Peaks n Swells Surf Camp founder, Hillary Harrison on the inner surfer of mountainfolk
Hillary Harrison might have the perfect life. The former mountain bike racer (she was the 100 mile US National Champ, won the La Ruta de los Conquistadores, the BC Bike Race, Transrockies, and TransPortugal stage races all in one season, and has several 24 hour solo race victories under her saddle) is now the owner-operator of Peaks n Swells Surf Camp. She lives half the year in Pemberton and almost half the year in Costa Rica running her year-around surf camps.
We were simultaneously envious and curious as the first frost struck so we asked her how a surfer girl found her mojo in Pemberton, and discovered why mountain people and wave-lovers share such an innate sense of the peaks and swells of life.
It’s a long Q+A… but then, it’s shoulder season. Where else would you rather let your mind wander than the beach?
What is a surfer girl doing in Pemberton?
I have been in Pemby for 8 years off and on. I used to race mountain bikes and had a contract that allowed me for a short time to move to Whistler to train. In Whistler I met my husband who’d been living in Pemberton for years. The minute I got here, I felt like I had found where I belonged. And my husband had a house with a big garage. Our first date was Windy Pass on bikes and if that didn’t seal the deal then the first time we spent the day doing the Spearhead definitely did. How could you leave a place like this?
Do you have a Pemberton alter ego different from your surf life?
I have to admit I love mountains as much as I love the ocean – I am absolutely torn between the two. If only there were warm waves near the coast, mountain life would be complete! I love ski mountaineering and long epic missions on my mountain bike almost equally.
Is permanently escaping the shoulder season blahs actually achievable?
I live in Costa Rica for October through mid-December then return to Pemberton. In March, when the bookings for the camp are the most solid, I generally head back to Costa Rica until mid-May. I am so happy in both places that I am always sad leaving wherever I am leaving but stoked the minute I arrive at the other! Both places have such amazing communities that I hate to leave as well.
Why not live in Costa Rica all year round? I mean, why Pemberton at all?
I love Pemberton and seriously think this is where I belong. I love the community and natural beauty of the place. I could never leave Pemberton!
And what makes Pemberton a good base from which to run Peaks n Swells Surf Camp?
It is easier to have contact with the clients that I am trying to reach from North America, and to figure out how to target certain demographics based on what PNS surf guests do when they are not at the camp. This gives me an advantage over other camps that try to market from the beach.
Is there a natural synergy between mountain people and the surf?
Totally. The surf coaches love our guests at PNS because they take that same vigor of charging and going for it on their mountain bikes and skis and translate it to the waves. If you charge on the mountain there is no doubt with an understanding of the ocean you will charge in the ocean as well, no matter how little time you have spent in it in your life.
Mountains or oceans, if you connect and thrive in these environments doing these kind of activities there is no doubt you will get that crazy drive to ride waves the way you want to ski powder. There is something so magical about paddling in the sunrise or sunset, catching waves with that blazing orange ripping across the water, just like it is so magical to be skiing along the Spearhead Traverse in the alpenglow. These are moments you don’t forget and feel so lucky to be experiencing.
Is this a family operation?
Totally! The camp is based out of the most amazing slice of paradise that my mom has built up over the past 23 years. She and my dad bought the property back when Costa Rica was very different. There is no road, just beach, to get to the property, so she used ox and cart to transport the lumber and building materials. I feel so lucky to have experienced Costa Rica and our town in those days. The town was small and we know every person very well. It is home for me for sure!
My mom was a professional photographer in Seattle before that and has taken her love to Costa Rica with her. She has been a critical part of my crew of staff at the camp. She loves to shoot lifestyle and surfing shots so it has added so much to each guest’s experience because they go home with amazing photos not only of surfing their best wave, but of the most beautiful lifestyle shots. It’s great – you don’t need a camera all week and you end up with all these professional shots with you in them! The guests also just love talking to my mom- they love learning about what the place has been like over the past 23 years.
My husband is also part of the core crew. He has given himself the role of “herder.” I have heard him inform a group of women campers that no one is allowed to get out of the car on the way to a surf break when he had to stop for an errand. Waves and surfing are the most fickle and time sensitive constraints I have found yet in sports. Worse than mountaineering! You know that frenzy-stress you get when there is a powder day and you need to get there before it is gone or the temps rise? Times that by ten and you get an idea of the frenzy that goes on in surfing. Perfect waves can be instantly crushed by a sudden crosswind. Thus the herding component to the camp can come in handy when you have a group of easily distracted or excited guests!
The rest of the “family” includes the family who have caretaken the property for the past 15 years. They also work in the camp, and their two sons both work in the water with us. One is an amazing surfer and both are amazing with kids. Each family surf camp session the families are concocting ways to bring the guys home with them!
Our head surf coaches both come from England but have been living in Costa Rica for years. They are both so passionate about helping people to step up their surfing it just makes me so happy to see the joy they get out of watching a guest have a breakthrough moment. And they do. I have never seen anyone who is anywhere near as effective as these two are at improving surf skills.
