The story behind the story: Launching Everesting

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Naturally the plan to get a pre-Everesting sleep in the car on the way out to Mt Buller in Victoria’s Northeast was a deeply flawed one. My brain was still in overdrive from a flatout day at CyclingTips, and to counteract the lack of sleep I’d had the night before I had been in a heightened state of jittery caffeine overdose since early that morning.

The main reason though, was that I was quietly (maybe not so quietly) shitting myself. Here it was. I’d put it out to the community, and therefore there was simply no option of bailing out on completing 8,848m (29,028ft) of vert in a single ride. I’d called the challenge, and if I failed I’d be subjected to an unending stream of “At least you gave it a go” comments. Avoiding those well-intentioned messages of support was by biggest motivator.

As we arrived at our basecamp for the weekend my phone was confiscated and I was hurriedly ushered off to bed for some final shut-eye. Seemingly a moment after my head hit the pillow my dad was shaking me awake. It was go-time and I was the undead, bleary-eyed and fumbling my way into neatly laid out kit for the biggest ride of my life, feeling like I’d come off a three-day bender. A nauseous cocktail of sleep deprivation and adrenaline kept conversation to distracted single-syllable responses during the drive to the base of the climb, and far too soon I was clipped in and shivering as I rolled past the gatehouse for the first lap of the challenge with only my laboured breathing to keep me company.

The thing they don’t tell you about riding in the country under a canopy of trees at midnight is just how dark that inkwell gets. I’d discovered this the hard way two years earlier. A last-minute decision to get some early kays out of the way during our ‘Three Long Five High’ epic saw a group of ten of us set out at 4am from the relatively well-lit Falls Creek resort.

Armed with no more than commuting lights (admittedly some in the group with no lights at all) we had not even left sight of the village when it quickly became apparent that we were a couple of lumens short upstairs. With a front light aimed directly at the ground and tears streaming from my squinting eyes it was possible to just make out the yellow centre line whizzing by below me. My concentration on watching that only point of reference was so intent that when an equally surprised bird slammed into my chest I very nearly ended up over a guardrail. It’s the only time I can ever recall having to do a legitimate headcount for other riders at the base of a climb and expecting to come up short.

It was a hard-earned cycling lesson, but one that saw me well-prepared for the hours of darkness I was expecting at Buller for my Everesting attempt. A full moon was out under a cloudless sky, and while I was equipped with enough wattage to burn a shadow into the road of any wildlife on the descent, the majority of climbing was bathed in glorious silvery moonlight.

With each dark ascent taking more than an hour, a couple of times I was so lost in dreamy thoughts that I almost fell asleep on the bike, only to be roused by a rabbit skittling past, or yet another unidentified heart-stopping crash emanating from the bushes. As my mind wandered at some point around 2am I was shocked back to reality by a blood-curdling scream that ripped through the air. Everything froze as in slow motion I rounded the bend to be met face-to-lower-torso with a towering stag. If you haven’t had the delight of hearing a stag ‘barking’ at 2am in the middle of the forest on a solo ride then you have aged two years less than me. (Note for those reading this at work — turn the speakers right down before clicking that link!)

As the flight component of instinct kicked in I tore off up the road, fumbling for lights and swearing obscenities, my heart pounding out of my chest. From this point on the ride became solely focused on the countdown to dawn, accompanied by 850 blazing lumens.

It’s been three years since the weekend that kickstarted the Everesting phenomenon. Since then there have been more than 1,500 successes (and at a conservative guess probably triple that in failed attempts). There have been mass Everestings, like the record group of women on Mt Donna Buang, as well as former pro riders, such as Jens Voigt, and charity-related events, like the Climb for Nepal that attracted nearly 150,000 Strava athletes. It’s spawned hundreds of hours of video, thousands of ‘sherpas’ (the term affectionately applied to cyclists who ride in support), tens of thousands of photos, and countless millions of impressions in press coverage (following the launch weekend it was a top-10 trending article across the entire Australian Fairfax network for nearly a week).

The reason for settling on a big chunk of the Himalayas as the cornerstone of a cycling challenge is a whole other story.

My gut told me that as a concept it could take off, but I also knew that there needed to be an instant fear of missing out on being able to claim a “first ascent” on your favourite hill in order to drive people to take up the challenge. It could never simply trickle onto the scene. It was going to have to suddenly “exist” overnight, and in order to do that I needed a lot of people I’d never met before to keep the launch weekend a secret.

As a barrier to even find out about this mysterious challenge, riders had to show evidence of previously climbing 5,000m in a single ride. It was a spur of the moment decision to ensure that riders would likely be capable of an Everesting, however I didn’t consider that people would start devising training plans to meet the qualification requirement!

In the end, more than 130 cyclists from around the globe qualified to “get the skinny” on this secretive challenge. I recall receiving polite (and impolite) suggestions of where to stick a challenge that involved 8,848m of climbing in a single ride. Many were upset, after having trained for weeks to do the biggest ride of their life as a qualifier, to discover the truly fiendish nature of the real ride. Thankfully of the 60-or-so that declined the invitation for that launch weekend, the majority have since gone on to claim their own Everesting.

Secrecy was the key to this working, and it was under this expectation that training commenced, with subtle (and not-so-subtle) ride names being given. Hilariously I discovered recently that some of the riders taking part took the secrecy so seriously that they didn’t even tell their own partners! After swearing the pain of death and a lifetime of heckling from the community if they broke the embargo, somehow the 130 who qualified managed to keep things under wraps.

A few days before the launch weekend I set up a Strava route to double-check my elevation gain (which would prove to be inaccurate, a fact I disappointingly realised at 1am when it became apparent I would be doing a demoralising nine laps of Mt Buller, rather than the original eight laps I had calculated).

What I didn’t realise, as I gave my route the indecipherable name of “Hells 500 Epic: Everesting 8848m in a single ride,” was that the creation of this route hit the newly created Strava news feed, an action that could not be panic undone. Within a few minutes my phone was running hot with messages from the crew, helpfully letting me know of my error. I hate to think how I would have reacted if it was someone else that let slip. Stupid mistakes are more forgivable when they’re your own.

Of the 65 riders who took the Everesting challenge into existence that weekend, there were just over 40 successes. Overnight, a term was coined that has now found it’s way into the common cycling vernacular (it’s no Oxford Dictionary definition, but there is a Wikipedia entry). It’s a simple idea, however it doesn’t take much digging to get a sense of the magnitude of this challenge for riders. It’s for this reason that the bond between fellow Everesters is so great. It’s a seemingly tenuous link, given the vastly different distances, gradients, ride times, and terrain that each rider selects for their Everesting, however that common link provides all the justification required to support other potential members of the community.

It’s this connection with the community, combined with the sentimental value attached to the three-year anniversary, that has me planning my own next attempt. It’ll be number five for me, and with two young daughters at home, and base kays consisting largely entirely of commuting to work, they are getting more and more difficult each time. The physical aspect is what it is, and experience reminds me I can deal with the mental aspect. Let’s just hope for fewer nocturnal surprises lurking in the inky shadows.

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