Mt Everest in a Day
If there’s one thing that intrigues me as much as cycling, it’s hearing stories of epic mountaineering adventures. Combine them both and you’ll have my undivided attention. The other day I received an email from a reader which captured my imagination and gave me something that I could almost relate to. This is a story about George Mallory’s gruelling preparation to climb the North Summit of Mt Everest by riding our very own Mt Donna Buang. Not once, but ten times…
I’m not sure where it fits in, but I recently read an account of my friend George’s escapades on Mt Donna Buang and thought that the article he wrote which chronicles his incredible efforts may be something worth publishing on Cycling Tips as an article of interest?
In short, George is a great friend of mine and his story is amazing! He and I are both very keen road cyclists. He is the grandson of the British mountaineer “George Mallory” and he and I met through climbing years ago. He is Melbourne based. He was invited to attend an expedition to climb the North Ridge of Everest. For training George had the idea of ‘doing Everest’ in Melbourne by climbing Donna Buang eight times in one day on his bike, (that would mean 8,800m of vertical height) roughly the same as Everest. After a years worth of attempts, he eventually managed 10 laps in a day!
What neither of us realised was that he would go on to climb Everest via the North Ridge, and in doing so became one of very few Australians to ever do so and survive, but more interestingly, George rates his “Everest in Melbourne” day on the bike as much harder!
Some interesting statistics for his ride : Distance was 372km, Total Elevation11, 000 meters, time in the saddle something like 15 hours plus!
Anyway, he wrote it up and recently gave me the article to read. I told him the best forum i knew to publish this was yr website and being modest, he said he didn’t think it was worthwhile! He said he didn’t mind if i showed to you.
If for nothing else I attached it for your interest. It’s a great read of one mans crazy obsession with a mountain and his bike!
The Mt Everest Day in Melbourne
by George Mallory
This “project” had first inspired me more than a year earlier when a mountaineering friend of mine recommended Mt Donna Buang as a good place to train. My reconnaissance to this delightful part of Victoria, which is just an hour from Melbourne, was a real eye-opener. There’s an excellent sealed road which winds its way between tall mountain ash and tree ferns all the way up the mountain. In the early morning, lyre birds can be spotted crossing the road. Crimson rosellas and flame robin can be seen in abundance and, on occasions I’ve seen yellow-tailed black cockatoo. On hot days the forest canopy provides nature’s own protection from the heat. There are a few vantage points from where, on a clear day, Melbourne’s skyscrapers are just visible. Half way up, at a hairpin bend, the road crosses a creek from where “mountain champagne” is available on tap. And best of all, Mt. Donna Buang is apparently too far from the city to attract crowds. In short, to a would-be Himalayan climber, it is a piece of paradise, well away from concrete and fumes, where one can cycle up and down a sizeable hill in some of Victoria’s most beautiful surroundings.
At first I was naive. I thought cycling to work kept my legs in condition and that I would be capable of riding up the mountain twice in succession. But at the start the second lap, my quadriceps went on strike. This glimpse of the mountain convinced me that, as a training ground for the Himalaya, where even too much strength and stamina is never enough, Mt Donna Buang had exceptional potential. And since Mt Everest was on my wish list, I started dreaming up epic training projects. I wondered how many times I could cycle up the mountain in a day. Was it five, or six? Or, maybe I should aim for eight! By doing eight laps of the hill my vertical gain would be 8,800 metres, approximately the altitude of Mt Everest. Would this be possible? How long would it take? What would stop me from going on to do ever more cumulative ascent? Was there a world record for this brand of stupidity? Would I need a support crew? And what would I discover, as I pushed towards my limit?