My best friend since I was 17 in Costa Rica joined the crew last spring. She is a Costa Rican who learned to snowboard long before surfing and has lived all over the world, from highshcool in Luxemburg to fishing in Sitka, Alaska. She is passionate about the law and history of Costa Rica and a great resource for the guests on politics, history or pretty much anything in CR.
Our crew sometimes work 45 days straight – so we have to love what we do. And we truly are a family together out there. If they didn’t make me laugh so much I could get tired working that many days.
How long have you been running Peaks n Swells?
PNS started 3 years ago this fall! It has grown each season and progressed in what we offer so much with each season.
How do people hear about you?
Word of mouth has been the most effective. I have a huge contingent coming from Stowe, VT simply because of two amazing families who came our first year. Some of them will be on their 3rd trip back this fall! One says it changed their family’s life.
Trip Advisor has been big, too.
Where do the bulk of your guests hail from? Is there typically a Whistler/Pemby contingent?
The majority come from ski towns. Washington, Colorado, BC, Vermont and California have the biggest pull, but I have had people from Iceland, Poland, Washington DC, and England, too. There are quite a few Pemby-Squamish-Whistler guests that have come. Especially my good friends in the beginning who believed in me!
When do they run?
Surf sessions run year-round now.
I work the camps that happen October – mid-December and usually March – May.
My favourite month is May by far. Mangoes are falling off the trees, the south swells are starting to hit with a good consistency and tourism has fallen off until July. Many mornings last May I found myself surfing alone at one of our favourite point breaks for sunrise.
Each month has a different feeling to it. In October and November, you see more wildlife than any other time of year. In March, the water is so clear and turquoise you can see the bottom and the cashews are out! In May and July, the sea turtles are always next to you when you are surfing. You’re pretty much guaranteed to see the sea turtles hatch and crawl out to sea if you come from October to April. We have the Turtle Reserve Sanctuary in front of the camp now so the little guys hatch almost every day right out front of the camp.
Our surf camp sessions include high performance coaching for experienced surfers wanting to surf every break possible, family camps and classic surf camp for beginners on up.
Where do they run?
The surf camp is based out of the property that my parents have been building up over the past 23 years on the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific side of Costa Rica.
There is no road to the property. It is accessed by a beautiful walk on the beach 10 minutes from the funky little town of Montezuma.
Facing the ocean with lush jungle in the back, the property has 3 houses with a pool in the center and an outdoor area as our camp base. It’s ideal for families or groups of friends to stay in one of the houses for a bit of privacy when they feel like it. Our learning to surf beach is a sandy bottom shallow beach break with no undertow that is a 25 minute walk along the Nature Reserve beaches.
The location has a spectacular variety of surf breaks all accessible within an hour of the camp. 10 minutes down the road are two spectacular point breaks perfect for learning to surf your first green waves. Both can get quite big in a sweet south swell but one allows beginners to catch the small section even in a big swell, so there is always something to surf for everyone.
Taking the boat out 20 minutes brings you to a breathtaking break geared for more advanced surfers. We have the whole outside of the peninsula with tons of beach break, point breaks and reef breaks to choose from, depending on how big or small the swell is. If it is small, then a lot of the beach breaks can be excellent for getting progressing surfers out. This peninsula is considered one of the most consistent surfing areas in the world, unlike Hawaii, where they rely on the northern hemispheres for their storms, and it can become pretty flat forcing you to find other things to do. Here, it receives swells from both the Southern and Northern hemispheres so there are always waves to surf.
That consistency is one of the reasons our director of surfing chose to settle here.
Who are they for?
I always wanted to learn how to surf better and was looking for that technical instruction that we see coming out in skiing and mountain biking that breaks down the sport into ideas and theories that can help you to progress so much faster to another level.
Our sessions suit anyone who appreciates a genuine place with soul over a well-travelled tourist destination. Montezuma is a totally cool town with it’s own special vibe of healing and athletic people from all over the world. I have had a lot of people tell me their experience here changed their life. Seriously it has such a good vibe in such a natural raw form.
The sessions are for anyone of any level of surfing that wants to learn new breaks and push their surfing to the next level. Often intermediate surfers benefit the most from coaching as they tend to go out and repeat bad habits in their limited surf time and never push on to the next level. One session of video analysis can add years of surfing experience to a person coming to the camp. We do the theory lessons and pool techniques to hone in on skills so that you are comfortable when you get out there and try them. You’ll learn about tides, forecasting, board design and more.
It’s awesome for families. I had a single mom come down with her 3 year old and surf all week. We have tons of child care as well as surf instruction for kids, so everyone can be out at the same beach. One parent with tons of experience could be surfing, the other parent might be new to surfing but learning fast, and the young ones are having the time of their life because they pick it up so fast with the 2:1 or 1:1 surfcoach ratio for the kids. We have a huge base camp set up on the beach so people can come in and chill out and rest and play with their kids, then go back out. We have fresh fruit and home baked gluten free muffins, fresh cut coconut meat and water, to keep everyone going while they are out there.
