Crossing continents to concentrated climbs: Tips and tales from top female Everester Gaye Bourke

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Gaye Bourke is no stranger to challenging herself on the bike. Her growing list of riding adventures include a 23,000 kilometre trip around Australia and a journey from London to Melbourne which spanned 19 countries. Even when at home, she still finds ways of pushing her cycling boundaries. The 49-year-old is the top female Everester, having completed the extreme climbing challenge – which involves continuously riding up and down one hill until reaching 8,848 metres of vertical ascent – five times. Now, she plans to add a sixth completion to the list as she joins the Climb for Nepal fundraiser. Read on to learn more about Bourke’s motivation to keep chasing incredible adventures on the bike and her tips for tackling challenges of your own.

About 20 years ago, Bourke heard about a 1,800 kilometre ride from Adelaide to Uluru. She had not long ago taken up riding as a way of getting to work and didn’t have cash to spare, yet was determined to make the trip. She sold her car, bought her first road bike and set out on an adventure that would help shape the rest of her life. Along the way, she met her husband and discovered a passion for exploring by bike as she rode through the remote outback.

Ed _ gaye's Wedding 11th April, 2004 072

“That time in the middle of nowhere means you really don’t have anything to focus on except the day’s ride and the people that you’re with,” said Bourke. “It gave me a bit of space to think: ‘This is where my life is going and if I don’t like it then it is time to stop and head in another direction.’ ”

It wasn’t long before Bourke joined her husband Ed at his cycle touring business and then, after spending time helping others go on dream cycling adventures, they decided it was time to tackle their own. In 2000 they started an 18-month trip around Australia. It started with the populated east coast, to get their bodies in to shape for the arduous journey across the remote dirt and sand roads in the top-end of Australia. This was Bourke’s first loaded cycling tour but once she got the taste for it, and heard tales of cycling adventures from other riders they met on the way, it became clear that when this adventure was over, the planning for the next would begin.

The dream of another huge expedition turned into a reality as Bourke and her husband set off on the 30,000 kilometre ride from London to Melbourne in 2005. Bourke cycled through 19 countries, including Iran, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Vietnam and China. Bourke said she was regularly asked about dangers faced and scary moments, though struggles to find examples of hostility. Instead, she happily reels off many of the generosity and curiosity they were greeted with, particularly in areas where tourists were a rarity.

Riding through China. The country would present some of the toughest terrain and the most challenging weather conditions.
Riding through China. The country would present some of the toughest terrain and the most challenging weather conditions.

“We were really fortunate in that most people were so kind and so hospitable. I think your greatest risk was being overfed. People kept taking you home and feeding you more and more,” said Bourke.

It was in fact the weather that proved to be one of the biggest challenges.

Bourke has ridden in every kind of weather. She crossed the Andes (from Argentina to Chile) in the snow.
Bourke has ridden in every kind of weather. She crossed the Andes (from Argentina to Chile) in the snow.

“We tried to plan the route so we had a continuous summer, but it really didn’t work out that way,” said Bourke. “We got snowed on in France, Switzerland, Kyrgzstan and China. Especially in China there were some really long distances with not very much. We found it very difficult to get any information about the route we were taking. Often you would start out in the morning with no idea you were about to climb a long, steep mountain where it would be snowing.”

The trips have continued since then, but on a slightly smaller scale, with rides to the tip of Cape York, through Argentina, Chile and Uruguay as well as around Spain, Morocco and Portugal. However, even when Bourke is staying close to home, the cycling challenges continue.

Last year, Bourke was captured by the idea of Everesting and took on a climb of Mt. Majura in Canberra. She climbed it 53 times, taking her ascent beyond the 8,848 metres required to over 10,000 metres.

“I just find pushing myself really satisfying. If you can do something that you don’t think you can, or you’re not sure you can, then the reward is even greater,” said Bourke. “The first Everesting I did was really special because I didn’t know if I would have the legs. I was really so nervous and excited. That whole day I just climbed on adrenaline and excitement.”

Eversting on Tawonga Gap  in September 2014. This was Bourke's second  (of five) Everestings. She tackles Everesting #6 on June 20.
Eversting on Tawonga Gap in September 2014. This was Bourke’s second (of five) Everestings. She tackles Everesting #6 on June 20.

She had only planned on doing the one, but then heard about the challenge of four Everestings; one on a significant climb, one short, one suburban, one on dirt and at least one of those with an ascent over 10,000 metres. Once she had ticked those climbs off, she again thought she was finished with Everesting and ready to move onto other pursuits. However, an all-female mass Everesting on Donna Buang was too hard to resist.

In April she took on the High Roleurs journey, another extreme challenge cooked up by Hells 500. She completed the required 10,000m of vertical ascent, but added an extra 100 km to the distance target to make it a 500 km ride. Then along came the the Climb for Nepal, which has linked Hells 500, Strava and More than Sport to raise funds for the earthquake devastated region. The idea is to inspire cyclists to raise money as they clock up 8,848 metres of climbing in June, either in one effort or over the entire month.

Bourke is planning to climb the hill to the National Arboretum in Canberra with five other riders on June 20 to raise money as part of the Climb for Nepal. It will take about 88 ascents to rack up the required 8,848 metres of climbing.

A stop for snacks on Red Hill during Everesting number three.
A stop for snacks on Red Hill during Everesting number three.

Bourke, a field work technician for the Australian National University, has just come back from a couple of weeks working in the heat of northern Australia and is not looking forward to the frosty winter weather for which Australia’s capital is renowned.

“This one is a little scary because it is Canberra and it is June,” said Bourke. “We are likely to spend about a third of our time climbing in sub-zero temperatures. It could be the toughest one yet because of the cold. Mentally that is really hard. We are just hoping we get a night where the temperature doesn’t fall too far below zero.”

One benefit is that cold weather training may come in handy for Bourke. A trip in the Americas, from the Arctic Circle in Alaska right through to the bottom of South America, is on the cards for next year.

It seems that Bourke will always have plans for a new cycling adventure:

The bike for me is all about possibility. There are so many things you can do on a bike. You can ride it to work, you can ride it around the world, you can race on it and you can use it to go and meet friends for coffee or to have a picnic.

I don’t own anything else that brings me as much joy as my bike. It is that simple really.”

Bourke’s top five Everesting tips:

  1. Have a Minder. Find someone who you respect, whose advice you value and that is prepared to tell you the things you don’t want to hear, like you are not eating or drinking enough.
  2. Eat regularly. Eat enough and be flexible with your consumption plan. If you get something like a howling headwind or really difficult conditions it may mean that you need more calories than you had calculated.
  3. Choose your climb carefully. Pick an uphill that suits your riding style and don’t forget to think about the downhill. Make sure it is not a steep technical downhill, because you really don’t want to be working too hard when you are going descending. That roll back is your recovery time where you rest, relax and get ready to tackle the next climb.
  4. Give it a try. Make sure you are familiar with your climb before you try and Everest it.
  5. Train. Find a hill that is steeper than the one you plan to Everest and in the few weeks beforehand go and do some hill repeats of that climb. That way the one you are planning to Everest feels a little less steep and difficult by comparison. Just make sure you aren’t out doing hill repeats too close to the Everesting, as you should be taking it easy then

Bourke has had so many huge adventures on the bike that we have only just scraped the surface in this article. Check out her fantastic blog to read more. You can donate to the Canberra Everesting fundraising efforts here.

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