitely a good call: the campers looked pretty miserable during the frequent tropical rainstorms! A low-end meal will set you back $8-10 in town. Nicer meals will cost $20-50. We cooked much of our own food and bought groceries in town for higher-than-Chile prices, but nothing ridiculous. Pretty much everything on Rapa Nui is imported from Chile, so grocery selection is limited. Brant and I ate lots of eggs, fruits, pasta, and rice meals since our cooking is uncreative and favors high calorie meals necessary for fueling surf sessions. Attractions around the island arein general not very expensive. You could rent a surfboard for about $10 for an hour. Scuba diving at our favorite dive shop, Mike Rapu, cost about $35/dive or $60 for 2 dives; it’s a no brainer, do 2 dives!
This is the setup at Camping Mihinoa. Not bad! I believe Brant is on the phone negiotating benefits for a new job back home in San Diego! You can surf right in front of the place.
Another view of Camping Mihinoa. We stayed in the leftmost building.
Scuba diving the sunken moai (no it is not a real moai, this one is from the set of a Kevin Costner movie called Rapa-Nui and was sunk as an attraction for divers)
Scuba diving the Motu islands. This is a deep dive with excellent visibility as the water clarity in Rapa Nui is amazing.
The arrival of the daily LAN flight to Rapa Nui is kind of a big deal on the island, as all the hotel vendors and whatnot descend on the airport to greet arriving tourists.
The main and only town, Hanga Roa, is right next to the airport. Everyplace outside of town is the Rapa Nui National Park. The National Park was free to visit while we were there, but this is not normally the case. Apparently only weeks prior to our arrival, the Rapa Nui people had appropriated the management of the National Park due to political disagreements with the Chilean government over where revenues from the park were going. The feeling of the locals was that the revenues were not finding their way back into the local Rapa Nui economy but were just fattening the coffers of Santiago based bureaucracies. Further the Rapa Nui locals, who consider themselves ethnically Polynesian, not Chilean, are upset with the lax immigration being enforced in Rapa Nui as many young Chilean men would come to Rapa Nui to live a beat-like lifestyle in the warm climate. Thus the locals were manning the entrances to the National Park and explicitly not letting the Chilean mainlanders who were living in Rapa Nui access the 80% of the island that is National Park – but as a result everyone else, like Brant and myself, could access everywhere for free!
This is all National Park land. I liked the lone palm tree in this photo.
This photo from near the top of Ranu Kau shows most of the town, Hanga Roa. Everything past the town is National Park and for the most part uninhabited.
One of the most fascinating and gnarly bits of Rapa Nui history Brant and I learned from our local friend Tai, who was also our dive instructor. With Brant, Tai and Tai’s friend Yili we drove up to the ancient village of Orongo, which is on the southernmost tip of Rapa Nui nestled on the ridge of a huge volcanic crater. This village was the focal point for the infamous Birdman Cult ceremony. As I mentioned in my history at the beginning of this post, by the 1700s Rapa Nui had depleted most of its forests and become overpopulated, which resulted in brutal warfare between the 10 or so tribes that inhabited the various sections of the island. The Birdman Cult developed during this period to bring a kind organization and peace to the island, whereby each year one of the tribal chiefs would become the “Birdman” and serve as a kind of prophet/chief for the entire island. You should read the Wikipedia page if you are interested to know more details than what I am about to describe. The story Brant and I got from Tai while we were at Orongo high on the volcanic crater overlooking the Motu Islands was slightly different and more intriguing. Also there is a movie (I haven’t seen it yet) called Rapa Nui produced by Kevin Costner that also is about the Birdman Competition.
Brant with Tai and Yili overlooking the Motus high atop the crater at Orongo
According to Tai, the Birdman Competition worked as follows. Each of the tribal chiefs would pick their best warrior to represent him in the competition. The competition would have each of warriors descend the ridiculously steep and dangerous cliffs from Orongo straight down to the ocean. Then the warriors would all swim across to the Motu Nui island where they would try to collect a tern egg. The goal was to swim back to Rapa Nui and ascend the cliffs up to Orongo with the egg still intact and the first warrior to do this would be the winner. The winning warrior’s chief would then become the Birdman and serve as the lead religious figure until the next competition the following year. Sounds straightforward enough, right? Well here are some gnarly details Tai explained to us. First, is that warriors are permitted to kill their fellow warrior competitors. So if you see another guy with an egg, kill him and take it! Second, if you are not the winning warrior, then you have to jump to your death from Orongo down into the volcanic crater. While at Orongo, Brant and I both stood on the rock where many men had jumped several hundred feet to their deaths! Third, the Birdman (aka the winning chief) is given several virgins by each the other losing chiefs. The Rapa Nui people believed that virgins held great mana and so they were part of the prize. The Birdman, however, could not be touched by anyone, including the virgins (how sad for him!), while he was the sacred Birdman and he would spend most all of his time in a cave with the virgins. When he and the virgins emerged from the cave after several months, but before the next Birdman Competition, their skin would be very white from lack of sun, which enhanced the Birdman’s godlike status.
Orongo village consists of these huts where the priests lived. The entrances required one to shimmy on their belly to get in.
This is the Ranu Kau crater. I’m standing on the ledge that the losing warriors would have to jump to their deaths from.
Whoa! Listening to Tai explain all of this while we were exploring Orongo, where it all went down really blew my mind; I’d never felt so connected to the cultural significance of a place before in all my travels. At any rate, given the gruesome nature of the Birdman Cult, it is not surprising that do-gooder, Christian missionaries who arrived in the mid 1800s put a stop to all of this. Obviously the arrival of the missionaries was a bad outcome for the Rapa Nui people, but I think we can all agree that western imperialism stamped out culture pretty much wherever it spread during the colonial era. It is also worth mentioning that at one point Red Bull wanted to hold it’s own tamed-down version of the Birdman Competition on Rapa Nui, but the locals rightly put a stop to that happening.
I highly recommend a visit Rapa Nui. You won’t be disappointed with this amazing island. If you do go, one particularly awesome time to visit is during the annual Tapati celebration, which occurs during the first 2 weeks of February. Imagine lots of cultural dancing involving scantily-clad Polynesian beauties & hunks, many epic parties, music galore and the undisputed highlight is sure to be when the burliest locals slide down a huge grassy hill atop sleds made of banana tree trunks lashed together, as seen in this video. Also here’s a Huffington Post article that describes a little more about the Tapati festival.
Anyway, this post got way too long as is. I need to start working on the next one so I’m going to end it here and let the photos do most of the talking.
The tropical clouds make for frequent brilliant sunsets in Rapa Nui. This place really is a photographers dream.
Brant watching waves break at Mataveri. Wait for Rapa Nui Part 2 to see what the waves had in store for us.
There are only 3 beaches on Rapa Nui and this one at Anakena is by far the largest. This is where the Polynesians who discovered Rapa Nui originally landed their voyaging canoe.
The Moai at Anakena
This is the smallest beach on the island, where we had a BBQ with some locals one Sunday afternoon. The beach is only actually exposed during the low tide.
This dog kept appearing out of nowhere when we were checking surf on the south side of the island. He was missing an eye but didn’t seem at all unhappy about it! We later learned his name and met his owner, but he just roams the island freely for the most part.
This is the setup at the ‘reverse Mataveri’ on the south shore. That wave breaking is WAY WAY bigger than it looks.
Brant getting sea urchins dug out of his foot by Tai. The urchins here are everywhere and gnarly. The reefs are super sharp. Rapa Nui is generally an experts only kind of place.
Catch a fish, grill it, eat it.
Amazing sunset photo #2
Sunset in front of the Hanga Roa surf breaks with sailboats in the background. Awesome.
Brant high atop Ranu Kau
It’s almost like he’s checking the surf…
One afternoon Rene invited us to come help him collect wood for a bonfire at his restaurant in the forest near Ranu Kau. Brant and I happily agreed.
Gathering wood on the island is without a doubt a “locals only” affair. There aren’t many trees and so cutting them to collect firewood is only reserved for those with status. Rene has status.
We explored a few caves in Rapa Nui. There are many of them that were carved by lava flows.
Watching a local cut meat out of the back of his pickup on the main drag in Hanga Roa
Looking from Ahu Tahai towards the rest of Hanga Roa
This cute puppy lived behind Brant and I at Camping Mihinoa and we’d give him a pet and receive gracious tail wags and licks everytime,
Exploring the crater lake at Ranu Raraku
I think this was day 1. I was exhausted from the flight and just flumped down in the grass, glad to be in a tropical environment (Chile was cold)
When it was time to go, Brant and I were pretty bummed!
