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Words: Wade Wallace | Photography: Tim Bardsley-Smith | Videography: Christophe Margot
It all started when my mate Julian who works for Scott Bikes said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do an Everesting with someone who has actually climbed Mount Everest?”
I have the utmost respect for people who have done an ‘Everesting’ or anything in the realm of this type of challenge, but it’s not my cup of tea. I rarely have the attention span to ride over 100km these days.
But Julian’s idea resonated with me. My good friend Paul Adler and his wife Fiona had climbed Everest in 2006 and 2007 and their stories are fascinating. There are very few people on Earth who have summited Mount Everest and can ride a bike at this level, and one of them just happens to be one of my best mates, Paul.
We wanted to make it so that we didn’t retrace any of our steps, and we wanted to incorporate some lesser-known gravel roads.
When I called Paul up to see if he’d be interested in doing an Everesting, we began taking the idea further and decided on riding a massive loop around Annecy, France where he lives. We wanted to make it so that we didn’t retrace any of our steps, and we wanted to incorporate some lesser-known gravel roads. It would give us a good bonding experience, an excuse for me to visit him after Eurobike, and, most of all, a way for me to be able to tell his fascinating Mount Everest story with the backdrop of doing a massive ride.
So the planning began. One of the biggest challenges and difficult logistical tasks for this ride was for Paul to find a loop that didn’t retrace any of our steps, and accurately took in more than 8,848m of elevation gain. Mapping the route on Strava was inaccurate up to 20% above the true elevation, and our GPS devices were also mismatched.
We didn’t want to return home at 3am, just a few hundred metres shy, and have to go out again, searching for climbs when we’d done nearly all in the area. Nor did we want to do a single metre more than 8,848m! So Paul had to study multiple maps, summit signs, Strava routes, ride sections himself, and corroborate everything to make sure we were 100% sure of the cumulative elevation gain.
We woke up at 3am on a Tuesday morning to set off by 4am. We wanted to maximise our daylight hours, and make sure that we weren’t too tired when nightfall set in.
This is a similar rationale to that used by mountaineers’ in their final summit bid on Mount Everest. It’s not when you’re going up that it’s dangerous and when mistakes often happen; it’s when you’re fatigued and coming down. Reaching the summit is only half way.
To be honest, it wasn’t as much of a physical challenge as expected, but I underestimated the mental challenge. I was extremely conservative with my effort from the start, but when we still had 3,000m of climbing when darkness set in (again, we had woken up at 3am to start) I nearly lost the plot.
To imagine doing the equivalent of my ‘long’ Saturday ride twice made the task seem inconceivable, but Paul kept my mind on track while breaking the problem down into smaller, more manageable goals. Getting to the next switchback, to the next summit, to the end of the descent … It was a good analogy for anything difficult in life that you’re about to take on, when you can’t fathom how you’re going to get there.
When we still had 3,000m of climbing when darkness set in, I nearly lost the plot.
“I was super-scared, super-nervous about possible problems [when nearing the summit of Everest]. To be honest, doing the ride we’ve just done, coming to the end of that, and feeling really tired and fatigued and descending in the dark, it was the same feeling. We could screw up one of those descents and miss a corner; we could have had a major accident. I felt the same, especially in all those high points on the death zone on Everest.”
VIDEO: Paul tells the story of his Mount Everest summit attempts.
The concept of ‘Everesting’ can be traced back to a gentleman in Melbourne named George Mallory, the grandson of the famous British Mountaineer with the same name. George used a local Australian mountain named Mount Donna Buang as the training ground for his attempt at summiting Mount Everest, doing repeats of the climb until he reached an accumulated elevation gain of 8,848m. George later summited Mount Everest in 1995.
When George Mallory’s story arrived in my inbox I thought it was insane, and so did most of you in the comments. Now it’s commonplace with over 2,200 people having done an ‘Everesting’ ride.
Most of us will never know what it’s like to climb Mount Everest, but I can say from experience now that doing this type of ride is within the capabilities of most competent cyclists, given a sufficient attention span.
Is it as tough as climbing Mount Everest from a physical perspective? It should be obvious that there’s no comparing the two feats; the experience required, the skillset needed, the oxygen deprivation – there are so many more elements and potential complications to climbing Everest than going for a big bike ride.