On my second training session, New Years Day 1993, I managed two laps. In retrospect, the exhaustion I felt towards the top of the second ascent seems pathetic, but, as Paul Kelly’s lyrics say, “From little things, big things grow”. I had become passionate about exploring my physiological boundaries at this brilliant venue and invested in a racing bike with a light aluminium frame and clipless pedals. While researching this acquisition I was concerned that having just two front chainrings (as against the three on my steel framed mountain bike) would not provide a gear ratio low enough for climbing the mountain. But my next training session proved this concern unfounded: the reduced weight and being able to pull up on the pedals, more than compensated for the lower gears available on my mountain bike.
The thrill of riding my mean machine definitely enhanced my performance. Even so it surprised me that, at the end of my second lap, I still felt strong. On the third lap my legs were tired and my back ached but I felt inspired and started a fourth lap. Towards the top, feeling pretty well knackered, I changed the tape to Jimmi Hendrix who helped squeeze the last drops from my energy tank.
It had taken me the whole day to do those four laps. Although repairing a punctured tyre had delayed me, it was clear that to do more than four ascents in a day would require the help of an alarm clock and a pre-dawn start. I began to enjoy the feeling of extreme exhaustion which these long days on Mt Donna Buang guaranteed and became a little obsessed with clocking up ever increasing amounts of ascent. It seemed a more convenient way of getting totally exhausted than using a year’s quota of annual leave on a trip to real mountains. My four laps, or 4,400 vertical metres, were nearly equivalent to Mt. Blanc. Five laps would be just short of Mt. Kilimanjaro and six would elevate me, metaphorically, above Mt. McKinley. And of course, eight laps would be a “Mt. Everest Day”.
My planning became, through necessity, more elaborate. Food was an important item for several reasons. Without sufficient fuel, I would “hit the wall” – marathon runner’s jargon for when their muscles run out of fuel. Having previously hit the wall while running a marathon, I was keen to avoid this nightmare. Finding the right food was not easy. Sweets are convenient but once the sugar has been burned up the body’s energy levels drop right off. Complex carbohydrates, like bread, are generally best. For me, a big caffeine hit was essential for the early starts.
In the early days, I was so concerned about weight, I did not to carry my pump and tyre patch kit. But these became standard equipment after a occasion on which I got a puncture at the top of the mountain, and had to walk all 17 miserable kilometres down to my car.
Music was planned with particular care. Typically, I would start with some classical music, say Dvorac’s ninth symphony or Beethoven’s sixth. This would serve to reign in my excitement. Then I would switch to rock – The Cure, Brian Adams, Midnight Oil and others – anything to occupy the silence. As the day wore on, I would select an ever more powerful stimulant – John Melancamp, Jimmi Hendrix and Jethro Tull. For that final lap of the day, nothing else proved quite as invigorating as “Alchemy”. Dire Straights’ music, did what its name suggested. It turned my quadriceps from lead to gold.
By autumn, my best pest performance on the Mount was six laps – 6,600 vertical metres, or translated, 204 horizontal kilometres, half of it uphill. I knew winter would not be suitable for serious attempts, because the weight of sufficient warm clothing would slow me right down. Whereas cycling up in the cold without warm clothes would be fine, descending would be frigid. On the last Sunday in March, I planned to attempt my “Mt Everest Day”, my name for the 8,800 metre objective. Two laps more than the six I had managed previously does not sound like an outrageous increase, but I was destined to learn the hard way, that the human body is not a machine. Marathon runners know that half of 42 is not 21, but 35. Although there is no limit to our endurance, we force back the boundaries in ever smaller increments and the effort required for a single forward step becomes ever greater. Mathematicians would say our limit is like an asymptote which we can approach but never reach.
For the big day, I evolved a plan I thought might give me a vital boost: that slight edge which might just make the difference. Instead of parking the car at the bottom of the hill, I based myself half way up. This ploy, I reasoned, would allow me to rest twice as many times as the conventional arrangement, once on the way up, and once on the way down. A rest half way down 17 kilometres of coasting does not appear to be useful, but it allowed me to gobble down some food which would then have ten minutes to settle before the next treadmill session. Another advantage was giving my neck a rest which tended to suffer on the descent.