I didn’t intend to return so soon South America. Only 8 months prior Donna and I had kicked off the Radical Sabbatical by spending a month in Argentina and then I spent 2 weeks in Chile visiting my cousin and chasing surf and snow while Donna went to Shanghai to brush up on her Mandarin. My short time in Chile was awesome and I knew I’d return someday, but I never would’ve guessed how quickly this vague resolve would actually happen. The impetus was that one morning, while I was at Donna’s house in Fontainebleau after coming back from The Alps, I received a call from my college friend Brant Chlebowski. He told me he was heading to Chile for a weeklong surf trip followed by another week in Rapa Nui (aka Easter Island), where his Chilean friend Patricio del Sol, whom I also vaguely knew from UCSD computer science days, would be getting married. Brant wanted me to come along on the surf trip and be his +1 at the Rapa Nui wedding. After an initial hesitation that was extinguished by Brant sending me a YouTube link of a live performance of Bob Marley’s Wake Up and Live, I pulled the trigger. It was a gooooood decision!
Traveling with Brant meant this would be a proper surf trip. Yes, there was a wedding to attend in Rapa Nui that would certainly be good times, but we were really excited to surf long Chilean left-hand pointbreaks and sample the raw power of Rapa Nui. My previous trip to Chile left me with good foundation of surf knowledge that I hoped to translate on this trip into exploring more locations while connecting with better swell and conditions during the Chilean autumn. I had learned on my previous trip to Chile that March, April & May is often the best time for surf in the country, so although it felt weird heading back to Chile after only having been there 6 months prior, it also felt like the smart move for scoring good surf. And then there was the utter unknown beckoning me to go to Rapa Nui. I feel like Rapa Nui, with its mythical monoliths and intriguing history, is one of those locations that most people would like to visit, but never end up actually making the trip to. It’s “on the list” but then other places take precedence. In-the-know surfers are further intrigued by photos of Hawaiian style juice meeting amazing – and obviously dangerous – lava rock reefs and points, epitomized by videos you can find on the Internet of the likes of Laird Hamilton, Kohl Christenson and Ramon Navarro scoring amazing waves. Surfline has a “Best Bet” from May 2013 with some good info and photos. The funny thing is that for me was a friend-of-a-friend’s wedding that nudged me into this epic surf trip!
Brant and I quickly found our rhythm. We met each other at the airport in Dallas over beers and then got on the plane to Santiago. Once in Santiago we headed to the Wicked Campervan rental lot and were dialed into “Elvis”, which would be our wheels and home for the next week. For ~$90 per day we’d procured a Mitsubishi L300 converted into a campervan, provisioned for adventure and topped-off with obnoxious paintings of Elvis all over both sides. This would ensure that every Chilean local would know we were foreigners, not exactly what you want when trying to discreetly surf amazing waves! Elvis is what the van Donna and I rented in New Zealand should’ve been: so much bigger on the inside that all of our surfboards, 7 in total, would fit inside while on the road and so that two grown men could both sleep inside without being too close for comfort.
Elvis, the Wicked Campervan
Elvis’ other side. A very conspicuous surf exploration vehicle. Note the turf matts, which were an awesome addition brought by Brant.
As soon as we had our wheels we hit the road for Pichilemu and arrived in time for an evening session at Punta Lobos. There wasn’t much swell, but the waves were fun and I could already see that the sand was much better than when I was there the previous September. Back then the only part of Punta Lobos that was working was the Diamonte section on the inside of the points, but on this day the waves were breaking much closer to Los Morros, the two iconic hump-shaped rocks at the top of the point, in the Mirador section. We stayed in a hostel that evening (not yet ready to commit to van life, I guess) and got a little bit of a late start on the road the next day.
The plan all along was to head south of Pichilemu to the Promised Land of Chilean surfing. This is what I love most about surf trips: the adventure of exploration and reward that constitutes searching for, finding and surfing awesome new locations. In order to respect the Chilean locals of the Promised Land – and to not ruin the sense of adventure for those who want to live it as much as possible themselves – I’m not going to use any actual place or wave names in my writing here. This blog post is, after-all, bound for the Internet at large. Maybe I’ll drop a clue here an there for fun, but I definitely don’t want to be “that guy” who puts up photos of waves and then spells out exactly what they are called and where they are. In some respects I imagine Chile being a little like California was 50 years ago and we should try to preserve it that way for as long as possible. If you really want some info, you can give me a call, but don’t plan on met telling you any good info unless you already have a plane ticket booked!
The first spot we found I’ll call Penis. When Brant and I surfed it late during the afternoon of our second day after a few hours on the road we were the only ones out. The waves were fun (nothing epic by the standards to come) but we were frothing so hard on the session we surfed into the dark. On my last wave it was basically dark and I somehow managed to get axed by the lip and blown-up by the impact. I kneed myself in the nose pretty hard, and double-buckled my brand new 5’6” Hypto Crypto! What a bummer, this board was made for fast, powerful pointbreaks and it was gone on the second day of my trip to Chile! I’m now skeptical that Hayden’s “Future Flex” technology really results in any kind of “stronger” board.
Brant checking the wave we called “Penis”
Getting suited up for a session at Penis. This would be the 3rd and final session my Hypto Crypto would experience.
Eventually I gave away the buckled Hypto to the guy running the campsite, who I imagined would make sure it wound up in the right hands of a local grom
After the session we had some bomb empanadas right by the where we surfed and then continued south in the night. We ended up campeing off on the side of the road after another hour or so of driving. Our first night of man-cramming into Elvis also resulted in the consumption of half a bottle of pisco and two good friends catching up on life. Good times.
For the next 4 days we hung out in the Promised Land and surfed 4 different pointbreaks. Sometimes we were the only ones out! The swell was not big, ranging from 2-3m of 14 to 16s energy, but this was more than enough for plenty of pointbreak fun. We roadside camped at first but eventually found a paid campground with bathrooms right by a point that seemed to have better sand and pick up more swell than the other spots.
Late evening session
La Joya del Mar is a nice hotel run by a Californian and his wife. If you head down south, its worth checking this spot out for a good meal, or if you wanna drag your lady down to southern Chile, I highly recommend staying here
This is why I highly recommend staying at La Joya del Mar if you’re coming to surf Chile with your lady. The rooms are just as nice. And yes, that’s a left pointbreak off in the distance.
Brant knows how to check a surf spot like a sniper
My memory of the days down south kinda blend together and consisted of the usual camp/surf routine. We’d wake up and always make coffee first thing. Then check the surf. Then we’d make some breakfast, usually eggs with bread, to get fueled up for the surf session. Then we’d surf for 2 or 3 hours. Then we’d recharge the batteries with some lunch and then drive around checking more surf spots in order to nail down where we’d surf the afternoon session. Perhaps at some point we’d need to run an errand or two, which pretty much was either picking up more beer & food at the grocery store or fueling up the van. Then we’d surf the afternoon/evening session. We’d make some kind of dinner, usually pasta and drinks some Chilean red wine or beer. Exhaustion would lead to an early crash out in the van. Rinse and repeat the next day. This is the stuff real surf trips are made of!
Morning surf check, Brant with coffee in hand
Early morning sunrise going off
Selfie; taking photos in between laps
Chilean getting barreled
Brandon, hitting the gas
Eventually we had to start making our way north in order to get back to Santiago for the flight to Rapa Nui. On the way through we did have a good session at Punta Lobos, it was breaking at the Morros and both Brant and I got some long rides and did a few laps. This was our first experience with the complicated and sketchy process of paddling out at Lobos when its bigger: you have to jump off the tip of the rocks, which means perfectly timing your dash and leap so as not to get smashed into reef by the incoming waves.
On the drive back north, we chanced upon an amazing sunrise while atop driving on a dirt road atop a mountain ridge.
While the sun was rising, the clouds hung low in the valleys.
Boys will be boys
Posing in front of the mural at the Wicked Vans site in Santiago
We ended up staying at a hostel for one evening in Santiago because our Rapa Nui flight left early the next morning. We checked out the bar scene in the Avenida Italia district on a random Tuesday night and it was pretty dead. Our alarms went off at like 5am and we made our way to the airport. Rapa Nui awaited…
[fast forward to after Brant and I returned from Rapa Nui, 3-weeks later… Brant had 2 more days and we went to go surf some more. I’m including these couple of days in this blog post because they take place back in Chile with Brant.]
