Mick Fanning and Mason Ho find cold waves and clarity in the frozen north.
By Taylor Paul
The sound of the fire echoes off the ice chunks as Mick Fanning and Mason Ho —wetsuited and booted — warm their hands over the flames. A new swell is coming soon, they’re almost sure of it. They wait.
“We need that big chunk to go so we can get a west swell,” Mason says, pointing straight ahead. “I want one of those lefts so bad.”
“You reckon those last couple of easts brought in too much ice?” asks Mick. The water just off shore is a minefield of microwave-sized ice cubes.
“Maybe,” Mason says. “But we gotta go no matter what. How often will we get a chance to do this?”
A half-mile in front of them, a 500-foot glacier rises from a calm bay like The Wall from Game Of Thrones. Mick and Mason came here yesterday when the surf went flat, a touristic detour in an area that can’t seem to shake the ice age. But when a chunk of ice the size of a city block fell and created a single-serve 10-foot swell, which then morphed into three perfect lefts, there was no choice but to return today to try and ride it.
Mick sprays lighter fluid on the flames. The fire sizzles.
Crackle-crackle-crackle. Crackle-snap-snap. Snap-pop-pop.…BOOOOOM.
They jolt upright and turn toward the glacier. A refrigerator-sized chunk of ice falls into the water. Then a Ford F-350. Then a studio apartment.
“Here we goooo!” Mick yells as a 4br, 3b with walk-in closets detaches from the glacier. By the time the sound of the collision reaches them they’re already sprinting toward the water, zig-zagging between rocks and sliding over icebergs like cops on a car hood. Photographers rush to set up tripods and attach lenses. Mick and Mason stutter-step up the sandbar, trying to figure out where to go. Everyone’s scrambling, yelling. They jump in the water and paddle toward the glacier, water drawing off the shoreline like it’s being sucked from a straw. Chunks of ice bounce off their boards. They weren’t searching for a glacier wave — neither of them knew something like this even existed — but here they are, and here it comes.
This trip came at an ideal time for Mick. After a rollercoaster 2015 that included contest wins, a shark attack, a marital separation and the death of his brother amidst a world title race, he figured he had met his drama limit for the decade, and opted to take 2016 off. To travel for pleasure. To clear his head. To figure out if competition is still his passion, or if trips like this should make up the balance of his career. And so, after competing at Snapper and Bells — while his peers made the short flight from Melbourne to Perth to chase points in Margaret River — Mick went north, to chase perspective.
“We’re trying to explore 34,000 miles of coastline at 8mph,” Captain Mike explains as we board his boat, a 60-foot fishing vessel retrofitted for surf exploration. “I don’t know the math on that, but I’m guessing it’d take more than a lifetime to give it the full search.”
A lifetime? We’ve got a week. Let’s see what we can do. Scott — first mate, photographer and drone pilot — gives us a tour of our new home. Bags and bodies in the bunks below. Boards and beers up top. Survival suits are here. Earmuffs are here. Don’t fall in there.
Nowhere: Cell service, WiFi, TV, bullshit.
As we motor out of the bay, Mick wears a pensive expression as he takes in the grandiose surroundings. Mountains rise 5,000 feet from the sea. One-ton sea lions swim near the boat. The bald eagles, circling in the thermals along the cliffs, have wingspans bigger than Mason Ho.
“It’s like going through nature’s art gallery,” Mick says, enjoying every piece. Mason is a bit more boisterous in voicing his approval. “How f–king sick is this???!!!” he says as he pans his phone across the mountain range, “CHEEEEE-HOOOOO!” He swipes the screen a few times and holds the phone out to replay his words filtered through a high-pitched chipmunk voice. He laughs, and then everyone laughs, because Mason’s laughter is as contagious as the common cold.
Everything is bigger here — the mountains, the beaches, the trees — and in their shadows, the waves look unrideable. Ankle-high slop on a rocky shore. Still, it’s been a lot of traveling and Mick and Mason are anxious to test the waters. Mike and Scott said the water was in the low 40s, but with no point of reference, how cold is that, really?