Based on the experience of my previous training sessions I expected to average approximately two hours each lap. Sixteen hours is therefore the time I expected to be on the road, some two hours more than the available daylight at that time of year. The danger of a dark descent concerned me, so I planned to first reach the summit in the pre-dawn glow.
The plan worked well. The unfolding dawn is surely one of nature’s finest treats, and yet, most of us, myself included, rarely rise before first light. Even on those rare occasions when a particular commitment requires an early start, our focus is on getting washed, dressed and to the airport (or where ever) on time, rather than witnessing this primeval magic. On Mt. Donna Buang that morning, with only the occasional lyre bird for company, my soul rejoiced at the purity of this natural beauty.
Laps two, three and four followed a, by then, familiar routine. I would ride up to the top, switch off the walkman, coast down to the car, pause to munch a few biscuits and gulp some water, coast to the bottom, turn on the music, switch off my brain, pedal back up to the car, stop just long enough to stuff my face and change cassette, then start the next lap. Thoughts of the Mt. Everest Day were constantly on my mind and kept my mood buoyant. The illusion of success, created by being well ahead of my planned schedule, reinforced my energy levels and caused me to push harder than was prudent. On lap five I dipped into a patch of fatigue. My backside was feeling the effects of 9 hours in the saddle and the thought that I was little more than half way, adversely affected my motivation. I compared my state then with that at the same stage of my six lap session, and felt anxious.
By the end of lap five and 170 kilometres, it was apparent that I was slowing down. This depressed me and, consequently, all the elements of discomfort made their presence felt. I had to admit my back ached, my feet hurt and my backside was bloody sore. But I “hung in there” by telling myself climbing Mt. Everest was never meant to be easy and that, if my grandfather could see me, I would not want to give up short of a respectable performance.
With six laps complete and two to go, I started venturing into new territory (for me). At the risk of spoiling the story I should point out that I was, and still am, convinced professional cyclists would not regard eight laps of the hill, as an exceptional day’s training. But I am not a pro cyclist, I was just a would-be mountaineer in search of good training. This breaking of new ground relieved the monotony for a while. I checked all the functions on my trip computer and mentally patted myself on the back for having cycled 220 kilometres.
It was 7.00 p.m. when I stopped at the car after six and a half laps. The act of slumping down in the front seat of my car triggered an almost overwhelming temptation to pack up and go home. Only my obsession with the Mt Everest Day convinced me to coast down the hill for more time on the treadmill. The sun had set as I started up the second half of the seventh lap. Then a new ailment intruded on the controlled discomfort. My knee started hurting. I wondered if this new disorder was a psychological trick, designed to make me give up once I reached the car, or if it was serious knee trouble. As the light faded, I considered whether it might be prudent to revise my target down from eight to seven and half laps.
It was dark by the time I cranked up the steep section of road just below the car. Suddenly my resolve faltered and my strength vanished. Against this muscular mutiny I could muster no counter attack. As I caved in, there was, it seemed, no merit in carrying on. The prospect of fighting a rearguard action, by starting an eighth lap, vanished as profound exhaustion overwhelmed me.
During the winter months which followed, I dissected every detail of the past attempt. I assessed each of the principal variables and devised a strategy for another attempt. Parking my car half way up the mountain, I decided, had mixed blessings. Whereas I could rest twice on each lap, during that crucial period at the end of the day, it would be psychologically difficult to descend from half way up the hill, knowing that the only way back to the car was via the treadmill. Less commitment would be needed to start the eighth lap from the bottom of the hill, secure in the knowledge that, should “the wheels fall off”, I could simply coast back to the car.
Also, I had resolved not to think in terms of averages. The determination required to complete a lap at the end of the day had been substantially greater than that needed earlier on. In the morning it was easy to get ahead of schedule only to later become demoralised by the inevitable deterioration in average speed. I wondered if it would be best to abandon keeping track of time altogether, and mentally measure only the remaining distance. For that last lap, I would need all my emotional powers to overcome my wasted physical state. Finally, I would allow for the depressing effects of twilight by starting long before first light, and, in this way, hoped to harvest a dividend late in the day.
