One of the most important things to remember while camping in Iceland is to never get wet before going to sleep. In climates near the Arctic Circle, staying dry at night is the key to avoiding frostbite or hypothermia. Tanner Gudauskas forgot this maxim one night on a recent visit to Iceland’s northwestern coast, when he unzipped the compact yellow tent he was sharing with his brother Dane and stepped outside to use the bathroom.
“It was the middle of the night and it was drizzling, so I got a little wet,” recalls Tanner. “When I got back into my sleeping bag, I was instantly freezing cold. I knew you weren’t supposed to go to sleep wet, so I started tripping, just thinking, ‘Am I that level of wet that I’m going to die? Is it over for me?’ It was just one of those mental things you do when you’re in a new environment and you question everything.”
The next morning, when the sun finally peeked over the white-capped mountains behind them, Tanner was relieved to find that he hadn’t been frozen solid in his sleep. It meant that he might actually get to surf the wave he’d gone to all this trouble to find after all.
Just a few days prior, Tanner and Dane had arrived in the Land of Fire and Ice on a mission to find a specific break they’d only seen in a photograph. Their friend, Icelandic surfer and photographer Elli Thor Magnusson, had shown them a shot of an idyllic setup: a long, hollow left that wraps around a big headland.
The wave breaks along an unforgiving stretch of craggy coastline often ravaged by rain, sleet, and snow. To the Gudauskas brothers, however, this was as good a place as any to pitch a tent. But even for a pair of eternal optimists, a surf mission like this is not without its challenges. During the winter, most of the roads in the northern region close due to heavy snow, so the only way to the beach is by snowmobile. “We got in touch with the people who are involved in snow patrolling during the winter months,” says Dane. “They helped us strap our boards and camping gear to the back of these snowmobiles and then gave us a lift up and over the pass.”
Descending the other side of the mountain, they saw that the snow had melted at the base, meaning the snowmobiles couldn’t get them all the way to the beach. “Luckily we were able to radio the only farmer in the area, and her son drove a tractor 20 minutes to come pick us up and haul us the rest of the way,” says Dane. “That ride was the coldest I’ve ever been. It was wet, the wind was raging, and it was just crazy. We were on a surf trip, heading into this desolate area, hitching a ride on the back of a tractor. In the back of our minds, we’re thinking, ‘Well, I hope there are actually some waves.’”.
They eventually made it to the beach, set up camp, and spent the next week scouring the coast for the fabled lefthander. But when they finally found the wave, it didn’t have quite the same luster as the photo that had drawn them there.
“It wasn’t really working,” says Tanner. “It’s just such a fickle place, with storms forming so close to shore up there, so the swell is more apt to morph and change quickly.”
According to Dane, who’s hunted his fair share of Icelandic surf, finding good waves along the country’s coastal fringes is a bit like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube. “There’s a lot of potential along this coastline, but there are so many things that have to come together for it to go your way,” he explains. “The swells come from all sorts of angles, the wind is always changing, and by the time you figure out how to actually paddle out, the tide has switched.”
As the end of their trip drew near, it looked as if they’d fly back to LAX with a few fun waves under their belt, but nothing compared to what they had seen in the photograph. “We spent the last two days driving along the coast back to Reykjavík, hoping to score a good session before we got on the plane,” says Tanner. “But everywhere we checked was either flat with howling offshore winds or 100 feet and onshore.”
On their last afternoon in Iceland, however, they checked one last spot. They pulled up to a black-sand beach flanked by snow-covered mountains and saw that there was plenty of swell, and that the winds were blowing offshore. The wave seemed closed out, but they opted to paddle out anyway, at least to wash the journey off before boarding their flight home. But, in typical Icelandic fashion, things didn’t go as anticipated.
“We paddled out and the tide started filling in really quickly,” says Tanner. “Then, all of a sudden, about 200 yards down the beach, this right turned on out of nowhere.” The wave looked like an apparition, throwing picturesque barrels on every set, and easily topped everything they had found while seeking out the elusive lefthander in the photograph. They traded tube after tube until the sun crossed the horizon.
“For every story you hear about someone going on a surf trip to Iceland and scoring, there are 10 people who have been skunked there,” says Dane. “Surfers have been traveling to Iceland for a long time, but I think the reason you don’t see more of them there is because it’s such a hard place to score. You have to be at the right place at the right time, and you really can’t predict what the waves are going to do. It has to almost accidentally happen.”