A wall of ice from Childs Glacier in Alaska crumbles into the Copper River, gradually at first and then all at once. As a massive wave created by the calving glacier builds power, two tiny figures appear against the vast gray expanse of churning water, one on a surfboard and the other on a jet ski. This is glacier surfing and just watching it might give you the chills.
Back in 2007, surfers Kealii Mamala and Garrett McNamara, a professional big wave rider who set a world record for surfing the largest wave ever, wanted to become the first people to surf a glacier. They made a video to show off their attempt.
The video is hard not to watch. As the wave speeds towards the two men, it looks as though the water washes right over them. “Oh, is he in there? Is he going to come out?” says an unidentified videographer as he loses sight of the figure on the surfboard.
The jetski circles back behind the wave. It’s a good 25 seconds before the little figures reappear, and the camera-man and spectators on the shore become the first to witness a human being surfing a wave created by the power of a glacier falling into the sea.
If you were to list the dangers of surfing next to a collapsing sheet of ice, one of the top ones might be getting hit by any of the enormous chunks of jagged ice that are launched into the air when the glacier hits the water.
“It’s like a bomb, and the giant pieces of ice fly like shrapnel,” McNamara said in “The Glacier Project,” a documentary about riding the ice wave.
It turns out that Copper River at Child’s Glacier is an ideal location for surfing. When a piece of ice calves from the glacier, it displaces enough water to make a wave so large that it curls all the way across the width of the river in a single sweep. This means there are no competing “break points.” According to Surfline.com, a website devoted to identifying the best surfing spots using weather reports and scientific measurements, a wave where all the break points line up is a “perfect” wave, because then a surfer can ride the wave all the way from one end to the other.
The seeds of the Glacier Project were first sown back in 1995, when filmmaker Ryan Casey worked on an IMAX film Alaska: Spirit of the Wild with his father George Casey, near Childs Glacier. During the filming, Casey saw bits of ice break off from the glacier and fall into the water below, creating the kind of giant uniform wave described above. Casey thought it would be perfect for surfing, if only surfers could get out there. The practice of jet ski towing, by which a surfer is towed into a breaking wave, was not common at the time, but it was 12 years later, when Casey, McNamara, and Mamala headed to Alaska to test Casey’s theory that these glacier waves could be surfed.
“After the scout, I guaranteed that we would ride a wave – any wave,” McNamara said in an interview with surfingmagazine.com. But his enthusiasm evaporated pretty quickly. “After the first day, I just wanted to make it home alive. Not knowing where the glacier was going to fall, where the wave would emerge, or how big it would be. It was so different to anything we’ve experienced in our big-wave tow-surfing history. I spent most the time thinking about my family and wondering if I would survive to see them again. It was in a realm all its own.”
McNamara and Mamala each rode glacier waves during the trip. The largest for McNamara was 15 feet, while Mamala managed to snag a 20-25 foot wave, according to a press release about the project.
“I wouldn’t recommend it for any one,” McNamara said after his trip to Childs Glacier. “I won’t be going back. This is not a new sport.” So far, history has proved him right. The 2007 trip may constitute the only attempt at glacier surfing that will ever be made. There is little evidence that anyone has attempted a similar ride in the seven years since.