Iceland Crossing: A North-South Journey Across the Highlands
We caught up with Rebecca Rusch, Chris Burkard, and Angus Morton following their incredible north-south journey across the heart of Iceland—in the middle of winter, no less—to learn more about their wild ride. Find our interview with the trio here, along with a spectacular set of photos from expedition photographer Ryan Hill…
Photos by Ryan Hill (@_ryanhill_)
On the heels of his east-to-west crossing of Iceland’s rugged interior last fall, which we featured in the fifth issue of The Bikepacking Journal, our friend Chris Burkard (@chrisburkard) recently headed back to the land of fire and ice for another mind-boggling self-supported bikepacking trip.
This time, he added the challenge of riding in the middle of winter, and he brought a couple of intrepid traveling companions with him: mountain bike hall of famer Rebecca Rusch (@rebeccarusch) and Thereabouts founder Angus Morton (@thatisgus). Over the course of six days, they accomplished a first-ever unsupported coast-to-coast winter crossing of the Icelandic Highlands from north to south, taking advantage of rare weather conditions to pedal through more than 300 miles of snow and ice across a remote stretch of the interior, culminating with a ride over Mýrdalsjökull glacier.
We checked in with Chris, Rebecca, and Angus to get a sense of what they experienced during their ride. Read our post-ride interview with the three of them below.
You assembled an extraordinary team for this expedition. How’d the three of you get together?
Chris: It’s always interesting how a “team” comes together. Although I know each of us loves the solo pursuit of expeditions, it’s special to bring people together for their strengths. Gus brought the creativity, Rebecca brought the experience, and I brought the familiarity with Iceland and the route. It was a unique blend of humans as we had each spent a little time together, but nothing like this. I had photographed Rebecca once, and I spent a few nights bikepacking with Gus in Utah a while back. But beyond that, we were basically strangers, which can ultimately be a deal-breaker if the mix isn’t quite right.
Rebecca: I got a call from Chris, and he shared his crazy idea and asked me to join. It was totally out of the blue, and we hardly knew each other. We run in similar circles and share a mutual admiration but have never ridden together or spent much time together. I had read about Gus, but never met the guy. The invitation was a compliment, and of course I said yes. However, I did a little stalking of both Chris and Angus to get a feel for who they were and where they were coming from, and that research reinforced my decision to join them. They seemed like good humans, strong athletes, and curious, adventurous types. I knew invitations like this only come along once in a lifetime. We were strangers going into the ride, but what was reassuring to me is that we all had multi-day expedition experience and shared the motivation to explore by bike.
Angus: Chris and I had chatted quite a bit about various routes we wanted to do and had done a five-day trip in the desert together, but that was it. When the stars started to align for an attempt on the Iceland trip, we both quickly realized that between us, we didn’t have even close to the skillset necessary to complete the journey and would need someone with more experience. Rebecca was the first person we thought of. Chris gave her a call, and that was the start of it. I met her for the first time at Boston airport en route to Iceland!
Where’d the motivation to attempt a first winter crossing on this stretch of Iceland’s Highlands come from? What’s there?
Chris: After 44 trips to this amazing country and having ridden around the country and through the middle, I felt that the true experience of immersing yourself in this place is winter. It’s different in so many ways. No roads, no paths, just pure wide-open landscape. There isn’t a groomed trail like the Iditarod. You are praying for perfect conditions—the supercrust, as it’s known. And in order to do what we did, you need extreme patience and a bit of luck.
Our hope was to do the first unsupported coast-to-coast crossing from north to south. In total, it was 327 miles of joy and suffering that ended by crossing the glacier, something none of us actually thought was possible. It wasn’t even an idea until we landed in the country and started talking to locals. It was the hardest and most brutal part of the journey and gave us a run for our money. It left a bit of damage to our hands and toes, but it was ultimately an incredible bout with nature and something I feel humbled to have completed.
What’s there? Probably the greatest question of all. At times, nothing. An endless abyss of pure white and ocean with no horizon, no depth perception, no trail, just a compass bearing leading into the unknown. Most of all, what’s there is total freedom. Iceland in the winter is freedom. You can point your bike in any direction and ride when the conditions are good. It’s unlike anything I have ever experienced. It was the most fun, pure, and childlike riding I have felt.
