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All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

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Travel

Aug 23, 2018

Sun, Sand, and Surf, Lots of Surf, in Mexico’s Puerto Escondido

For most people, Puerto Escondido is just a dot on a map, a tourist destination overshadowed by flashier resort towns such as Cancun, Cabo, and Acapulco.

WRITTEN BY

Evan Quarnstrom

Hell, most people have probably never heard of it in the first place. There’s not much reason for the average tourist looking for a quick fix of tropics to go there. After all, there are more convenient places to go in Mexico with the open bars and infinity pools that they are looking for. But even for those who may have been there and enjoyed it, they may not fully understand how special this place really is.

For surfers, the name Puerto Escondido carries a much heavier weight (I say that as unpretentiously as possible.)

For surfers, the name Puerto Escondido carries a much heavier weight (I say that as unpretentiously as possible.) It has a different connotation. Hearing the name alone generates anxiety, intrigue, excitement, day dreams. Often referred to as “the Mexican Pipeline,” it provokes images of perfect, bone-breaking waves, waves that prove a challenge for even the best surfers on the planet. Surfers around the world know the town simply as “Puerto,” and given the thousands of towns across Latin America that start with “Puerto,” that goes to show the significance that this town holds for the avid surfer.

Now, as an average surfer from San Diego, I wasn’t even sure if I was capable of surfing the infamous, powerful waves of Puerto’s Playa Zicatela. I sure as hell didn’t have the ideal equipment to surf large, hollow waves, given that my surfboard selection has been adapted to the relatively mellow reefs and beach breaks of California’s San Diego County.

Waxing up for another session at La Punta, a protected point break at the far south end of Zicatela. It’s a good spot to surf when the surf gets too big at Zicatela, but it also was a complete zoo out there. Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

Despite my doubts, my girlfriend Madison and I decided to book a quick five day trip to Puerto Escondido for several reasons.

1) Puerto has an airport, which maximized our vacation time for a quick trip. No need to deal with rental cars and hours driving to our destination.

2) I wanted to go somewhere new. As my twelfth passport stamp into Mexico, I had covered a lot of the easy-to-get-to destinations on the Pacific Coast. Puerto had eluded me.

3) Round trip tickets are cheap as hell. (About $230 if I remember correctly, and we flew out on a Sunday, which is pricer.)

4) It’s a world class surf destination in a populated town. Non-surfers can be entertained. (Many good surf spots are in the middle of nowhere, which can get boring if you don’t surf.)

Staircase down to Carrizalillo. You can see the left that Madison and I surfed in the background. Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

So off to Puerto we went with my worn, small backpack and two surfboards, hoping to at worst spend a few days enjoying the warmth of the tropics, and at best to get some of the best waves of my life.

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When you step off the no frills, air-conditioned plane onto the tarmac in Puerto, the humidity of the tropics hits you like a brick wall, causing all your sweat glands to kick into overdrive.

Upon exiting the airport you have to deal with my least favorite part of traveling in Mexico (well, anywhere really), which is taxi drivers eager to make a few bucks off gringos who aren’t familiar with the local prices. I swear, these guys will go to great lengths to get you to pay way more than you should. Luckily, we were given a tip to leave the airport and get a taxi off the street. We were able to find a taxi for 1/4 the price of the airport taxis, despite the intimidation and warnings from the airport taxi drivers who were adamant that we were never going to find a ride out there.

Compared to how crowded it became later in the morning, I would classify this as uncrowded. Aside from the local Mexicans, Americans and Brazilians were the most numerous in the water. Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

I threw on my boardshorts, waxed up my boards, and lathered myself in enough SPF50 to save the Arctic ice pack.

I brought a surf rack in anticipation of putting my board on a taxi, but the taxi drivers all come prepared with their own rope and are rather well-versed in the art of tying a board down to a roof. Even before getting to the beach you can feel the surf-culture imbued in this little town, in the taxi drivers of all things.

On the first morning I woke up at the crack of dawn and peered out to the beach below, which was visible from the deck of my airbnb. It was a perfect day for a newcomer to Puerto. Not too big, but not too small. There was an ideal, medium sized swell on tap.

Anxious to get in the water, I threw on my boardshorts, waxed up my boards, and lathered myself in enough SPF50 to save the Arctic ice pack.

I spent the morning having the time of my life, picking off countless left and righthand waves. I enjoyed getting a feel for the speed and power of the wave at Playa Zicatela.

Unfortunately, I brought the wrong battery charger for my camera, so after this first session there are no more surfing photos. Madison was a champ and withstood the blazing sun to get some shots. Photo Evan Quarnstrom

I definitely got the best barrel of my life, and a few others worthy of honorable mention.

There were lots of surfers out in the water, but the playing field was so spread out that each surfer had their own comfortable bubble of space where they could claim nearly any wave that approached their zone. I surfed until the wind switched from offshore to onshore, deteriorating the conditions, and sought out some shade to halt the onset of sunburn.

This was the first of my lengthy sessions during the trip. I definitely got the best barrel of my life, and a few others worthy of honorable mention. When the swell got too big for Zicatela, I checked out some of the other waves that the town has to offer, such as the left point called La Punta. I surfed enough solid-size waves that when I came back to San Diego, I had very little desire to surf the poorly formed knee to waist high waves at my local beach break.

Photo: Evan Quarnstrom

When we weren’t surfing we explored some other more secluded beaches in the town and the surrounding area. Activities were sandwiched between long naps under fans on full blast and snacking on PB&J’s. We ate out a few times, rented a car for a quick morning/afternoon, and even got Madison on a surfboard at one of the friendlier surf spots in town. Then, next thing you knew, fives days in paradise had vanished and it was time to head back home in time for the work week.

My first trip to Puerto was a success. I fell in love with the little town, which exceeded its reputation in my book and provided an even better experience and better waves than I had hoped for. Next time I think I will rent a car to explore some of the other waves outside of town, but I know my first trip in Puerto surely won’t be my last.

Evan Quarnstrom grew up in the quiet surf town of Santa Cruz, California, where unsurprisingly he developed a love for the ocean and nature. At 18, Evan headed for San Diego in pursuit of warmer weather and an education. Evan attended San Diego State University to study International Business, finishing of his degree off with a year-long study abroad program in Chile. Evan is now the Marketing and Media Manager at the International Surfing Association.

You can follow Evan on Instagram.

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Features

Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.

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WRITTEN BY

Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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