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Unpacking Darren Berrecloth and Cam Zink’s Arctic Mountain Bike Expedition

Darren Berrecloth trudges to the top of one of Axel Heiberg monstrous peaks. Blake Jorgenson Photo .

The likelihood of Polar explorer Otto Sverdrup and his crew surviving their expedition was low, traveling in the high Arctic was notoriously ruthless. 54 years prior, Sir John Franklin made a similar journey in pursuit to find the famed Northwest Passage. Instead of discovery or glory, his ship became snared by the ice. The merciless landscape forever claimed him and the 128 men he commanded; they were never to be seen again. After traveling countless miles from Norway, Sverdrup would not find peril, but an island which they’d name: Axel Heiberg. 

Now, 119 years later, this same island remains as elusive to director Jeremy Grant as when the Norwegians had first found it. Even with our great advancements in technology, so much about both Axel Heiberg and the Arctic is out of our grasp. That allure of the unknown enticed not only Grant but mountain biker Darren Berrecloth, aka "The Claw", who’s notorious for detecting far off zones to ride in.

Aside from two images scrounged from scientists, if they wanted to dig deeper into this zone, they had to visit the island in person. It wouldn’t be until they peered from the windows of their DH-6 Twin Otter plane that they could finally see Heiberg in its entirety. Pictures didn’t do it justice. Their eyes gazed upon what appeared to be a polar desert flanked by glaciers. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, Grant and Berrecloth had discovered something unique on the island. 

It was an absurd thought, but the terrain parallels that of other notable freeride zones, like Utah and western Canada. If rideable, these lines nestled amongst otherworldly glaciers and fiords would redefine what was thought to be possible within the realm of mountain biking. Redbull Rampage is considered the pinnacle of freeriding, but as the team gazed upon these mountains, they began to expand their thinking. 

Take a line from Virgin, Utah, and triple its size. Now you’ve got a comparable descent on Axel Heiberg Island

Axel Heiberg is a freeride mountain biker's dream, massive descents with perfect run outs. Blake Jorgenson Photo.

Motioning to the pilot, they descended for further inspection. Landing proved to be more precarious than thought. With no proper landing zones, the plane initially got stuck on their first landing, a significant dilemma when you’re 10 hours from civilization and 750 miles from the North Pole. With the aircraft dislodged, they refocused their attention on the dirt. Only two test runs from Berrecloth and fellow freerider Cam Zink was needed to confirm their hopes. Mountain biking in the Arctic would be more than a wild idea, but a reality. Elated, they loaded back into the plane to begin the long journey home. As Axel Heiberg Island disappeared into the horizon, an entire year would pass until they’d see it again. An agonizing wait, but necessary. The island reaches above freezing for only two months out of the year. This time, however, they would be joined by Carson Storch, Tom Van Steenbergen, and an entire film crew for a month-long expedition as documented with Freeride Entertainment’s and Red Bull Media House’s North of Nightfall, which is now available for digital download.

How they stumbled upon the Arctic:

Through the years of exploring and creating movies together, Grant and Berrecloth had developed a unique habit in their friendship. They kept circling back to the same question: Where’s next?

That question was first asked roughly ten years ago with a trip to China’s Gobi Desert. There they discovered remarkable terrain. It was a style of mountain biking likened to skiing, with endless line choice on what was a surreal landscape devoid of vegetation. They were hooked. It’s what led to their 2012 film, Where The Trail Ends, where they journeyed back to the Gobi Desert but also to untapped zones in Nepal, Canada, and Argentina. While the experience was incredible, it wasn’t enough to quell their curiosity. But, at this point the question wasn’t just, “where’s next”, it was also, ‘what’s left?”

In this world where everyone is connected, how do you find adventure still - Grant 

From a raw storytelling perspective, we crave the unknown more so than ever. But in our current state of hyperconnectivity and globalization, the undiscovered is starting to elude our grasp. Venturing into the unknown isn’t as straightforward as it was in Sverdrup's day. You have to search for it.

Zink (above) and Berrecloth (Below) quickly felt at home on the otherworldly terrain. Blake Jorgenson Photo.

Part of the problem was that they were searching in the wrong direction. Everyone flocks to desert zones near the equator because the outcome is blatantly apparent. The fear of failure lessens when we know what the conditions will be, but no one ever thinks of going north. Initially, they stumbled across Axel Heiberg from poking around on Google Earth. 

The location is tagged with only two photos. That was enough for Berrecloth. However, the more and more it became a viable option, a harsh reality set in. Since it required such a leviathan effort to travel up there—Zink had to jump on seven different flights to reach the island—no other locations would be featured with this film project.