Interestingly, when I asked George Mallory about the effort required to ride the elevation of Everest, here’s what he said:
“On Everest I was very lucky with strong support Sherpas, team mates and especially the weather, so my climb went well and turned out to be easier than my expectations.
“That said, I expected climbing Everest to be desperately hard from a physical perspective. Of course walking up a high mountain is different from riding laps on Donna [Buang], but on the mountain I used my Donna Buang x 10 as a benchmark and assessed each of the three big days against it.
“I thought the day up to 7,800m, load-carrying without bottled oxygen, was equivalent to about five laps of Donna, the next day to 8,300m with limited bottled oxygen and a small load was about six laps equivalent, and summit day also about six laps equivalent.
“I recall that when I made those comparisons I was, in part, thinking ‘Wow, this is not desperately hard!’ But based on who I am now (22 years older) that is actually a large workload over the three days. Before Everest I never rode laps on Donna Buang on consecutive days, and sure hope I never have to!
“Overall I would say that a cyclist who can ride 8,848m in a decent time – say, less than 18 hours – probably has the ‘grunt’ to succeed on Everest, assuming use of bottled oxygen, good acclimatisation and weather.”
“There were no books 10 or 11 years ago when we were training for this, and we were just making it up. We thought that it was really important that we got a lot of volume in, and cycling allowed for that. On an expedition, it’s three months in the mountains, most of those days are long, 10-hour-plus days, so our idea was to condition ourselves for that and cycling could do that for us. “
During our big lap around Annecy, Paul and I discussed if there were any similarities between summiting Everest and what we were doing on bikes. We both knew that comparing summiting Mount Everest and the ride we were doing were worlds apart. Paul did however point out that there were certain physical exertion parallels, and expanded on the different type of effort required on Everest.
“The memories all suddenly came back to me – the extreme cold when you climb through the night on a summit attempt, the wind, homesickness after being away from friends and family for two months, accumulated physical tiredness, altitude, plus a genuine fear of dying.”
“I find it really difficult to think back and remember how easy or hard something was. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve done big cycling events with not enough training, and sworn that next year I’ll be so much better prepared, only to find myself in exactly the same situation again. I did feel pretty ruined after our Everesting ride, but a few days later I felt good again. A month after coming back home from Everest, I was still flat.
“When I went back to Everest in 2007 after not making it in 2006, I know I had already forgotten what it was like. It wasn’t until I was sitting in my tent again at 8,000m getting organised to go, the memories all suddenly came back to me – the extreme cold when you climb through the night on a summit attempt, the wind, homesickness after being away from friends and family for two months, accumulated physical tiredness, altitude, plus a genuine fear of dying. It all leads to a lot of questioning of ‘Why am I doing this!’”
“On our ride, I was truly worried about cramping and physically not being able to turn the pedals over on the steep climbs at the end.”
“I think it all boils down to time. If climbing Everest is a marathon, then Everesting on a bike is like a tough intervals session. Both are hard and intense, but recovery will be really different.
“During a two-month-long climb such as Everest, the big physical challenge is to try to stay healthy and not get sick. The body really doesn’t recover well at these altitudes. For example, I’ve noticed that if I get a small cut, then it will not start to heal up until I get below 5,000m (that’s lower than base camp).
“On our ride, I was truly worried about cramping and physically not being able to turn the pedals over on the steep climbs at the end. Particularly the last climb up to Col des Glières, which is about 6 kilometers with average gradients of between 10%-12.5% for each kilometre. That would be a long walk.
“For me the physical effort on the final day of Everest above 8,000m was much harder than anything else I’ve ever done in my life. But don’t get me wrong, our Everesting ride was up there.”
EVERESTING ANNECY – BY THE NUMBERS
|Total elevation gain||8937m|
|Time||22 hours total / 18:35 hours ride time|
Food (each rider):
|6||ham and cheese baguettes|
|1/2||bag of lollies|
|1||can of Pringles (the big ones)|
|6||cans of Coke|
|10||bidons of plain water|
~10,000 calories burned
See the Strava file here.