Spencer Frost: Back From the Coldest Corner
Vladimir don't surf!
Spencer Frost: Back From the Coldest Corner
Before any serious surf trip, those involved might consider their options should things start heading south. And the more core the surf trip, the more outlandish the potential for disaster, from month-long flat spell to brown bear attack.
Before he flew to Kamchatka in Russia's far east, Spencer Frost wargamed them all. No-one, however, could've predicted what would happen the day he and his mates left Sydney.
Flying towards an unfolding geo-political disaster meant not knowing what'd happen to them come touchdown. The questions they asked of themselves were unprecedented.
Ten months later and back on home soil, Spencer chats to Swellnet about an already ambitious surf trip that turned into so much more.
Swellnet: How much Russian can you speak?
Spencer Frost: I know probably four or five words that I learned while I was over there.
Whose idea was the trip and when did they first come up with it?
So we, myself and Guy Williment, who's my partner in crime/co-director and an amazing photographer, we did a trip to Iceland in 2019 and made a film called A Corner of the Earth which was received really well. It got a lot of media coverage, won a whole bunch of awards, and on the back of that we asked ourselves, "Where else can we go that is cold, isolated, untouched, and ideally that no one's ever been there to surf?"
And there was lots of ideas getting thrown around like the top of Norway, Alaska, back to the Arctic, and then we went and had a look at this place called Kamchatka, on the east coast of Russia.
We knew surfers have been up there in summer, but when we were looking back on swell maps over the past ten, twenty years, we saw a trend of six metre swells during the winter months and then there'd be these offshore winds off Siberia that cleaned it up for two days after the storms.
So, as a surfer, if you see four metre swell and offshore winds you know that there's waves somewhere. That sparked our initial inspiration with the place, and after that we basically became fixated on it - it looked like one of the craziest places on the planet. It's got 28 active volcanoes on the peninsula, it's all covered in snow. There are heaps of different setups: big bays, big point breaks and yeah, looked like a dream.
So you'd been planning the trip for, say, two years...
I reckon two years since the spark of the idea, and then probably a year of planning and organising.
And were you always going to take Letty and Fraser? How did they come on board?
Yeah, so Fraser came on our last trip to the Arctic as the film was basically about him giving up on chasing a professional surfing dream and having to get a real world job. That trip was the transition period between chasing the Qualifying Series all around the world to becoming a full-time landscaper.
We just said to him, "Hey we're planning to go to Russia."
And he's like, "Are there waves?"
We said, "We have no idea but if you're keen, we're keen to take you."
And then Letty is Fraser's best friend. Letty is a professional free surfer. He's got a pretty good name in the surfing world and he had never done a trip like this; never gone anywhere out of his comfort zone, anywhere cold. So it was real character building. A life experience for him to come away on this trip and to do something like this.
Being an east coast, the low pressure systems are mostly pushing away from the Kamchatka coastline, so I guess you were looking for swell that's coming off the back of the low while the offshore is still blowing?
Yeah. That's correct.
So that leaves a short window when swell and winds are good.
Yeah. We're not great at it, but it was just obvious that if there's a massive six-metre storm with crazy winds, then on the tail end of that would be this offshore wind coming off Siberia. It would be like six foot plus with perfect dreamy days.
Not very consistent though, is it?
Yeah. And then finding the wave and making the right call and flying there, just having everything line up was just another logistical nightmare in itself.
So you bunkered down between storms and then went out on those particular days?
We recognised this ongoing trend where there's probably one swell a month and we were there for two months so in the back of our minds we figured that we'd probably get two chances to score a big swell with offshore winds. From what we saw of all the other trips that have been up there, I don't think I saw anyone scored waves bigger than two foot. So to know that there's like six to eight foot plus days, it was a dream, but...
The logistics are pretty enormous. You're up against it in so many ways, whether it be the knowledge about the place, the weather, the language. How did you expect to overcome those difficulties?
We watched a snowboard film that Travis Rice made called the Fourth Phase where he basically chases winter around the world and one of the locations that he goes to is Kamchatka, Russia. In the movie we saw a glimpse of a wave while they were snowboarding. You wouldn't really know it but we saw a really good left hand point break, kind of like poor man's Padang Padang.
That gave us the biggest spark of inspiration, seeing that and knowing that there's waves because they were there in the middle of winter, it was offshore and six foot and you could just see there's swell. From there, we went on an Instagram rampage. I got a message roughly translated into Russian and sent it to anyone I could get in contact with in Kamchatka. A few people got back to us though one key moment of the whole planning process was when the same logistics crew that planned Travis Rice's film replied to us. They said they wanted to be a part of this surf project.
The guy who runs, his name was Max, he's run a heli-boarding operation on the peninsula for the last thirty years. He's well travelled, a very well established ex-professional snowboarder, and he said, "We know this place is crazy for surfing but no one has ever been up here in winter to chase waves."
So they came on board and just threw everything at it from the initial stages. They were sending us photos, they'd snowboard down mountains, land the helicopter on the beach and take photos of these perfect waves but they're just posing in front of the helicopter with snowboards.
We'd see the waves in the background, but at the end of the day they had never surfed in their life. It's a bit of a different world for someone that hasn't surfed to try and show people where good waves are.