Logistically, this created a unique scenario for Grant. The norm for most action sports movies is to not be isolated to a single destination. Instead, they had one month on Axel Heiberg to make an hour-long feature film with only a two-month window to get everything they needed. Once at base camp, if they forgot something as important as a lens, power cord, or a bike part they had to cope without it. 

“Every film I’ve done ends with the line, ‘we’ve only scratched the surface—we have to come back’, but with this one, we’ll never go back,” he admits.

Going against the grain:

Aside from one zoom lens, everything they shot with had a fixed focal length with an incredibly shallow depth of field. Blake Jorgenson Photo.

The pressure while planning for this project was impossible to disregard, but Grant also recognized this as an opportunity to go against the grain, starting with the equipment they used. The film feels oddly cinematic, almost JJ Abrams-esque. That’s because Grant opted to film the movie with only anamorphic lenses, equipment that’s traditionally preferred for Hollywood-style films. A much more artistic style of shooting, these lenses fold the image on itself to create an ultra-widescreen effect. 

Additionally, cinematographers love them for their beautiful lens flare and unique bokeh. All in all, the results are stunning but are not without their drawbacks. They are cumbersome to operate, a reason why they’re not the preferred choice for something as dynamic as mountain biking.

The focus was so delicate that they had to bring along a camera operator committed explicitly to focusing. “Now we're out in the Arctic, in quite possibly the most remote area ever, shooting [the film] on Hollywood style lenses with an assistant cameraman. All while chasing [the athletes] around to create something more than the traditional handheld feel,” Grant explains with a chuckle. Logistically it was also one of the hardest places he’s ever shot. He emphasizes that even these descents, which are arguably the longest in the world, were almost too long for a story. “You would think ‘Oh perfect, there’s a two and half minute line’, but you can’t hold it in the entire film,” he jests.

This observational and non-invasive approach to production extended to more than just the visuals, it was applied to the sound as well.

All other sounds in the film is either original score, the soundscapes of the Arctic, or native audio collected from the entire expedition. Blake Jorgenson Photo.

The film only has four songs licensed. Microphones were left recording on the athletes all day, and each day they’d sift through the pool of collected audio. “We would find these much more authentic moments of mentorship when the cameras weren't on [the athletes] and chose to lay them over a scenic—it’s all meant to be overheard and experienced,” Grant explains. With a laugh, he tells me that there’s an absence of “talking heads,” he’s referencing the more traditional style of on-screen athlete dialogue as seen in most action sports flicks.

That tried-and-true formula has notoriously been this: athlete does an insane trick to a catchy tune to be followed up by their reflection of the moment, but in North of Nightfall there’s none of that. Instead, you get a window into everything: the drama, the success, and even the moments of terror. Similar to the raw landscape, it’s a level of intimacy experienced and exposed throughout their journey.

The Challenge of Riding in the Arctic:

As we talk, Grant and I are sitting at an outdoor bar in the middle of downtown Seattle before the film screening this evening. The soundscape of the city is chaotic and disjointed. Construction cranes move above us, cars are at a standstill on the streets, and masses of people just released from work filter by in droves. It is an alternate reality to the world that their the team existed in just a year prior. Aside from limited satellite phones, they were disconnected from the “real world.” Everything moved at a slow pace, and it had to, shedding a sweat in the Arctic is deadly. Time too felt distorted, just because it was nearly impossible to track since the sun never set. If that wasn’t surreal enough, their cluster of tents was encircled by an electric fence, a deterrent to the wandering danger of polar bears.

Humility is essential in a place like this; abandon it, and that’s when issues arise. “It weighs on you a ton,” Berrecloth explains referencing the minimum 10-hour journey to the nearest hospital—all dependent if the weather conditions allow for it.

Unlike in Sverdup’s day, when the Arctic journeys were regarded as a space race, the team quickly understood that there was no conquering these mountains. Instead, the riders approached these 2000-3000 foot descents with strategy and cunning. You could scope out from below with binoculars and then proceed to hike two hours to the top of a peak to drop in the line you wished to ride. 

Not only was the sheer vertical impressive, but they could ride it out entirely from top to bottom.

Freeride mountain biking is all dependent upon the quality of the soil, and it’s easy to think of it from the perspective of skiing and snowboarding. On Axel Heiberg Island, the conditions were a little bit of everything, ranging from “fresh powder” to “blue ice,” and when it came to picking lines, it was primarily spearheaded through the guidance of Zink and Berrecloth: two of the greatest pioneers of the sport. 

What is worth preserving?