They both put on All The Rubber They Got — a 5:3:3 Flashbomb with a built-in hood, 5mm gloves and boots — and jump in from the top deck. Since Mason is coming from Hawaii and is prone to theatrical reactions to most things in life, we expect some comedy after his first plunge. But when he bobs to the surface, he looks relieved.
“It’s not bad at all,” he says. “Just cold on your face.” Mick is equally unphased, and they paddle toward shore with purpose.
The surf is not ankle-high. It’s headhigh and rippable. And once they find their feet in the rock-hard wax, they might as well be surfing playful D-Bah or Rockies. Between waves, they map out perfect snowboard lines in the mountains, look for eagles in the trees and huddle close to each other when a curious stellar sea lion swims up and stares at them with its black, bulging eyes. Everything is bigger here — except them. Their presence in this imposing place is trivial, and the sheer scale of their surroundings makes them feel small, vulnerable and very much alive.
Boat life is slow life. Eating because you’re bored slow. Two naps a day slow. Coffee after 11 and beer before 4 slow. Eight mph slow. And when you go half the speed, you notice twice as much. Here are a few of our observations:
- Any story Mason offers is a story you should accept
- Poptarts cure seasickness
- When you pee overboard at night, the ocean glows with bioluminescence
- The locals — Mike and Scott — are tougher than you. At 60 years old, Mike is typically the first one in, last one out. Mid-trip, Scott went over the falls and broke his leg on a rock. He didn’t fuss. Just popped a couple of ibuprofen and kept filming Mason and Mick. We dropped him off in town the next day, and he went into surgery that evening.
- Those white dots below the snowline are goats
- Those white dots above the snowline are also goats. Or snow.
- Those white dots in trees are bald eagles.
- The bald eagle in the distance might just be a seagull (“white eagle”) or crow (“black eagle”)
- When the boat’s cookbook includes items like “Roasted grizzly bear,” “Sea Lion Stew” and “BBQ Whale” you don’t ask what’s for dinner, you just eat
- When conditions allow you to surf, you surf, because the conditions are about to change
A Conversation While Suiting Up For The Best Session of the Trip
Mick: Look at that! Look at that section!
Mason: Brah, but that’s not even close to the one I seen earlier.
Mason: I swear I saw one that was like an eight-foot, ten-second barrel! It was wide, like Backdoor.
Mick: Well, let’s do it.
Mason: Brah, what do I do? Do I bust out the 6’3”?
Mick [waxing board]: This is just like rubbing ice cubes on my board, huh? [jumps in the water]
Mason [to himself]: Do I need the 6’3”?
Mike [coming out of the wheelhouse]: You just gonna talk about it Mason or you gonna go surf?
Mason: Oh, man, I knew I liked you. You remind me of my dad.
When he reaches the rocky outcropping on his 6’3”, Mason realizes that it had looked more manageable from the boat. The tide is high and the interval is short and waves are breaking dangerously close to the rocks. But because Mason approaches rocks the way gymnasts approach a foam pit, he sits out the back and waits for his “Backdoor wave.” He sees a goat on the cliff’s edge. (“How the f–k did it get up there?”) He waits. An eagle circles above him. He waits. After about 20 minutes, his wave appears. He is too deep, but puts his head down and scratches into it anyway, soul arching at the bottom and pulling into a square tube 30 feet from the rocks. It closes out. He gets pounded. He surfaces unscathed.
“Surfing isn’t my main priority here… My main priority is just exploring a land that I don’t know much about.”
“Brah,” he says with wide eyes as he paddles back out. “If you could have seen what I seen in that barrel! Rocks were just popping up while I was in it! I swear it felt like the same cubic liters as Backdoor.”
After a few more attempts and losing a fin to a rock that just “popped up,” he decides to join Mick, who’s surfing with Mike on the rippable section down the point. As Mason nears the lineup, Mick catches an overhead set and sends fans of spray out the back at regular intervals — like the wave’s breathing. Nevermind the rubber, for the next few hours, Mick reminds everyone that his surfing is as precise as ever. Yes, there are those splinter-sharp turns that shaped his career, but there’s also an undeniable looseness in his approach. Playful alley-oops, big straight airs and bigger smiles. And while there are no judges, he’s hammering out 8s and 9s like there’s a world title on the line. Which, of course, there isn’t.
