We Either Make It, or We Don’t: Traversing Iceland on Fat Bikes

Below are a series of stories from a trip Gus Morton took across Iceland during winter on a fat bike with his friends Chris Burkard and Rebecca Rusch. They are reflections of what he was thinking and feeling in a particular moment and by no means an accurate account of the reality of any situation. Reflections which, as those present will likely attest, were probably far less dramatic.

I’ve never been interested in being the first to do anything on a bike.

Not recently at least.

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.

But 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 are 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, rather rely on them to take care of themselves, and me when the time calls 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.

A simple test with a definitive answer – We either make it, or we don’t.

A Blessing

We pull into a gas station a majority of the day complete. The little yellow and green box of a structure is at odds with the vast flowing fjords we’d just ridden around. Man’s answer to nature. Chris exclaims that the 75km’s feels more like 100 miles. These bikes are heavy and coming to terms with the slow pace is something Chris and myself are still grappling with. Rebecca seems unfazed.

There is a sense of excitement and relief to be on the road though.

As we remark on this and that, a gentleman butts out a cigarette in the trash can next to me. I notice his soft tobacco-stained fingers and slightly divergent but piercing eyes directed toward Chris who is sitting in the gutter, gear and food sprawled out around him.

The man’s face is the type you can’t read, but the collar on his neck reveals enough.

The gentleman utters a few words in Icelandic, none of which we comprehend, but he could really be getting at only one thing. There’s a brief back and forth, and now deciphering our intentions, he steps forward from the shadow of the building. Raising his hand he begins a blessing with the gas station stoop as his altar.

I am a lapsed Catholic and over the years, racing bikes and riding in strange places I’ve been at the receiving end of my fair share of blessing’s. At first they made me uncomfortable. A person praying on my behalf to a God that didn’t align with what I envisioned ‘it’ to be felt pompous and shallow.

However I have come to recognise the beauty in the intimate ceremony taking place for my benefit. It’s a rare occurrence that a stranger would give you a seconds’ thought so to have this priest with his creased brow take the time on Easter Thursday to embrace us and our journey, calling on his higher power to grant safe passage is a powerful and humane gesture.

I look at our group who stand in silence for the first time in a week and wonder if perhaps God would appreciate it if I reached out to ask for protection too? Before I can commit the priest is done. His shadow long in the mid afternoon light, casting a final sign of the cross over the oil stained parking lot.

The blessing over, the priest turns towards his car. We pack up and roll out. I’d been expecting a journey of solitude and preparing for such for months but this short human exchange caught me off guard. I turn to Chris and tell him how much I appreciated the moment. He agrees but before the conversation goes any further we recognise we’re off course. We negotiate a median strip to rejoin Rebecca on the correct road and by the time we do our minds have drifted elsewhere.

You Gotta Walk Before You Can Ride

Chris zig zags across the road, my front wheel, which is slightly overlapping his, mimics its movement until I reach the edge of the road. The wind he’d been protecting me from catches the sail that my bike in all its bags is akin to and buffets it to a near standstill. I dip my head in resignation. I glance back to see Rebecca, head slightly tucked stomping on the pedals. Eyes focused on the road immediately in front.

I lurch the bike and stand on the pedals leaning against the wind. This morning It feels like I’m dragging a pair of swimming pools through a hurricane. It’s early, and we’ve been riding for nearly two hours. The wind has been swirling through the valley all morning in a ferocious manner. Chris turns his head, yelling “The next shelter, we should stop.” I nod in agreement and breathe a big sigh of relief.

I feel like shit today. I cruised through yesterday but this morning I just can’t get it together. We haven’t even left the tarmac and I can barely hold my bike in a straight line against the wind.

I look ahead at the road which cuts a path up the deep treeless valley, terminating just out of view. I am reminded that only two percent of Iceland is covered in trees, and am forced to accept that this valley falls with the majority.

We pedal on, occasionally swapping turns breaking the wind although in honesty, I stay huddled behind Chris’ wheel as much as I can. Another hour passes without a spot to stop. I am astonished and find myself looking at the rocks which dot the side of the road, trying to judge if three humans could huddle behind one comfortably. They couldn’t, but it doesn’t stop me from suggesting that perhaps we try.

