Surfing World - - In­tro­duc­tion - Story by Ben Wei­land Pho­tog­ra­phy by Chris Burkard/mas­sif

Ice­land is fa­mous for Bjork, be­ing cold and... um... Bjork again. Leave it to Chris Burkard to put the Arc­tic na­tion on the map for over­head bar­rels in as­tound­ing land­scapes.


dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly mer­ci­less win­ter in the North At­lantic, a bat­tered fish­ing ship sank off the coast of Ice­land. Five fish­er­men leapt over­board in an at­tempt to swim for land, but one by one, hy­pother­mia over­took them and their bod­ies de­scended like stones five miles from shore.

Even­tu­ally, only one man re­mained, and it seemed that each stroke would surely be his last. But af­ter swim­ming for six gru­elling hours, he fi­nally set his bare feet onto a snow cov­ered beach. As the sun set, he stum­bled through the sprawl­ing white ex­panse un­til he spot­ted the light of a farm in the dis­tance.

Af­ter his res­cue and phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion, doc­tors flew him to London for fur­ther test­ing. It was found that an un­usual med­i­cal con­di­tion saved him from an icy grave. A thin layer of fat un­der his skin in­su­lated his or­gans like seal blub­ber. Or so the story goes.

My nar­ra­tor is lo­cal surfer Elli Thor Mag­nussen, who re­counts the fish­er­man’s tale as we sit in the warm glow of the fire­place in a cof­fee shop in Reyk­javik, Ice­land’s cap­i­tal. It’s 9 am and still dark out­side. Snow pours into the city, clog­ging streets and bury­ing parked cars.

Win­ter is far from wel­com­ing in Ice­land, but it’s dur­ing this sea­son that many of the re­gion’s best off-the-grid waves come to life. For some time, the lo­cals have had their eyes on one such gem, hid­den in the most remote cor­ner of the coun­try, guarded by moun­tains and ice, and ac­ces­si­ble only by boat. It’s not the kind of break that most surfers would want any­thing to do with, but a small band of Ice­landers are will­ing to go to great lengths to score it.

At the cof­fee shop we’ve gath­ered a group of cold-water crea­tures that share the Ice­landers’ en­thu­si­asm. Sam Ham­mer, Justin Quin­tal, pho­tog­ra­pher Chris Burkard, and I are join­ing three surfers from Reyk­javik to make the jour­ney to the boat dock. Timmy Reyes plans to fly in from Hawaii and meet us some­where along the way, but how this will hap­pen in the vast ex­panse of ru­ral Ice­land, no one knows.

Mag­nussen stud­ies the lat­est weather re­port on his lap­top. He says we’re head­ing into white­out con­di­tions, and what nor­mally is a four-hour road trip to the har­bor will likely take us eight hours.

I won­der what kind of dan­ger we may be court­ing, strik­ing out on a boat amid such bit­ter con­di­tions. The Ice­landers don’t seem overly con­cerned, but I’m not sure if that’s com­fort­ing, con­sid­er­ing that they’re cut from a very dif­fer­ent cloth than our crew of for­eign­ers.

The Ice­landic surfers are tall and mus­cu­lar with long blond hair, look­ing just a few horned hel­mets and pelts away from be­ing

mod­ern Vik­ings. They’ve been hard­ened by a life­time of ex­plor­ing icy coasts and surf­ing frigid line­ups. Some­thing tells me that if our boat sank into the frigid depths, they would find their way back to shore just fine. For our group of com­par­a­tively fair-weather surfers, I’m not as con­fi­dent. As far as I know, none of us have se­cret lay­ers of seal blub­ber.


have no time to pre­pare for the storm. Out­side of the cof­fee shop, a foot of snow al­ready blan­kets the cars. Quin­tal and Ham­mer rip their gloves off in or­der to strap boards to the roof of our white De­fender, while Burkard and I scrape ice from the win­dows and lights. The Ice­landic surfers al­ready have two stacks of boards bal­anced on their roof. They wait for us to fin­ish be­fore lead­ing the way out of the city and into the dark­ness.