What makes them different from other camps?
We want you to know the locals over the week. We want your kids to practice their Spanish with people. We operate with a 12 person maximum in each session, so you never feel like a tourist or an insider, you’re not stuck in a big group all wearing matching rash guards. Guests should feel like friends here for a visit.
One of our campers puts it well in this blog post.
What’s the advantage of booking a camp over going it freestyle and just winging it on your own?
You get more relaxation and enjoyment. It could take you the whole week to find your favourite surf break or know when the best conditions are to hit it. Even if you are a seasoned surfer, you may not know how to avoid the crowds and how the react to the swells to get optimal conditions. Having someone put together a bonfire and dinner for you while you are sunset-surfing is pretty hard to beat. It’s a week or two of total bliss and relaxation without the worry of getting lost.
You offer professional coaches. Isn’t surfing just a time-in, teach yourself kind of thing?
It’s actually the exact opposite. If you knew the reason you were falling each time maybe you could teach yourself but it takes an analytical approach to your obstacles in progressing to hone in on the changes you need to make.
I progressed tons just by moving the position of my front foot on the board. It was hard to change after so long surfing with it in another position but once I did, it was awesome. There are a lot of surf coaches down there who do not know how to coach and will push you into the waves or pick the waves out for you, but you don’t get much out of that when you go to surf on your own. PNS it is all about sending you away with the tools and knowledge to keep progressing every time you go surfing.
What made you think running surf camps would be a good business for you?
Some serious guts, a patient supportive husband and an amazing mom.
How do you get your surf/water fix in, in Pemberton?
Skiing pow, climbing/skiing peaks in the winter and long missions on the bike in the summer. I don’t go to the island or WA much to surf. When I am here I am in the mountains and when I am there, I surf. I get down there enough that I don’t need to drive 8 hours to surf in a wetsuit.
What are the biggest challenges about running your own business?
Are you going to make money or lose it? You don’t know until the last minute sometimes. You can’t let down no matter how tired you get.
What’s the biggest reward?
Where to start?! Playing on the most beautiful beaches each day with a crew I absolutely love. Staying connected to my community where I grew up in Montezuma. All the amazing moments I get in the ocean. It is endless. I am so lucky but I work really hard to keep the dream going.
Who are your business mentors?
Anne Keller ACMG Ski Guide in Revy has always been super supportive of going after your dreams and making them happen. I watch what she has done becoming the 6th woman to get her AMGA ticket among a long list of impressive mountain skills. She has probably been my biggest mentor with her genuine love of teaching others and her amazing independence and capable ways. She has been totally supportive over the years for sure from business support to standing in minus 20 reminding me of what I messed up on in my crevasse rescue practice.
Chris Winter of Big Mountain Bike Trips has been awesome to bounce ideas off of and brainstorm. He has a great business that has been running a lot longer and I love what he has done with his company.
My best friend in Costa Rica, Pipa Leon has been awesome in helping with legal matters and a great sounding board. She ran the race La Ruta de Los Conquistadores and bailed them out of debt with her legal work when they were about to go under a few years ago.
And then there is always my husband, Ryan Watts who has listened to every up and down and supported the dream wholeheartedly from day one.
Who are your most passionate clients/campers?
Most of the families are coming from ski towns where the kids have grown up doing things like the kids in Pemberton. They ski, climb, play hockey and so they kill it on the boards immediately. 6 is the perfect age to start, although we have had younger.
And what keeps you going? What is your source of motivation, passion, inspiration?
Each camp does it for me!
I love seeing others get the surfing bug. I remember the day I caught my first green wave – the glow lasted for days.
There is also the value of being able to be in Costa Rica for more time than I would, had I not started the camps. It’s been 15 years or so since I missed a fall trip to Costa Rica for at least 3 weeks. As I got older and had more responsibilities it was getting harder to sneak that in. I don’t want to lose that opportunity to be with that community and experience of such an amazing place. If we ever have kids I want them to be able to grow up with time spent with the kids down there, who are all trilingual and have such a different view of the world.
What’s your definition of success?
Booking the camps without stress!
Keeping a good flow of camps going and that keeps the finances straight. Both my husband and I and the Surf Coach directors have big visions of what we want the camp guests to experience and learn. We definitely have ideas of more boat trips with the guests and bigger surfari expeditions. I love partnering up with Chris Winter from Big Mountain to offer the coolest trip you could do to see Costa Rica – the Mountain Bike and Surf trip! Spend a week riding amazing trails on private properties in lush jungle and coffee plantation areas, volcanoes, then a week on the beach checking out surf breaks all over, yoga classes at camp each day to keep you limber and plenty of tasty mixed drinks at sunset by the pool and beach.