Nine Extreme Athletes Name Their "White Whale"

100-foot waves, Alaskan summits and BASE jumping on the moon

By Alex Lauer

Nine Extreme Athletes Name Their ‘White Whale’
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20 July 2017

Captain Ahab had a hell of a time trying to kill Moby Dick.

Hence the term “white whale”: any challenge so lofty it becomes a lifelong obsession.

They make for great adventures. They make for great stories. And they make for great inspiration.

So we asked nine people who chase white whales for a living a simple question:

What’s at the top of your bucket list?

From Laird Hamilton’s 100-foot wave to a secret Alaskan mountain to BASE-jumping on the moon, here’s what they told us.

Warning: May make your dreams seem Lilliputian.


Photo: Jennifer Cawley - Laird Apparel

Laird Hamilton, big-wave surfer
Hamilton’s storied career is the subject of Oscar-nominated filmmaker Rory Kennedy’s new movie Take Every Wave, coming this September.

“My white whale would refer to any wave over 100 feet high — a category of wave that I have been amongst at several points in my career, but have always had to deal with the challenge of adverse conditions and compromised equipment.

“This conundrum alone and my quest to ride the planet's biggest waves has led to the last 15 years being dedicated to the development of the Foil Board. We have evolved and honed the tow-in foil board from a primitive instrument built in my barn, to a highly sophisticated, state-of-the-art piece of engineering that is now more than ready for the biggest waves the oceans can produce. I now spend 99% of my time riding and developing these foil boards; Prone, Tow-In and Stand-Up. This type of wave riding is more akin to flying and opens up many more white-whale opportunities in the ocean.

“I train relentlessly seven days a week throughout my ‘off season’ in Malibu. I call this training XPT and it is both in and out of the water and has proved highly effective to many world-class athletes of various disciplines. I always have had to be ready to fly to any given location where notable conditions prevail. Meanwhile, during my season in Hawaii, I am on the water in some capacity or other for up to eight hours every day, so I’m equally fit and conditioned for the big one.”

Photo: Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool

Miles Daisher, BASE jumper and skydiver
Daisher has completed more BASE jumps than any other person on the planet (~4,520) and recently broke the world record for most human-powered BASE jumps in 24 hours (63).

“When I first started BASE jumping, in my logbook I wrote down three stunts that I really wanted to do. And I’ve done two. One of them was a rope-swing BASE jump. The other one was driving across a bridge on the top of a semi-truck then jumping off of that over the handrail. The ever elusive one? I would like to [skydive], swoop the top of an object, whether it be a bridge or a big cliff, and then as I clear the top cut away that parachute and then go back into freefall and open up my other parachute down below. I’d like to do it on the bridge in West Virginia [New River Gorge Bridge, Fayetteville] where Bridge Day happens every year.

“But the biggest one ever — and a lot of people think it’s impossible but I never think that anything’s impossible — would be to go to the moon and BASE jump off of a giant crater. People laugh and think that I’m out of my mind, but I’m honestly not kidding. [laughs] I’m really seriously looking into it.”

Bob Soven, wakeboarder
The decorated professional wakeboarder and Sanuk ambassador has been shredding since age two — a family affair with his older brother and fellow distinguished rider Phillip.

“A big trip I need to knock off the bucket list is a journey from Florida to the Bahamas on my jet ski. The furthest I have taken the ski is 10 miles offshore, but she’s ready for the near 90-mile run across. I have a GPS and fish finder already installed, just need a little luck and a solid window of calm water.”

Photo: Martín Hernandez, @slackermarteen

Heather Larsen, slackliner
One of the top highliners in the world, Larsen has crossed gaps from Boulder, Colorado to Jerusalem, where she balanced over the ruins of the Tower of David.

“My biggest goal right now is sending a 100-meter highline. I have been on several lines of this length and also much longer. 100 meters seems to be the length that really starts to initiate fear in my body, so I struggle with calming my mind and my breath down to accomplish my goal. I've always been inspired by the lines I have seen in the mountains and on the coast of Australia. There is an amazing one that's close to 100m in North Head, Manly, just north of Sydney.”

Keira Henninger, ultrarunner and race director
Apart from racing distances of 100 miles, Team Patagonia athlete Henninger also coaches and puts on her own races that traverse the Pacific Crest Trail to the only working movie set on National Park land.