The music selection for the last lap was vital. If anything was going to extract the last remaining watts of power from my legs, it would need to be inspiring and invigorating music. I chose “Alchemy”, and figured if I prevented myself from hearing it for the few months prior, its transforming properties would be magnified.
Most importantly, I acknowledged, there was no substitute for training. If I could notch up several six-lap training sessions, surely I would find that elusive eighth lap. When spring arrived, I watched the weather forecast with intent, as I wanted to avoid any precipitation which would make the descent hazardous. My next training session was not an outrageous success. A cold change, forecast for late in the day, arrived early. The rain commenced within minutes of my 7 a.m. start. Any reasonable person would have packed up, but after the dormant winter months, I could not drive home empty handed. Up I went in the pouring rain. The cold was no problem on the ascent, but the descent was an epic. My clothes were sodden, the temperature was around 7°C and, combined with the induced 40 kilometre per hour wind, the cold was devastating. When I got to the car, I was shivering violently and my hands and feet had lost all sensation.
Due to poor weather and weekend commitments, the summer provided few opportunities for training. It was after the March equinox and daylight saving no longer applied when, at last, a moderate weather forecast coincided with a free day. I was not prepared for 8,800 vertical metres, but decided to start very early and just do what I could. Theoretically, if I could cycle the first two laps in the dark, there would be enough daylight for a big performance. So I set off at 2.30 a.m. and produced the result described up front.
My incentive to accomplish the Mt. Everest Day increased dramatically when I joined an expedition to climb Mt. Everest. In the winter months, although I longed to cycle, the cold and wet weather forced me to train by other means. Usually, I would walk up and down the closest hill with a heavy pack. This exercise is more intense than cycling so I hoped it would pay off on Mt. Donna Buang.
In mid-October, the weather bureau predicted a top temperature of 31°C for a Saturday. Here at last was my opportunity, and I intended to make the most of it. I packed up everything the night before and planned an early start. I wanted not only to practice an alpine start, but also to get a full day of training. The fact that I awoke 30 minutes before my alarm, which was set for 2.30 a.m., indicated how hyped I was. Eight laps I regarded as too much to hope for, and so, I left my Alchemy tape at home.
At 3.30 a.m. I mounted my trusty treadmill. The dry weather was in pleasant contrast to my previous early start. Although it was chilly, being dry made all the difference. The first ascent was uneventful but slow. Near the start of the descent, a wombat scampered across the road in front of me, providing a reminder of the dangers ahead.
First light arrived earlier than I expected and for the second ascent, I dispensed with my lights. When my brain woke up, I dreamed of what the day held in store. Since eight laps require 16 hours, the arithmetic said I could finish at 7.30 p.m., only half an hour after dark. What effect would fading light have this time? Darkness had, after all, not prevented me from doing the first lap. I knew there would be a bright moon and decided to at least think of myself as targeting 8,800 vertical metres. If I didn’t get that far, too bad.
The start of a big day is, in some ways, its lowest point. Sure, one has more energy than later in the day, but the weight of massive expectations has no counterweight of achievement. In keeping with my strategy of not thinking in terms of averages and progress, I kept brainwashing myself: “the first four are just a chore”. On countless occasions I told myself time was of no consequence. I tried to remove all performance pressure from the first six laps by telling myself that, if I felt like resting, I could, and that I should conserve energy for “number eight”.
The day wore on. When I had completed four laps, I did not allow myself the comfort of thinking of it as half way, because in terms of effort, I knew it wasn’t. On lap five, I no longer felt strong, but a sense of relentlessness took hold. Time was on my side and nothing, it seemed, would stop me. Six down, two to go. It sounded easy. But I kept reminding myself to save energy for the end which would involve cycling up the steepest part of the hill. On this stretch of road I have frequently reached speeds in excess of 75 km/h without pedalling. Seven down, just one more.