It sounds not unlike The Endless Summer where Bruce Brown is describing the shape of a good wave to locals while trying to find them. Except it's the inverse of that, instead of summer, it's wintertime.
A real pipe dream.
Many of the early missions to the peninsula, say by Shane McIntyre, Cyrus Sutton...
Yeah, Chris Burkard, Tom Curren, they all went, as far as I'm aware, in 4WD vehicles, so they were limited in their range. So using a helicopter, that's a game changer, isn't it?
So for anyone that knows Australia, the peninsula is 1,300 kilometres long. That's similar to Ulladulla to Noosa and there's one beach on that whole coastline that you can drive a car to in winter. So it's one of the most inaccessible places that you can imagine. There's no road access, a lot of it you can't even ski-doo, a lot of it's military area so you're not actually allowed to drive over it even if you have a snowmobile. So helicopter was the only option to look for waves, and thankfully Max, who is just this weapon Russian logistics guy, owns the heli-boarding operation and he said we can just jump in a chopper and just fly down the coastline and look for setups.
Having him on board was incredible because he basically just organised everything for us and we just had to bring our surf knowledge and make the call on when to get the helicopter, like when we knew the swell and the wind was going to be good. We looked out the door of the helicopter to see if we could find waves.
Okay. I've seen the trailer, it includes a few snippets of waves and they look pretty damn good. Do you think they were one-offs that just were working on that swell direction? How often do you think they might break?
Not heaps because of the infrequency of swells in a month, as I was saying. It meant we really had to pick our battles as to when we'd get in the helicopter and go and look for waves. But the beach, there's the main beach that you can drive to that breaks most of the year. So we spent a lot of time there just surfing fun beach breaks.
Everything else was a real mission to get to them and we'd be riding on snowmobiles over mountains or getting in helicopters and landing on the beach to camp and fend for ourselves for a few days. It was a crazy adventure.
Let's talk about really big logistical nightmares. You were flying to Russia when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.
Yeah, so we'd planned this trip for two years. One year of full-time planning, logistics, maps, talking to locals, we didn't leave any stone unturned. We really just gave it everything we could to make sure that we got over there and pulled it off because we had sponsors, money, people had locked in, we really wanted to make sure it was on.
Then, perhaps two days out from the trip, we heard whispers that things were happening on the Ukraine border - Russian troops were rallying there. We still left, and then while we were on our flight to Abu Dhabi, Russia invaded Ukraine. So 24th of February was the day that we left Sydney, and 24th of February is the same day the invasion began.
Your thoughts when you found out..?
It really gave us...it was...I'll never experience anything like that again. Like landing in Abu Dhabi and all the screens on the TVs in the airport just changed to CNN, Russia has invaded Ukraine, on screen there's people ducking and there's bombs going off behind them. It was the wildest time because we were two hours away from flying into Moscow.
What were your families back home saying?
There was really bad internet in Abu Dhabi and none of us could get on roaming, so we couldn't actually call anyone, you could only text, which was really hard because Fraser's parents were saying, "Don't get on the flight." And we didn't know what the right thing to do was and we weren't trying to be reckless. I think, looking back now, if we knew how serious the situation was going to get, it might have been a very different story, but we just took the knowledge that we had and we were speaking to everyone on the ground in Moscow and they were saying, "It's okay for you guys to still come and we'll look after you, but at the end of the day, whatever you guys want to do, it's your call."
But we'd got all this funding and we'd spent a year planning the whole trip and it was literally just one more flight away. I think to give up on that dream...it's so hard to say without sounding selfish because it's such a serious situation, a lot of people have died, but I'm not sure we could have turned around and not done this trip.
To be honest, we're still trying to navigate the situation while releasing this project.
You mean for sensitivity reasons?
Yeah, sensitivity. I don't think us four personally have any leg to stand on and we've steered away from anything political. We're just trying to navigate it as best we can. We touch on it in the film - it was such a big part of the trip and getting over there - but we're just trying to tread very lightly.
You can plan intently, but who on earth would expect something like that would happen?
Yeah, it was a big shock. A crazy thing being in a country that is at war. We were far away from everything that was happening, but when all the sanctions came into place things became hard. All of our cards stopped working, all of our bank accounts froze. Facebook and Instagram and a lot of communication platforms disappeared.
So contacting home was getting harder, and not being able to get money, but they're kind of both stories in themselves.
Stories within the bigger story. Now, how can people see this film?
We are touring the East Coast through February, starting in Sydney on the 3rd of February at the Orpheum in Neutral Bay. Then we're basically just taking it on tour, going all the way up the East Coast and we can't wait to share this film. It's a ninety-minute feature film.
There's also 300-page book as well that's come out alongside this, which is absolutely amazing. Guy Williment put that together.
There's going to be a lot of people that want to talk to you. Will the screenings include Q&As as well?
Yep. All four of us: me, Guy, Letty, and Fraser, are going to be at pretty much all of them. I'm sure there's going to be a lot of questions because I don't even know how we pulled it off.
Rightio, one last question: Where to next, Spencer?
We have our eyes set on a few different locations. It'll probably be a country that's cold and miserable once again...
But hopefully not at war.
Ha...yeah. But first of all, I think we're going to sit with this project for a while and just share it with the world before we move on to something else.
Don't get ahead of yourself. Enjoy this one.