For anyone who’s ever caught a fast wave on their board and felt the water breaking overhead, before letting gravity take over and relaxing through the ride, know that surfing and climbing—where one commits to sequence and lets the world fall away below—are parallel worlds. Thirty-five-year-old Jess O’Bryan, who lives in both worlds, needs this feeling of calm and beauty, daily, to feel fulfilled. Here’s how she makes it work.
While her sister (7 years younger) took a more traditional route, settling down in suburbia in Orange County, California, O’Bryan broke away from the traditional life, moving into a 4×4 truck camper with her boyfriend and loading it up with surfboards and climbing gear.
Today O’Bryan splits her time between living in the camper near her office in San Diego and the road where she chases surf breaks, climbs splitters, and ticks sport routes. She shares her posts on Instagram under the handle @surf.climb.travel (she has amassed some 21,000 followers). One shot that made that made the rounds was of O’Bryan and Amy Amodio standing side by side at the base of the 5.11 Rock Lobster in Indian Creek. O’Bryan is clad only in socks; Amodio in just her underwear. To cover up, their bodies are draped in cams, many strategically hanging from their shoulders and waists. O’Bryan is holding a double bicep flex pose and a proud grin, while her friend has a derby smile so big that her eyes are squished closed – just too hard-sending dorks having a blast in the desert. “She’s my best friend, she’s a climbing guide, and she’s the one who inspired me to climb hard,” O’Bryan says of Amodio.
O’Bryan is a self-professed nerd, and poking fun at herself and sharing the joys she finds in the mountains makes her happy.
Growing up in San Clemente, O’Bryan buried her head in her books, which came more naturally to her than trying to fit into social cliques. “For a long time I tried to be cool,” she says. “At some point I realized I’m a nerd. I need to embrace that, go with it.”
Her parents supported her strong work in academics and tried shielding her from distractions like surfing. “My parents hated that I surfed. They thought surfers just got stoned and did nothing with their lives.” She’s never agreed with her parents’ views of surfers, which she believes is the same as climbers — she recognizes them as athletes with analytical minds.
As a teen, O’Bryan was introduced to climbing through the Girl Scouts and, later, her surfer/climber friends took her to Joshua Tree National Park. “That place has a soul vibe,” she says, adding that it was also camping in a surrounding of Joshua trees and golden granite blocs that drew her to the park.
Today O’Bryan holds a Masters Degree in computer science and works as a cyber threat intelligence analyst. Cyber-threat hunting takes her all over the world, and she takes her surf and climbing gear everywhere she goes. “I work between 40 and 60 hours a week. I typically work 10-6 so I can surf in the morning and hit the gym after. And I do a flex schedule so I can get out on the weekends,” she says.
She’s surfed and climbed from Indonesia to Mexico. Last year she spent six months in Asia helping organizations learn about hackers, how they operate, and how they hack into networks.
“I would work hard for a week, and then I would split to Bali and surf my brains out. Bali is not very nature-esque. There are a lot of people, a lot of tourists, but the waves are like heaven–so clean.”
In addition to Joshua Tree, her other favorite climbing spots include Smith Rock, Indian Creek and Gran Canaria, Spain. In 2016, she sent Time Wave Zero, a 23-pitch 5.12a in El Potrero Chico, swapping leads with Amy Amodio the whole way who she couldn’t make it up without.
Her favourite days are the ones where she’s able to surf and climb at the same location. The quieter the scene the better, where voices don’t drown out the sound of crashing waves.
“Humboldt in northern California. That is a great place. You’re surfing with the redwoods in the background—oh my gawd, so beautiful. You can climb and surf from the same beach. We were just up there, Charles, my boyfriend and I; we started with trad and finished with a sunset surf fest.”
When we spoke this past fall, she was packing for a trip to Ireland. She was going with her dad, who descends from Ireland, and Charles. She was also going for work and to attend the European Cyber Threat Conference.
“I’ve been there a lot,” she says, “but every time I’ve been it’s not been just right to surf. Ireland has to have a good swell and good wind, which is rare.”
As for the climbing on that North Atlantic island: “It’s super sick. At one crag you rap down to this wall with bolted anchors and do trad routes that only take nuts. You can climb there as long as there is one day without rain.”
O’Bryan is currently pursuing the latest in traveling dirtbag technology, and this November she moved into a camper van full time. “I park somewhere different every night. Sometimes it’s by a surf break, other days by work or the climbing gym.
“The goal is to travel south in it via the Pan American Highway. Just climb and surf my way down to Argentine Patagonia.”