Early in August, accomplished American photographer Chris Burkard and his crew of three Canadian friends—which included two-time Olympic mountain biker Emily Batty, former professional mountain bike athlete Adam Morka, and adventure sports photographer Eric Batty—set out to bike across Iceland’s farthest eastern point in Dalatangi to the farthest western point in Bjargtangar. The itinerary looked straightforward, but never-before-attempted routes seldom are so. Burkard’s brainchild was put to test after a year of planning. Over the course of nine days, the team traversed 975 kilometres with nearly 40,000 feet of elevation gain, while slicing through the heart of the Nordic island nation. They encountered impassable river crossings, gravel- and sand-filled rocky roads, glaciers, hot springs, volcanic ashes, lava fields and even a moonlike terrain that was once the site of NASA’s astronaut training ground—all while lugging with a 40-kilo bike each. The adventure enthusiasts charted the uncharted, and it was no mean feat.
Much like Burkard’s 3.6 million Instagram followers, I watched the journey unfold in real time, and caught up with the photographer soon after he returned to his base in the U.S. The 34-year-old was 18 when he first started documenting California’s coast on a camera he had borrowed from his then girlfriend, now wife. Since that time, his body of work includes multiple exhibits, nine books and his latest film project, Unnur, an Icelandic surf saga that is an official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival 2020—all of which portray dramatic expanses from different parts of the globe as captured through his artistic lens. In an hour-long telephonic conversation, the photographer discusses his Icelandic feat, the world’s best surfing destinations, and why Pismo Beach—where he is raising his two sons and a family of alpacas on a five-acre farm—will always be a place to call home. Edited excerpts:
WHAT IMPLANTED THE IDEA OF THE TRANS-ICELANDIC BIKEPACKING TRIP?
Iceland and I have a relationship. I have been there 43 times. About a year ago, I had raced along the famous Ring Road. It was something I had trained for, but I never thought I could actually do it. And then I did. I covered the 1,358-kilometre length while setting a new record for the fastest known time by completing the trip in 52 hours, 36 minutes, and 19 seconds. It was beautiful and the ride took me to some of the most gorgeous parts of the country. But the entire time, I kept thinking there has to be another route that takes you through the remote landscapes as opposed to staying on the national road. I started talking to friends and I got in touch with an Icelandic cartographer. I asked him if there was a route that one could hike, drive or ride along that would take them to the interiors, while allowing them to stay close to the glaciers. He put together a map for us. But ultimately, it was unproven and untested. He didn’t know if it would come through.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE TOUGHEST CHALLENGES YOU AND YOUR CREW ENCOUNTERED ON THE JOURNEY?
Before we could even get there, we hired expedition guides to scout the place. They did all that they could, and they went to the sections we had been questioning. This is the scary part—there were a couple of rivers that were so deep and fast flowing that even super jeeps, which are designed to cross such terrains, couldn’t get past. How were we supposed to do it with 40-kilo bikes on our backs? That’s when we realised we had to build some workarounds and come up with a Plan B. The goal still remained to keep the route in the purest form.
Eventually, we completed the route we had set out to do. But it created a lot of anxiety. There were mornings when we would wake up without having slept well because we didn’t know which path we were going to take and if we were going to be able to do the line that we set out to do. But I think, in any type of expedition, there are a lot of unknowns. And in many ways, it’s the unknowns that truly keep the journey fun and interesting.
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