_S8A0959Photo: Taras

I'm scared of Pipeline because of the wave and the reef, of course, but also the crowds. People are everywhere. In the water, lining the lawns of the team houses, watching your every move from the beach. For me, Pipe is the most intimidating wave on the North Shore and this morning I have to surf it. Or at least paddle out. And it's dark and f–king huge.

Eli Olson, Pipeline savant and my guide for this immersion course, offers his iPhone's flashlight as a beacon to guide me from the beach to the O'Neill house yard. It's 6:15a.m. I set my 6'6" on the lawn and join Eli, Brett Barley and Russell Bierke in plastic chairs, squinting toward the roaring ocean. An 8-footer implodes on the inside sandbar. Evan Geiselman almost drowned there a couple days ago. Whitewater from a Second Reef set steamrolls the lineup. A boogie boarder jumps in the water and is swept toward Pupukea. It's loud. It's messy. It doesn't look good.

Eli keeps one eye on the lineup and one on his phone, furiously typing in a group text with Kiron Jabour, Koa Rothman, and John and Nathan Florence. "John thinks it might be getting bigger," he says, watching the boogie boarder drift past us. "That guy might have to do the walk of shame."

We watch for 20 minutes as the gray clouds fade to pink and surfers battle through the chaos and into the lineup. Nat Young rides the first decent wave of the morning, under the ledge on a square one. He pulls in and the foam ball consumes him. Eli turns to look at me, "Wanna give it a go?" No, I don't. But this is the assignment I volunteered for, and locking down a surfer on the North Shore is like trying to grab a stuffed animal with the robotic claw — they're right there in front of you, but always seem to slip from your grasp.

"Yeah, let's do it," I say.

Things move quickly from there — fins, wax, leash, wetsuit top — and suddenly Eli is at the top of the stairs, board clutched under his arm: "Ready?" No. "Yeah." We walk down the stairs and once we hit the sand Eli starts jogging. I chase him. The sand is cool and soft and we run past spectators already arriving for the Pipe Masters Trials (Sunny Garcia, in the first heat, will say, "At what point is the surfers' safety a concern for the WSL or sponsors?" It's that kind of day.) We pass tourists and locals, photographers and filmers. Pass the Pipe Masters scaffolding, where an overlit WSL crew does the morning show. Hi Rosie. Pass the Volcom House. The Quik house. In my head, everyone is watching and judging because I do not belong here. But in reality, "Paddling out at Pipe" is one of those things that is important to you that nobody else cares about (up there with your dreams, losing your phone, having a cold, etc.). Still, any embarrassment at Pipeline is a public embarrassment and this is why I don't do karaoke. As Eli stops and sets down his board, his comment about "the walk of shame" echoes in my head. A set breaks on Second Reef and we pause to let it wash through.

"Any advice?" I ask.

"We're going to try and hit this little seam here," he points in a diagonal line to a narrow gap between the end section of Pipe and a sandbar where huge, foamy, backless waves lurch onto a foot of water.

"I'll just follow you."

"OK…we're going to go after that third whitewater."

Brett Barley trots up with a smile on his face. "I'm going to follow the master."

"Shit, I'm not the master," Eli demurs.

_S8A1078Photo: Taras

The third whitewater becomes the second, then the first, then our landing pad as we run down the wet sand and leap onto our bellies. Eli and Brett paddle like sharks are in pursuit. I try and keep up but they are better paddlers, in better shape. I catch a bad bounce on one duck dive and am sent back toward shore. When I pop up, Eli and Brett are way out front and I am on my own, caught in the cross-shore river, getting swept toward Pupukea, toward my walk of shame. But in a strike of dumb luck, my falling behind drifts me past an especially ugly wave that lands squarely on Eli and Brett's heads. I duck dive a mellower section and pop up even with them, breathing heavily. Eli stops paddling — looks left, looks right — then spots me. He smiles and gives me a thumbs-up. We've made it.

"How did that compare to a normal paddle out?" I ask when I catch up to him.

"I've probably only had a couple times that were harder than that," he says. I don't know if he was just trying to make me feel good, but if so, it worked.

I thank Eli for his guidance and wish him a good session, and as he paddles toward the peak, John Florence and Kiron Jabour appear like in a movie, paddling together toward the peak with purpose. The sun creeps over the hill. The trades kick in. Waves heave and crack and explode. I sit in the channel and after just 10 minutes of watching the morning unfold, I understand why this is the most coveted wave in the world. Everything is magnified, everything more intense. The wave is taller than I thought, and even more square. The spit is spat with the force of a Ukrainian water canon. And people don't call each other off waves, they scream. Adriano De Souza nabs a Second Reef roll-in and skates down the 20-foot face as it doubles up and unloads. He gets blown out, and as he paddles by I try and give him a smile and a nod, but he looks right through me. This is the type of hyper focus people get in wartime or a natural disaster. I've never seen a lineup like this. Not at Maverick's. Not at Teahupo'o. This isn't fun surfing. This is people pushing themselves to their outer limits, with real consequences, and if they succeed, it's not a smiling moment; it's a gladiator moment.

I've done stuff like this before, paddled out to "just have a look" before the shock wore off and I inched closer to eventually catch one. Not this time. I don't even consider it. Leave it to Eli and the 50 other surfers that are scared but do it anyway because it's there and it's addicting. I am not a gladiator, just a front-row spectator at the Coliseum, rapt by the greatest show on earth.–Taylor Paul