Standing atop Mt. Morgan South we enjoyed blissful silence. Weeks of relentless snowstorms blessed the Sierra last winter, and finally there was a break long enough to let the snow settle. The north-facing slope hadn’t seen a snow riding soul, at least since the last storm.
In front of us, we had perfect, untracked lines from which to choose.
Jon Carlton, Kevin Arnold and I had spent a cold night camping above Francis Lake, just east of the Little Lakes Valley. The ascent of Mt. Morgan South, a 13,748 ft. peak, offered spectacular views of the sugarcoated mountain we were about to ride.
We each opted for our own couloirs and, one by one, dropped in to the lightest and deepest powder any of us had experienced in the backcountry.
The Francis Couloirs were steep and a brilliant blue. High, snow-covered walls allowed us to make drawn-out turns, gliding in a singsong manner, pushing fluffy snow into fans overhead.
We regrouped at the moraine below and gazed back at the terrain we had just descended. My body pulsed with energy and elation.
“That was sick,” Carlton said. “Like surfing.”
Kevin and I agreed.
The speed and adrenaline, sensation of weightlessness and mercy of a natural environment combined to create a surf-like experience.
We had surfed the snow. The surfers who are attracted to the mountains are soulful and adventurous. They have a desire to breathe fresh air and are not afraid of solitude; in fact they relish in it.
While surfers congregate in the ocean and snowboarders in the mountains, they have at least one thing in common: stoke.
“Stoke is that buzz you get when you do something that is really exciting,” said Steve Klassen, world champion snowboarder and owner of Wave Rave snowboard shop in Mammoth. “It is something that puts a smile on your face.”
“It is a feeling that something spiritual is occurring,” surfer Gerry Lopez said. “Being a part of it, sensing the presence of God will make anyone feel better, no matter what.”
According to Klassen, Lopez is the ultimate hero of surfing. He is considered a legend in the surf world for his part in the short board revolution and stylistic approach to the infamous barrels at Hawaii’s North Shore Bonsai Pipeline. He shocked the surfing community when he moved to Bend, Ore.
“Those pure moments are available whether you are riding a wave or pushing a lawnmower,” Lopez told Surfer Magazine. “The soul of surfing is internal.”
But why do surfers move to the mountains?
“I wanted something new,” professional snowboarder Gabe Taylor explained. “Growing up in Encinitas, all I knew was the surf culture. When I was a kid I could go to my favorite surf spot and probably be the only one out.”
Taylor breathed, talked and lived surfing until eight years ago when he moved to the mountains. Now a Mammoth resident, Taylor, 28, won the 2003 H2O Winter Classic in Huntington Beach and Mountain High – a contest that combined elements of surfing and snowboarding.
“Snowboarding has that stoke that I grew up with surfing,” Taylor explained. ” I definitely didn’t lose it, but it just changed. I feel with snowboarding I will always have that happiness.”
Many Southern California surfers have fled the populated surf beaches for the mountains, complaining of crowds and water contamination. Nearly two and a half million Americans surf and twenty-eight million more people are expected to be living in coastal areas by 2015, according to Matt McClain, Communications and Marketing Director of the Surfrider Foundation. The impact of population on the water quality can be immense. In 2003 California had 5,384 beach closings, McClain said.
“There are so many possibilities with snowboarding, so many big mountains, so much terrain to be explored,” Taylor said. “Any day throughout the year in Mammoth if I wake up and put on my boots I am going to be stoked.”
While the rest of America is busy competing for success, and dreaming of white picket fences, surfers and snowboarders are searching for their fix of stoke. They are a soulful tribe, where the only rite of passage is a “live to ride” frame of mind.
According to Lopez, the people are the same. They are more interested in a lifestyle revolving around good surf or powder. Everything else fits in around that.
“When you are surfing and you have enough speed on your surfboard to make a powerful bottom turn, that pressure under your feet, feels the same as the pressure under your feet when you are making a turn in powder on a snowboard,” Klassen explained. “You get that same feeling of weightlessness of gliding across the surface really fast.”
When a snowboarder drops in on a slope, a gravitational force and the absence of friction allows him to accelerate, carving turns with exceptional power. While a surfer uses a wave’s energy to gain momentum making top and bottom turns along the water’s surface. It is those moments of elation and vulnerability of a natural environment that are deeply satisfying within one’s spirit.
Editor’s Note: This story received 3rd Place Best Magazine Feature, Outdoor Writers Association of California. “STOKE…” first appeared in the January 2007 issue of Mammoth Monthly Magazine.