Photos by Guy Williment
No amount of planning can prepare you for winter in the Arctic.
A region as beautiful as it is brutal, the siren song of its empty waves and stunning scenery has reached the ears of surfers worldwide in recent years, but only a handful have braved the cold. Filmmaker Spencer Frost, along with photographer Guy Williment and surfer Fraser Dovell, journeyed to the far reaches of the northern hemisphere in search of perfect waves, battling storms, breakdowns, and hypothermia along the way. The result is Corner of the Earth, a stunning 42-minute feature film that will blow your mind, regardless of whether you surf or not. I caught up with Spencer to find out more about shooting in some of the most hostile weather in the world, and whether surfing with icebergs is all it’s cracked up to be.
Where did you guys shoot most of the footage for Corner of the Earth?
We spent two months in some of the northern-most parts of Europe and up into the Arctic during the middle of winter. The idea was kind of to go on a surf trip to one of the wildest and most unlikely destinations for a surf trip, and to go in the middle of winter—the worst time possible.
What was one of the most unexpected challenges of the trip and the filming process?
The number of daylight hours was one of the biggest challenges we faced the further north we went. In January in the Arctic there’s only five hours of daylight, so trying to line up the swell, wind, tide, and snow in that small window was tough. The storms are so big and unpredictable up there that you can almost never plan for the swells, you just have to wake up and go and check the waves and hope you can find something surfable before the sun sets again.
The amount of snow and the size of the storm systems at that time of the year were also something we definitely didn’t plan for. Every morning, we’d have to check this Arctic road map website to see if the roads were open or if there’d been any avalanches overnight. One day, the road access was totally closed because the whole side of a mountain had slid over the road, blocking our only route to the wave we wanted to surf. That was pretty heartbreaking. The cold, in general, was the biggest challenge—it was between -5 to -20 degrees most days, and it isn’t really too safe to be out in the elements, let alone surfing. When we did get in the water, it would only be for an hour or so before we called it quits and had to rush in to quickly get warm.
Did you pick up any tricks for surviving such cold conditions?
We all got a massive reality check. As soon as you get into the water, it’s like your body knows it’s somewhere it’s really not meant to be. It’s definitely not comfortable. We tried to prepare as much as possible before the trip, packing 6mm hooded wetties, 7mm booties, and I had 5mm gloves so I could still use the controls on my camera in the water. But even with all that gear, we could only last a good hour in the water.
One day—I think it was -12—Guy and Fraser stayed out in the water for a few hours because the waves were so good. Guy’s fingers and hands completely stopped working from the cold, to the point where he couldn’t even click the trigger on his housing. We needed to help him get out of the water and up on the rocks. He couldn’t even get his flippers off or anything, he was pretty much in tears, shaking uncontrollably and actually in a lot of pain from the cold. I think any longer out in the cold and he would have been in some pretty serious trouble. One of the main things we all learned really quickly was how to get dry and warm as fast as possible after being in the water, that was the most important thing.
What do you admire most about Fraser?
The thing I love about Fras as a surfer, especially on this trip, is his dedication. I don’t really know many surfers who could surf as much as he did in conditions like we had. There was one day that was pretty much a full white-out blizzard, we hadn’t surfed in a few days, and we showed up at this point break. There was nothing pretty about it; dumping with snow, so onshore and crazy windy. But he somehow found the froth to paddle out and try to get a few. The snow and weather actually got so bad while he was out there that we lost sight of him completely. He ended up getting swept in a few hundred metres and pushed up against this break wall. He was gone for a good 20 minutes and we were freaking. No words were spoken in the car on the way home after that arvo.
Fraser was almost always surfing on his own (with Guy shooting photos and me filming) so I think that took a lot of commitment as well to always be pushing it in some pretty wild conditions with no one else in the water. As a person he’s just such a character, you never know what you’re going to get. He was such a good guy to have on the trip—so committed to getting shit done. We all got along so well and somehow are still really good mates after two months of sleeping in tiny cabins, being crammed into rental cars, getting stuck in storms and travelling together under some pretty trying conditions.