We got back from Rapa Nui and wasted no time renting a car so we could go on a mini road trip to score a few more waves before Brant had to leave Chile for good two days later. The leftovers of the same swell we’d surfed in Rapa Nui were lingering around and we hoped to get the last of ‘em. We managed to rent a burley Dodge Durango right from the airport and stayed in the Bellavista Hostel in Santiago that night, which is a spot I’d recommend because the Bellavista neighborhood is probably the spot to stay in Santiago.
Early the next morning we hit the road and went to check on a wave somewhere north of Pichilemu that I’d surfed on my previous trip to Chile (again, see Surf and Snow in Chile). The wind was up in a bad way and the swell was probably too small for the wave anyway, so we drove a bit south to a well known but somewhat hard to find pointbreak also north of Pichilemu. The locals in this area smartly deface the signs and even swap them out to send gringos like us on wild goose chases on dirt roads through the forest, and we definitely took some wrong turns before we found what we were looking for!
Brant, looking more grizzled and checking blown out surf somewhere north of Pichilemu
The locals ensure that you won’t get too much help from the signage
We took a wrong turn and wound up in this spot, which was definitely not the pointbreak we were looking for but was beautiful nonetheless, so we enjoyed a beer before heading onward in our search
It was late on a Sunday afternoon and most of the Santiago weekend warriors had packed it up to head back to Santiago for the work week, so the wave was relatively un-crowded and still showing good 6-8’ sets every 15 minutes or so; these were the leftovers of the big swell we’d seen in Rapa Nui. I surfed Brant’s 7’2” as a single-fin and it was a great call. My second wave was a proper set and I took it all the way to the beach. I measured the length of the ride on Google Earth and I estimate it was about 700 meters!
Even though the sun had already set, I ran back to the top of the point and paddled out again. It was pretty much dark by the time I got into position to wait for a set. It got dark and I turned to paddle in and only to behold a most beautiful sight: on this clear night the full moon was just beginning to rise over the mountains directly behind the wave. The moon was bright and as it rose to higher to become fully visible the whole night seemed to glow. I knew that catching a wave would be no problem now, especially since the moon was directly down the line of the wave and would illuminate the wave face perfectly as I surfed. I waited and waited and eventually another set came. The drop would be the hardest part in the dark, but the bigger board served me well and I stroked in and rode one of the most unique and mystical waves of my life, again taking it all the way to the beach. The combination of a single fin, the full moon illuminating the wave, and the fact that the wave itself was an overhead, reeling and very long Chilean left in glassy conditions was surreal!
I came back to the beach to find Brant jumping up and down to stay warm by the car; I’d had the key to the Durango and he’d gotten out before the moon rose. I was frothing from my moonlit night wave and told him we had to get back out there for a night session. So we paddled back out, the full moon subtly illuminating our session for another 45 minutes!
We stayed in the nearby town and the next morning went back to the point. The swell had dropped considerably, but the waves looked super fun for a longboard session. Fortunately there’s a surf shack that rents boards and they had some logs for Brant and I. There was a friendly local hanging out named Filipe who used my camera to take photos and videos of Brant and I while we surfed, then I came in, traded the board for the camera and took some photos myself. It was a super fun mid-morning session and the day was gorgeous, a great way for Brant to end his trip.
Morning coffee at the hostel in the nearby town
One of the beachside locals
Log-tacular left pointbreak
Felipe running with his dog to go get some fun ones
One one hand, you have a left point. On the other hand, another left point.
Brant left Chile on Monday, May 4. We cruised from the coast back to the Bellavista Hostel in Santiago and got cleaned up, then went for dinner at Uncle Fletch’s, which was conveniently right next door to the hostel. The burgers we had were top notch, the recommendation from to go there Sam was spot-on: Uncle Fletch’s probably has the best burgers in Santiago. Also Brant was stoked that Felipe, Pato’s brother, cruised by and had a beer with us before he had to go. It was a good send off. I drove Brant to the airport and we killed some time having a pisco sours before he had to head through security to his gate. It was a great trip, a 2-weeker that turned into a month and we were both very stoked. As we said goodbye I remembered the e-mail from Brant that included a link to Marley’s Wake up and Live, an e-mail that had ultimately led me to pull the trigger on buying my plane tickets. My last words to Brant were: “We lived”; indeed we had.
Brant outside the best hamburger spot in Santiago: Uncle Fletch’s
Donna had wanted to visit Istanbul for some time so she made plans for a long weekend getaway as soon as I returned from the Alps. At this point I had something very important planned, so it was rather convenient that Donna wanted a romantic getaway trip to an amazing city…
The travel to Istanbul was uneventful, save for the fact that I was harboring a rather expense item in my backpack and I was a little bit worried I might get asked questions about it, which could ruin the surprise, or worse that I might have to deal with customs over ‘importing’ an expense item. In the end it was nothing was noticed though!
We arrived late on Friday night. Our AirBnB host, Mert, was super cool and was waiting at his apartment a little after midnight when we finally got dropped at his place. Mert was very accommodating and he had a simple apartment right in the heart of a part of Istanbul called Beyoglu, the center of which is Taksim Square. Donna’s Turkish friends at INSEAD recommended this neighborhood and it really was an awesome area to stay. There were copious little shops of all kinds, like quaint bookstores and antique dealers, as well as many cafes, bars, and in general a very bohemian and youthful vibe. Taksim is definitely the spot to plant oneself for a stay in Istanbul.
Our first day in Turkey was kind of gloomy and drizzly but we made the most of it. We started off by heading over to Ortakoy where we had a Turkish breakfast at the House Café. Just outside was the beautiful Ortakoy Mosque, the first of many amazing mosques that I’d see in Istanbul. After breakfast we walked along the main boulevard south towards the Karakoy part of town with the plan to check out the Museum of Modern Art. Along the way we happened to pass the Dolmabahçe Palace, which was built in the mid 1800s as the primary residence and place of business for the Ottoman Sultans and their families. The Sultans occupied it until the Turkish independence in the 1920s and then Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, lived there. Part of the tour had us walk through the room where Atatürk passed away. The Palace was amazingly ornate, with gold plating everywhere, elaborate Turkish rugs, and a generally Baroque style. We were not permitted to take photos inside, but I managed to sneak a few anyway.
Donna experiencing her first Turkish breakfast
Brandon and Turkish tea
Brandon in front of the Ortakoy Mosque
Walla, Dolmabahçe Palace
Sneaking a photo of the grand staircase
One of the rooms where the Sultans would meet with foreign dignitaries
Front and center view of the Dolmabahçe Palace. It’s way, way longer than it looks from this vantage point.
We eventually made it to the Museum of Modern Art, but it was closing soon so we just hung out and had a small meal at the restaurant. The museum has a fantastic vista over the water, where we could see the Asia side of Istanbul across the river to the east and then look south to Old Historic Istanbul, where the Grand Bazaar, the Old Palace, and the Blue Mosque are located.
Bosphorus Straight selfie, taken from the balcony behind the restaurant of the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. Behind us is Old Istanbul.
That evening we chilled out and explored Taksim. Donna was very interested in buying various kinds of baklava and I dragged her to a hookah bar. It was a Saturday night and the place was buzzing with people shopping, drinking at cafes and bars, and enjoying the nightlife.
Not exactly stoked on hookah, but you gotta try it when in Istanbul
A tower of caramel sugar dripping baklava
I highly recommend touring much of Istanbul on foot. We ended up walking almost everywhere for our two full days in town and it was a great call. There is also a subway for longer transits and taxis aren’t that expensive either, but we covered most the ground on foot and were rewarded by happen-chancing upon so many random and interesting places!
Along Beyoglu’s famous Istiklal Street I snapped this photo
I’m not sure what that instrument is, but this guy along Istiklal Street was playing it rather well
Istanbul is a city of many cats. This guy is obviously a feline lover
Sunday was the day. The sky was clear and blue and our plan was to head to the old part of Istanbul and see the Grand Bazaar and the Blue Mosque. I knew what I had to do, so I discreetly threw the expensive box inside my backpack and kind of made sure it was down toward the bottom where it would be hardly noticed. We figured out the subway system and emerged about a 45-minute walk from the Grand Bazaar. What we didn’t realize was that the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays, so we got skunked from seeing it! No worries, though, plenty more to see.
Lots of street vendors in the Old Istanbul area. I like this unique shot of Donna watching a guy blowing hundreds of little bubbles.
Tracking down the Grand Bazaar. Unfortunately, we learned it is closed on Sundays!