Eventually, a small concrete block appears on a crest. An entry gate to a far-off farmhouse. My eyes lock on the small mound as we approach, willing it to grow into something of a shelter. At 4ft by 2ft it wouldn’t class as one on a typical day, but I’m not feeling typical today. We fashion our bikes around it and when we crouch down we’re out of the wind. I’m just happy we stopped.

I take stock of my surroundings for the first time all morning and I recognise how very undramatic our situation is.

I look back down the valley we’ve been riding up, it’s idyllic. Quintessentially quintessential countryside. There’s no snow on the ground. The road, up until only a few km’s ago was perfect tarmac, and the sky is a very pale shade of blue. The mercury pushing 5 celsius. It’s as good as it’s ever going to get. I look up the valley, it terminates in only a few km’s, and where it rises abruptly into the highlands a dramatic set of clouds sit. If downvalley is quintessential countryside then upvalley is a quintessential winter storm.

I shove the last of an uncouth mix of cabanossi sausage and gummy bear into my mouth and zip up my bags. There’s only so much crouching behind a concrete block is going to help my situation.

As we face off towards the imposing mountains the Valley begins to tighten around us until finally there is nowhere else to go but up. Our map shows a steep gravel path almost indecipherable from the rugged, mountain side cutting up and into those clouds I mentioned earlier. This section represents the first unknown of the trip. If our passage is successful we would enter the highlands, if not, then we’d have to retreat down the valley, tale between our legs, the entire expedition in jeopardy.

The rugged gravel road narrows as the snow encroaches from the mountainside, funneling us to a small sliver of rock along the cliff face. Rebecca accepts the inevitable and takes to walking. Chris and I stubbornly dismount and remount maybe twenty times over the next kilometer, determined to ride as much as possible.

Eventually, Rebecca now in front, we resign ourselves to the same fate. Her experience only surpassed by her grace. The wind is relentless. Head down I take to counting to ten, over and over and over and over. In spots the pitch is so steep we tack back and forth across the face.

Finally the pitch levels out. We raise our heads for the first time in hours to an endless ocean swell frozen in time. The highlands. We continue to hike, the snow still refusing to support our weight. As we get deeper, the steep valley disappears behind us, replaced by soft white caps bobbing in the blue sky, and the snow, in spots, begins to harden.

The elation when we are finally able to ride reflects not only the mammoth task we just endured, but the months of preparation that came before.

It was hard to recognize all that at the time though, I was just relieved we didn’t have to figure out a way back down what we just walked up.

Liminal Resting Place

I climb down the ladder to a small snow drift across the floor. A window left slightly ajar welcomed the storm which had been surging for the previous 36 hours inside. Rebecca is stirring. Water already boiling on the stove. I pull out my ration of oats and instant coffee. We each boil enough water for breakfast, coffee and two insulated bottles for the day ahead. We eat quickly, and chat little. The atmosphere tense with unknowing. 70 kilometers across a desert valley that sits between two glaciers.

It’s cold out, and blasting. Through the swirling snow I can just make out Chris’ headlamp. He can’t have left more than thirty seconds ago but he’s barely visible. -17 celsius, yet the snow is still soft, so we walk.

The beam from Chris’ headlamp swings back and forth around him, a lighthouse gone rouge in the mist. I point my bike towards him and plod through the snow. All of a sudden the beam stops in my direction, as if signaling something.

Inside my pogies my fingers begin their perfunctory wriggle past the camera, over the snickers bars, around the battery pack and under the handwarmers towards the icy metallic brake lever. Once there I pull forth. Nothing. I notice something odd about my front wheel as I do. The bottom half is missing. Its as if, like in a video game, a glitch has caused it to load incorrectly, embedding half of it in the ground.

I lean down to take a closer look. As I do I notice that, like my wheel, my feet are also incorrectly loaded – two stumps in the snow.

This is odd.

I wiggle my toes. I can still feel them. Then, as if from afar, I witness my entire bike and body effortlessly disappear through the ground. Everything goes black. No glare from Chris’ headlamp. No glow from my own headlamp. No blasting wind noise. A distinct absence of all light and sound.