“In my last 13 years of competitively running ultras, I have yet to compete in the TransRockies. It’s something that I have looked at year after year, and have a deep desire to do one day. TransRockies is a six-day point-to-point stage race held annually in August that runs through the Rocky Mountains from Buena Vista, Colorado, and finishes in Beaver Creek. It reaches altitudes of up to 12,500 feet above sea level, and traverses through the San Isabel National Forest. The race covers 120 miles and is run 100% on mountain trails. I have yet to sign up mainly due to the cost — it’s pricey, but worth every penny. Most run it as a team of two, but I would love to compete in the solo division to truly test the limits!”

Photo: Christian Pondella/Red Bull Content Pool

Michelle Parker, freeskier
Parker is a professional skier who has transitioned from competitions like the U.S. Freeskiing Open and X Games to primarily backcountry skiing using non-mechanized travel. She is also a founder of S.A.F.E. A.S. Clinics (Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education for Avalanche and Snow Safety).

“There’s one particular line in Alaska that I’ve become slightly obsessed by. I saw a photo of it a few years back and find myself looking back at the photo quite often. It’s rarely skied and the timing would have to be just so that the snow conditions lined up with climbing and skiing the line … as it certainly doesn’t happen every year. Definitely can’t name the mountain, but I suppose I can mention that it’s in the St. Elias National Park.

“The mountains are important to me as they have taught me a significant amount of life lessons: resilience, patience, dedication, the love of nature, to be present and so much more. When the stars align and the mountains open themselves up, I will attempt it. There is no set date, as with such a line, you must have patience and accept the fact that the mountains don’t care about your personal agenda.”

Photo: Aaron Rogosin/Red Bull Content Pool

Eric Lagerstrom, triathlete
Lagerstrom’s won triathlons from Escape From Alcatraz to the Beijing International, and spent the entire day of this year’s summer solstice swimming, biking and running in the Columbia River Gorge region to promote the sport, documented in the Solstice Sessions.

“Lately, I've been wanting to put on a race of my own. I think the triathlon world could benefit from more unique events, and I'd like to replicate something like Solstice Sessions but as a five-person invitational that would border on adventure racing. I think using that course [swimming across the Columbia River from Oregon to Washington, running on Hospital Hill and the Syncline Trail, biking on Maryhill Loops Road] would be the coolest, since people now have a taste for what the scenery is like, thanks to the video.

“It would be different from a typical triathlon — multiple legs of each sport, and not in any particular order. I would totally throw out the rulebook and just use the terrain to make the coolest route possible. The first triathlon ever was actually a run-bike-swim-run. The order and distances were irrelevant, it was just three sports around an island in San Diego. I love that.”

Photo: Art Eugenio/GetSome Photo

Rob MacCachren, off-road racer
The dreaded Baja 1000 bests most off-roaders, but MacCachren has not only won 5 times — he’s on a three-year winning streak. All together, the BFGoodrich driver has won over 190 desert and closed course off-road races.

“One of them is something I’ve already been attempting to conquer — a race called King of the Hammers. Basically it’s a race of rock crawlers. The first time I went there, a couple months before the first time I was going to race — and this is in Lucerne Valley out near Barstow, California — we went up into this canyon. All of a sudden I see these rocks that are the size of school buses and the guy who had experienced it before who was riding with me said, ‘OK, we’re going to go up through that.’ If he wasn’t with me, and he told me to go that way, I would have got to that point, turned around, drove out and drove all the way around the mountain to the other side to tell him, ‘Hey man, you can’t go through there.’ Because it’s not passable. Except, no. That’s what they do. At the Baja 1000, there are thousands of things that could happen to stop someone from winning the race. At King of the Hammers, there are millions of things.

“Something that I have not tried yet, that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, is to race the Dakar. Best-case scenario: I really want there to be a Team America, with American drivers and an American team, that would work 365 days a year to try and go win that race for the Americans. I would love to be a part of that. Problem is, the Peugeot team — the best team doing it right now — I’ve heard multiple times that their budget every year to win that race is $45 million. So when you’re up against something like that, you need to have a serious effort to be able to win. If I were to go do that, it would be to win it, not just participate.”

Zach Bitter, ultrarunner
One of the top ultrarunners in the world, Atkins ambassador Bitter holds the 12-Hour Distance World Record (163,785 meters or ~101.77  miles) and 100-Mile American Record (11:40:55 or 7:01 per mile).

“An event that I haven’t done yet that I’d like to do in the next couple of years is the Leadville 100 Mile in Colorado. In terms of races that I’ve done already that I’d like to go back and target: I want to try and get the 100-mile world record, which is about 12 minutes faster than my fastest 100-miler. Another one is the Western States 100, partly because it’s the first 100-miler I’d ever done, so to go back there and see how much I’ve improved since then would be fun.”

Main photo: Jennifer Cawley - Laird Apparel

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