We continued on foot and had a small bite to eat and a beer in the sun near the Blue Mosque. Originally we tried a different café a little closer to the mosque but they didn’t serve alcohol at that spot; I had almost forgot that alcohol is against proper Muslim rules! We thought about going into the Hagia Sofia, which is right across from the Blue Mosque, but there was a long line and learned that is was actually a museum now (and before that was a Christian church and before that a mosque… only Istanbul!) Hmm, onward to the Blue Mosque where we did the walking tour through it. There was a live prayer going on and this was my first mosque experience.
Our first sighting of the Blue Mosque, which was the only mosque I saw in Istanbul which had 6 minarets (these are the thin towers you see). One of them on the Blue Mosque was under construction while we were there, though hence you only see 5 in this photo
Enjoyinh a beer close, but not too close, to the Blue Mosque
Donna had to wear a headscarf when entering the Blue Mosque. Also, we both had to take off our shoes.
Live prayer was happening while we walked through the mosque. I was surprised photography was allowed inside the mosque (or maybe it wasn’t but everyone was taking photos anyway?)
By this point it was mid-afternoon and absolutely gorgeous. I knew I needed to execute my plan sooner than later, but where? I hadn’t really planned anything out, but I obviously wanted to find a picturesque and romantic setting to pop the question. We ended up meandering away from the Blue Mosque towards the Mediterranean Sea. I noticed that there were a lot of rooftop restaurants in the area and this seemed promising. I scanned the skyline and eventually found the one that I deemed to be the tallest, a place called The Seven Hills Restaurant. We went up to the 10th floor and the terrace had a splendid panoramic view of the water, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. This would be it.
The Blue Mosque during sunset from atop the Seven Hills Restaurant in Istanbul
The Hagia Sofia directly opposite the Blue Mosque, beautifully lit up by the setting sun
Next up I thought about how to pull it off. I knew that I wanted to find a way to get a photo of the moment, but how could I do that without making Donna suspicious? At some point I discreetly moved the ring box from my backpack into my pocket. We ordered a bottle of rosé and an appetizer plate. Eventually I concocted my plan…
I told Donna that we should get a photo together using my Canon 6D SLR camera and obviously she thought that was a great idea. I set the camera to the correct settings and then I walked over to the restaurant manager, who was standing sufficiently far away from our table, and I asked him if I could propose to my girlfriend in his restaurant. He replied “yes” and then I told him I’d like him to take photos with my camera and he agreed. I told him that the plan would work like this: first Donna and I would pose for a normal photo, then I would walk over him, check that the photo exposure was good, and that then I would walk back for another photo and that’s when I’d propose. He nodded his head and we executed the plan.
The setup photo
I wasn’t really that nervous as it happened, I’d been planning this for a while and was excited to get engaged to Donna. She’s so amazing! (But you already knew that, right?) All of the sudden I’m down on one knee and holding a box with her ring in it. It was classic: I totally surprised her as I asked, “Donna, will you marry me?” The restaurant manager captured her surprise awesomely in one photo! Donna was ecstatic and in went in for an embrace and a kiss, but at some point I had to remind her that she needed to give me an answer! She said “yes” and then I put the ring on her finger. By this point we had become the center of attention as most of the other guests at the restaurant realized what was going on. I stood up and gave her another kiss and then everyone let out applause. I claimed it at one point, raising our hands in the air, haha! And that was how the most important moment of my life happened!
1) Clearly she is surprised!
2) Very stoked!
3) Going in for a hug and kiss
4) I remind her that she has to give me an answer!
Donna’s version of the events:
Little did I know that sunny March day in Istanbul would bring one of the best surprises of my life. I had wanted to visit Istanbul for a long time and thought it would be a nice way to say goodbye to Brandon since he would be leaving France for the next 2.5 months to surf in Chile and San Francisco. What I expected to be a chilled, fun, exploratory long weekend getaway to a city I had heard so many great things about, turned into a moment that I will so vividly remember forever.
I was completely surprised that during one of our photos on a gorgeous rooftop overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, I found Brandon getting down on one knee with an opened ring box in his hand… I was so stunned that I couldn’t process what was happening and didn’t have an immediate response for him. I sort of just froze. He had just come back from over a month of living in the French Alps snowboarding, so how in the world did he manage to score a ring and actually bring it to Istanbul?! Turns out it took a lot of effort, coordination and planning. For so many reasons, I am so in love with this man and so excited for our life together!
5) Donna laughs and says “yes”
6) She said “yes”! So I pull the ring out of its box
7) Lining up the ring for its new home
8) And onto the finger it will go
Gratuitous ring-on-hand photo
Back to Brandon’s narration…
The rest of the day was a little blurry and a lot of fun. We ordered a bottle of champagne and finished it, and then walked all the way back to Taksim. It was a long and beautiful walk and we were jittery with excitement fantasizing about our future life together. By the time we got back we were exhausted and we ended up not going out that evening, instead Donna wanted to call some of her friends and family and let them know the good news. I also called my mom, dad and sister. Whew, what an amazing day!
Enjoying a bottle of champagne after the engagement
The next day it was time to go, but we did get a chance to cruise and have a nice breakfast alongIstiklal Street in Beyoglu. We caught a taxi back to the airport and flew back to Paris. Mission accomplished!!
We ran out of time and had to catch a plane, but just before that we walked by the impressive Galata Tower
On the flight back to Paris we flew right over Chamonix; it was cool to see where I’d been for the previous month from 38,000 feet
My final two weeks of “ski bumming” in the Alps didn’t involve so much ‘bumming’. My friend TI joined me for a week of resort skiing and backcountry exploration and Donna joined us on her long weekend between semesters. Given the two extra guests, Christophe and I moved into a bigger, 3-bedroom AirBnB that was a nice upgrade from the studio we’d been at the previous week.
I thought I’d throw this photo in because I like it. Somewhere near Flegere looking toward the Valle Blanche
The new apartment was literally right across the street from the old place, which made the move easy. It was a cozy 3-bedroom apartment owned by an Italian engineer. The big upgrade for Christophe and I was that it had a proper living room and we each had our own private bedrooms with great views of the Aiguille du Midi face. The comfort of this new place (and also probably a desire for some actual rest) incited a noticeable calming in Christophe, who no longer desired to be out partying until the early morning every night, instead preferring to hang at the relatively luxurious apartment. Most nights he would relax while watching snowboard movies on his laptop and smoking endless hand-rolled spliffs. He’s a classic Frenchman indeed.
The evening after I scored amazing powder runs in the Pendant area of Grands Montets with Sergei, TI arrived in the Cham. I know TI from our time studying at Stanford together and we, along with a few other mutual Stanford friends, have kept a tradition of meeting up for some skiing somewhere in the world at least once per year (the other guys were absent from Chamonix, but we would see them at Rob’s bachelor party in Park City in about a months time). TI used to be a PhD student at Berkeley, but two years ago he became a Professor of Business at Emory University in Atlanta Georgia. It is now more important than ever that TI makes trip to the mountains for some snowboard action! At the encouragement of myself and other backcountry skier friends, TI had taken an AIERE avalanche course and bought a splitboard, so the main agenda was to do guided ski touring in the Chamonix backcountry.
TI, the moment he first step foot onto Chamonix ground
Literally an hour after TI arrived Donna showed up too! She hitched a ride with some INSEAD classmates, who had come up to join a big group of INSEADers. The ‘college students’ had rented two chalets for a long weekend of skiing and partying in between their first and second semesters. Donna was stoked on our apartment and once everyone was settled we headed into town for a few drinks and to catch up.
Celebrating Donna and TI’s arrival in Chamonix with a flaming shooter
Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worse at this point; the next day most all of the resorts were shut down due to high winds. You wouldn’t have realized anything was amiss given the calm in the Chamonix Valley, but looking at the mountain ridges up high you could see the wind was intense because huge snow contrails were blasting off the mountain peaks. It was a bummer that all the fresh powder that had fallen the day before was now getting blown off the mountains! We made the best of the day by heading to Les Houches and I brought Donna and TI up the skin track I had discovered the prior week. It was good practice for TI who was still learning the basics of skinning.
Winds howling off the high peaks in Chamonix early that morning. All the resorts except for Les Houches were closed
The view form about 1/3 up the mountain at Les Houches. It wasn’t nearly as windy here!
Donna and me. Skinning!