‘What in the fuck just happened?’

I do a quick survey of my body. I feel the chill from frozen brake levers pressed up against the heat of the hand warmers. The snickers and camera crush against my wrist. I can feel the secure warmth of my base layers, and the press of my goggles against my face. My breath continues to condensate as it passes through the gaiter covering my face. But No pain. In fact no sensation at all. I try to discern what is up and down, but without a solid base to push off it’s surprisingly difficult. It feels kind of nice if I’m honest – like floating in a black void.

I hear muffled screams. Then light. A hand and face lunge towards me. My instinct is to laugh. But the look on Rebecca’s face suppresses the urge. I remember we have been camped alongside a geothermal spring, from which a creek runs south into the valley. I realise I am lying in that creek. Rebecca is already hoisting my bike, which is somehow now above me, out of the way and hauling my dead weight from its liminal resting place.

In an instant I’m out. I stand in the din of headlamps as Rebecca and Chris assess me. I’m dry, most importantly and completely unscathed. The whole ordeal couldn’t have lasted more than ten seconds.

I allow myself the laugh I had suppressed earlier, out of relief, out of incredulity. Rebecca looks me in the eyes for a few seconds and then we reform our line, Chris breaking trail, me protected in the middle, and Rebecca sweep.

As we slowly navigate through the dark I try to work out how serious the situation was. I was completely fine, but I wondered how far I was from things becoming more serious. Were we always just a footstep away from such danger? Or am I over playing it? Should I be more careful? Or more accepting that these things happen, regardless?

I honestly didn’t know. If we were in danger it sure didn’t feel like it. After all, we were just a few meters from camp, walking across the snow. It wasn’t like we were hanging from the edge of a cliff face without a rope.

A few minutes later that day Chris would burn his hand inflating a tyre with Co2. I would crash at speed on a ridge of black ice, bringing Rebecca down with me. We would lose our bearings and circle back on ourselves, wasting precious time. By sheer dumb luck the three of us would narrowly avoid crashing through into another creek, during a white out. Rebecca would fall on black ice, again, this time hitting her head. An oversight in our prep meant a recurring tyre issue which would go on to almost cost me a finger, would consistently bring our march to a halt. And finally, once at the planned day’s end the weather would force us to push on into the night doubling the daily distance.

Each of these issues, I guess, had the potential to derail the expedition, but it’s only now, when I write them together, that any of it seems dramatic.

Perhaps it never felt so because everything looked so innocuous. No cliff faces to conjure thoughts of plummeting to your death, only an endless, mindless, sea of white more akin to conjuring thoughts of death by boredom.

Or maybe it’s an evolutionary survival technique I didn’t know I possessed until I found myself out here. Some deep seated instinct that emptied my mind of everything but the immediate problem presenting itself. Then once solved, that same evolutionary instinct removed it from my consciousness completely, as if it never happened. So I could move onto the next problem unburdened by the last.

Or maybe it was just plain ignorance – An inexperienced foreigner obliviously bouncing from one near miss to the next, accidentally succeeding in their quest to cross a snow covered country they’d never previously been to, by bike.

The Dark

I come to a stop surprisingly quickly. The edge of the steel flat pedal cutting a short but deep gash into the sparkling blue ice bringing my 70lb rig and its 180lb pilot to a rapid halt. I exhale a loud and exasperated sigh.

‘Who was that even directed at?’ No one, I think. It’s one of those over the top moments of theatre that I seem to perform when I’m at my limit. I’m tired, its gotta be 2am and those customary light traces so synonymous with over exhaustion have been getting particularly distracting. To add to that the indecipherable mass that is the Myrdalsjokull glacier has begun to pitch downward which after hours of walking feels rather treacherous now that we’re able to ride. The slightest touch of my brake and I was on my side.

I heave my bike back onto its wheels, the house screws I drove into the soles of my boots the night before we left slip then bite into the frozen surface. Each time they do I cringe to consider what the trip would have been like had we not put those in. Impossible. I try to collect myself before blurting out with a tremble, ‘Its ice. Under the snow is pure ice.’ Chris scans our surroundings, his head lamp revealing a featureless landscape, now sparkling in a magnificent yet menacing blue. What started out as an exciting decision to push over a previously unridden glacier during the night had slowly degraded from pleasant, to petrifying.