Damn! Where was “Alchemy”? Would my leaden legs perform without being transformed. I was about to surpass my personal best even it I did not complete the lap. Would a lesser record temp me to give up prematurely? I felt reasonable, considering I’d been up since 2.00 a.m., cycled 238 kilometres and hoisted myself up a cumulative 7,700 metres. Translated this means I felt pretty wasted but was not quite exhausted. I wondered about the 48 metre difference between my 8,800 metres and Everest’s altitude. How important was the analogy? Perhaps I should cycle an extra kilometre just to make sure.
And then, at last, I was finally doing the elusive eighth lap. I should have been awed by the occasion but instead could only feel my sore backside and painful feet. It got dark, but the moonlight proved adequate. A couple of cars passed me. I imagined the thoughts of their occupants: “What manner of lunatic!” My psychological preparation was paying off. I was definitely going to make it.
At the summit I paused. For the first time ever, I climbed to the top of the the observation tower and admired the view which, from the ground, is obscured by trees. Melbourne’s lights covered a vast area and I could just distinguish Port Phillip Bay.
Having bungled the descent once, I took extreme care that last time. Accidents happen, but idiots make the same mistake twice. That which normally takes 20 minutes in daylight, took over 50 in the moonlight. The 272 kilometre, 8,800 metre training session, ended 17 hours after it had begun. It had taken me one step closer to the asymptote. How would I take the next step?
Having recovered from the big day I was plagued by a niggling thought: “I did actually have some energy left at the end, so what’s the next step?” I wondered whether I should aim for a nice round number like 10,000 vertical metres. This distance, I figured, would take about 20 hours and, since it would involve a lot of night riding, I wondered if it wouldn’t perhaps be better to start at sunset, ride through the night and stop when I had finished the job.
I chose the weekend of a full moon and was delighted when I heard hot, dry weather was forecast. After work on Friday, I packed the car and drove out to Warburton. When I started riding at 9.30 p.m., it was dark but still warm. The challenge of riding through the night was exhilarating.
On the first lap the moon was low in the sky and did not provide much illumination but as the night wore on and the moon rose higher, I was able to do without my light. Dawn arrived on my fourth lap and on the fifth, at 7 a.m. I lay down on the verge and slept for five minutes.
The goal of 10,000 cumulative metres of ascent, although it is a nice round number, is not that easy to measure. I had done some calculations at home and knew how far up the hill I would need to ride to gain the extra metres after the ninth lap (9,900 metres) was complete. But I thought it a messy way to measure a major project. Then it occurred to me that once I had started on the tenth lap, I would probably be able, somehow, to keep going. So at some point thqt day I clearly defined my objective: ten laps of Mt. Donna Buang, or 11,000 vertical metres. And at 8.15 p.m., 22 hours and 45 minutes after I had started, I finished.
Apart from the somewhat bizarre experience of riding through the night, doing the ten laps was similar to doing eight, except perhaps it required more determination. This was particularly noticeable at the start of the seventh lap. I had cycled 204 kilometres and found the thought of the remaining 136 kilometres daunting. The only thing which kept my spirits up was a promise to myself: “If you do ten laps you can take a long break from this type of training.”
It did not take long for me to break the promise. A month later I found myself back out at the mountain with the objective of doing 11 laps in a 24 hour session. But it was not to be and after eight laps a dose of diarrhoea forced me to stop and I’ve never been back. I have no plans to return to Mt Donna Buang and put the limits but the training I did worked a treat for me on Mt Everest in 1995.
It’s been a while since I wrote that piece (circa 1996) and as I recall I say in it that I never went back to Donna after the 10 laps. Well, that’s definitely out of date. I did my PB on Sunday (58m14s by my watch). It’s on Strava. No big deal…..