Jeff Johnson’s Southern Exploration

Johnson's Adventures On The Chilean Coast

Gravity bats last. Stuck on the side of a picture perfect but perfectly untrustworthy Andes peak some 7,500 feet above the craggy Chilean coast, surfer-climber Jeff Johnson considered his dwindling options. Up, down, or stay. None seemed appealing, and all had potentially fatal outcomes.

Johnson, together with ace big-wall climber Timmy O'Neill and Everest veterans Jimmy Chin and Rick Ridgeway, had made a pre-dawn summit push up the glaring glaciated plane of Cerro Corcovado. While by no means a record-breaker in either height or technical difficulty, Corcovado's treacherous, choss-infested pitches leading to the summit had them stalled in a bad place a mere 200 vertical feet from the top. Any further ascent seemed foolhardy. Yet the loose stone made setting protective gear for the downclimb a gut-churning flip of the coin. Johnson kept hearing the mantra of an old climbing adage in his head: "It's never too late to quit."

Over the last hour the normally bawdy Motorola chatter had skewed pinched and sporadic as lead climbers Johnson, Timmy O'Neill, and cameraman Jimmy Chin warily felt their way up sheer pitches of ice-rotted boulders described as having all the structural integrity of kitty litter. The team was forced to rope together and make awkward upward scrambles that set loose small cascades of scree launching off yawning 500-foot drops. Timmy cursed it as the most unconsolidated nightmare he'd ever encountered.

"This rock is total shit..."

Pause. Hiss.

"Wait, Jeff, there might be a way up this ridgeline. I'm gonna see what we can do."

A few moments later a frustrated snarl...

"This is f–kin' ridiculous!"

Johnson surveyed the coastal panorama below his scarred boots. From his mile-high lookout he realized that he stood at the apogee of Corcovado's surfing watershed. A drop of ice melt meandering its way down from Corcovado's summit would eventually find its way to the coast to mix with the murky plankton-rich waters of the Gulf of Chilo. Far below he could see lines of a small swell radiating across the wide gulf--arcane, improbable waves that had sifted through a small gap of the outer islands sheltering the Gulf. Somewhere down there his friend Keith Malloy was longboarding alone--free to step, stumble, and even fall carelessly without the critical consequence of mixing gravity with remorseless rocks.

To read the full feature, download the April 2010 issue of SURFER.