Surfing and snowboarding in one day? How I survived the ‘California Double’
Los Angeles Times (TNS) April 5, 2023
LOS ANGELES — In what was far and away the most fun and most grueling reporting assignment of my career, I took on a challenge that’s possible in only a few places on Earth: surfing in the ocean and snowboarding in the mountains on the same day.
It’s a good year for the so-called California Double. An uncharacteristically cold and wet Los Angeles winter created plenty of snow in the mountains, and on March 23, I wanted to go for it.
But I also figured (and my editors agreed) that I shouldn’t attempt the adventure for the first time alone; I needed to find a group of experienced thrill seekers.
Lawrence Doherty picked up the phone at the second surf shop I called. The 29-year-old and some friends had attempted the double recently, but car trouble and heavy snow prevented them from getting to the slopes. They planned to try again, he said, and I was welcome to tag along. He also wanted to add a little twist to the double by skateboarding in between the surfing and snowboarding — a sort of “California Triple.”
Twelve days later, I met Lawrence, his two friends Braden Walker, 28, and Daniel Galan, 31, and his sweater-wearing boxer (Rocco) in Malibu.
For the record: Undertaking the California Double is a significant operation. I packed a duffel bag and backpack with everything I thought I’d need for three board sports in one day: beach towels, sunscreen, a change of clothes for after surfing, plus a base layer, thick socks, snow pants, a beanie, gloves, goggles and a quality winter jacket. I was also flush with snacks, water and electrolyte drinks for the day.
Lawrence had a spare wetsuit and surfboard I borrowed; I brought my own skateboard, and I rented a snowboard, boots and helmet at Mountain High, our final destination.
9 a.m.: Surfing in Malibu
We began the day a little after 9 a.m. at Westward Beach, just north of Point Dume. We wanted to start earlier, but Lawrence pointed out that the waves weren’t great.
That’s key to any double attempt: Pay attention to surf reports and Surfline camera feeds — or go with someone who does.
“The waves are pretty small everywhere else but we somehow found a little cut here where it looks like it’s working,” he told me, sipping a morning beer.
If you need a jolt to fully wake up, dunking your head in the ocean will do the trick; it was in the low 50s when we waded into the Pacific.
Initially the calm ocean and mild waves lulled me into confidence. Then the wind picked up, the sea turned choppy and it was clear I was in for a struggle. I made it past the break eventually, joining Braden and Lawrence. (Daniel sat this part out — he couldn’t risk exposing a fresh tattoo to the water.)
Before too long, a good-looking swell approached. I turned and paddled hard as it pushed me along, but just as I popped up and tried to find my footing, it fizzled and I fell back into the water. Lawrence and Braden gave some encouraging hoots as they waited for their waves. Soon they were ripping like the experienced surfers they are, gliding on the waves with ease.
I quickly lost steam fighting big waves and a strong current to get back past the break. Before long I was pulled at least 50 yards down shore from where we started.
After about half an hour of fruitless floating and paddling, I headed back in for a break.
Lawrence and Braden were getting it done, though. I sat in the sand and watched as they make it look easy.
When they joined me on the sand a bit later, Lawrence pointed just beyond the break. “Did you see the whales?” he asked. Sure enough, a few water spouts. Gray whales, Lawrence guessed, making their seasonal migration north.
I headed back out to catch at least one last wave. But despite my best effort, I couldn’t.
So another lesson: Make the effort, but don’t get discouraged and be mindful to save your energy.
So far my California Double was a one-two punch of surfing poorly in unflattering water tights. Braden and Lawrence stayed out a bit longer and returned with fist bumps at the ready. “You sent it, dude!” they assured me, stretching the truth along the entire West Coast. “You had it in you; you wanted it, man!” Daniel later added. “A” for effort, I guess. But the real winner was the humbling power of nature.
2 p.m.: Skateboarding in Venice
After drying off, changing out of our wetsuits and dropping Rocco off at Lawrence’s apartment, we loaded up Daniel’s SUV with bags, boards and provisions and drove to Venice. We rolled out on the boardwalk, weaving through the crowd of people enjoying a sunny Sunday — a rarity this year.
The main challenge here is dodging tourists and influencer types filming selfie videos. As I skated, I checked in with my body: arms, back and neck felt tight and sore from all the paddling, but legs and core OK — so far. I went for some tricks I trusted wouldn’t end with me sprawled on the concrete: some coping grinds, boardslides and noseslides.
We skated around Venice for about an hour, but had to move on: It was past 3 p.m. and we still had to drive up to Mountain High. After a quick lunch on the boardwalk, we were back on the road to face our biggest challenge yet: LA traffic.