Since the spectacular circumnavigation of the Maelifell volcano and a leisurely approach to the glacier things had become decidedly more arduous. Once on the glacier contradictory snow conditions meant we’d been forced to push our bikes for seven hours. We’d had to change a flat tyre in -20 celsius and I’d let myself get sweaty, then cold, resulting in loss of feeling in my extremities. It had been hours since I could feel my hands, and they’d turned a deathly looking yellow. All the while a storm we’re trying to outrun bears down on us from the east.

As Chris’ headlamp completes its scan landing on Rebecca and I, I feel an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. Which seems odd given there’s not a thing higher than a few inches off the ground for miles in every direction. I’m aware of the contradiction but there’s something about the dark, its not like normal dark. You can feel this dark. It’s presence lurks as It dances around our headlamp beams. A viscous mass creeping, and retreating and growing and enveloping everything around us. It’s as if it’s feeding off of our presence, and our fear.

I’m losing my shit.

I snap out of it and return to the more pressing matter of the ice. We scan down the slowly steepening glacial slope. There’s no distinguishable line of best fit. We deliberate for a few seconds before deciding the only approach is to aim for the scattered mounds of snow, use those as breaking points, and for the rest of the time, just let go and try not to make any sudden movements. This is a shit strategy. But I don’t have the brain capacity to propose anything better, so I agree.

Chris releases his brakes and plunges into the abyss. I follow suit. I can feel the dark encroaching, pushing at my back as my bike gains speed. The ice whizzes by the headlamps diminished strip of light as I strain to make out what the dark spews out in front of me. My mind wanders, A rock? A crevice? A cliff? …A clump of snow. I mercifully grab a handful of brakes, trying to find the edge of traction, before I have to let go again.

We drop down for what feels like minutes but must have been only thirty seconds. Stress levels at their peak, we find a patch of snow and dig the bikes in to a stop. Rebecca explains her brake pads are nearly done. Hell of a place to lose your brakes, I think.

The stress is evident on everyone’s face. We strain left and right to see if there is more snow, or a slight relief in the gradient. There isn’t, but we decide to sidehill anway in vain hope that just beyond our lamps reach the slope will ease providing safe passage down. It doesn’t.

My turn to lead. I let go of the brakes and point downward. Once again the dark races up at incredible speed. Its velvet fingers stretching out and wrapping around my arms and legs, freezing them. The harsh hum of ice under studded tyres broken only by the occasional crunch from a patch of snow. An audible cue to grab as much brake as possible, exerting what little control I have left before handing it back over to the night.

As the plunge continues the dark oozes its way up around my torso and neck, it’s oily grip expending my lungs of air. I consider completely ghosting the bike. Just jumping off it. It would hurt for a second, I think, but at least I’d be free of this god forsaken anchor I’ve been attached to. I hit a large patch of snow. I jam the brakes. The bike slows to a halt. The darkness subsides and air rushes my lungs. Instant relief. My head is pounding. I realise i’ve been clenching my teeth and try to relax my jaw. We sit for a moment in silence, and then Chris takes the lead again.

I take to dragging my boot as we drop, which creates a god awful sound but provides me reassurance. We repeat the process of descending then sidehilling several more times. With each repetition the duration of our drop shorter and the sense of claustrophobia greater. The Dark conspiring to trap us on the side of the glacier, a few miles from the end of our expedition.

Eventually Chris notices some snow cat tracks cutting across the face. Their indents provide enough friction for our tyres to grip and so with no better ideas we take their lead. They act as a shield against the Dark, fighting it back just enough for us to follow the path. Before long we’re at a trailhead. If the snowcat tracks fought off the dark, then the trailhead all but killed it. Standing there I could see the ocean. The end of our journey.

We gingerly make our way down the gravel track, stopping momentarily to inflate our snow flat tyres and after a few minutes the crunch of the gravel is replaced by the metallic clatter of studs on tarmac.

We made it.