Cool long exposure shot I took during the full moon from our balcony that evening. You can see Mont Blanc in the background and it still looks windy
That Friday the Donna, TI and myself, along with a British gent, did a ski tour in Switzerland. Our guide was a lady named Elodie who took some fantastic photos of the trip. It was a bluebird day and even though the winds were still blowing strongly in Chamonix, the location Elodie took us was sunny, warm and calm. Everyone was stoked. In the evening the 3 of us joined the INSEAD crew for a 30 person dinner at a nice French restaurant in town – the INSEADers know how to enjoy the finer things in life!
The crew getting ready to ascend in Switzerland
Doesn’t it look like she’s really enjoying herself out there? She was!
Conga line! Thanks to Elodie for taking the photos
At the summit of … whatever it was we climbed up (in Switzerland)
Descending is always the fun part, right!?!
Donna stoked to be crushing some spring condition freshies!
Yea, she’s stoked!
In general the 2015 ski season in the Alps was regarded as a bit of a dud. I had heard that the previous two ski seasons were pretty good ones for the French Alps, but this year there had only been a couple of decent snowfalls during late Jan / early Feb but nothing significant before or after. Usually late Feb / early March is the time for big dumps and snow accumulation! The area of the Alps that was getting blasted was the southern Italian Alps. Instead of the usual pattern of storms coming in from the NW bringing copious snowfall to the northern French Alps, the Swiss Alps and the Austrian Alps, this year the Alps had instead seen a number of storms approach from the Mediterranean and dump the goods all over the Italian Piedmont. Everyone around Chamonix, especially myself, would always eagerly be checking http://www.snow-forecast.com and http://www.wepowder.com hoping to see signs of a big snow dump to come, but it just wasn’t in the cards for Chamonix. I was disappointed, but then again I was also happy to stay in Chamonix instead of chasing powder around the Alps, which would’ve been logistically a pain in the butt and rather expensive. And even despite the lackluster snow year, I scored a couple of days of awesome powder!
That weekend TI and I did more guided ski touring while Donna went skiing in the resorts with her INSEAD friends. Chamonix is an amazing place full of epic ski tour possibilities, but the mountains are very intimidating and it wouldn’t be prudent to head off on ski tours without hiring a guide. Even with a guide I’d learned a few weeks prior how dangerous the mountains could be! My hope was that after a few guided days I’d obtain the knowledge to safely navigate the zones we went to on my own. With guides costing €350 per day (but at least split between 3 people) it is simply too expensive to hire them everyday, but I wanted to be out ski touring as much as possible! Donna made me promise that I’d stay off of glaciers and I happily agreed to her request, at this point admitting I didn’t have the knowledge, gear nor experience for safe glacier travel.
The first day our guide brought us to a zone that is skier’s right of the Flegere resort. We actually bought a “backcountry only” pass for €21 that allowed us to take the Flegere tram and then a chair to the top, and then we traversed under the Aiguille de la Floria and then skinned up towards the frozen Lac Blanc. Our original objective was ascend and ski down the Col du Belévdère, which looked amazing once we reached its base. We had lunch at the doorstep of Le Refuge du Lac Blanc, which unfortunately wasn’t open yet beca. Our British friend wasn’t fit enough for the big ascent up to the Col du Belévdère, so we ended up traversing far to skier’s left into and beyond the zone directly opposite Grands Montets. We kept traversing and traversing and eventually descended down to the little French town of Les Montets just before Vallorcine. The group had a beer there and then we caught the Mont Blanc Express train back to Chamonix. TI did very well on his first day of proper ski touring!
Our guide showing us the crown where an avalanche broke off a week or so prior. You can see the crown is like 8 feet and a big chunk of snow off to the right.
TI practicing his kick turns
Our first look at a delectable Col du Belvedere
GoPro selfie stick, bru!
and some action, with TI not far behind
Looking across the valley at the end of Valle Blanche and Grands Montets. It doesn’t seem quiet as grand when it fits all into one frame!
Trippy looking snow in this spot
The next day TI and I ended up skiing with our guide in Les Balme. We spent the morning doing some gravity accessible off-piste runs and then we were invited to have lunch at our guide’s house at the base of the mountain. After lunch we went up the Vallorcine gondola, did a short hike farther up, then traversed toward a long 800m couloir that would bring us into Switzerland. Getting to the couloir was tricky and involved hiking up a steep, snowless face and then carefully getting into position to ride down the couloir. On the way down my binding broke but fortunately I had spare parts in my backpack and was able to fix it in the middle of the 40- degree couloir! The incident slowed us down and we barely made it to the bus on time; we were literally sprinting to catch it before it left. It was an awesome experience, though, and TI was stoked on his first legit couloir experience – this was REAL Chamonix!
Just before hiking up the crux to the couloir
Baked by the sun all day, this aspect had no snow at the top, but the couloir was filled with snow because it was in the shade. This hike in snowboard boots was way sketchier than it looks in this photo.
The couloir that drops down into Switzerland…where a bus will happily take you back to France.
That evening Donna had to catch a ride back to Fontainebleau with some of her classmates. I said goodbye – again – but I knew I’d be seeing her soon enough. Of course we did some flaming shooters to commemorate the farewell.
The next few days TI and I rode Grands Montets with Christophe, Sergei and the Brothers. Good times. TI and I also took a trip up the Aiguille du Midi so he could check out the amazing vistas up there.
TI and myself at the top of the Midi
Taken from the Midi tram, this shows the arete you must walk down to get to the beginning of the Valle Blanche. Fall off the north end and its 2500 meters of sheer cliffs to the valley floor! A fall off the other side of the spine might not be fatal, but no fun at all.
On TI’s last day in Chamonix we decided to mount a return to the Col du Belévdère. Sergei came along for his first ever day of ski touring. Also joining us was Brett, who we met during our first guided attempt at Belévdère. Brett is from Australia and has a pretty cool job: he’s a pilot who flies the double-decker A380 superjumbo for Qantas, including the 17-hour route from Sydney to Australia which is the longest commercial flight in the world. Brett’s wife is from Norway and their family has a place in Chamonix, so he is fortunate enough to spend lots of time skiing here – a smart guy for sure!
Brett the Australian A380 pilot
Anyway, the day had beautiful spring-like conditions and the ascent went smoothly. Being a pack of 4 dudes, we joked along the way that it would be fantastic if at the top of the Col there would a bunch of topless babes ready to give us massages… and then when we got to the top, we found not quiet that… but something I would’ve never expected. There was a pack of 5 Norweigen girls sunning themselves and eating lunch! It was a Yhatzee! moment for the single dudes, TI and Sergei, who chatted them up and I got a fantastic photo of Sergei with the pretty ladies. We skied down the sun-softened with the girls and of course the female presence had the guys blasting airs off wind lips and crashing ridiculously. Good times!
At the top of the Col du Belvedere
‘Twas an amazing day
Me, at the top
This DOES NOT happen everyday. Sergei , stoked on life. He got 2 of the 5 girls to give him their number.
Chilling at the end of an amazing day
The below is a video… check it out!
That evening TI left and the next day was time to check out from the apartment we’d been staying in for the last week and a half. Sergei let me stay in his place for two more nights and tried to convince me to chase a storm that was going to dump (again) on the Italian Piedmont. These southerly storms would oftentimes fail to break across the high peaks of separating Italy from Switzerland and France and Sergei was hungry for powder. However, I had business to attend to: first I was going to go to Zermatt for 2 days of skiing with Lauren (Donna’s friend) and then I needed to head to Zurich to pick up an expensive small package…
My final day of skiing in Chamonix was a tour with Brett. We returned to Flegere and bought the 1-way pass up the mountain. We followed a popular tour that took us up and over the Col du Crochues, then traversed for a few kilometers around the cirque until another ascent brought us to the Col de Bérard. Then the descent flat out sucked, horrible, icy snow pretty much the whole way down and this was followed by a super long traverse along a river that was a huge pain in my snowboarder ass. But I made it and at the end of the day both Brett and I were still stoked on just being out in the mountains!
Me about to make it over the Col du Crochues
The backcountry heaven behind Col du Crochues
This is the 2nd half of our (shitty) descent, and you can kinda see how it all flattens out and became a living nightmare for me as a snowboarder!
By late the following day I was in Zermatt and in sight of the glorious Matterhorn. Switzerland is super expensive, especially after the Franc appreciated thanks to the SNB releasing the Euro floor peg, but I managed to find a cheap hostel and get moved in. I had a nice dinner with Lauren, Ryan and Ryan’s cousin Chris who was joining them from the West Coast. When you hang out with foodies like Lauren and Ryan you eat well and spend lots.
My first real glimpse at Ze Matterhorn. My hostel was just up this street.