From high above, our car­a­van would look like three specks of light mov­ing slowly across the floor of a black cav­ern. Where the beams of our head­lights hit the ground, snow drifts writhe across the as­phalt like white snakes. Gusts slam the side of our car

un­til Quin­tal’s long­board spins side­ways on the roof. Open­ing the win­dow is out of the question, so I press my face against the glass and look up. The boards look li­able to fly off at any minute, but there’s nowhere to pull over to tighten the straps, so we press on.

This time of year, the sun never truly rises. For lit­tle more than three hours a day, the sky fills with soft light, then fades back into dark­ness. As we drive through the night, strange scenes come into fo­cus out­side the car—mi­cro­cosms of win­ter life at the edge of the Arc­tic Cir­cle. We see a house nested in the snow, seem­ingly cut off from the rest of the world, but flick­er­ing can­dle­light com­ing through the win­dows hint at life within. We pass a set of tyre tracks that veer off the road and plum­met into a ravine. A truck with flash­ing lights is parked by the side of the road and two fig­ures in orange suits stare at the tracks lead­ing into the black void, scratch­ing their heads. We con­tinue on­ward and come across no other signs of life for the rest of the drive. It feels as if the en­tire world is hi­ber­nat­ing.

As the soft light be­gins to seep into the sky, our sur­round­ings take on di­men­sion and color. We’re skirt­ing the rim of a fjord, and the high moun­tains cre­ate a refuge in the midst of the storm. Down below, swell en­ergy is cours­ing through deep water and small waves are trim­ming along the snowy banks. As we come around a curve I see a small SUV pulled over on the side of the road. The driver is lean­ing over the guardrail and peer­ing to­ward the sea.

Some­one shouts: “Timmy!”

Reyes turns and looks at us with the dazed eyes of a man who hasn’t slept in days, and likely has no idea what time zone he’s in. He points below at the first set we’ve seen make contact with land. Four wide-open right-hand tubes grind along a slab at the prow of the fjord, and the scene dis­solves into chaos. Ev­ery­one is scream­ing, laugh­ing, and shak­ing each other by the shoul­ders.

Ham­mer tunes out the com­mo­tion and starts me­thod­i­cally dig­ging through his board bag with zen-like fo­cus. Within min­utes his board is waxed, his fins are locked in, and he’s lung­ing through knee-deep snow to­ward the shore.

Right be­hind him is Heiðar Elías­son, Ice­land’s first and only pro­fes­sional surfer. Our group is amazed by his ap­proach to surf­ing in icy water. Not only does he out­last any of the vis­it­ing surfers in the lineup, but he al­most seems to revel in the cold, de­spite the rips and tears that punc­ture his handme-down wet­suit. That com­fort in se­vere con­di­tions is a com­mon thread among the Ice­landic surfers.

For Ingo Olsen, water tem­per­a­ture seems to have no af­fect on him what­so­ever. He wears thin­ner wet­suits than his friends, and doesn’t wear a hood, even on the cold­est win­ter days. His freak­ish stamina prompts Mag­nussen to spec­u­late whether he has the same blub­ber un­der his skin as the fish­er­man from Ice­landic lore.

Reyes, Quin­tal, Ham­mer, and Elías­son scram­ble for the peak as a set ar­rives, and one by one they find them­selves thread­ing dou­ble­bar­rel sec­tions. Reyes flies out of a stand up tube as it spits on the in­side. It’s a heavy wave, and by the end of the ses­sion, three boards have washed up on the shore in splin­ters.

For the Ice­landic surfers, a bro­ken board is dev­as­tat­ing. With no shapers in the coun­try and heavy im­port taxes, they rely on vis­it­ing surfers to bring boards.

“You don’t loan your board to a friend who has bro­ken his,” Mag­nussen ex­plains af­ter the ses­sion with a mis­chievous grin. “If they break yours too, you don’t know when you’ll get your hands on an­other one. It could take months.”

