Hangin' 10 at 6000 Feet
photography: Eric Kiel
(page 2 of 2)
With the release of Gidget, starring Sandra Dee, in 1959, American adolescents from coast to coast were exposed to Hollywood’s version of the southern California beach-and-surfing lifestyle. Within months, woodies—wood-sided station wagons, the car of choice for the surf-set—began showing up everywhere. Even in places like Nebraska, gremmies (novice surfers) were driving woodies around with longboards sticking out the back. Hang the fact there weren’t any waves on the Platte River: surfing was “in.” (Ketchum has a few resident woodies—one, a 1957 Willys owned by local clothier and skiing legend Bobby Burns for 25 years. “It has four-wheel drive,” he grins, “probably making it America’s first SUV.”)
Not inclined to miss a trend in the making, the music industry rushed to capture what was clearly a large potential audience. It didn’t take long. Three singing brothers from Hawthorne, California, with the last name of Wilson, had added a cousin and a friend to form a singing group that was first called Kenny and the Cadets, and then Carl and the Passions, and then the Pendletones. Dennis Wilson, who surfed, thought it would be a good subject for a song, with the common vernacular giving the lyrics a certain esoteric mystique: ho-daddies, gremmies and hotdoggers, hang ten, woodies, wipeout. His brother Brian wrote “Surfin’” and then “Surfin’ Safari,” demos were recorded for both songs in 1961, and the name of the group soon changed to The Beach Boys. With Jan and Dean also competing for spots on the Top Ten, the surfing culture was chronicled in hit songs and sub-sequently memorialized.
As in all sports, surfing has been subject to frequent, often radical change, moving from longboards to shortboards and back, from redwood to boards made of foam.
Innovations such as multiple fins made the ride more stable, while O’Neill Company wetsuits allowed southern Californians to surf in winter, northern Californians to surf in all seasons (55-degree water being a significant detriment to the enjoyment of this sport). The ankle strap or leash tethered the board to its rider, ending the significant amount of “fetching” that had been involved when board and rider parted company and the breaking wave carried the board up onto the beach. Now everyone could more comfortably and safely be a surfer.
The 21st-century trend is toward “big wave” surfing. Time Magazine featured an article in July 2004 in which Billabong, an Australian surfing company, offered $250,000 to any surfer who rides and conquers a 100-foot wave. Such waves travel at over 40 miles per hour, so the surfer is pulled on a line by a jet-ski, catapulted to the wave’s crest, where the surfer then drops into the maw as it breaks.
Sets of mammoth waves occur infrequently, so it’s up to a company called Surfline, a forecast service, to let surfers around the world know, for a price, when “surf’s up.”
Bing Copeland remarks, grumpily, that you once had to follow the adage, “You don’t know if you don’t go.” Now, subscribing to the forecast service can ensure that you’ll know before you go—but you certainly won’t be the only one. Surfline.com gets a million hits a month. “I admit,” says Copeland, “I have a love-hate relationship with Surfline.”
Surfing is now a 4.5-billion-dollar industry, with surfers cropping up on China Beach in Vietnam, the shorelines of Indonesia, and the long, gentle swells of South Africa (Bruce Brown found the perfect wave off Durban, South Africa, in his 1966 movie Endless Summer). For the present, it appears that the sport is in no danger of losing its momentum.
And the Wood River Valley, far from the places where people surf, continues to draw a disproportionate number of residents whose daily lives once included—still include, in many cases—riding a board and/or designing one. The myriad reasons are obvious in some cases, more subtle in others.
In the “obvious” category … surfing, skiing, and snowboarding are all gravity sports, where balance is a key ingredient. They’re done in the open air, in a natural setting, by an individual instead of a team. As picnic attendee Herb Nolan, a surfer on Hawaii’s big waves in the 1950s, puts it, “Ski or surf, it’s all the same.”
Mike McCann, a principal in the real estate firm of McCann, Daech, Fenton, recalls the Dawn Patrol on southern California beaches, where true believers paddled out to surf the “glassies”—waves that had not been blown out by the on-shore winds that arise after 10 a.m. These days, when there’s fresh powder on Bald Mountain, the Dawn Patrol is out again, in this case riding skis or snowboards. One moppet in the surfing movie Step Into Liquid summed up the feeling these athletes are seeking: “It’s like flying … it’s not like soccer, where all the moms are on the sidelines yelling at you.”
Scott Hansen, a former world-class freestyle skier, avid surfer, and Sun Valley resident, remembers sitting in class at Orange Coast College in California, “while saltwater dripped out of my nose directly onto the examination paper in front of me.” Hansen started his school days riding “glassies,” as did Mike Pyrzinski, a Ketchum finish carpenter who always surfed before his high school classes. Both are now part of the Dawn Patrol on Baldy.
Snowboarding easily captures the hearts of surfers and former surfers, bearing, as it does, a strong relationship to their first love: you carve a wave, and you carve a turn.
One of the first prototype snowboards was called a “Snurf” in an obvious, but perhaps not very attractive, attempt to link the two in surfers’ minds. McCann, still an avid surfer, says he can tell as he glides down Baldy which snowboarders began as surfers “just by the way they hold their hands and stand on their boards.”
Another reason so many surfers have relocated to the Wood River Valley is also shared by most neo-local non-surfers, and even non-skiers: “Too many people,” as Fritz Watson puts it sosuccinctly. McCann’s explanation is a little longer, but it amounts to the same thing: “Many southern Californians, as they saw the Los Angeles area grow into a megalopolis with the beaches packed with people shoulder-to-shoulder, said, ‘Let’s find a place that mirrors the way beach towns were in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s.’”
For many of these expatriates, the Ketchum area seemed to be the place.
The Wood River Valley has always prided itself on a certain egalitarian sensibility. And despite a wide disparity in material wealth, there is still a recognized commonality among residents: “All responding to the same vibe,” as Room+Board owner Kimberly Sesnon muses.
In Malibu, Laguna, or Manhattan Beach, the term was “laid-back”—free of pretense. In surfing’s early years, posers were called “ho-daddies.” Here in Ketchum/Sun Valley, as one wag puts it, “If you’re in Aspen or Vail and your net worth is $50 thousand, you try to act as if you’re worth $5 million. In Sun Valley, if you’re worth $5 million you try to act as if you’re worth $50 thousand.” The local Chamber of Commerce says the same thing in a different way: “You go to Aspen to be seen. You come to Sun Valley to vacation.”
In addition, there seems to be a common meritocracy of sorts, and it’s based on athletic prowess—or, at least, athletic engagement. That’s what the old surfers remember. Here, too, area residents are not spectators, they’re participants; and the sports from which they derive pleasure are often individual. In most cases, the only one to notice a well-carved turn or a well-negotiated mountain-bike trail is the one who did the carving or the negotiating. Don Burgess, a cinematographer who splits his time between Malibu and Sun Valley, says, “The Pacific or Bald Mountain: it’s an opportunity to challenge nature.”
And so, surfers gathered in August at Sun Peak campground in Ketchum, comfortable in their mountain retreat, secure that what they once found elsewhere was rediscovered here. And like the ocean whose permanent yet ever-changing countenance gave them both recreation and personal satisfaction, Bald Mountain was the backdrop for their festivities—a more than acceptable surrogate.
Bob Doyle has been a frequent contributor to Sun Valley Magazine since 1983. A Hailey resident, he taught history and English at The Community School in Sun Valley from 1989 until his retirement in 2003. His favorite place to surf is Rincon, to golf, the Sun Valley Resort Course, and to ski, the new track up Quiqley Canyon.