The two days of skiing were pretty fun. Zermatt has wide, well-groomed pistes that are super fun to haul ass on. The resort at Zermatt is huge and it is even possible to go down the back side to an Italian ski resort. The first day I was with Lauren and Ryan and we ate yet another awesome meal right on the mountain that Lauren claimed “was the #2 restaurant on a mountain slope in the world.” It was fricken’ good. For our last run we went up the tram to the highest possible point and we could see the storm clouds that were dumping snow in Italy spanning the horizon to the south. Yet nothing was falling in Switzerland! The next day it was just me and Chris because Lauren and Ryan left and the storm did manage to drop some freshies on the upper Swiss side. Chris and I put a few tracks on a particularly tasty slope we found and then went to the Italian side, which had tons of wet, heavy snow and was completely foggy. No good at all! Jeez, finding good powder is way tougher than it should be! Nonetheless the days were fun times.
If you are in Zermatt, look this place up and GO HERE for lunch
The meal in action
From the top of Zermatt you could see the system that was nuking snow all over the Italian Piedmont. It literally stopped right at the ridgeline and barely dusted Switzerland at all.
This was by far the longest poma lift I’d ever ridden. Because the tram was closed, we had to take this thing for like 30 minutes to get to the Italian side, which was completely foggy anyway, with wet snow to boot
Chris and I did 3 laps on this face, which had about a foot of freshies deposited all over it
action shot 1
action shot 2
A screen grab from Chris’ helmet cam as he descends the powder face we milked 3 runs on
I hoped on train to Zurich, where I spent less than 24 hours. I went to Zurich (instead of directly to Paris) for one purpose: to get the engagement ring for Donna from the FedEx location I had the ring mailed to. I thought the customs process would be confusing and paperwork heavy but to my amazement getting the ring was a piece of cake: I literally walked in, signed for my package, and that was it! No customs forms, no duty payments, nothing! Gotta love Switzerland! Chalk up one for Brandon, who successfully avoided paying any kind of sales tax on his engagement ring! (If you work for the State of California revenue department, please ignore this.)
Whoa, on the train to Zurich I finally made it to Part 2 of Don Quixote!
Upon arriving in Zurich I checked into a hostel for the night in order to give myself plenty of time to figure out the alleged customs procedures, but it turned out I was done after only 45 minutes. I found myself with the rest of the day to spend in Zurich before I’d leave for Paris the following morning. I am no tourist and I am not usually interested in seeing the sights of a city and Zurich was no exception. So instead I hung out at my hostel and met a few interesting people.
The FedEx spot that was my main mission in Zurich
Good things come in small packages
Pound for pound, the most expensive thing I will ever buy
I overhead two young guys talking about computer science and artificial intelligence and joined their conversation. Howard was all of 20 years old and a computer science major from Cornell. He had spent the previous summer working for Jane Street, a high frequency trading firm, but was going to spend this summer working for a data science company called Palantir in New York City. Claudio was 25 years old and an economics major from Chile who had recently graduated and taking 6 months to travel before working. I gave them my background and we had a nerdy but cool conversation for some time before I suggested we take downstairs to the bar in order to resume over beers. Before heading over I asked the ladies staying in my dorm room if they might join us, and two of them did. Inez was a 21-year old dancer from Brazil who had gone to school for 2 years in San Francisco and was currently traveling through Europe auditioning for various dance schools. Sally was a 33-year old Ph.D. in materials science who was in Zurich interviewing for a post-doc research position. Whoa, this was definitely one of the most eclectic and intelligent groups of people I’d ever met in a random city hostel! We all talked for about 2 hours, discussing life and the opportunities and decisions everyone had to make in the coming months. As I fell asleep that evening I reflected that this meeting of diverse and interesting people in transitory periods of their lives is one aspect of traveling that I enjoy so much.
Since my mission was accomplished I got on a train back to Paris. That weekend Donna and I would be heading together to check out Istanbul and I had some important business to attend to…
The Alps, Part 2 I first fell in love with snowboarding in middle school and since then I always imagined how awesome it would be to live at a resort as a ski bum and snowboard everyday. Nearly two decades later (and at the tender age of 31) I’m on a Radical Sabbatical I was able to make a mini version of the dream happen in Chamonix Valley. As I described in my previous post, my first day ‘boarding in Chamonix was both terrifying and fortunate not to result in serious injury (or death) after I fell into a large crevasse while skiing a glacier at Grands Montets. I considered leaving Chamonix because of the incident in order to surf in Morocco, but in the end I decided to ‘get back on the horse’ and keep snowboarding. The main proponent of me staying was a French guy named Christophe who I met my hostel the evening after the incident. Christophe is a super gregarious French guy who also speaks perfect English because his mother is American. The day after my fall, when I was sad and considering leaving Chamonix, Christophe convinced me to stick around Chamonix and go snowboarding with him the next day, back at Grand Montets.
Christophe and myself
That day was another spring-like, blue-bird day and the snow was surprisingly good, becoming just soft enough by mid morning for good carving, but never becoming slushy or slow. I snowboarded hard with Christophe and a few of his French friends. When I say hard, I mean like much harder than I usually ride: we were on the mountain by around 10 in the morning and were lapping the gondolas nonstop until everything closed around 4:30. I probably did more vertical feet in that day than any other day in my life. And cruising Grand Montets with Christophe and his friends, the French “Brothers” Axle and Boris, was awesome because they knew the mountain well, taking me through on numerous runs through Grands Montets’ famous Combe de la Pendant. All I had to do was keep up with them, which was actually rather difficult because the Brothers skied fast. The younger brother, Axle, had won local freeride competitions in Chamonix and had even competed in the Chamonix Freeride World Tour qualifier earlier in the season. The Brothers were both classic French ski bums, working jobs in the off-season, saving their Euros and living in caravans in Chamonix in order to ski through the entire season without working. They had a clear love for skiing and the mountains, and meeting them assured me that I made the right decision by staying in Chamonix.
(below is a gallery, so click the first photo and you can browse through the rest full screen)
Christophe with the Grands Montets Pedant area in the background
Axle, his 2 lady friends, and Christophe
Axle jumping over an obstacle, tapping his skis on the way down, and landing backwards. He could ski backwards (switch) better than most could ski normal.
Axle and friend
We saw foxes from the gondola!
Apres ski after an intense day (for me at least)
The next day I skied in Italy at a resort called Cormayuer with another new friend I also met the Gite Vagabond. Ryan is an American who traveled through Chamonix for a few days of skiing after a European business trip. We hit it off because he lives in San Francisco and works in tech in business development for a company called WorldPay. His last day of skiing was that Friday and we both wanted to check out the Italy side of Mont Blanc so we took a 45-minute bus ride through the Mont Blanc Tunnel and found ourselves in Italy. Despite it being the middle of February, the spring-like conditions continued and we cruised the resort at a much more leisurely pace than my previous day with Christophe and the Brothers, which was a welcome change for me. A unique feature of the Alps is that one easily ski in multiple countries since France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria are all relatively close together. After spending a day in Italy, Ryan and I were able to make interesting French versus Italian comparisons. First I noticed that the Italians seem to have a less of a concept of orderly lift lines than the French, but both countries are much more chaotic and pushy than American lift lines. The food on the Italian side was also much cheaper than the French side. Of course the resort restaurants served pizzas and focaccia sandwiches instead of burgers and various French cuisine. Even the skiers seemed to enjoy skiing with with a different style. Generally the French resorts seemed more like what I was used to in America, but by comparison the Italians seem to generally take it easier, with the masses enjoying to soak the sun’s rays with their noses in the air during seemingly frequent breaks at the various lodges. The older Italians skied with a funny style: standing rather upright and keeping their arms up high and wide at their sides while skiing slowly and making wide turns. Ryan and I were happy to accommodate the more relaxed pace and enjoyed a long mid-afternoon break while sipping beers under the impressively vertical backside of Monte Blanc.