Night re­turns at 2:30 in the af­ter­noon and we watch from shore as the wave be­comes more me­chan­i­cal and hol­low be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing into the dark. The har­bor is close, so we gather our re­main­ing boards and head to the docks.


sail­boat creaks as it sways in the tide and presses against the dock. Snow pil­lows cap the deck and ici­cles hang from the sides. In the dark­ness we hand boards, sleep­ing bags, and back­packs over the rail­ing to the crew of the Au­rora Ark­tika. At the cen­ter of the boat, wear­ing a wool sweater and red cap, Siggi Jon­s­son ex­udes author­ity like only a bearded Ice­landic boat cap­tain can. Us­ing the Ark­tika as a mo­bile base­camp, Cap­tain Jon­s­son’s ex­pe­di­tions have taken him as far as the Nor­we­gian is­land of Jan Mayen and It­to­qqor­toormiit in Green­land. But to­day he’ll be steer­ing us to Ice­land’s most iso­lated coast, where a tan­gle of moun­tains sink into the ocean, and vi­o­lent storms sud­denly sweep in from the North Pole.

“It’s a care­ful bal­ance out there,” Cap­tain Jon­s­son tells us. “We nor­mally try to avoid the con­di­tions that surfers look for. A storm can form at any mo­ment and put us in a dan­ger­ous spot.”

Swell rocks the boat as we leave the safety of the har­bor. Below deck, the crew sits in a cir­cle around a ta­ble swap­ping sea sto­ries. There’s some­thing about tales of charg­ing po­lar bears, vig­i­lante orca hunters, and lonely arc­tic out­posts that seem uniquely Ice­landic. As they talk, the lanterns sway from the rafters caus­ing shad­ows to dance around the cabin. It isn’t long be­fore I start to feel sick. I swal­low some Dra­mamine and climb through the hatch to get some air.

It’s calm and silent on the main deck, ex­cept for an oc­ca­sional rum­ble of laugh­ter from below and the hol­low sound of crash­ing waves echo­ing be­tween moun­tain peaks. The night sky is so clear that the cos­mos looks close enough to touch, and the placid water mir­rors the stars. It’s as if our sail­boat is drift­ing through space.

In the morn­ing the crew gath­ers on deck. The ra­dio squeals as Cap­tain Jon­s­son searches for a weather re­port. His brow fur­rows as he holds the re­ceiver to his ear, and he ex­plains that an­other storm is rapidly ap­proach­ing. “It’s a big sys­tem,” he says. “There isn’t time to surf—it’s too dan­ger­ous. We have to head back.”

This is the ob­vi­ous draw­back to chas­ing waves through Ice­land. The con­di­tions are dif­fi­cult for most of the year, but surf­ing there in the dead of win­ter is bor­der­line masochis­tic. The en­tire is­land freezes into a maze of snow and ice, bliz­zards bar­rel through with­out warn­ing, avalanches con­sume high­ways, and dark­ness de­vours the coun­try.

The lo­cal surfers, how­ever, are ac­cus­tomed to these chal­lenges. To them, it’s sim­ply the price you pay if you want to surf year-round. The Ice­landic surf com­mu­nity is a small, tightknit group that have ar­ranged their lives and jobs to ac­com­mo­date the whims of Ice­land’s tem­per­a­men­tal char­ac­ter, ex­plor­ing jagged fjords and vast black-sand beaches hop­ing to find the next icy bar­rel.

It sounds ro­man­tic, but the re­al­ity in­volves end­less hours of travel, cross­ing from one side of the is­land to the other, chas­ing the ev­er­shift­ing wind and try­ing to stay one step ahead of storms that could strand you for days. The oc­ca­sional score is all they can hope for, and re­turn­ing from a long ex­cur­sion empty handed is the bit­ter pill they fre­quently swal­low.


boat is close enough to the point we came to surf that we can see the faint white lines of white­wa­ter from the deck, but the storm looms over the hori­zon like a tidal wave. Olsen checks the point with binoc­u­lars. The fact that we can’t even catch one wave is ag­o­niz­ing for our crew, but the Ice­landers are prag­matic. They know how bad an ill-timed ses­sion could turn here. Sails bil­low and we cut across the sea, rac­ing the weather back to the har­bor.