What were the most perfect surfing conditions you got during the trip?
There were a few days of waves that really made the trip. Our first surf in the Atlantic Ocean was pretty amazing. We got a tip-off from a mate that this one wave could be on, so we hopped on a flight, drove for a good six hours, jumped some farm gates in the dark and stumbled across one of the best setups I’ve seen in my life. We got our 6mm wetties on, set up the underwater housings and jumped in. It was our first time getting in the water up there and it was mind-blowing: probably 6ft plus, perfect offshore and no one in sight. Fras got so many amazing waves before the tide got too low. We all couldn’t believe our luck scoring that session on our first day up there.
What was one of your favourite days throughout the whole trip?
We were up in the Arctic, just after we had the worst run of luck I’ve ever had in my life. At this point in the trip we had driven around for seven days and didn’t surf once; as you can imagine, it was definitely a testing time for all of us. During that week I had a camera stolen, a hard drive went corrupt, our car slid off the road and almost flipped, and we got stuck in some of the wildest storms I’ve ever witnessed. There was really nothing going our way. We were so close to throwing in the towel and heading back to Northern Europe, but once again we got word that this one point-break could be amazing, so we drove eight hours through the dark and snow and arrived at a perfect 3ft set up. It was sunny and offshore and we ended up scoring some of the best footage we got on the whole trip. It’s those moments when you think it’s all over and you almost accept defeat, then something goes your way and it’s incredible.
Any sketchy moments?
We had one moment when we were staying in this little cabin in the middle of nowhere. Just when we were about to go to sleep, me and Fras heard Guy screaming from outside. The Northern Lights were slowly starting to take shape nearby, and for those who haven’t seen this phenomenon, I promise you its 100 per cent as insane as everyone says. We put on all the layers of clothing we could find, piled into the car and started driving off into the dark to chase the lights because you need to try to get away from any other light source for the best viewing. We probably 20 minutes from home and parked the car on the road with the hazards light on and started shooting, just being mind-blown. Guy ran back to the car and we heard him yell out in a really distressed voice—the car battery was dead.
We were stuck just below the Arctic Circle a few kilometres from the nearest house, with no food or sleeping kit. It was -10 degrees and a severe weather warning had just been issued. We were proper in the middle of nowhere and totally on our own. I had a bar of reception, so I called the Arctic version of NRMA, and the guy I was talking to basically called us all ‘stupid tourists’ and that it was going to cost us a small fortune to get anyone to help us, and that it wouldn’t be for another few hours. He said that we were on road 944, which was an illegal mountain road and that we wouldn’t be covered by any insurance.
A couple of hours had passed, and we continued to weigh up our options. We decided to give the battery one more try, and almost cried with happiness when it started. That was a big wake up call for us about how dangerous it can be up there and how quickly things can go wrong. We made sure we were always prepared for the worst after that.
The film’s soundtrack is such a crucial element to the feel of the final project. How did this come together?
I’m lucky enough to have a bunch of extremely musically talented friends and family. I explained the vibe I was going for to my brother Dylan Frost, who wrote and played most of the score. Then another mate, Jules Wucherer, composed a few songs for the film, as well as doing all the sound design. My Dad, another talented musician, did the audio post and cleaned everything up.
Where can people see the film?
We’ve just been selected for London Surf Film Festival, so it’s going to be showing over in London for a world premiere on the 10th of October. It was so awesome to be accepted into an international festival straight after finishing the film. It also gave me a bit of reassurance and confidence with the project. The next screening will be in Santa Barbra on the 9th November, then two screenings in Sydney on the 10th and 15th November in Avalon and Paddington. From there it’s Byron Bay 26th November and Torquay on the 3rd January. A few more screenings will hopefully be popping up around the world, so if you’d like to keep updated all the information is on our website or on Instagram @a.corner.of.the.earth. People can also get in touch via the website if they want a screening in their hometown too.