After 43 trips to Iceland, adventure photographer Chris Burkard still hadn’t seen it all. He’d seen bits and pieces, sure, but what about the center of this fascinating place? What about that deeper understanding that comes only from gradually moving across an entire land, at a slow and steady speed? Bikepacking, Burkard decided. That’s how best to see a craggy, volcanic, foul-weathered island in the North Atlantic.
So, this summer, Burkard and a small group headed to the far eastern end of Iceland, planning to ride to the far western side. They’d load up bikes, ride when they could, walk when they must, bathe in hot springs wherever they found them. There is no cross-country bikepacking route, so they made their own, wondering the whole time if it would go, or if they’d find themselves hundreds of miles into the route, only to be forced back by relentless topography, their thru-ride now a yo-yo. 601 miles and nearly 31,000 feet of elevation gain later, the crew pedaled to a stop at the westernmost point on the island.
We talked with Burkard the day after he’d arrived back home in California, because, well, we wanted to know what it was like to ride a freaking bike across Iceland.
AJ: I feel like I’ve seen like videos of you before talking about how you’re not a bike nerd, but here you are, riding 600 miles across one of the most unforgiving landscapes on the planet. How’d that work?
CB: I’ve only bike packed maybe, I dunno, eight times in my entire life. I’ve only been on a mountain bike probably 25 times in my life. To take on a 600-mile mountain bike ride through the gnarliest terrain you could ever do was a, uh, a little ambitious. But that’s exactly what we did. I hired an Icelandic cartographer, a friend of mine, to basically build a route and after he did he basically said, look, I don’t know if this is going to go, but this is a route that 4x4s and motorcycles do. I figured, well, this should be okay then. We took a year, a proper year, of planning and examining the route before we started.
For me, the research is just as important as anything else. I love the research. And if you don’t enjoy the research, you never fully get a chance to appreciate the journey, right? I would never have wanted somebody to take me on this trip. I love knowing that I stared at these places on Google Earth and I studied them a ton, and then we get there and have to make decisions. Are we going to go across this river? Are we going to do the workaround? Even when the route was built, we had all these workarounds that added and hundreds and hundreds of kilometers in case some of these sections didn’t work out. And luckily they did because the weather was perfect. I’ve never seen a better weather window in Iceland in all my life.
I’ve been to Iceland so I know that every five minutes the weather can be totally different. So, was it warm and pleasant? Does perfect great weather in a place like this just mean survivable?
When I say perfect weather, I don’t mean it was 75 and sunny. It was mostly in the forties, maybe there were some moments where it hit 50, in the afternoon on a good day. It was super manageable. I was prepared for like 40 mile per hour katabatic winds and just terrible conditions. I was ready for that and I was willing to jump right into it, but thankfully we never got that kind of misery.
Was the route planned with specific destinations in mind? Looks like you were staying in huts from some of the photos.
The route was designed to pay homage to the old horseback route that a lot of the farmers would take to get across the country. There are huts that are each like a day away on horseback. So that was always the goal, to sleep in the huts. We brought camping gear, we brought everything we needed for emergencies, but the goal was always to try and stay at these huts.
Some of the huts were super small and built for emergencies, but you could book them in advance, which we did. Some of them looked like they hadn’t been gone into in for years. Some were nice, and they had hot Springs next to them and they were incredible. It was wild because we would emerge from this this track that nobody was traveling on. And then all of a sudden we’d be at a hut and see other people. You’re riding for hours and hours and hours across space and time and then you see people and you’re thinking, oh my gosh, like, I’m grateful. There are other people here.
We only really saw other people out there, besides the huts, twice. Some 4×4 enthusiasts and some motorcycle guys, but that was only after we were through the really gnarly stuff.
What was the most difficult ground you had to cover?
There were hundreds of miles of ground covered in ash. Some of that was new and so soft. Ash is brutal. The wind blows it everywhere. It was so gnarly. It would get into your lungs, get into everything. That was the hardest thing to deal with. I don’t think I was ever prepared for how bad the ash would gunk up to the derailleur and everything else, you know? We’d push through a ton of sand and ash and then weave our way through recent volcanic eruptions which has really sharp rocks and there’s just chunks of it all over the place. Beyond that to the river crossings were really surreal. In one day we crossed 75 rivers.
Yet, you’re not even a hardcore bike guy.
Uh, no, I’m definitely not. Riding across Iceland is not about bikes, it’s moving across the island that’s really the dream. It’s not so much about the vehicle you use to do it. I couldn’t think of a more visceral way to experience that place than riding a bike, because it allows you the freedom of looking around, it allows you the freedom of enjoying your environment. It allowed so much to happen and that that’s what really felt special. Walking on foot seemed too long and driving the car seemed to isolate you from the environment. So, it’s not about bikes so much. It was more that we found a way to experience the interior of Iceland that felt unique.
Photos by Jordan Rosen