The tem­per­a­ture plum­mets and the bay freezes over in front of the har­bor. A tug­boat has to meet us at the en­trance and break a path through the ice. As we un­load our gear, flur­ries spin across the docks and the sky fills with dark clouds.

We stop for food at a small restau­rant in the fish­ing com­mu­nity out­side the har­bor. Mag­nussen opens his lap­top and loads the fore­cast for the next two days, and when the Ice­landers see it, their eyes grow.

“These are new col­ors,” Mag­nussen says as an an­i­ma­tion of the storm sys­tem loops on the screen. “They’ve added to the scale, to ac­com­mo­date how big the storm is.” “I’ve never seen any­thing like this in my life,” Olsen replies. “The size will make all kinds of spots turn on.”

Mag­nussen tells us that there’s a stretch of coast that will light up with swell from the storm, but it would take eleven hours to get there. The route crosses a moun­tain pass and tra­verses high sea cliffs, with old sec­tions of road that lean into deep, rocky chasms. Those steep slopes are known for avalanches, he ex­plains. It would be white-knuckle driv­ing at a snail’s pace.

In the cor­ner of the restau­rant, a TV broad­cast warns that houses and boats across the coun­try are in dan­ger. Avalanche warn­ings on roads have been raised to the high­est level. The news an­chor says this is the big­gest storm to hit Ice­land in 25 years. Trav­el­ing now is a big risk to take, but no one is will­ing to miss out on this rare swell event. Af­ter an hour of de­lib­er­a­tion, we de­cide to head into the storm.

For lo­cals, pre­par­ing for a storm is like pre­par­ing for a siege, and they do it in a reg­i­mented fash­ion. They stock­pile sup­plies, seal their win­dows, and dead­bolt their doors. Then, life shuts down. Roads fill with snow, trans­porta­tion ceases, and, oc­ca­sion­ally, the power goes out. Once the storm passes, nor­mal life re­sumes at the speed of the snow­plow.

We stop at a mar­ket be­fore our cross-coun­try jour­ney, and the whole town seems to be push­ing through the aisles, fill­ing shop­ping carts with frozen and canned goods.

Pre­vi­ous spread: Sam went ham­mer and tongs on the Ice­landic scenery. Op­po­site: The abom­inable Timmy de­scends into his A-frame lair.

The shop­pers rush back to their homes in the dark, but we race in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. Our cars are the only ones tak­ing the nar­row road out of town. Stiff wind whis­tles past and jerks the car back and forth while waist-high snow­drifts sweep across the road, our car­a­van wad­ing through them like rapids.

We crawl up the side of a tall moun­tain with a black abyss on our left, and a wall of ice on our right. Sud­denly a thick white blan­ket slides down the moun­tain and onto the road in front of us. Our de­ci­sion to come out here now seems ter­ri­fy­ingly naive.

The car creeps near the edge of the precipice where the snow bank is most shal­low and we try to press through the block­age. A few feet in, our wheels loose trac­tion and start spin­ning help­lessly.

We sit in si­lence, lis­ten­ing to the rum­ble of the el­e­ments out­side.

“We need to do this,” Burkard says.

I crack my door and the wind blasts it back at me. In that half sec­ond, the car’s in­te­rior is al­ready pep­pered with snowflakes. Out­side the car, the only way to move is by shield­ing your face with your hands, leav­ing a small gap be­tween your fin­gers to see.


The crew digs at the wheels and rocks the car back and forth to no avail. Elías­son sprints to his car and re­turns with a shovel. He at­tacks the snow, sling­ing it through the air and carv­ing a wide-open space around the car. Seven of us crowd around the back bumper and lean into it. A voice counts down from three, scream­ing over the roar of the wind. On our fourth try, the car breaks free.

We ar­rive at a cabin by the sea af­ter four­teen hours on the road, and the fury of the storm is only in­ten­si­fy­ing. The house creaks and warps as we set­tle in, and then the power goes out.


next morn­ing the sky is clear and the storm has passed. The wind has calmed and is gen­tly blow­ing off­shore—our first stroke of luck in days. A snow­plow is busy clear­ing the road down to the coast, and we start our search for waves.