Axel Heiberg Island is seen through two distinct perspectives, the mentors and “the groms”—at least that’s how Berrecloth jokingly refers to Storch and Van Steenbergen. 

If you don’t pass [what you know] on to anyone that’s shitty—it’s kind of your duty to share your knowledge to the next generation - Berrecloth

Back in 2016 Storch remembers getting a sporadic phone call from Berrecloth, it was an invitation to join Freeride and Redbull Media House for a film project. Storch wasn’t given any details about what it would entail, but that didn’t impact his decision making in the slightest. Without hesitation he accepted. It didn’t matter to him where they would be going, he knew it was going to be once in a lifetime opportunity. “Riding lines like that is all based upon experience,” Storch explains.

For Van Steenbergen and Storch, in a sport like mountain biking that’s already so niche, big mountain is even more niche. The only way to progress is to shareBlake Jorgenson Photo.

The 24-year-old from Bend, Oregon, is no stranger to big mountain freeriding. Both he and Van Steenbergen had competed and ridden alongside Zink and Berrecloth numerous times, but no amount of tricks or trophies can really prepare you for stepping into the terrain they found up North. You’ve got to cut your teeth the hard way. “Picking their brains about the pressures of picking lines, filming, or doing builds...I think both Tom and I are on the same page—any sort of insight we got from them is going to stick with us,” Storch says.

That close camaraderie between the riders was pivotal for success. “It was an expedition, and it felt like we were going into the unknown,” Storch explains and what they sought out didn’t come without sacrifice. Leaving home was hard for the whole crew. It’s easy to put them on a pedestal for their incredible accolades, but at the end of the day, this is still a group of fathers, husbands, and sons. Berrecloth and Zink both have young families back at home. At the ages of 24 and 22, a significant crash out with limited medical assistance could easily jeopardize Storch and Van Steenbergen’s thriving career. The idea of mortality is not ignored but instead heightened as they take bigger and bigger risks while riding.

This is something we’re beginning to reckon in the action sports community, the risk is becoming more transparent. Grant didn’t want to shy away from it, especially when he’s behind the lens watching his friends putting their lives on the line. But even with the calculated risks, without this carried legacy, the sport will struggle to thrive. As Berrecloth puts it, there are only so many places in which you can even do this style of riding, which therefore limits the pool of riders even further. When you’ve got two guys like Storch and Van Steenbergen who are more than eager to learn, it’s a no-brainer to foster that for the next generation.

What’s next?

This idea of legacy carries throughout the film to more than just the riding, but the Arctic itself. While the landscape was raw and dangerous, it is equally fragile. It may be the same land mass that Sverdrup found over a century ago, but it’s changing. The White and Baby glaciers have been steadily shrinking each year since the 1970s.

It’s best to think of the Arctic as the front lines of how our environment is changing. Blake Jorgenson Photo.

In 2011, Dr. Laura Thomson, one the glaciologists who assisted the team, published a study in the Journal of Glaciology entitled, Glacier change on Axel Heiberg Island, Nunavut, Canada. Her team realized that Axel Heiberg Island served as the perfect vessel to monitor glacier change in the high Arctic. Not only is it remote, but the landscape also has a variety of ice coverage to study outlet glaciers, independently-sourced glaciers, ice caps, and ice fields. Additionally, the island has been photographed since the late 50’s, allowing them to monitor changes over a 42 period. Their results found that in the year 2000, island-wide the area coverage of glaciers of major ice caps have only retained 90% of their 1959 size. For independent ice masses, it was even grimmer: they estimate that they’ve lost 50-80% of their original size. 

The team was not aware of the fragility of the Arctic when they decided to venture up here, they just wanted to ride their bikes. However, while mountain biking was their vehicle to access this space, it would also be their way of sharing its narrative. 

It would be irresponsible to not share the story of this place, we were lucky to have mountain biking be a tool to go there - Grant

In his perfect world, he’d easily do a ten-hour film about this place. Our beer glasses sit empty and we wait for the bill. It’s been almost two hours since Grant and I scampered away from Freeride Entertainment’s office to chat about the film. My head is spinning. Poor Grant has dealt with the full force of my curiosity. I pestered him with questions about a variety of dense topics: Axel Heiberg, Arctic history, the Sverdrup expedition, and climate change. Mind you, I have yet to even see the film. I realize there’s one question I nearly forgot to ask: “Where’s next?” Grant’s initial response is a chuckle which is followed by a genuine, “I don’t know.”

About The Author

stash member Katie Lozancich

TGR Staff Writer and photographer. Fond of bikes, pow, and dogs. Originally from Northern CA, home for me has ranged from the PNW to a teepee in Grand Teton National Park.