Rebecca: Chris conceived the dream, then brought Angus into his scheme. I was the third to join. What I loved about the concept was the unknown nature of the terrain, the unspoiled landscapes, and the lack of specific route maps. There’s a mystique about the remoteness, the beauty, and the hostility of the Icelandic landscape. That sense of wonder about the place and not knowing what is there is exactly what drew me into Chris’s dream.
I’ve often been called a wanderer. Even as a kid, I wanted to know what was around the next corner or over the next hill. This curiosity about the unknown has always drawn me to go further, and this invitation met my internal need to experience the unknown under my own power. One thing I will say about Chris’s efforts is that he’s a unique combination of dreamer and executer. Many people can dream of a route or a project but very few can take those dreams and build something actionable.
Angus: My reason to ride has always come from the chance encounters with strangers that arrive through the rain at an intersection in Pontiac, or Krusevo, or Goose Bay. The opportunity to share a few words before the traffic light changes or the bar closes, or the sunrises on another day, and I pedal on toward the next intersection, bar stool, or sunrise.
My rides aren’t technical, or exhausting, or breathtaking. More often than not, the places I find myself drawn to are at the end of long, straight, featureless roads. Mundane portals that lead to mundane places. I don’t ride to escape from the world, but rather to immerse myself in it. Alas, we have been amidst a pandemic. And with nowhere to rush to, the increased time spent alone changed the way I experienced the bike, from using it as a tool to seek out others to a tool to dive deeper into myself. I found myself wanting to know what I was capable of.
So, I said yes when Chris asked if I wanted to attempt to cross Iceland by bike in the winter. There’s no traffic lights or barstools out there, and the only stranger I’d be meeting I’d be stuck with. There’s no place for meandering conversation, only methodical execution. And we would have to rely on each other, not in the way I had relied on a teammate to grab bottles or a stranger to spin a yarn. Instead, I’d rely on them to take care of themselves, and me when the time called for it. It was an objective completely out of character, requiring a set of skills I’d either let wither to near oblivion or never possessed to begin with. It felt like a return to a more traditional sporting pursuit, and I was ready for it.
Our trip was a simple test with a definitive answer: We either make it or we don’t.
What was the biggest question or uncertainty on your mind before setting out on the first morning?
Chris: Honestly, we were all so anxious. There had been a lot of discussion about going studded or non-studded, tent or bivy. We debated and contemplated these choices a lot before we began. It kept us up at night. Even though we had days to prep beforehand, I still scrambled until the final moment. Ultimately, there was no knowing what kind of snow we were going to get. The temperature, wind, and weather play such a huge role, and we just had to go with the flow. For me, it was daunting knowing that on day two we were going to attempt to get into the highlands. That freaked me out. It was the first crux of the trip—and also the first big team-building experience.
Rebecca: I felt trepidation about two things. 1. The Icelandic wind and moisture are two elements that were out of our control and had the ability to completely shut down the expedition or put us in grave danger or both. 2. How we would function as a team. We didn’t know each other’s personality, fitness, breaking point, or motivations. I knew I’d be using all of my physical skill on this expedition, but also my mental and emotional tools to be a contributing team member. I recognized that there were only two things that would either make for a successful or failed expedition, and those were environmental elements and our team dynamics. As we set out the first morning of the trip, I was hyper-aware of both factors. I was also keenly aware that only one of those factors was something I could control or manage, so being the best teammate possible is what I focused on.
Angus: There were many uncertainties but none more pressing than snow conditions. The entire trip was predicated on the snow conditions being just right, requiring numerous elements to align, which was far from guaranteed.
For the first day and a half on the approach to the highlands, we were kind of in limbo, not knowing if conditions would be right for riding. And when we first began the ascent into the highlands, they weren’t. In the days leading up to our departure, it had been well above freezing, thawing a lot of the snow resulting in slushy conditions.
We had to walk quite a distance before we got high enough and things finally firmed up enough that we could ride. The following day a storm brought much colder temps, refreezing that thawing snow, creating the elusive supercrust, which we were blessed with for the remainder of the trip.
