Chris Burkard Completes Bikepacking Traverse of Iceland’s Interior
On August 23, 2020, after cycling 250 miles into the geographical heart of Iceland, Chris Burkard faced the possibility of his first major obstacle in his traverse across one of the most remote stretches of land on Earth.
If he and his four fellow riders stuck to their original route around the north side of Hofsjökull glacier—the third largest glacier and the largest active volcano in the country—they’d have to cross a deep glacial river that was impassable just a week earlier. They could play it safe and use a workaround, but that would add over 60 miles to a ride that was already mapped out to cover around 560 miles in eight days.
Burkard decided to take the risk. “Risk is crucial to everything,” he explains. “Risk is what creates uncertainty; uncertainty is what creates growth. I don’t need something to be super dangerous, but I do need it to have some potential for failure so that I can grow as a person.”
Finding a New Way to Connect to Iceland
Burkard is no stranger to these kinds of scenarios. As a renowned outdoor, surf, and travel photographer, he’s ridden waves in Iwanai, Japan; scaled Yosemite’s famed Hardman Offwidth Circuit; and scuba dived off the coast of Mallorca—and that’s barely skimming the surface of his adventures. This trip was his 43rd to Iceland, and one he decided to make while competing the previous year in an 850-mile race that circumnavigated the island (he actually holds the fastest known time for cycling the 844-mile ring road: 52 hours, 36 minutes, and 19 seconds).
“Me riding bikes is just trying to get closer to the landscapes I really enjoy,” he explains. “It’s an exercise in feeling small and connected to a place. The whole time I was competing in that race, I kept thinking, I know there’s another route out there that takes you through the heart of this country.”
When he returned home to California, he reached out to a cartographer who could help map a route from the eastern-most point of Iceland, in Dalatangi, to the Bjargtangar, the western-most part of the country. “In my mind, this is the most diverse geological landscape you could ever experience,” says Burkard. “You move from fjords to temperate rainforests to desert-like massive lava flows to sand to rock—every type of surface you could imagine.”
It would be a first ascent, of sorts; the first time anyone bikepacked across Iceland’s interior. “What made this route so terrifying is that it’s never been done on bike,” says Burkard. “There was so much unknown, so much that could change day to day.”
What It Takes to Ride Into the Heart of Europe’s Last Great Wilderness
In addition to the challenge of riding where no one has ridden before, Burkard was commited to completing the entire route unsupported. “My thought was, how can we really be subjected to this environment? How can we experience everything?” he says. While Iceland is a mecca for adventurers, most activities merely dip their toes into the interior, relying on four-wheel drive vehicles to bring them to and from the coast.
Burkard; Eric Batty, a Canadian cyclist with expedition experience; his sister Emily, a two-time Olympic cross-country mountain biker; and Emily’s husband Adam, an experienced mountain biker, carried all of the gear and food they needed to complete the trip without any external support. (A videographer and expedition photographer did meet up with the crew from time to time to document the experience, but they didn’t carry or replenish any of their supplies).
“Iceland is one of Europe’s last great wildernesses, and moving through this landscape in a way that’s human-powered shows you what’s really important,” says Burkard.
The quartet opted for mountain bikes, which—while heavy—could handle carrying all the gear they needed for more than a week in the wilderness. “These bikes were 80 to 90 pounds, and you’re not just riding them, you’re carrying them across rivers, you’re hiking up rocks with them, you’re pushing them across deep sections of sand,” says Burkard.
And they were loaded down with everything they might need: two chamois, three pairs of socks, one riding jacket, booties, gloves, lightweight sleeping bags, camping pads, and some essential camp clothing to change into each day. “There were a lot of things we didn’t use,” says Burkard. “But if I were going back, I would still bring all of it. Just in case.”
The team also had swiftwater rescue training to navigate the dangerous currents in the glacial rivers, especially around Hofsjökull glacier, with its large, sloping shape that creates hundreds of rivers of meltwaters. “It was just a really complicated scenario; every river was like a chess game,” says Burkard.
Fortunately, on August 23, the river Burkard feared might end their trip was indeed passable. And so the quartet was able to hoist their 80-pound bikes onto their back and wade through the frigid waters in their bike shoes. “Our feet were wet by 6 a.m., and wet for seven hours straight after that,” he says.
As much as Burkard craves risk, this kind of self-supported expedition takes knowledge and preparation. “There’s a matter of luck that goes into it, too,” says Burkard. “You obviously can’t control every element, especially in a landscape like Iceland, so you have to let go of that control a little bit but still be prepared for every kind of scenario you might face.”
Staying Connected While Off the Grid
While everything went according to plan on this trip, there’s one major drawback to even his most successful expeditions: It’s the nature of his job that Burkhard is often out of touch and unreachable to those he loves most.
Burkard is a father of two, yet his job constantly puts him in scenarios that are at best remote and at worst downright dangerous. That doesn’t make him any less of an involved parent, though. In fact, the more his appetite for risk has increased, the more cognizant he is of the fact that his decisions affect more than just his life.
“There are absolutely things I’ve said no to or things that I’ve thought twice about because of the potential risk involved,” he says. “I love what I do, but it becomes about giving the people you love most the opportunity to be your first priority.”
So a huge part of Burkard’s life is trying to balance risk with being a responsible parent. “I hate that word, though: balance. It’s impossible. You’re never going to achieve it,” he says. “It’s better to consider finding rhythm. Life has rhythm. Sometimes that rhythm undulates naturally, and sometimes you have to work harder to find it.”
It’s a topic he’s started exploring in his work. Burkard recently released a documentary film, Unnur, about an Icelandic photographer, surfer, and former kayaker who reignited his passior for the outdoors by sharing it with his daughter. He’s also published a children’s book called The Boy Who Spoke To The Earth, about a young boy who asks the Earth where he can find happiness.
Those projects are proof that even while he’s traveling to the farthest corners of the world, his family isn’t far from mind. “They may not be physically with you, but they can be with you in thought,” he says. “I’m looking for things constantly that my kids are going to be stoked on, and so that becomes a part of who I am. I’m riding my bike, yes, but I’m also looking for a cool stone or a rock or a photograph of an animal because my kid loves that stuff. And when I text them, when I do have service, I’m not just like, ‘Hey, how are you?’ I’m like, ‘Hey, I saw this and I was thinking about you.’ And that really allows them to feel connected to what you’re doing.”
That connection is so important to him, because—like any parent—he hopes to instill the love of taking risks in his kids. “It’s not about forcing your kids to think about things the same way you do, or even to fall in love with surfing or cycling or the outdoors,” he explains. “I know we all have these dreams that we are going to go backcountry skiing or whatever with our kids. I think that what we hope for is to desensitize them to the fear of these places. So that going outside is not fearful and not scary. Granted, they might not work up the courage to ride the double black diamond, but as long as they don’t have that feeling that the world is a scary place, I think that fosters a sense of curiosity that can be carried into so many aspects of their life.”