Aspen’s Chris Klug surfs the Maldives
Twelve-hundred minute islands and vast reefs straddling the equator dot the azure waters off the southwest tip of India.Here, heads of coral – some as big as the hood of a car and resembling an umbrella – lurk under the crystal blue surf. Here, dolphins and sea turtles poke their heads above the surface to gaze curiously at surfers and vessels floating by. Here, white sand beaches fade into the warm ocean. The Maldives, which rest in the Indian Ocean, offers the starkest of contrasts with the mountains – no point in the island country (the world’s flattest, according to multiple sources) rises more than 7.8 feet above sea level. After another year toiling on the competitive snowboard circuit and traveling clear across the globe, such a place provided the perfect escape for surfing enthusiast Chris Klug.”It’s a nice balance after being in cold temperatures all winter and suffering all that impact from snowboarding,” said the 2002 bronze medalist from Aspen. “It’s a nice change of scenery. I’m always in dry climates at high elevation, so it’s nice to go to sea level to mix it up.”It’s become a kind of tradition.”Klug’s love of both the surfboard and snowboard were cultivated during his years growing up in Oregon. And when the 2007 U.S. parallel slalom and parallel giant slalom champion isn’t competing, he travels the globe – from Costa Rica to Sumatra and Bali – in search of the perfect wave.
He’s not the only snowboarder who enjoys the change. A group of athletes made an impromptu stop in Maui during a break in this winter’s World Cup schedule. “You don’t see that on the ski world Cup,” he joked. When former competitor Bertrand Denervaud, current snowboarder Gilles Jacquet and a group of their fellow Swiss recently planned a two-week boat trip in the Maldives, they invited Klug to join them. He was intrigued – for good reason. After all, if what weather forecasters and global warming proponents predict comes to fruition, the rare opportunity may never again be possible.”This is a place that’s probably going to change in our lifetime,” he said. “I think their new marketing slogan is ‘Come visit us while we’re still here.’ It’s kind of scary. It was hit hard after the tsunami [in 2004]. Some of the islands were covered in one meter of water.”Klug was on board and invited friend and former Denver Bronco and surfing enthusiast Mike Croel to come along. The two met in Denver, then began the nearly two-day trek, flying first to Los Angeles, then on to Singapore and Malé, capital of the Maldives. The landing made the countless hours of travel well worth the inconvenience.
“The airport there is unbelievable – it’s like you land in the ocean,” Klug said. “It sits on this little atoll, and the runway looks like it emerges out of the ocean.”Boats pull up right to the airport, and take you to your spot.”The duo, who arrived one week before the rest of the group, headed to the northern part of the country to stay at a surf resort on an atoll no more than 1 mile in circumference. They spent their days negotiating the surf and their afternoons exploring the vast array of underwater wildlife. Klug said he expected the waves to be smaller than those he surfed in Indonesia. A tropical depression moved into the Indian Ocean, however, providing them with big swells. He let his natural instincts, much like those utilized on the ski slopes, kick in.”The big thing with surfing is learning the ocean,” Klug said. “It’s a lot like snowboarding in that every wave is unique. You have to read the wave and position yourself. You’re at the mercy of mother nature, and the conditions are always changing.”The exhilaration – and the size of the waves – was heightened one week later when Klug and Croel took a short flight south, far from the country’s traditional tourist destinations, to meet up with the six other member of the group and the boat.
They were shuttled by dingy into open, sometimes a mile from shore, and encountered some of the most spectacular waves in their lives, Klug said. That experience was enhanced by their brief introduction to local Muslim culture. The boat’s captain, a native Maldivian, ushered the group through local villages, and introduced them to local traditions.”The people are friendly, and it’s very peaceful there,” Klug remembered. “I felt safe there.”He and his colleagues wished they could’ve said the same after some close calls on the waves. While he managed to stay on his board for the majority of the time, Klug was dragged across an underwater reef a few times. “If you got caught inside the wave, it was like an avalanche of whitewater out there. We got a few nice tattoos,” he said. Two members of the group snapped their boards and another his leash.Croel, a seven-year NFL veteran, was momentarily startled when a reef shark, no more than four feet in length, swam by while he was snorkeling. “We gave him a hard time about that,” Klug joked. At night, they delighted in good company and good sushi. And each morning, they were shuttled out to the shoulders of waves where, with dolphins looking on, they paddled hard and smiled harder.”Those Swiss guys were charging – I was impressed,” Klug said. “I was surprised they could surf so well given they’re from a landlocked country. I guess they could say the same thing about me.”
For two weeks, the group tackled remote waves. For two weeks, Klug delighted in the simple life after a hectic winter schedule in which he competed, hosted two snowboarding camps and premiered his documentary “Ride of Your Life.” “I’m so passionate about surfing, and when I come back from feeling rejuvenated – it’s my fountain of youth,” he said. “Surfing’s a great challenge for me, and I’m so passionate about it.”As quickly as the trip had begun, it was over. Klug was faced with that fact when he drove home to Aspen late Monday evening, then woke up to snow. Soon, the 34-year-old will head to Mount Hood in Oregon to begin training for his 12th season on the World Cup circuit. It’s a good bet a surfboard will be stashed in Klug’s luggage just in case he finds time to sneak off to the Oregon coast. It’s a good bet that memories of the Maldives won’t soon fade.”The Maldives is a special place, and I hope I have the chance to return,” he said. “We did some things there that were absolutely unbelievable.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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The dual-sport student-athlete was named to the Class 3A Western Slope League all-conference first team for softball as one of two Carbondale players on the Basalt High School softball team team last fall.