The Inertia

The plots are getting to be all too familiar: videos and web features of surfers riding “slabs” in various oceans around the globe, the action spectacular and awe-inspiring, the surfers depicted as actually enjoying themselves, thrilled to be sharing such an intimate relationship with the sea at its most dynamic; stoked to be sharing these sort of sessions with their fellow slab riders…until one of those riders gets seriously injured. Almost dies. Does die, only to be brought back to life through quick-thinking CPR, helicopter rescues, facing long hospital stays and longer rehabs. 

Just take a look – it’s all there:

2021’s widely applauded Facing Monsters, chronicling Australian surfer Kerby Brown’s self-destructive obsession with riding increasingly more dangerous and, in some cases, absurd, abrupt-changes-in-water-level-over-dry-rock aberrations until he’s finally almost killed, suffering a severe traumatic brain injury;

A 2021 Nic von Rupp video session at maxed-out Green Bush, the Mentawai slab, where one of his crew gets sent to the boat twice, the second time stunned, bleeding and obviously concussed.

The recent video covering an expedition to Pedra Blanca, Tasmania’s crazy offshore slab, approached with apparent insouciance by a hardy team of Aussie hellmen, one of whom, on his second wave, gets “clamped,” his back “bent,” and relegated to the support boat, all this 30 miles from shore and any sort of medical help.

Emerald Isle surfer (and member of the Irish Tow Surf Rescue Club) John Monahan’s two-wave hold-down at Mullaghmore, resulting in a head injury, two broken ribs and a comminuted fracture of the femur, shaving the femoral artery almost to the point of rupturing.

Nineteen-year-old Harry Hollmer-Cross, towed into a malevolent Shipstern’s Bluff triple-up by his father, veteran Aussie hellman James Hollmer-Cross, only to go down hard, get knocked unconscious and essentially drown, until being rescued and revived through expedient CPR, the cost of that particular clip including traumatic head injury, potential permanent hearing loss and a host of other injuries associated with being crushed by a three-story building against a wet sidewalk.

And don’t even get me started on Nathan Florence and his charmed existence.

No, lately it seems that if you’re a slab-riding surfer hoping to rack up clicks on YouTube, aside from a cold-blooded filmer who’ll keep the camera running no matter what, essential assets include  jet skis, safety vests and a GoFundMe account to cover hospital bills.  

In the mid-1970s, the sport of skiing experienced a similar offshoot of what for years had been considered its conventional application. Fostered in the French Alps, “Le Ski Extreme” saw dashing European skiers tackling “pente raide” (“steep slopes,” in classic French understatement) previously thought to be unapproachable. Though it was back in 1967 that Swiss hellman Sylvian Saudan, the so-called “Skier of the Impossible,” was credited with inventing the “windshield wiper turn” required to survive descents with gradients up to 60 degrees, in the 1970s a new breed of alpinists/skiers began taking the extreme ethic to new heights, as it were. Frenchman Jean-Marc Boivin, standing alone at the sharp edge of this radical new movement, perhaps put it best, when asked he quipped, “Extreme skiing is when if you fall, you die.”  Words eerily repeated by renowned French snowboarder Marco Siffredi a quarter century later, who added a modern rejoinder, “Extreme skiing is when you can’t fall. Everything else is freeriding.” 

Bold calls at both ends of “Le Ski Extreme’s” hair-ball timeline; both of these extreme adventurers eventually did fall, and both died, Boivin in 1990 and Siffredi in 2002. As have a chilling number of fellow “pente raide” skiers over the decades, most recently North Face athlete Hilaree Nelson, who in 2022 fell to her death while descending Manaslu, an 8,163 meter Himalayan peak. The sport’s obituary column running in direct correlation with the increasingly extreme risks these skiers were willing, or one could say compelled, to accept. All in pursuit of… (add obligatory “I never feel so alive as when close to death” cliché here.)

Ok, so we’ve haven’t seen a rash of slab deaths. Not yet. But the increasing number of life-threatening injuries incurred while riding slabs certainly points to a troubling trend. Keep in mind that the Banzai Pipeline was once considered the impossible wave – today Jamie O’Brien rides it on a nine-foot soft-top with a camera in his mouth. But just like those pioneering extreme skiers, so many of whom pushed the limit just that one degree too far, these new slab surfers seem to be continually upping the ante, hunting down mutant waves that appear less and less survivable – and it’s only a matter of time before someone proves that point with their ‘full measure of devotion.’ [Look that one up.]

Voyeuristic surfers – and aren’t we all at one point or another – used to love watching footage of fortunate brethren riding perfect waves. Judged by the number of slab clips on offer these days, it seems that we’re now craving this footage of surfers riding perfectly terrifying waves. No shame in that.

Face it, there’s a reason there’s a Fast and the Furious XII: everyone loves spectacular car crashes, surfers being no exception. Back in the way old days every surf movie included a wipeout sequence, giving their audience, typically vacillating between awe and envy, a chance to laugh and poke fun at the poor bastards up on the screen. But nobody laughs watching surfers getting hydraulically scraped across the exposed reef at West Oz’s The Right, or come up dazed and bleeding at Greenbush. At least I hope not. But on the other hand, what are we to expect from today’s video clip audience when, for example, at the climax of the aforementioned outrageous Indonesian session, vlog star von Rupp exits the water, declaring to his filmer, “That was insane…the best waves of my life… how good is it out there? Nate hit his head on the reef, he’s bleeding, a gnarly gash. Did you get my takeoff?” Salient points apparently delivered on camera in order of importance.  And if this guy can so casually regard this sort of increasingly violent stunt surfing, it only follows that his viewers will, too. 

So would the surfing world be a better place if Nathan Florence wasn’t being filmed constantly attempting not just impossible waves, but impossible paddle-outs, or if Mason Ho backed off from negotiating hollow barrels over terrain better suited to a mountain bike, or if gnarly dads stopped towing their kids into harm’s way on heaving Tasmanian bone-crushers? Hard to say. But know this: each of these scenarios are fraught with peril the likes of which the sport has never known, every new slab session seemingly more dangerous, more likely to result in serious injury or death than at any other time in surfing history. And this: so long as slab surfers keep pushing the limits, and are willing to pay the price, we’ll no doubt keep paying attention. 


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