Ever since surveyors pronounced it the world’s highest peak, Everest has held a kind of power over us. It is more than a mountain; it is a symbol of something so frighteningly large and monumental that it has become a yardstick, a unit of measurement for anything big in our lives. In this post CyclingTips’ Andy van Bergen writes about an epic challenge that he and his Hells 500 cycling crew took on last weekend: Everesting.
The idea of climbing the height of Mt. Everest in a single ride was both inspirational and sickening. And yet, the idea was gnawing in the back of our skulls and just wouldn’t go away. George faced multiple failures in his attempt to ‘Everest Mt. Donna Buang, but went on to climb Everest as a mountaineer several months later on his only attempt. The Hells 500 crew likes climbing hills, but ‘Everesting’ a climb was something else.
Nearly two years after publishing George’s story about Everesting Donna Buang, CyclingTips launched the Vuelta Skelta Strava Challenge — a challenge to climb 7,135m in two weeks. While most riders were content with simply completing the required vertical, there are always riders who take these challenges to the next level.
John van Seters (who happens to be my uncle) rode 20 repeats of the 1 in 20 climb from the Basin to Sassafras to become the first entrant in the world to complete the 7,135m target. He went back the following weekend and, with 30 laps of the 1 in 20, became the first rider (that we know of) to Everest that particular climb.
And there it was. It was all about being first. The first ascent of Everest in 1953 had started a race to claim more difficult routes, harder mountains, and a dozen other permutations that still see records being set today. Likewise we could also see a race. A race to be the first to claim an Everesting of a climb by riding repeats until we ticked over that magical 8,848m mark.
The thing was we could Everest a hors categorie icon, but equally we could Everest a suburban staple, so long as somebody else wasn’t already doing it. We were limited only by our imagination.
“When I received the first email about the concept of Everesting my initial thought was that it simply wasn’t possible”, wrote Chris. “I actually considered not being a part of it.” He wasn’t alone.
The short message with the subject ‘EPIC 2014’ had initially found its way to a small crew of climbers. Without knowing what they were signing up for, other riders completed 5,000m ride qualifiers before having the concept explained to them. Over the course of the next four months more than 120 invites went out. The reception was generally the same with recipients going through three distinct phases (quite often via unrepeatable texts and emails):
1. Shock (“What the hell? Is this even possible?! Can I do this?”)
2. Acceptance (“What climb is going to suit me best? Which climbs haven’t been taken yet?”)
3. Assurance (“Which mad bastard has signed up for [insert name of steep local climb here]?!”)
The climb selection was important. Each rider needed to consider their own preferred style of riding, be it grinding out low-gradient kilometer after kilometer (the longest Everest so far is 430km), or getting it over and done with on a steep hill (the shortest Everest so far is 198km). Factors such as traffic, lighting, wildlife, access for support, and remoteness also needed to be considered.
Some of the crazier climb choices included the first 9km of the Back of Falls Creek, Inverness Road in the Dandenongs, and Mt. Baw Baw. These climbs might take less distance to Everest but all at the expense of steep gradients.
In the period leading up to the Everesting weekend, the rider numbers started to drop — the reality of the challenge was starting to hit home. Heading into the Everesting weekend we had 65 determined participants attempting climbs across Australia and New Zealand.
As the clock ticked past midnight to begin the final day of summer the first of the Everesting riders clipped in, and kicked off a chain of epic solo rides.
Early reports were sketchy. Most riders in those first dark hours were content with getting warmed up for the day and getting a solid portion of their ride done before the sun rose.
“It’s obscene when the first 3,000m of a ride is treated as a warm-up”, wrote Luke. “It’s not often you have four grand in the bank before breakfast.”
The only way to approach the full challenge was to break it up into bite-sized morsels. For riders with shorter climbs and a greater number of required laps this lead to some of the most ridiculous top-tube guides ever seen.
The number of repetitions ranged from Josh’s six ascents of Mt. Hotham (thanks to the generous climbs on the descent) to Mike’s insane 352 repeats of Anderson Street alongside The Tan. Regardless of the climb and the number of required reps, the theme would be the same.
The first 3,000m of climbing was the warm-up. Up to 4,000m provided the first niggles and soreness that would revisit riders later in the day. The brain-numbing doldrums from 5,000-7,000m were enough to drive most to thoughts of quitting. And from 7,000m onwards things started to get interesting.
In mountaineering, they call it the death zone. The invisible line that is drawn at 8,000m, above which things start to break down and every step becomes a struggle. Former mountaineer and local cyclist Paul Adler describes his Everest summit experience as being akin to sprinting hard on a bike.
“You are using every ounce of core strength to heave your diaphragm in and out. You feel like you could vomit. Your legs are burning. Above 8,000m you literally have to force yourself to take a few steps before you have to stop to catch your breath, because you just can’t go any further.”
For our riders, we found the death zone at 7,000m. Granted, George Mallory had warned us — “prepare to suffer from around 7,000 metres” — and considering he had been there a half-dozen times we were inclined to believe him.
Bodies were starting to break down. The majority of us were in uncharted territory. Everything ached, but not just the expected staples of back, knees, and shoulders. Toes were smashed into the corners of shoes, ribs tightened from the exertion, and the hip-rocking that comes from a slow dismantling of technique had an unfortunate effect on contact points. The 7,000m death zone was claiming scalps.
“I was feeling really strong up until 5pm, and suddenly at the end of a lap I got hit with a sudden dizzy spell and almost collapsed. That’s when the body went into shock. I kept jettisoning all of the fluids that I was putting in, and even though I drank eight litres of fluid on the day I collapsed from dehydration and couldn’t move for an hour after that.
“I got back on the bike and gave it everything I had, but at 10pm, and after 18 hours on the bike totally wrecked, I fell short by only 1,400 vertical metres.”
Brendan was not the only one to fall tantalisingly close.
Aaron found himself in hospital after hitting a kangaroo in the dark, Geoff tore a fist-sized hole in his tyre 290km in, and Cyril decided, “with only 2 laps to go it was time to stop when my heart went into atrial fibrillation”. The seriousness of what we had all signed on for became increasingly apparent.
One by one systems were shutting down. Most of us had been on the road for 12-15 hours at this stage. A surprising adversary was the velvet sledgehammer of tiredness. Sarah — the first woman we know of to Everest a climb — explains:
“The last couple of laps were surreal; it was mechanical in my legs but my head was totally disconnected. Fighting off sleep the lines on the road were blurred. I was crying and talking rubbish out loud. I had resorted to counting every metre of elevation hysterically wanting it to be over.”
The strange thing about watching your body fall apart is the incredibly rapid turnaround when there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Catching John at the top of the 20%+ ramps of Inverness Road before his final repeat he was wearing a grin from ear to ear.
“I’ve got this one in the bag now. Only one to go”. Hours earlier he was on the brink of pulling the pin.
As each attempt drew to a close we started to hear the stories of the riders’ experiences. And with climbs attempted in such different locations – from the city, to the suburbs, to the rolling foothills and into the mountains — there were plenty of stories to tell.
The race is on.