Surfing Iceland’s Cold Frontiers
Travel Stories: Full-body wetsuits. Icy mountain roads. Uncharted surf. Nathan Myers is a long way from California.
06.24.10 | 9:51 AM ET
Dan Malloy is studying a map of Iceland. Bearded and burly, he’s tracing his finger along the northern shore and nodding his head. We’ve spent the last week near the capital city of Reykjavik, scouring this one little corner for waves. This is the “known” surf region: documented spots frequented by a small crew of die-hard locals. But the stretch of coast on Dan’s map is something else. It’s ripped with fjords and fissures to trap the wind and trick the swell. It’s untapped. Unexplored. Unknown.
Dan smiles. Already I know we’ll be heading north.
First, we go to the bar. It’s a short stroll down a rainy gray avenue in Reykjavik, and it’s nice to be away from the crew. We’re filming a surf movie here, and our crew comprises three pro surfers, a cameraman, a photographer and myself—usually packed into a minivan with foggy windows and various tripods, boardbags and Pelican cases.
Beers are $15 apiece, so it won’t be a big night out. But Dan’s a legendary traveler, employed by Patagonia just to be himself. Hearty. Adventurous. A bit reckless, perhaps. His travel tales are worth a least a couple $15 rounds.
MORE: Slideshow—Swells and Snow: Surfing Iceland’s Cold Frontiers
This pub could be anywhere—warm, wooden, welcoming—but we’re in Iceland, and the text on the corner karaoke machine runs across the screen in their riddling elvish scrawl. “Where ya from?” the bartender asks. Like most Icelanders, he speaks several languages fluently, probably plays several instruments and studies Russian philosophy. A cold iron shell and a warm fuzzy interior. Must be all those long dark winters.
We tell the bartender we are from California, come here to pioneer surfing in his country. The bartender says, “What a coincidence ...” since, he claims, he was Iceland’s first surfer. The year was 1973. A friend in customs helped him smuggle in a surfboard from New York. “Plastic,” he says with pride. He borrowed his father’s dive-suit and paddled out the way he’d seen in Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer.
“I tried one wave and I smashed the rocks,” he recalls. “I tried another wave and smashed the rocks. I did not try a third.”
Considering the location, we’re willing to count it. We’re only here because recent improvements in wetsuit technologies are opening up new cold frontiers around the world. But the way he did it, that’s just adventurous. Possibly insane.
The bartender offers to show us his board, then heads home to dig it out from the garage. We are alone in the bar.
“It’s like that classic surf line,” Dan chuckles, “‘You shoulda been here an hour ago.’”
We wait for nearly an hour for the bartender to return. Eventually, Dan’s cell phone rings. It’s our local friend Ingo, a stout little surf-Viking who’s been helping us locate waves. He knows we’re itching to explore the rugged northern coast and he tells us that a good swell is coming out of the Arctic. If we want to surf there, now’s the chance.
Dan hangs up, smiling. “He said it would be snowing tomorrow,” he says.
Snow? Cool. Did I mention we’re all from California?
The bartender never returns. After a long deliberation, we decide against pouring our own $15 pints and walk home in the evening drizzle to pack.
By first light, we’re already halfway across the glacier-carved middle of Iceland. That’s when we stop moving. The tires on our two-wheel drive minivan spin uselessly on the black ice incline. We’re actually sliding backward as we attempt to drive forward. Everywhere we look is white. White sky. White mountains. White road. White nothing. White everything.
In the pre-panic silence it dawns on me: When an Icelander tells you it will be snowing, this is what he means. Not so cool.
We stand in the icy road and ponder defeat. Behind us is Iceland’s known surf. Ahead of us, across the winding white mountains we must traverse, the adventure is even more daunting than we’d imagined.
We roll backward a quarter mile down the hill and start again. Momentum is the key. And also the primary hazard. Somewhere between the two, there exists a way.
The ensuing six hours of driving are some of the scariest of all our well-traveled lives. An extended white-knuckle brain-freeze of navigation concentration. We try to play happy music as the car slides about the road. No one says a word. No one even breathes.
Heading down the backside of the great and terrible ice-mountain, evidence of the raw, geological forces that carved this land are everywhere. The footprints of glaciers. The timeless trickle of snow melt. Fire and ice. The brutal balance of survival in between. Life has been hard in this place. It still is.
The road follows a river to a fjord, then the fjord to the sea. Snow covers the fields around us, and soon we find ourselves traversing an icy cliff with stormy seas surging a thousand feet below and fresh avalanches teetering above. A heavy thought could kill us all right now. We empty our minds. The bay that Ingo told us about is closer than ever.
The road veers abruptly, plunging straight into the heart of the mountain. It becomes a dark, single-lane Matterhorn cave that swallows all hope for a full 15 minutes. When we finally emerge on the other side, the sky is a seared canvas of cobalt blue, haunted by dancing shades of northern lights. The looming cathedral bay is frosted in a fresh layer of snow. A long, cobblestone point break is peeling away just offshore.
The surfers can’t get into their wetsuits fast enough. Cameras are rolling as two of them bound through the waist-deep snow and plunge into the ocean. Adventurers. Heroes. Pioneers.
Only Dan lingers, studying the sets and timing his approach. Just then, Ingo strolls out from a dilapidated barn with ice-brittle hair and a steaming cup of coffee. “Well, you finally made it,” he smiles. “Man, you guys should have seen this place an hour ago.”