Billabong Pico Alto

Big Wave Diaries: Discovering Pico Alto

Gary Linden

Gary Linden, VP of the Big Wave Tour (BWT), discovered the break at Pico Alto, Peru, while living in Brazil in the 1970s. Now after a yellow alert that saw the Billabong Pico Alto come close to running, Linden talks about finding the break and why he can't wait to go Green.

The Legend of Pico Alto
Big Wave Tour surfers on what it takes to make the drop at Pico Alto.

Living in Brazil in the early 70's, the world was a lot bigger than we think of it now. Going to Hawaii was a dream most of my friends would never realize, but that didn't stop them from riding big waves or dreaming.

Peru was just a hop over the Andes mountain range and provided an attainable alternative to the North Shore. The stories from those that had made the journey cast a net over my imagination. The water was cold, they said. But being from California made me wonder, how cold could it really be? I wasn't sure if I had a sufficient enough wetsuit.

Then came the real heart of the tale: The size of the waves. Supposedly there was a wave called Pico Alto. It was said to break almost a mile out from shore, and at this point in time we didn't have leashes. So we have giant waves, cold water and a potential 1-mile swim to retrieve our equipment. I had to see if I could do it.

I finally did find the wave at Pico Alto -- 30 years later. And yet, my fascination from those early stories still burned strong.

Then came the real heart of the tale: The size of the waves.

When my wife and I left Brazil in 1976 to return to the US I had to make a stop in Peru. She was six months pregnant and the opportunity to travel was going to disappear for a while. Just getting into Peru in those days was a journey in itself: The country was under a Marshall Law curfew and a military dictatorship.

But all the stories about the heavy surf were true. There was so much surf, pounding reefbreaks that never seemed to stop. The village of Punta Hermosa, the town now surrounding the Pico Alto break, was nonexistent. Thankfully it wasn't breaking the day I arrived, as I would not have had much luck on the 7'4" I had brought. At the time I didn't know what size board I would have needed. But seeing the setup gave me an indication of what would be in store for me if I was ever able to make my way back.

Twenty years later, I was invited to compete in an event sponsored by the Peruvian Navy that ran at Punta Roquita. (I ended up winning the Masters division.) By then, I was surfing strong and had many years of big wave sessions under my belt. I felt ready for Pico Alto but in reality I was still unsure about what size board to bring. This time I had brought a thin 8'0". It was the 90's and the boards we rode were toothpicks.

I stayed a month shaping boards and made quite a few big wave guns for the locals who by now were riding Pico Alto fairly regularly. I started to get the feel of the volume of foam needed to paddle that far out to sea and be able to catch waves of the size and power that Pico Alto had to offer.

Rothman Discovers Peru
2014 Billabong Pico Alto winner and reigning BWT World Champ Makuakai Rothman talks about his first trip to Peru.

Again, it didn't break while I was there. By that point, I was obsessed with this wave. I had to ride it! But how? The boards I shaped were well received and the next year I was invited back to compete and won my division once again. Peru was becoming what Brazil had been, my adopted country. I stayed again and shaped more guns for Pico Alto, but still I didn't have a board for myself. And since I wasn't in front of the wave waiting for an opportunity to ride one, the chance slipped away once again. I was beginning to think I would get too old before I realized this dream. It took another 10 years but I was finally able to make it happen.

During the late 90's I had been pursuing another goal, in creating the BWT. In the time in between visits a young surfer, Max de la Rosa and his brother "Magoo" had begun distributing the surf brand Billabong and created a big wave event at -- guess where? -- Pico Alto.

I sat down with Max and we discussed the inclusion of his event as part of my new tour. I would bring six international surfers to join a field of 18 Peruvians and the relationship began. The year was 2009 and we called the event on for the 5th of July. I paddled out the day before with Greg Long and Grant "Twiggy" Baker and caught my first wave. It would turn out to be the start of many waves caught at Pico Alto but the apprehension that had built up for so many years culminated with my first drop. I had finally climbed the mountain.

The apprehension that had built up for so many years culminated with my first drop

Pico Alto has become one of my favorite big waves ever. The big peaks, from which it gets its name, loom up on the horizon with all the power of the Humboldt Current breaking over a tremendous triangular reef running half way to the shore -- remember we are a mile out to sea. This natural phenomenon produces a ride reminiscent of a pointbreak where the possibility of sinking a 10-foot board into a full rail bottom turn, then a cutback to do it all over again, is an option.

Being held under water for a couple of waves while being dragged along this same reef might be viewed as the downside, but if you survive it's a huge rush. I even like the paddle out. There's plenty of time to adapt to your surroundings -- about 45 minutes -- and once you know where to navigate, it becomes a good warmup for the thunder that is about to become your reality.

These days, Pico Alto rarely goes unridden. You used to need a special occasion to justify the trek, but even the smaller days are getting some action with the newer crew. Still, it is hardly ever overcrowded since it breaks so consistently, continuously cycling through surfers in the lineup. It seems that being situated right in the path of every south swell that pushes up the coast of South America has its advantages. In the six years of the BWT's existence there has only been one when the event at Pico Alto didn't run. Now that Max has reduced his tremendous load of business responsibilities, he is back in the water at his beloved break. Together, we wait anxiously for the next swell and our chance to surf this wave again.

Check out the recent big wave strike mission and see more giant rides from around the globe on the WSL Big Wave Awards site.