Tell us a little about the bikes you chose for this trip.
Chris: Gus and I chose a 2021 model of the Fezzari Kings Peak. They are a killer bike brand out of Utah that I’ve been working with a little the last year. The carbon monoform technology made the bike super lightweight and strong. We needed a few mods so we worked with them to make the 2021 model a little more expedition friendly. This bike was sight unseen before the expedition, and it performed flawlessly. I had trained all last year on the previous model and this was an epic upgrade. I can’t wait for it to be released!
Rebecca: I rode a Giant Yukon fat bike and this was the first expedition for it. It was a little risky to ride a new frame for a big trip, but I have years of experience on fat bikes and my rig was pretty dialed. I had also just come off a successful win at the Iditarod Trail Invitational, so I felt solid about my gear and my training. The rest of the bike was equipped with ENVE M6 Fat wheels, Revelate designs frame bags, pogies, and panniers, SRAM Eagle 1x with GripShift, SRAM mechanical brakes, and a WTB Koda saddle.
What single piece of gear proved to be indispensable for each of you, and why?
Chris: Probably a tie between my Yeti bottle that kept liquids from freezing and always gave me a little reprieve with a hot drink and my 45NRTH pogies. I mean, you can’t even do a trip like this without pogies. They gave me a real feeling of safety. I have bad Raynaud’s in my hands, and when I had those pogies heated up with a hand warmer, it was a game-changer!
Rebecca: A winter bike expedition requires so much gear. Everything is weighed, considered, and chosen carefully. No single piece of gear is more important than the others. It’s the combination of things that you bring that make for a dialed expedition. However, the single most important tool I brought with me was my attitude and my experience. Big expeditions like this require a big emotional toolbox—one that matches the amount of physical gear that you bring. You can’t buy those tools, you have to earn them the hard way. I know I was invited on this expedition for my experience. And still, I was pushed emotionally and physically and grew from it.
Angus: Pogies. What an ingenious invention.
Your motto for the trip was Bíta á jaxlinn, Icelandic for, “When things get tough you bite your molar and continue on.” What are some memorable instances when you had to live by those words?
Rebecca: There are no words to describe the hostility of the Icelandic wind. Even when the wind was at our backs, it was tossing us and jostling us along the icy landscape. Every single day there were moments of high stress as we balanced precariously while moving and being shoved across the ice. This sort of uncontrollable element was super stressful for me and unfamiliar. Going uphill or pushing my bike through the snow or fixing flat tires are all things I’m familiar with and have practiced, so those elements weren’t that hard for me. But the wind, that’s what really drained me. It was the fourth teammate that no one invited or wanted on the trip.
Angus: Thinking about it, barring the first day, and maybe the second to last day, you were bitting the molar at varying pressures the rest of the time.
One particular moment that comes to mind was on the ascent up onto the highlands. Temperatures had been warm in the lead-up, so the snow was soft and slushy, but we knew there was a storm system moving in, which would bring snow and the kind of freezing temps we were looking for. So, we had to get up onto the highlands before the storm hit.
The ascent, which was particularly technical and too dangerous to scout, was an unknown. We needed enough snow to have melted to make the pass, but not so much that riding on the highlands would be impossible. If we couldn’t make the pass, it’d add two days backtracking and circumnavigating, which would mean the storm would hit, and our ascent—and expedition—would be in jeopardy. The days leading up were fraught with the stress of it being out of our control and the obsession that comes with all our work being contingent on a 3km stretch of the trail for which we had no intel.
On the day of the climb, the wind made it hard work. We managed to walk the ascent with relative ease, but once we rounded the first ridge, the wind hit us at 60 miles per hour. With the snow too soft to ride, we had no choice but to push the bikes into the wind for hours with the blind hope that conditions would change once we reached the highlands and we’d be able to ride. It was a hard slog, and we probably handled it so well just because it was early in the expedition. We eventually reached the highlands, where conditions didn’t improve for another few miles.
The elation when they finally did was huge. It was only day two, and I’d nearly ground my molar down to the gum.
Difficult moments aside, finishing the 300+ mile trip ahead of schedule is quite an accomplishment. To what do you attribute that success?
