Chasing the California Double

The California Double (proper noun)
1.     The act of both surfing and snowboarding in a single calendar day.

There are very few places on this planet where it is possible to snowboard (or ski) and surf in a single day. Most of these places exist in California, owing to the state’s unique topography. The state has the world’s tallest mountains relative to their proximity to the ocean, with the King’s Range mountain in Northern California being the steepest rise. In other words, there are some very tall mountains very close to the coast.

I started surfing about 12 years ago and snowboarding roughly 8. This is a late start by California standards, but I grew up in the Berkeley area, which is about an hour by car to the nearest surfable beach and three or more hours to Tahoe. Further, none of my friends were really into either sport, and I didn’t really start doing either of them until I moved to Brooklyn. When I found surfing it was immediately like finding one of those missing puzzle pieces in yourself, where you say, “Oh wow, how did I not have this in my life?” Snowboarding took a few more years to warm up to, owing to the icy conditions in the Northeast and the associated painful falls. but once I did get into it I started fantasizing about doing the California Double.

There’s something about the Double that just doesn’t seem possible. The images we’re fed in pop culture are of surfers at the beach in the summer time wearing boardshorts and bikinis, or snowboarders high in the cold mountains, ripping up some powder. These places seem so far away from each other, and they seem to happen in opposite seasons, but in California, that’s just a misconception. In fact, there are places up and down the state where the two sports are only a few hours from each other (Lake Tahoe and Ocean Beach, Ventura and Mountain High, etc.)

When I first moved to Los Angeles in August 2013 I thought for sure I’d check the Double off my bucket list that first winter. I surfed once or twice a week, which was more than any period of my life up to that point, and I bought a season lift ticket for Mount Baldy, a paltry 90 minutes out of Downtown LA. But nature refused to cooperate.

It was so hot and dry that year that Baldy never accumulated enough snow to open. A year later Chevrolet approached me about a press trip where they would try for the California Double, starting with a surf at San Onofre State Beach in Orange County, and then we’d drive their new Chevy Tahoes up to Big Bear. Just a few days before the trip, however, Big Bear announced that they were closing for the season due to lack of snow. Foiled again by the drought.

I started doing the vanlife thing shortly after that, which made attempts even harder. For one, I spent a ton of time driving around the country, nowhere near the ocean. The other problem is that my van, Ashley the Beast, isn’t winterized. That means that if temps drop below freezing the hoses and tanks connected to my water system (toilet, sink, and shower) could freeze and crack, causing thousands of dollars of damage and eternal mildew hell.

Enter this winter. Tons of snow in the mountains, and warmer temperatures during the day. That meant I could probably do a day trip in the van, as long as it wasn’t too cold, and last week the conditions lined up perfectly. I was able to find $30 lift tickets for Mount Baldy on for the next day, and I asked my friend Natalie if she was up for a quick mission. I picked her up at 7am on March 1st and we started heading east. We hit some traffic so decided to stop for breakfast, but even with that we were pulling in at Mount Baldy just after 10am.

Baldy certainly didn’t have a deep snowpack, and it had clearly been melting and refreezing a lot since the last time it had snowed, but the resort was virtually empty and the terrain was actually really fun. Steeper runs like Skyline were an absolute blast, though there were a few icy patches, which I found the hard way (see video).

This winter I’ve been using my first ever custom snowboard, made by Wagner Custom in Telluride, CO. I swear, this thing is magic. It’s only 158cm long, but it has a wider profile and a setback stance, which allows it to be maneuverable in tight spaces like trees but it also provides enough float to allow me to glide through powder. It had been a champ in the light fluffiness of Aspen and Park City, so I was eager to see how it would handle the crusty hardpack.

Generally it sliced through all but the most solid sections. There’s something about having a board made for you. It’s the first board I’ve had that feels like an extension of me. Because I know exactly how it’s going to behave, I don’t have to think about the details of what I’m doing as much, and I can actually express myself through the lines I carve. It’s an amazing feeling.

I honestly could have stayed out all day, but I had to be back at the beach by 5pm for a photoshoot, so we hit the road at about 2:30.

Even with afternoon traffic in LA and stopping to drop Natalie off, I was able to get to Sunset Beach by 4:45pm. The waves were very small — two-foot at best, which is especially challenging when you’re riding a smaller board (mine is a 5’ 8” Rusty DWART with Varial Foam, making it lighter and floatier than other boards its size, but still). I probably would have found better waves at the Venice Pier, but my appointment was at Sunset, so that’s where I had to go.

I paddled out with maybe a dozen other surfers, and I was able to get a handful of tiny waves. They were nothing to write home about — each waves was a closeout and just a few seconds long — but I’d been waiting for so long to complete the California Double that I was overjoyed anyway. I used the same GoPro that I used for the snow (the Hero5 Session), but when I started playing with the surf shots in Lightroom I found them to be more interesting if I made them these high-contrast, high-grain shots, almost like they came from an old, beat-up film camera.

In retrospect, I think the better way to do the California Double would be to reverse the order. Surf in the morning, at first light, when the sun is just coming up and there’s no wind, ideally on a day with a bit more size. Then jump in the car and head to the mountains. By the time you arrived the sun would have softened the snow a little, which would make it more pleasant. Then you could board all the way until last chair, grab some dinner in whatever funky little down, and make your way back to LA after the traffic dies down. At least, that’s how I’m going to try and do it next time.

As imperfect as it was, I’m still so happy to check this off my bucket list. I’m such a huge, unabashed, totally impartial fan of California, and it was a real joy to finally experience one of the unique things it has to offer.

As always, thanks for reading.

-Brent Rose
3.5.17 Malibu, CA