AI Forever (What a Surfer Taught Me About Climbing)

Two years ago today, the surfing world lost one of its legends. Andy Irons was found dead in his hotel room at the age of 32, far too young for anyone to go.

Irons, or “AI” as he was known around the community, was one of the best surfers of his generation. Many argue that he was Kelly Slater’s only real competition, and AI proved it by winning three consecutive world titles between 2002 and 2004. He was a force to be reckoned with in the water, competing with a ferocity and aggressiveness that bordered on maniacal at times. Slater described him as “the most intense competitor I have ever known.”

Photo Credit: The Association of Surfing Professionals

In 2006, it was this intensity that helped draw me into surfing. I had recently caught my first ever whitewash wave in Frisco, NC. My cousins had already caught the surf bug, and I wasn’t far behind. After that one single wave, I was immediately hooked. I wanted that feeling of flying over water. I craved it, and I chased it. I dove head-first into surfing – got my own board, a wetsuit, read books and magazines, watched videos, immersed myself in surf culture…seeing AI’s raw passion for the sport inspired me, and I decided I wanted to be that dedicated to surfing.

What does any of this have to do with climbing? Well, 6 years later, I am still very much a novice on the water. It’s tough to get good at something when you can really only do it a few days out of the year – especially something that requires so much finesse and grace as surfing. Surfing never clicked for me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it and do it whenever I can. What I do have now consistently in my life is climbing, and it’s impossible for me to separate the two sports that I love so much. Without surfing, I doubt my climbing would have taken off.

Surfing not only gave me a sport to pursue, but more importantly, also a deep love for nature, a strong interest in conservation, and a re-connection with a side of me that had been lost years earlier. It rekindled a desire to travel and experience and live. Surfing was motivation to step out of my comfort zone. I became more confident and comfortable in my own skin. Without these things, I doubt I would have been able to commit so strongly to climbing after such a short period of time.

Now having climbed for almost two years, I can look back and truly appreciate the lessons and skills surfing bestowed upon me. I’ve learned so much as a student of the art of surfing, and much of what I’ve learned can be applied and translated to the vertical world. But when thinking about it, three things stick out in my mind.

  • Awareness: Both on the water and on the wall, being aware of your body, its positioning, and how it moves is a vital skill to have. Lean too far one way, and it’s over. You also must be aware of your surroundings. On the water – how long between waves, how big the waves are, when set waves roll in, how the current is pulling, how the wind affects the waves…all of those things must be taken into account by the surfer. As a climber, you also must be aware of your surroundings, but more importantly, aware of the route. What’s the sequence, where can I rest, how should I pace, where’s the crux…with experience, those are questions we process and answer almost without thinking – but when you’re first starting, all you can think about is “hand up. foot up. hand up. foot up.” Just like in surfing, it comes with experience and practice.
  • Commitment: Obviously, both sports require commitment to train and improve. But what I really mean here is mental commitment to a task. In surfing, that moment right as you’re catching the wave is critical. You can choose to bail out – or you can go for it. This moment is often terrifying, staring down at a vertical drop that you’re about to plunge over on your board. Sometimes you make the drop, pull the bottom turn, and fire down the face. Or you mistime it and get pummeled (most common result for me). The same can be said for climbing. When you’re staring down a tough crux section or preparing to make a huge dynamic move – it’s all about going for it. If you half-ass it, it’s over. Sometimes you hit the move, sometimes you don’t. But without being able to fully commit, it’s never going to happen. You’re dealing with fear and trying to suppress it. Learning to overcome that, in both surfing and climbing, is no small feat.
  • Intensity: That ferocity in AI’s surfing I mentioned earlier…I aim to replicate that when I climb. My goal is to be powerful, solid, efficient, and flowing when I’m on the wall. I approach climbs with an aggressive mentality. As I’m sure this wasn’t always an asset to AI, it is not always an asset to me. But more often than not, this mentality helps me to succeed. And though I was never able to replicate this on the water, I’m fairly able to do so on the wall.

I find that the similarities between the two sports are uncanny and numerous. I won’t go into all of them here. Many of them I struggle to find words to even describe. Regardless, both have provided me with outlets and distractions during the past several years of my life. Without either, my character would be completely different. I’m thankful for the lessons both have taught.

History will remember Andy Irons as “a complex man who lived hard and fast, who relished his role in surfing but hated the fame that attended it, and who struggled mightily to overcome problems that he was never able to talk about.” He struggled with addiction and drug abuse throughout his life. He lived his life on a razor’s edge, and he took everything to the brink.

Photo Credit: Billabong

This isn’t what I remember though. This isn’t what the surfing world will remember. We’ll remember the intense competitor. We’ll remember the man who, when a bunch of kids in Cabo asked for gifts from the legend surfer, gave the shirt off his back because he had nothing else to give. We’ll remember the man who was able to turn it all around and start back on the right path again, the man who owned up to his insecurities and problems. We’ll remember the man who loved his family more than anything. We acknowledge his problems, but that’s not what will define his life and career. That’s not what we’ll remember him for.

AI’s passing is fresh in my mind. I lost a hero, a legend, an idol that day. Someone that inspired me to go out, throw myself into something new, and strive for greatness while doing it. I never found that as a surfer – it just wasn’t meant to be. But the lessons I took from AI’s career as a surfer have resonated with me ever since, and they have spilled over into my climbing (and into my life). For that, I can’t thank him enough.

Aloha Andy, surf in paradise.

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