At midnight 22 women stood at the bottom of Mt Donna Buang near Melbourne in the light of the moon, steeling themselves for the many hours of pain ahead. They were about to spend nearly all of Saturday in an 8,848 metre high battle with their legs, lungs and minds.
The aim for each one of them was to complete an Everesting, which involves cycling multiple laps of one climb to achieve a vertical ascent equal to the height of the world’s tallest mountain. But this was also about much more than individual goals. The plan was to inspire other women by pulling together the biggest mass Everesting attempt since Hells 500 launched the extreme climbing challenge nearly a year ago.
The attempt started as soon as the clock ticked over to Saturday. Twenty-two women rolled onto the slopes of Mt Donna Buang in the middle of a still night with clear skies, a generous dose of moonlight and a mild temperature. Fortunately the 1,245 metre high mountain, which is the birthplace of Everesting, had not turned on one of its renowned cold snaps that night.
It was the perfect start for many. They caught glimpses of city lights and twinkling stars through gaps in the forest on the 17 kilometre long ascent and then focussed on safely winding their way back down the mountain with just the beam of a headlight to show the way.
“I loved it. It was clear and I had great lights and it was a new experience for me. I was just running on adrenaline for those three descents in the dark,” said Katya Crema, an Olympic skier who started riding her bike as cross-training.
But for others the start wasn’t so smooth. The mountain sits in a national park heavily populated with wildlife, so startled wallabies, wombats and birds at times emerged onto the road. The usually appealing sight of native animals peering out from the thick undergrowth became unnerving as they darted out into the thin beams of the headlights. One rider had to dust herself off after falling because of a close encounter with a wombat.
By the time the sun started to rise and most of Melbourne’s cyclists were thinking about setting out on their rides most of the women had already climbed over 3,000 metres. They had three of the required 8.2 laps ticked off.
The morning light delivered quicker descents, views over the Yarra Ranges national park and a continuing flow of new support riders, but even in the middle of the night the women didn’t have to tackle the mountain alone. Friends, family and experienced Everesters all came out to keep the spirits of the cyclists high as they worked their way up and down the climb, which has an average gradient of 6.4 percent.
“I haven’t seen that sort of positive energy around an endurance event like this before. That’s directly down to this incredible community that just came out to support them through lap after lap,” said CyclingTips Business Development Manager and Hells 500 founder Andy van Bergen, who organised the event.
Those keen to come out and cheer the women on went far beyond those who knew the riders. Pro-cyclists sent messages, locals waved in encouragement as they drove by and hundreds of men and women drove hours to get out and ride with them.
“I came out today to support the individuals Everesting but also to support women’s riding and the fact that women can get out there and do this epic amazing thing,” said Shari Aubrey, who joined a support ride organised by Domestique.
As morning turned to afternoon most of the riders were either on or soon to start their sixth lap. This was the point when many said the lack of sleep, the pain and the continued effort really started to weigh heavily. A little rain also began to fall, resulting in slower descents because of the wet roads. For some of the women it was time to take a longer break or to slow down, one had to make the tough decision to withdraw but others somehow managed to just keep going at the same pace.
It was the ability to keep the speed up that meant it was only 17 hours into the mass attempt when Prita Jobling-Parker became the first rider to mark on the lap sign off board that she had completed the challenge and her day on the bike was over. She did it with a smile on her face and the energy to lift up one of her young sons as her family came to congratulate her at the finish.
“I’m so elated,” said Jobling-Baker. “I love this mountain. It is quite special to me because it was my first big climb when I started road cycling and it seemed so hard … I never would have done this alone.”
“It was actually hard from lap two and I said to myself well it doesn’t get less hard if you go slowly so you might as well just keep going fast.” Her last lap, was in fact her fastest of the day. She finished just before 5 pm.
From then a trickle of smiling riders started signing off that they had completed their final climb, most with a surprising degree of bounce in their step as the adrenaline and relief of having achieved a climb of 8,848 metres momentarily pushed the aches and pains aside.
Some also took the extreme challenge even further, targeting 10,000 metres of climbing. Gaye Bourke, who has now completed five successful Everestings and two of 10,000 metres, was one of these.
“It is just fantastic when you achieve something you have set out to do so it’s a huge buzz. It has been a wonderful day because … all the women out there have just been inspiring to watch,” said Bourke, who was managing to smile contentedly even as she eased her clearly aching body down to the ground to take a seat.
“Everyone has been so positive, everyone has been focussed but really upbeat and determined, really really determined. The people still out there now, they have been out there since midnight. It’s a long time but people are still focussed and they are still smiling. It’s great.”
As Bourke and the other earlier finishers headed off for a well-earned rest some of those still out on the mountain were able to muster a smile and keep pedalling strongly, knowing their target was nearly within grasp. Others, though, were now hunched over the handle bars. As they approached the top of the climb they wore that vacant look in the eyes that comes when there is so little energy left that all that seems to exist is the few metres of road ahead and the next couple of pedal strokes.
For some the thought of pushing their bodies any further after having already racked up so many thousands of metres of climbing was starting to look an impossible task.
“Post 8,000 metres I was struggling. I think I was completely delirious. I couldn’t even lift my arms to my face to lift my sunnies off,” said Anna Thompson, the co-founder of women’s cycling clothing group Fondo.
Thomson was five kilometres from the top of Mt Donna Buang on her eighth lap when she got off the bike exhausted. To complete the challenge she needed to finish that climb, descend and then face up to another few kilometres of ascent to complete the distance. She managed to convince herself that she could get back on the bike with the encouragement of other riders, her friends and her husband.
“I was ready to pull the pin but once I decided to keep going I think I did that last five kilometres (of the climb) quicker than I had done it on any of the others. I got to the top and just kept saying to myself you can do this, you can do this.”
And she did. When Thompson finished it was well and truly dark and about 21 hours had passed since the start. Others were still out there continuing their long day in the saddle. It was around 23 hours in to the challenge when the final rider completed the 8,848 metres and 24 hours had gone by before the last rider called it quits on her monumental Everesting attempt.
In the end 20 women successfully completed the challenge, with three taking the extra step and ascending 10,000 metres. The two who didn’t make the 8,848 metres still racked up an admirable total of more than 6,000 metres of climbing each. Each of the finishers cycled more than 250 kilometres and combined the 22 women ascended more than 190 kilometres. The success rate was way beyond expectations as it is usually closer to 50%, said van Bergen.
In just one day the number of women entitled to a place in the Everesting hall of fame list nearly tripled.
The 20 women who completed the Mt Donna Buang mass Everesting:
- Gaye Bourke (10,000 m)
- Nicole van Bergen
- Hazel Porter
- Jennifer Brown
- Prita Jobling-Baker
- Katya Crema
- Doris Marr (10,000m)
- Justine Barrow
- Bianca Pickett
- Verita Stewart
- Courtney Henry
- Kirsten Horsburgh
- Irene Sheppard
- Anna Thomson
- Katie Taylor
- Ania Ligas
- Sarah Hammond (10,000 m)
- Purdie Long
- Adele Gunston
- Kat Carter