(below is a gallery, so click the first photo and you can browse through the rest full screen)
The Italian side of Mont Blanc is way steeper — but equally impressive — as the French side
Enjoying beer in the sun Ryan
At this point it was already the weekend again and Donna and I were fortunate enough to be reunited again. Donna took a train to Switzerland and met up with her college friend Lauren Kwist, who had been living and working in Geneva for the past several years. I took an airport shuttle from Chamonix to Geneva and was picked up by Lauren and Donna. Yes, more good times with Donna and more new friends! Donna, Lauren, Lauren’s husband Ryan, and myself spent a that Saturday cruising around a gloomy Geneva; we weren’t bothered by the lack of sun because there was snow falling in the mountains. We had an awesome steak dinner at a restaurant near Lauren’s house that only served one dish: steak, which meant that it was done just right. And of course the wine flowed freely, as has been the case at just about any dinner in Europe! The next day Donna, Lauren and myself went for a day of skiing at a resort at the far end of the Chamonix Valley called Le Tour. The day started off cold and foggy, but there was about 2 feet of light, fresh powder on the ground for us to enjoy. I cruised with the ladies and took some cool photos with my wide SLR using a wide-angle lens. Really, the mountains necessitate wide-angle because the landscapes are so vast that one needs a wide angle to get it everything in the photo, plus wide angles are great for selfies! Thanks to Lauren’s recommendation, we had lunch at a quaint chalet near the top of the mountain. I was blown away to be eating gourmet food in at the top of a ski resort. Donna and I were stoked to be living the quintessential European ski experience!
(below is a gallery, so click the first photo and you can browse through the rest full screen)
In front of the chalet we ate lunch at in Le Tour
Donna leaning into some pow pow
Le Tour is at the northern end of the Chamonix Valley. This shot of Donna looks towards Chamonix
The following day was a Monday and Donna had to return to Fontainebleau for school. Lauren let Donna borrow her car and Donna drove me back to Chamonix. We ate a tasty burger lunch at a spot the best burger spot in town called Poco Loco, watching out the window as snow nuked down. However, the temperature was barely freezing and the large snowflakes felt watery. Reports from a few skiers we talked to were that the conditions were somewhat miserable up on the slopes, which enabled me to justify in my mind taking the day off. After lunch I said a melancholy goodbye to Donna, but the plan was for her to return to Chamonix in less than two weeks during the break between her first and second semesters at INSEAD. We’d be reunited soon enough!
Watching the snow come down at Poco Loco
For the meantime I made arrangements to share an AirBnB place with Christophe. The Gite Vagabond was a lively hostel in a good location and a great place for meeting people, but €40 per night had 4 people, inevitably skiers with copious smelly ski gear, crammed into very small dorm rooms with two bunk beds. Worse yet, there was no common kitchen for meal preparation (although the bar was excellent). This wasn’t conducive to any kind of privacy or relaxation or the ability to save money by preparing my own meals, and I felt I could do better on AirBnB. Sure enough, I found a studio nearby with two beds for only €50 per night and Christophe agreed to split the cost with me. In this way I came to be living with my new friend Christophe. During this week living with Christophe in the small studio I really began to feel like a ski bum. Each day there was only one thing to do: go snowboarding. Christophe was full of energy and most days made sure that we were up early and on the bus to Grand Montets in time to be among the first up the gondola. His energy level shocked me: despite being up at dawn and on the mountain all day, he would still go out trolling the bars nearly every night until past 2am, always trying to implore me to come out with him. I usually declined his a requests and when I did go out with him, I would bail early because he never seemed to have enough of a late evening. The bar scene in Chamonix is typical of most mountain towns, where the ratio is like 4 dudes to every girl, except in Chamonix everywhere seems to be overrun by British tourists – not my scene at all. But living with Christophe was great. Him being French, he knew where to go for what and could easily ensure everything we needed was taken care of. After a day a day of riding we would usually swing by a grocery store and buy some food to make for dinner as well as some wine, cheese and sausage to enjoy while leisurely preparing our evening meal. Often I would eat so much cheese, baguette, and sausage that dinner seemed almost unnecessary! Christophe was stoked to demonstrate to me the French way of life, which he explained meant doing things at a relaxed pace while talking and generally enjoying the company of friends and family. The skiing itself that week was pretty good, definitely better than the previous week. The high pressure that induced spring-like conditions the week prior had broken down and fresh snow fell for a couple of good powder days. There were several highlights. First was doing laps at a run Christophe showed me called the “Magical Forest” at Grands Montets. On many days when it is snowing in Chamonix the resorts are foggy with clouds, so finding good tree runs like the Magical Forest is the best option. On another day I went without Christophe to Brévant because Christophe pretty much only goes to Grands Montets, because “it’s the best”, and I couldn’t convince him to stray from his favorite mountain. At Brévant I was able to find fresh lines for an entire bluebird morning. I was on the first tram up to the very top, which hadn’t opened the previous day, so it was completely fresh. I watched as most of the gnarly dudes (and a few ladies) on that first tram headed off the tram to the famous Brévant Couloirs. However, now respecting my limits, I along with a few others went down the safe way back toward the tram, all of us hurling full speed on fresh, untouched powder while hooting the entire way down. By midday the face I skied was completely tracked out – this is why “First Bin” matters! I explored more of Brévant after that and met ended up meeting a Scottish guy named Daniel on a chairlift. It turns out he had seen my crevasse video and this became the first of a my “Oh, you’re the guy who fell into the crevasse” moments. We cruised together until early afternoon when the bright sun had baked the powder heavy and not nearly as good. A final memory worth sharing was a day I was with Christophe and the Brothers when the clouds formed up only through the mid-section of Grands Montets, which created some epic views from the top that made the mountains look like they were floating on the seas of heaven. I later relayed these views to my mom and she told me that when she skied Chamonix back in her college days she remembered the same thing happening in Chamonix.
(below is a gallery, so click the first photo and you can browse through the rest full screen)
Apres Ski often went down in Argentiere and often there was live music playing
The day of clouds
in the magical forest
This is the way I like to see trees while on a ski trip
Daniel and I created these two lines at Brevant… super fun!
Me at the top of the Brevant tram
Daniel heading down a long steep off-piste run at Brevant
Daniel at the top of the Brevant tram
Looking off the backside of Brevant. Backcountry for days
Top of the Aguille Midi
The famous tunnel that leads to the treacherous snow-walkway where you start the Valle Blanche run
The day of clouds (again)
Selfie at the top of the Midi
Church in Cham
On the not so good snow days I still found ways to keep myself stoked. I had brought all my splitboard gear to Chamonix but after nearly two weeks I still hadn’t used it, so on a warm day I went to Les Houches where they have a skin track that you can use to go up to the top of that resort. I ascended the mountain in about two-and-a-half hours and then took a rather horrible run down. The exercise and views were great though! On another day I again hired a guide and practiced some mountaineering techniques right in the middle of Grands Montets. We short-roped up the top of a ridge a few times and were able to get good fresh tracks! Originally my plan was to try and learn a lot of mountaineering while in Chamonix, but the crevasse fall kind of tempered my mountain ambitions. Nonetheless it was nice to reinforce some of the skills I had learned in the mountaineering course I took the previous December. My most favorite runs went down at Grands Montets with another new friend named Sergei. Christophe and I met Sergei at our favorite apres ski spot in Argentiere, which is the small town adjacent to Grands Montets. Sergei is only 22 years old, but carried himself as a dude who is much older. His uncle owns a huge chalet in Argentiere but lives in London and Sergei was living there by himself. Anyway, I skied with Sergei on a few occasions and we lucked into 2 sweet Pendant powder runs. It had been nuking snow all day to the point where like 50cm had accumulated, but the whole day was completely foggy, almost too foggy even for the trees, so you really couldn’t enjoy the powder. I mean, what I really want to do in powder is haul ass, but if you can’t see more than 10 feet in front of you, it’s impossible to unleash. Well, on this day I was riding with Sergei and then at about 3pm the clouds suddenly lifted and we found ourselves in Pendant with good visibility. We nuked four runs in deep, fresh powder hauling but and shredding, it was the best hour and a half of resort skiing I think I’ve ever done. See the below gallery for the GoPro selfie evidence! OK, originally I planned to write one post for all the time I spent in the Alps, but at this point I still have about 2 weeks more to cover and I’m already at 2,200 words, so I’ll cut it short here. In the next post I’ll write about my friend TI joining me, Donna coming for a long weekend, and my final days skiing in Zermatt!
(below is a gallery, so click the first photo and you can browse through the rest full screen)
On a ridge in the middle of Grands Montets where we hiked to untouched powder
After moving with Donna to Fontainebleau, I kicked off the European leg of my travels with an amazing surf trip to Spain and Portugal that I previously blogged about. Then I spent a nearly a month from mid-January to mid-February in Fontainebleau with Donna where I met many of her classmates and sampled the awesome experience that is getting a MBA from INSEAD. Living with Donna was fantastic, but I found myself restless in Fontainebleau because I felt somewhat of a lack of purpose. Originally I had imagined spending time working on business ideas and networking with Donna’s colleagues. Although I did a decent job of meeting people, mostly in very informal settings (a.k.a. partying), the reality was I was not able to get real work done in Fontainebleau. I think this was mainly because an adventure in the Alps was calling me!