On the coast, swell lines march in and rope through a string of reefs, river mouths, and sand bars that dot the coast in this part of the coun­try. We spend our pre­cious day­light hours tak­ing full ad­van­tage of the per­fect con­di­tions, surf­ing an A-frame that re­sem­bles Lower Tres­tles first, then head­ing to a bay where per­fect dou­ble-over­head walls peeled down a right-hand point un­der frozen cas­cades. When dark­ness re­turns, the sky opens up with the sur­real neon glow of the north­ern lights. We head back to the point to check the surf, and faint lines of white­wash are vis­i­ble un­der the au­rora—ev­i­dence that waves are still peel­ing flaw­lessly.

“Do you think it’s light enough to see any­thing out there?” Quin­tal won­ders aloud.

Threads of col­ored light bend and stretch, con­duct­ing a chaotic dance in the sky. Quin­tal de­cides its clear enough to make out the open face and climbs into thick neo­prene. The air tem­per­a­ture is so cold that the ocean sur­face ap­pears to be steam­ing.

Quin­tal dis­ap­pears into the dark­ness as he pad­dles over the first wave of a set, and whips around to stroke into the sec­ond. He slides down the face and leans into a long, arc­ing cut­back, then stands tall and draws an ex­tended high­line across the wall, cast­ing a lonely shadow on a sea of ra­di­ant green glass.

Mag­nussen stands on the shore, look­ing on with a beam­ing smile. He tells me that he’s never heard of any­one surf­ing un­der the north­ern lights. It’s sur­pris­ing to hear, con­sid­er­ing the wide spec­trum of in­hos­pitable con­di­tions he and his friends have tack­led along these shores. Mag­nussen ex­plains that many vari­ables need to align per­fectly for an au­rora-lit ses­sion to even be possible, and pre­dict­ing those win­dows is in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult.

The power is back on in the cabin when we re­turn, and we find a news re­port about the de­struc­tion that the 25-year storm has wrought. In some parts of the coun­try, roofs have been ripped off houses and docked boats have been smashed into lit­tle more than splin­ters. Our frus­tra­tion with dig­ging our car out of the snow and deal­ing with a power out­age was sud­denly thrust into sober­ing per­spec­tive.

Once the road is clear, our group will head back to Reyk­javik, and then home to milder lat­i­tudes with eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble waves in warmer wa­ters. But for the Ice­landic surfers, there’s no warm home­com­ing, and an­other storm is al­ways loom­ing on the hori­zon. Which is fine, be­cause it will bring more per­fect waves. And if any­one can weather the storm, it’s them.

Above: 4 hours of day­light, and a whole lotta au­rora for Timmy Reyes and Justin Quin­tal. Op­po­site: Sam Ham­mer knows his ice caves, and with a name like that you can just imag­ine him pin­ning that 4WD like he’s on Ice Road Truck­ers. Open­ing spread: Froth froze over like a servo slushie for Justin Quin­tal.

Pre­vi­ous: Ice­land do­ing it’s best Bali im­pres­sion. Op­po­site: The sturdy ‘ol Au­rora Ark­tika. Above: The scurvy crew of the sturdy ‘ol Au­rora.

Pre­vi­ous spread: Igloo with a view for Timmy Reyes. Top left: Try­ing to find waves in the West­fjords of Ice­land is a bit like try­ing to find your old fella back at the sauna. Bot­tom left: Dig out the car­a­van or shovel the bowl? Timmy just threw buck­ets. Above: If the bliz­zards, eter­nal dark­ness and freez­ing water don’t de­ter the new wave of yup­pie tourists, there’s al­ways the un­der­fed po­lar bears and pissed off or­cas.

Op­po­site: Lo­cal surfer Hei­dar Logi sets up the tun­dra tube. Above: Ever won­dered what hap­pens to all those lit­tle shet­lands from the dodgy cir­cus on the footie oval of your child­hood? Snow ponies, that’s what.

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