“Surfing isn’t my main priority here,” Mick will say later, wearing a “Mad Bomber” hat that makes him look more like a beaver trapper than a surfer. “My main priority is just exploring a land that I don’t know much about.”
The glacial swell approaches at a non-glacial pace and Mick and Mason pick their lineup like eenie-meenie-minnie-moe. They have no clue. They’ve never surfed here before, nobody has, so they’re just guessing. But they have their shortboards on top of SUPs, hoping the vessel’s extra paddle power will make up for any lineup miscalculation.
It doesn’t. Sitting too far down the sandbar, they watch helplessly as a chesthigh left reels perfectly down the top of the point.
“No, no, no!” Mason yells as he sprint paddles toward the wave. Mick concedes defeat and watches it peel, mouth agape. While he missed the biggest, best wave, Mason’s tenacity gets him to the tail end of the set’s last wave. He dismounts the SUP, grabs his shortboard and jumps into the wave. He has time for one pump and a hurried lipper before the wave dies.
“Coolest one-footer I’ve caught in my life,” he says, simultaneously ecstatic and dissatisfied. He knows how good this wave can be. And for a guy who loves novelty waves, this is the Holy Grail. “We gotta get ready for the next one.”
The next one comes, a combo swell powered by simultaneous calvings on each side of the glacier. Mick chases the right up the beach, but the ice is too dense for him to reach it. Mason paddles straight out and stands atop a small ‘berg and when the wave comes, he acid drops into it backwards, clipping an ice cube on the landing and busting his middle fin out. “Next one,” he says.
There are false alarms. Huge calvings occur and they run to the shore to meet a wave that’s not there, either because the chunk didn’t fall directly into water or a small peninsula blocks the swell. It’s got the addictive uncertainty that comes with surfing in our everyday lives, but they’re learning it on the fly, surrounded by glaciers and ice bergs, laughing their heads off at the absurdity of it all. On the other side of the world, the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro just went on hold.
A long period east swell gives them their final shot at the glacier wave. Mick has abandoned all hope of catching a wave on a shortboard, and paddles through the ice on a finless SUP. Mason, once again, summits an iceberg. When the first wave comes he seamlessly transfers from the iceberg, onto the SUP, and then onto his shortboard before olleying over an ice block. He rolls up onto the beach in a pile of ice and laughter. “The thrill is back!” he says, turning around in time to see Mick catch the next wave and ride it up onto the beach. Mason is there to greet him with a celebratory hug.
“That’s it,” Mick says, elated but exhausted. “We did it. We’re done.”
The east swell brought in even more ice into the area and so yes, they are done, and paddle back to the boat battered from countless collisions with the ice. Still, Mason is almost tortured — he wants more. “I feel like this is the new Search,” he says. “This was just a little taste. I’m wanna come back and just surf the glacier.”
As they raise the anchor and begin their return toward to civilization, Mick watches the glacier snake its way from the bay and disappear into the mountains. In a thousand years, the last piece of ice visible in the distance will fall into this water and make a wave and him and Mason will be long gone. Contests? They seem pretty silly right about now. “This place makes you feel so insignificant,” he says, taking a sip of his beer. “It’s good…You feel at peace.”
On the evening before their departure, they drink whiskey at a bar called The Pit. It’s the type of place that’s open till 6am, allows smoking and sells shirts that say, “I got pitfaced at The Pit Bar.” A bit of local ambiance to celebrate a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
“This was so good for me,” Mick says, reflecting the way you do after a few drinks with old friends and new. “To be in nature and not have a fixed schedule, cell reception or Internet. It was just what I needed — to get off the grid and disappear.”
And, although they are now technically back in civilization, Mick is still invisible.
“So, what do you do?” asks Brendan, the affable garbage man sitting next to Mick at the bar.
“I surf ,” Mick replies.
“Yeah, but what’s your job?” he presses. “Because why would anyone pay you to surf?”
Mick laughs. “Mate, I’ve been asking myself that for 20 years.”