The Bearback Challenge

I remember thinking, “so this is what it would feel like to die of hypothermia.” I was surprised that I didn’t actually feel cold. I expected something along the lines of a full-body ice cream headache, a sudden crippling all-over pain as every blood vessel in the skin contracted and my entire body begged me to “get out of the freezing cold water, you idiot!” Strangely though, it felt more like burning.

Unusual thoughts were popping up along with the strange sensation. I visualized the Ralph Wiggum character from the Simpsons episode that alludes to the Lord of the Flies novel by William Golding. Faced with the need to survive on a deserted island after someone ate all the food, Ralph stuffs his face with strange berries and when asked how they taste, he replies, “they taste like burning!” Ok, so I wasn’t tasting anything, but the cold seemed to be having an effect on my brain as well. Who’s idea was this anyway?

All non-surf photos by Jeff Browning

I remember hearing the boys talk about last year’s Bearback Challenge. It certainly sounded crazy to me. Who wants to spend 20 minutes without a wetsuit in the frigid waters of a February morning in Southern California? I laughed at them. Silly boys always trying to be so macho. “Yup, hypothermia is really cool,” I thought sarcastically.

When I received the text message alerting me to the fact that the second annual event was to be held the following morning, I deleted it, thinking, “there’s no way I’m participating in that!” But, after a big cup of strong coffee and noticing that the morning sun was strong and warmish, I figured I might as well head down to Hermosa to watch. I even grabbed a pair of boardshorts and a bikini top, just in case.


Pre-event psyche up

Really, I wasn’t planning on competing. I’m not that crazy, and I get cold easily. I’m the type that loses feeling in my toes after an hour, even while wearing booties and a 4/3. But, somehow I got carried away in the excitement and before I had time to fully consider the implications of my decision I was signed up for the second heat. At least, the others in my heat, Alex Gray and Matt Walls, were both similarly lacking in extra body fat. Knowing that they would be out there freezing with me somehow made it all seem OK, not unlike taking big cleanup sets on the head with a friend nearby.


Heat two lineup

It was all fun and games until we had to get in the water. I was shivering and numb just standing on the beach, the sun having ducked behind the clouds just in time for our heat to paddle out. We ran down there and started yelping in unison upon feeling the first splash of cold water hitting bare skin. My senses screamed so loud my vocal chords had to join in, then they both went haywire. By the time I had duck-dove enough times to make it to the outside, I was having trouble speaking and my skin actually felt hot. I tried to keep moving, paddling back and forth. I scored a decent left but was hardly even excited about it, and didn’t surf it very well.


All surf photos by Mike Balzer

I even got a right, threw the board up at the lip, blindly, and was somehow able to come down and ride out of it.
As usual, Alex was ripping. I’ve always known that the kid rips. He’s been impressing me in the water ever since he was 11 years old. I’ve come to expect it. But knowing how I felt and that he must be feeling the same, watching him absolutely going off took my respect of his surfing to a whole new level, or it would anyways as soon as I thawed out enough to consider it.

You may notice in the following photo an unusual choice of surfwear. It was announced that nudity or costumes would earn more points and despite the fact that Alex has the skill to easily win the event without any extra credit, he also happens to be quite entertaining, as well as particularly fond of being naked.

Yes, that is an elephant, and no, right now he doesn’t happen to be happy to see you. When asked where he got his costume he replied, “some girl gave it to me in high school.”
All I can say is, “Alex, you’re the greatest!”

I ran in, completely frozen, to ring the bell signifying the fact that the self-imposed torture session was over. I don’t even look cold, right?

And just to prove that we weren’t alone in our mental instability, check out the number of entrants in heat 4, half of whom had already spent an hour or so surfing in the comfort of their wetsuits, only to run in, peel off the rubber, and enthusiastically charge back out for more.

It took longer than expected to regain feeling in my limbs. Alex let out a big sneeze and said, “well, i’ve already got a cold!” I shivered on the beach for another hour, dancing around, stepping from side to side, anything to get the blood flowing and try to raise my core temperature. Despite the pain, it was surprisingly fun. One more piece of evidence to convince those who already consider surfers to be “not quite right”.


In the red beanie, Bearback Challenge co-founder, Jimmy Young

With his top score a 14 (out of a possible 10), Alex Gray easily won this year’s Bearback Challenge. Here co-founder Jeff Browning awards the trophy to the new champion.

So, who’s in for next year? Mark your calendars and start bulking up on body fat, the Saturday of Super Bowl weekend, it’s on!

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2 Responses to The Bearback Challenge

  1. PpO2max Team says:

    Nice way of life!If you enjoy scubadiving, check out our blog :http://www.ppo2maxteam.comYou’ll find amazing pictures shot in south of France.See yaPpO2 max Team

  2. surfercindy says:

    Sounds really cold! I had to turn on my heater after reading it! You really need a Surf-fur that day.

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