Chris: Teamwork, for sure. It sounds cheesy, but it really did make all the difference. Realizing you have these teammates who are checking in on you and coming to your aid changes things. At times, they literally fed me when I was hungry. I can’t thank Rebecca and Gus enough for that. In some ways, my experiences with them on this trip changed how I view people and the world in general.
Angus: I think first and foremost is Weather. That falls under two categories: luck and preparation. We spent a long time working with people in Iceland on figuring out the best time of year to attempt what we were doing and then worked backwards from there.
We did extensive scouting immediately prior to the trip to understand what the snow was like and make predictions on the route and a realistic schedule based on that, relying on local expert knowledge. Then we locked in a final km by km route, in which we had to balance our ambitions with worst-case scenarios, shelter options, contingency options, and storm and snow variables.
We erred on the side of caution, and we were fortunate that we had two days of particularly favorable conditions with particularly nasty weather systems on either side. We could see the storm we needed to beat rolling in whilst we were up on the Myrdalsjokull glacier. Had we been a few hours later, we would have had to wait to storm out and re-route around the glacier. Had we been caught on the glacier in the storm, we probably would have had to abandon to whole trip. Being able to get advice from our team in Iceland to navigate those situations confidently and safely was invaluable.
Chris deserves credit here for taking this part of the preparation really seriously and constantly double- and triple-checking our information with new sources in the lead-up and whilst on the expedition.
Having completed this one, what’s the most valuable lesson you’ll carry forward to your next expedition?
Chris: That no amount of preparation or experience can compensate for a positive mindset. I stole that from Rebecca because she exuded it so well. In every action and every experience, there is choice. You can choose to act positively or negatively, and that affects everything.
Rebecca: This was a soulful journey for me and I learned more about myself as a teammate. I learned I have the skill and mastery for almost any expedition. I can adapt and thrive in a situation that is out of my control. Patience and energy conservation were part of my daily practice on this expedition. Given the unknown route, the unknown terrain, and new teammates, there were few things that were predictable or familiar for me.
We started each day not really knowing the terrain or challenges or even the mileage that was ahead. Letting go of control and just accepting that we would move forward into the unknown was hard for me at first. I had to loosen my grip and just allow the expedition and the dynamics to unfold naturally. This grounded patience has not always been my natural reaction in stressful or high consequence situations, so being able to practice that in Iceland was a gift that I will carry to my next exploration.
We all have different personalities, so learning to flow and mesh as a team was a beautiful thing, but this has to start internally and individually for each person
Angus: Rely on your team, as that’s what they are there for. There’s no reward for being tough. I come from a professional road cycling background, where being quiet in your suffering and self-reliant in all situations are seen as admirable traits. In expedition travel, however, they are downright dangerous characteristics. I sustained frostbite whilst on the glacier because I didn’t speak up about the situation I was in and ask for help immediately. It nearly cost me and potentially the rest of the team the expedition when we were only miles from completing it.
Lastly, what’s everyone up to now, and what can we expect from you in the rest of 2021?
Chris: I’m ready to sit by the campfire for a few months! Otherwise, I’m working on a film for this trip, and I’m stoked to share more of this experience so others could hopefully go and enjoy it themselves.
Rebecca: Rest and recovery and cherishing riding in shorts! I’m home in Idaho and really proud of my best winter of expeditions in my life with Idaho, Alaska, and Iceland. Next up, I am executing the #GiddyUpForGood worldwide elevation challenge through my Be Good Foundation. This is a run or bike uphill challenge that is raising money to preserve and protect our natural spaces where we ride and run. My mission is to continually inspire, empower, and challenge myself and others to Be Good. So, after a big personal challenge like Iceland that hopefully inspired people, my next step is to inspire and empower others to do something that they didn’t think they could do. Giddy Up Challenge registration is open now and the event takes place wherever you are at the end of May.
Angus: Back to work for now (which in part involves getting into post-production with our team on the film we are making about this expedition). After that, I’ll be sticking to my incredibly niche event criteria that allows for participation only in self-supported events that bisect nordic countries from North to South. I’ll be doing The Length Of Sweden in July. Hopefully, I’ll reunite with my younger, more esteemed brother at the end of the year for another mission somewhere.
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