Braving The Extreme and Merciless Weather of Patagonia With Chris Burkard

by Michael Bonocore

“I’ve made my living from being in the right place at the right time. And right now is neither”

If you are one of Chris Burkard’s 3.3 million followers on Instagram, then you undoubtedly have a steady feeling of FOMO hitting your feed daily. There is no other way to describe it. Burkard posts some of the most incredible outdoor photography out there today, and it seems like his life is one big adventure. Well, spoiler alert. It is. Check out the article Burkard wrote for Resource Travel about how adventure is his biggest inspiration.

But, not everything always lines up perfectly in Burkard’s globe trotting life. Sometimes, the 32-year old photographer from Pismo Beach, California has those trips that don’t exactly work out as planned. But for Burkard, the stakes are always higher, as much of his travel is for large adventure brands.

Such was the case when I ran into Burkard in Patagonia last April. He was shooting a campaign called #SpiritOfExploration for the Montblanc 1858 Collection, and I was in the wild and remote region co-leading a month worth of workshops with my friend Colby Brown. Just as our first team departed from El Chalten, Argentina, a massive storm system rolled through. Suddenly, the postcard views of Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre were no where to be found, instead replaced with a wall of white. A thick wall of white. And that wall had a lot of rain. Sideways rain. And wind. Oh man, that wind. We got a taste of the real Patagonia, one of the most brutal and extreme environments in the world. 

To give you some context as to what is behind that wall, here is a photo I took at sunset shortly before the storm system came through. 

Well, as that storm rolled through, so did Chris Burkard. Needless to say, this wasn’t the conditions that he nor the film crew was expecting or hoping for. But, impressively, they took the cards they were dealt and told an engaging and beautifully filmed story about how the spirit of exploration can live on, even when the weather is your worst enemy. I sat down with Chris Burkard in between his adventures to follow up with him about his time in Patagonia, how the story of the film changed over the course of the harsh nearly two-week period, and about how he finds inspiration to keep shooting, even when the things aren’t going his way. We were also lucky enough to get some behind-the-scenes photos of the adventure from Ryan Hill.

We have talked extensively about your film ‘Under an Arctic Sky’ where things didn’t quite go as planned, but somehow in the end, the final adventure was even more exciting then the original plan. In this short film for Montblanc, it seems that lucky break you got in Iceland never materialized in Patagonia. With so much riding on this project, how do you keep yourself inspired when another day goes by without that lucky break? And more importantly, when it was all over, did the thought of ‘what could have been’ haunt with you when you returned home?

Dealing with adversary, especially bad weather days, is something that I’ve become very accustomed to on projects over the years. Almost so much to the point where they seem like a necessary part of the process, as it makes those lucky breaks so much more rewarding when they happen. I find that when things aren’t going the way I envisioned, my inspiration turns from what’s actively happening to what could be. It gives you time to really think about how you’re going to capitalize when things turn around, how you may approach things differently, and making sure your fully prepared for when it happens. Focusing on those things keep me inspired and help me stay positive.

I would lying if I didn’t say I thought of what could of been, but that’s a natural part of any creative process. Looking back I’m really satisfied with what the project embodied because I feel it really showcased the raw elements of exploration. We didn’t try to sugarcoat the experience or make it something it wasn’t. It was an honest look at what happens when things don’t go to plan.

In the film, you spend time in a mountain home with a very photogenic local farmer. Who was this man? And is meeting him an experience that may be would not have come to be if the weather did go as planned?

He is an old time sheep farmer turned alpinist and a bit of a local legend in Patagonia as he was the first porter in the region that helped guide the likes of Yvon Chouinard and a lot of the original pioneers of climbing in Patagonia. Our local guide is a long time friend of his and had told us a few stories about him so when we had some extra downtime due to weather we knew we had to meet him. It was pretty crazy being able to hear about the early days of climbing in Patagonia and what those guys went through in the pursuit of progressing climbing. That encounter is a great example of something that wasn’t originally planned for but ended up being one of my favorite memories of the trip.

I am imagining the final film concept wasn’t what the original storyboard looked like, but to me, the final result lives up to the #SpiritOfExploration campaign even more so than the original concept. Was there ever any doubt in your mind that the film would have told an original and inspiring story?

The exciting part of embarking on any type of expedition like this are the elements that are unknown. You can plan as much as you want but when you are dealing with such fickle things like weather you never really know what is going to happen, or if anything will even go to plan. But that is what the spirit of exploration is really about. It’s about not knowing. It’s about coming face to face with and acknowledging that risk and deciding to go anyway.

I was less concerned about telling an inspiring or original story than I was about really authentically capturing what I feel is the spirit of exploration. For me that was what took precedent. Embracing those highs and lows and showcasing what that rollercoaster really looks like was what I was most focused on and what I think we were able to convey.

In the film you said “A trip like this humbles you. If everything goes perfect, you walk away completely unchanged.” When all was said and done, how did this far from perfect and challenging expedition to Patagonia change you?

More than anything this trip inspired me to want to get back to Patagonia. The raw force of the conditions there were nothing like I’ve experienced before so I’m dying to get back and see more of the region. It has such a rich history of exploration and my experience there really just reinforced how many stories there are to be told there.

See more from Chris Burkard on his websiteFacebook, and Instagram.

See more from Ryan Hill on his website and Instagram.

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