The start of my month in the Alps was a weekend trip with Donna and a few of her INSEAD friends to Courchevel, France. I had never heard of this place before but quickly experienced what I needed to in order to characterize it as the European version of Vail. First off, it is very expensive. Forget about finding a hostel or any kind of cheap lodging, the best you’ll do is about €400 per night. Also the food is very pricey, pretty much every time you go someplace to eat it’s going to cost like €30 minimum per person. Ouch! The only thing that was surprisingly cheap were lift ticket prices, which rang it at only €50 per day. In fact, it seems most European ski resorts charge only about half what the big American ski resorts charge for lift tickets; I still wonder why lift tickets are much cheaper in Europe? At any rate, the well-to-do of Europe and especially Russia love it in Courchevel and one quickly gets the feeling that Courchevel is not for hardcore skiers but for those looking for a chill-out, ski a little, fine-dine a lot, and spend money kind of place. That being said, the mountain is pretty rad. Like Vail is enormous, Courchevel is really enormous. It is actually 3 entire mountain resorts all connected and accessible with one lift ticket and combined Le Trois Valleys is the largest ski resort in the world. The pistes are wide and well groomed, and there are some super legit couloirs and gnarly off-piste terrain available as well. We had rather good snow, including a dusting of fresh stuff overnight and clear skies. I’d love to head back on to Courchevel on a proper powder day!
Donna and the INSEAD crew on Saturday
Skiing and going out with Donna and her friends was lots of fun. On Valentine’s Day the group of us went to a fondue restaurant and I experienced my first raclette. Wow, that is a lot of cheese, only the French would figure out a way to make cheese a meal in and of itself. A few of Donna’s friends were really good skiers and it was fun to haul ass with them down the well-groomed runs. Also, one of Donna’s friend’s parents, who were vacationing in Courchevel (surprise, INSEADers often come from well-to-do international families), hired a guide and this guide showed us around the resort to the best runs. All in all it was a grand old time, I think only my wallet didn’t like the experience.
Donna and I on Sunday, when just the two of us explored the resort of Les Trois Vallees
The weekend came to an end after a good day exploring the mountain with just Donna and myself. Donna cruised back to Fontainebleau in a car with some of her classmates and I caught a bus toward Chamonix. I stayed overnight at a hotel on the way and was in Chamonix by the next afternoon. I had the shuttle driver drop me off at Gite Vagabond, a hostel I had found on the Internet. The hostel was orderly and had one of the best Happy Hours in town, so it was a great place to meet people. I ended up staying there for my first 5 nights.
Chamonix was my first destination because it was the Alps location I had heard the most about through the grapevine. I knew that the skiing here was supposed to be as extreme as it gets and I was curious to see it for myself. I considered myself a backcountry skier, albeit a novice one, and my intent on coming to Chamonix was to get off-piste and see what the Alps were made of. I knew that Chamonix was a place where I could easily get into trouble, so my plan was to hire guides to show me how to approach the mountains here. The cost for a private guide in Chamonix was about €350 per day, but I found that I could contact the guide companies and join other groups and split that cost to save money so that my cost would be more like €150 for a day of guided skiing. I arrived in Chamonix on a Monday and I managed to get myself in an off-piste group for the next day, my first day in Chamonix.
View from the top of Valle Blanche just after emerging from the Aguille Midi station. This was my first run in Chamonix!
That Tuesday, February 17th, was by far one of the craziest days of my life because I fell about 45 feet down into a crevasse while skiing on a glacier with a mountain guide. I wrote another blog post that describes in a matter-of-fact manner exactly what happened along with what I learned about glacier skiing. You should definitely read that blog post and watch the video, which can be found with this link. Here in the Radical Sabbatical blog I’ll write more openly about how I felt during and after the experience.
The video I made and put on YouTube below:
The fall lasted perhaps 5 seconds total and I don’t remember actively thinking about anything, just acting on instinct. Once I came to reset and looked around me I realized that I had broke through a snow bridge on the glacier and fallen deep into a crevasse. I looked up at the hole I had made and was shocked at how far down I was and I instantly knew that I was very lucky to be uninjured. It took about 20 minutes or so before my guide shouted at me and poked his head over the hole’s edge to see me down in the crevasse. During that 20 minutes I had moments of fear, especially when I realized that it would be impossible to climb out given I had no ice tools or crampons. At the same time I never really panicked because I felt certain that the guide would find me and initiate a rescue because that is exactly his job: to keep track of his clients. The hole was obvious and I’m sure some he must have been very much dreading to look down into that hole in expectation of seeing a very injured client!
Photo of me getting pulled out of the crevasse taken by the rescuer who descended into the crevasse to assist me.
Also a photo taken by the rescuer as he was being dragged out of the crevasse showing exactly what I fell down.
A photo of the hole I created when I broke through the snowbridge. There was no way I could have easily known beforehand I was riding on a snowbridge!
During my time in the crevasse I tried to act logically and keep focused on survival. One of the first things I did was put on additional layers of clothing I had in my backpack. At some point I took my phone out to try to call for help (of course there was no service) and then with the phone already in my hand I decided to take some photos and the video to document the inside of the crevasse and my situation. Dark thoughts did enter my mind. I thought about possibly not being found before dark and being stuck in the crevasse overnight; chances for survival seemed grim. At the same time I was awed by the surreal beauty of the crevasse; I knew that the inside of a crevasse is a place not too many humans have seen (or want to see!). The crevasse I fell into was particularly beautiful owing to the late afternoon sun making the ice glow aqua blue. Once the guide found me it took about 25 minutes to complete the rescue. I was actually in good spirits once I was out and even snowboarded down to the bottom of Grand Montets. Every moment since then that I’ve spent thinking about the incident I have appreciation for how lucky I was to be uninjured. All of the rescuers and pretty much anyone I told the story to or showed the video to also reminded me that I was lucky to be alive.
The American couple who was with me on the guided tour when I fell into the crevasse. They were from Reno and the woman worked for Patagonia. Needless to say, they were rattled by my experience too!
That evening at the hostel I found myself at the hostel bar and I began talking with those around me about what had happened. Everyone was very interested to hear the story and they were amazed by the video I took with my phone in the crevasse. For the rest of the trip in the Alps my crevasse fall was a great story to tell the people I met. The people in Chamonix and especially the hardcore skiers and locals were intrigued by the story because many people are out there skiing glaciers frequently. The blog post I wrote and posted on SnowBrains actually made me a little bit of a 15-minute celebrity in Chamonix because a link to the blog post was added to the Facebook Chamonet page, so many people in town saw the story in their Newsfeed. Several people I met around town or on the slopes had already seen the post before I met them, and when I let them know I was the snowboarder who fell in the crevasse, they’d say something like: ‘Oh, you’re that guy!’
At the bar the evening after the fall I began hanging out with a French guy named Christophe who would end up being my friend and roommate for most of my days in Chamonix. He loved the video and it seemed only logical after a near-death experience to go out drinking with a new friend. I think emotionally I was still a little in shock about what had happened and having a few drinks in a new mountain town to celebrate being alive seemed appropriate.
The next day I didn’t snowboard and I really began to reflect and deal with what had happened. The main feeling I remember was being kind of sad for some reason, like wondering why I got away so easily from a crevasse fall when others had fallen to their deaths, even on that same glacier. (For example, read this or this or this). That day I hung out in a café for a few hours and wrote the blog post for SnowBrains. I think that writing helped me organize my thoughts, think about what I did wrong that led to the incident, and confront some of my feelings. Not wanting to be in Chamonix anymore did cross my mind, and I considered bailing out on the entire Alps trip to go surfing in Morocco instead. In the end I decided that it was just dumb luck that I came out OK and that I needed to get back on the mountain and go snowboarding. I didn’t want to let a bad experience ruin snowboarding for me, but at the same time what happened definitely tempered my initial grandiose ambitions with regard to what I hoped to accomplish in the Alps. I concluded that instead of spending lots of money paying guides to challenge me with bigger and bigger alpine ski objectives, I should just go snowboarding at the resorts and ease into things. In the end, this was a much better attitude for me to take because it allowed me to slow down and focus on having fun. After all, having fun is what snowboarding is all about!
The Alps Part 2 will be about the people and snowboarding that filled my days for the month that I was living in Chamonix.