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First Known Time: Traversing Iceland East to West
“In the beginning I just drew a line,” says Chris Burkard, endurance athlete and world-renowned photographer.
“It would be so cool to go from here all the way to here on the northside of all the glaciers. That was the initial goal. How close can we stay to the interior? We don't want to go in and out of all these towns. We wanted it to be really pure, straight through the heart of the country.”
Iceland is a country whose heart feels ancient in a way few other places on earth do. Glacier ice and lava cover 10% of its surface and the sparsely inhabited interior is rugged and remote. It almost invites the type of old-school exploration Chris and fellow adventure athlete, Eric Batty, were proposing. The plan was to traverse the interior of the country: a 600 mile straight shot from the east coast to the west coast. If successful they would pioneer a new cross-country bike route. But being the first comes with its own set of challenges.
“You see these great bike packing routes and you're like, ‘dude, how did that person put that together?’ Did they drive the whole thing and go to these fences and understand if the farmer would let them through?’” laughs Chris.
Well, kinda… Chris and Eric worked with a cartographer to map out the route but they still weren’t sure: was the thing going to be rideable? Chris contacted a friend who is an expedition guide and they started ringing farmers and asking about the roads on the map. Piece by piece the route came together, elevation, terrain, refuges and water sources slowly adding colour. But they still had two question marks.
Iceland’s interior is a maze of rivers formed of melting glacier water. Riding the route in the winter would have been impossible but in the summer the rivers could swell to impassable proportions. They wouldn't really know what lay ahead until they arrived. If they reached those rivers and it was too dangerous they’d have to use their backup plan and traverse via a bridge rather than wading through on foot. The detour would add 100 km.
Knowing that the length of the trip, not to mention the conditions, were uncertain the team which included Emily Batty and Adam Morka, along with Chris and Eric, packed for all eventualities.
“We were really prepared for anything. That's why our bikes were so heavy. We had camping gear and all the rain gear and 25 pounds of food. And we had talked to five or six expeditions that had bike packed through Iceland and asked them what they brought, what they used. I mean, you can only imagine, we toiled for a week alone over just the size tires we wanted to bring.”
Adam: Trek 1120 bike // Schwalbe Nobby Nick 2.6" tires
Eric: Trek 1120 bike // Schwalbe Nobby Nick 2.6" tires
Chris: 2019 Specialized S-Works Epic Hardtail bike // Schwalbe Nobby Nick 2.6" (front) & Schwalbe Rock Razor 2.35" (back) tires // Zipp 3Zero wheels
Emily: Trek Supercaliber bike
With the route planning and gear decisions out of the way the real work awaited: 600 miles and close to 45,000 ft of beautiful but brutal terrain. From infant lava flows to deep volcanic ash to river crossings 4 ft deep the landscape would demand everything from the team. But in a year when so much of our lives has been upended the privilege of being able to push themselves on their own terms wasn’t lost on Chris.
“If 2020 has taught us anything it’s that nothing is permanent. Race schedules, fitness objectives, travels and even our own home routine can change in an instant,” reflects Chris. “The freedom to just set ourselves a challenge that we’d created made for an experience rooted deeply in personal exploration, the type that forces you to dive deep inside yourself when all the elements seem to be asking you to quit. And we definitely wanted to quit more than a few times!”
There’s a unique mindset that’s required when you’re doing something for the first time. Most of us know the feeling: the prickle of doubt that you might have taken a wrong turn or find yourself at an impasse. The way things seem to stretch on forever because you’re not sure when the climb ends or the road will smoothen out. For Chris and his team they weren’t just wondering if they could make it, they were wondering if a human on a bike could make it.
Despite those doubts spirits were high as they set off from Iceland’s Eastern edge. It was slow going, especially as their bikes were at the heaviest they would be the entire trip – Adam’s weighed the most clocking in at 90lbs – but the first two days passed relatively smoothly. After climbing up onto Iceland’s high plateau they were greeted with a paradise of dirt roads – a much-deserved reward after the steep ascent. On day 2, as the group headed toward Lake Askja, the terrain became what can only be described as moon-like.
“It's a landscape like no other,” said Chris. “We rode through a large portion of where they tested the lunar rovers for the moon – it's the only place on earth that mimics the landscape of the moon so realistically. You go there to remind yourself of how insignificant you are amongst nature's forces and what it looks like to be surrounded by raw wilderness.”
It was on the third day, which Chris described as “the slowest I have ever moved on a bike”, that the physical fatigue really started to bite. A large deposit of volcanic sand slowed the team to a crawl and they only covered 53 km for the day. They’d finish the day with sore arms and twitching muscles after hours spent maneuvering their bikes across the challenging terrain. But, while the physical fatigue was hard to cope with, it was the mental fatigue that was truly starting to wear them down as the crux of the trip loomed: the crossing of the Hofsjokull glacier.
“There was mental fatigue just from being so focused. There were those moments where there's nothing to laugh about, nothing to smile about because nobody's talking because you're weaving your way through lava rock,” recounts Chris. “For us not fully having that security [that the route was passable] in the back of our mind created a lot of stress. By day three of the trip, my sleep started deteriorating because we were getting so stressed out. We would wake up in the morning being like, ‘are we going to take route A or route B?’ And we would vote on it as a group.”
The Hofsjokull glacier crossing can be challenging and impossible even by a Jeep with 52 inch tires. A week before the team reached the glacier the route was scouted by the Jeep. The first river, a glacial behemoth, was impassable.
"That terrified me,” said Chris.
He tried to take ego and their desire to keep the route “pure” out of the equation as they debated what to do.
“The team had experience of swift water rescue and knew how to tell when a river is too dangerous to cross. The day started with the nervous energy in my stomach that had resulted in lack of sleep the night before [...] The morning ride to the river's edge was solemn but as we crossed it a renewed sense of energy came – we had pushed past the crux.”
With the chessboard of rivers behind them – they had crossed over 70 in just a single day – the western coast of Iceland suddenly felt more tangible and the team started to truly appreciate their surroundings.
“The landscape kept us going when our bodies were screaming for us to stop. When you immerse yourself in a new landscape, even if your body is tired, your mind can find ways to keep you going. All your senses seem to be engaged – you breathe in the new smells, soak in the new sights and feel the temperature with every pore. For me, the driving force to train has always been rooted in finding and accomplishing these types of experiences successfully. I think this is where all that training, prep time and dedication becomes manifest.”
While Chris and the team had set out as pioneers what they’d really come to find was something deeply familiar, something that many of us are searching for in our own ways – a connection with place, with each other and with the people that, they hoped, would follow in their footsteps.
“Finish lines are figurative. On a journey like this, the finish line is really just a point on the map. You may feel a surge of joy or a rush of emotion but truly the most significant part of any route is the collective miles, laughs, meals, blood, sweat and tears you have poured into the entire experience – even the ones spent sitting at your computer building the route. Anyone who comes after our team and rides the route will, in their own way, be connected to us – the strangers that went before them – in a form of kinship,” reflects Chris.
9 days. 606 miles. 1 first known time.
The line on the map had become a story.