3:30 p.m.: Driving to the mountains
It was about an hour and 40 minutes to the mountains. The friends’ conversation flowed from half-baked business ideas to a debate over who would win in a fight between a triceratops and a woolly mammoth.
Nobody in the car knew anybody who had successfully completed a California Double, though Daniel was familiar with it from Casey Willax, an Instagramming surfer and snowboarder.
“I didn’t expect to ever do it until (Lawrence) hit me up,” he said.
It’s something they heard about “through the grapevine,” Braden said. “This is one of the only places in the world (where) you can do it. … The interest just grew over time.”
The group took a moment to appreciate the fact that they’d be riding on two forms of water (liquid and solid) on the same day.
“The stoke level is at an all-time high,” Braden reported. “The boys are maxed out on vibes.”
That’s the key ingredient for the double, Lawrence explained: “Am I bringing the vibe? Everyone in the spot’s gotta bring the vibe constantly.”
I heard that word a lot all day. How exactly does one define “vibes”?
In essence, it’s “being you as authentically as possible,” Braden said.
It’s about “embracing the people around and embracing the place (where) you are,” Lawrence added. “Be in the moment, have fun.”
We climbed Angeles Crest Highway, past the Joshua trees, through the burn scar from last year’s Sheep fire and into the snowy San Gabriels.
The roads were clear as Daniel drove a route he’s familiar with, as the most experienced snowboarder of the group.
6 p.m.: Snowboarding on Mountain High
Mountain High is one of the few Southern California resorts that offers a night pass, letting skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes under the bright glow of flood lights.
This was where it pays to have your own gear, like Daniel did. We got to the resort as the sun began to sink below the mountain, but by the time Lawrence, Braden and I got changed, grabbed our rental gear and picked up the lift tickets, it was dark. We made our way to the lift a little before 8 p.m., giving us about two hours to snowboard before the slopes closed at 10.
There was still a solid crowd on the mountain that night. And from the sounds of their boards and skis, we could tell conditions were icy. I’d call myself an intermediate snowboarder, so I was feeling pretty confident starting out. But 10 seconds and one face full of snow later, I remembered that turning and stopping works differently on icy snow compared with fresh powder.
After the first run, Lawrence was beaming. “It’s in the books,” he announced. “We sealed it.”
The hardest part of the day? “Time management, 110%,” according to Braden. He pointed to Lawrence as a person who “likes to settle in (with) everything he does,” which doesn’t always mesh with a well-budgeted day.
“But it’s cool. It allows us to … absorb what’s happening instead of just flying through it,” he added. “And we did it, so it all worked out.”
The iciness got the best of me a few more times, exfoliating my backside with hard-packed snow. But I got a feel for the board and improved with each run.
As 10 p.m. drew closer, the weight of the last 14 hours started to kick in. The fifth run will be my last of the night, I told Daniel on our way up to the summit. “Second-to-last run,” Daniel corrected me, citing his bad luck with injuries on a few of his previous “last runs” — including a separated AC joint just last month.
As I rode down the slope that “second-to-last” time, I relied on gravity to do most of the work — I was spent.
None of the resort workers I chatted with had heard of the California Double before. “You guys went surfing this morning?” one of them asked with an incredulous tone and equally incredulous look on his face.
On the way back to Malibu, Braden passed out as Daniel and Lawrence discussed their favorite national parks, the possible doomsday artificial intelligence could bring and the time Daniel saw a UFO in the night sky over Sacramento.
I made a meal out of a bag of trail mix and tried to move as little as possible. My core, butt and legs joined the aches-and-pains party already in progress in my arms, neck and back.
As we wound along Pacific Coast Highway to the Malibu parking lot where we started the day, the trio discussed what they would do differently if they went for another double.
“Do it all faster,” Daniel said. Bringing their own food would have helped cut down on the midday lag and made more time for the mountain. Lawrence conceded they could have gotten to the lifts a little quicker.
They’d also like to expand the party, and imagine taking the challenge on in other locations.
“It was an adventure for sure,” Daniel said, as we ended where we began some 14 hours and 260 miles ago. “You can tell people that you did this and they’ll be like, ‘What the f— is wrong with you guys?’”
I’m asking myself that same question as I write this, still very much sore all over — a lingering reminder of my poor surfing performance and some good spills on the slopes.
It was both fully invigorating and fully exhausting. And through it all, the vibe was fully Californian.
Next time (yes, I’m already thinking about a next time) I’ll be sure to catch a wave or two.