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Text: Andy Van Bergen | Photography: Tim Bardsley-Smith | Video: Mal Bloedel | Production: Iain Treloar
Hands gripped my nose tightly while another firmly covered my mouth.
I madly clutched and clawed at my assailant, but the vice-like hold remained. In a panic my legs jolted out as I woke suddenly, gasping for air in quick shallow breaths, my heart pounding in my chest. My time at high altitude was taking its toll. I was in a state of constant exhaustion, however in a cruel twist, every time I started to nod off I would slip into a recurring nightmare about either drowning, or being suffocated. Just being at this altitude was taxing – but that was nothing on what we had planned.
Preparation for the trip started six months prior. A good mate Shannon had been running small tours through his company Serk Cycling pushing the frontier in increasingly remote regions of China. It was just a regular suburban Saturday morning when I received a picture of an impossible set of switchbacks snaking into the distance, framed by the Himalaya, and front-and-centre the unmistakable north face of Everest. Accompanying this incredible image was a simple two-liner: “Hey mate, they’ve just paved the road to Everest. Want to do an Everesting with me?”
Like many others, I first heard about cycling the equivalent height of Everest through an article on CyclingTips back in 2012. It was the story of George Mallory, grandson of the famous mountaineer of the same name, who rode repeats of Mt. Donna Buang near Melbourne in training for a trip to Everest itself. His goal: to climb the equivalent of 8,848m — the height of sea level to the summit of Everest — in one ride. It wasn’t called “Everesting” then — that name would come years later.
The story of Mallory’s ride captivated me. I’d grown up been inspired by tales of the great explorers and mountaineers, and the concept of paying homage to our planet’s highest peak, by bike, resonated in a way that simply required action.
I knew I wanted to attempt the feat for myself, and I wanted others to as well. Through Hells 500, a cycling collective and brand I started in 2010, I encouraged others to join me in March 2013 as I attempted to climb my own Everest. The concept took off in ways I could never have expected.
At the time of writing, more than 2,200 Everestings have been completed in more than 70 countries. When Shannon’s initial email came through, I had five Everestings to my name, with another to come in the following months. But Everesting Mount Everest?
Doing a regular Everesting is hard enough — 24 hours spent riding up and down the same road is beyond taxing, both physically and mentally — but doing it on the approach to Everest itself would take things to the next level.
The temperature would range between 8 degrees and minus 5, the cold air rolling down the North Face would all but ensure we faced a block headwind as we climbed, and the effect of high altitude would be an unknown factor we would struggle to simulate and prepare for. After all, there was no precedent for endurance cycling at high altitude that we could find.
In short, it was clear that we had found ourselves an adventure.
Having completed a number of them before, I knew what it would take mentally and physically to complete an Everesting, however it went without saying that this would be vastly different. Some quick back-of-coaster calculations on this Everesting attempt had us on the road for at least 28-30 hours, and even with a heavy optimism bias this seemed unlikely. Typically any endurance activity at altitude (like mountaineering, or marathons) dictate a slow prior acclimatization of up to two months. Juggling work, families and costs we would only have ten days. With such a short timeframe we would need to do everything we could prior to leaving to prepare ourselves for the unknown.
The road up the Tibetan side of Everest had only just been paved – so recently in fact, that Shannon had led the first group to ride to Base Camp on road bikes only a half-season earlier. Armed with a small handful of iPhone pics taken from this trip we approached the team at Specialized to see if they would be interested in being involved in this adventure. Before we finished our brief pitch, Matilda Raynolds had already cancelled her Warnie entry and applied for leave. We had our third rider.
The few people we spoke to about the concept voiced honest concern, but the problem was that they were generally not experienced with either endurance cycling, or high altitude. My first proper research therefore was a chat with Paul Adler, who in addition to completing #project8848 in Annecy with Wade had also summited Mount Everest. Whilst not discounting any of issues with High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) that we were likely to encounter, Paul was able to put some perspective around our plans. With a medical team accustomed to dealing with extracted mountaineers we were probably in one of the best places in the world to deal with altitude sickness. Hardly heartening for our families, but it provided us a small layer of assurance.
Paul also suggested we do what we can to simulate the environment in preparation for the trip. After some research into different techniques we settled on early morning training blocks three times a week at Melbourne Altitude Training. The Wattbike-equipped altitude chamber replaced oxygen with nitrogen, as well as adjusting humidity to simulate a height of 5,000m (at 11.5% O2).
There wasn’t a morning where I didn’t sneak a look at the clock to see what remained of the two hour sessions. Every single session was tough. The efforts themselves were hard, but it was the recovery following an effort that was most noticeable. Beetroot-faced, I’d lug myself to work in a numb stupor. I was buckled, but also content with the knowledge that each session was helping us acclimatise by slowly increasing our red blood cell count.
We also used the sessions to work on our strength and recovery breathing techniques with our respiration coach Tim Altman. The recovery breathing felt like a structured version of meditation, with a simple 5 second inhale, 2 second hold, 10 second exhale. It took a few minutes to get on top of following an effort, but was calming and relaxing.
The strength training to build lung capacity was genuinely terrifying in whatever form it took, and there were many forms. While riding at altitude in the chamber we would perform 10 second maximum effort sprints while clamping our nose and mouth shut. We were given ten seconds recovery, followed by another 10 second sprint and so on for blocks of two minutes. Usually by the third or fourth rep things were far beyond uncomfortable. These blocks were then finished with a coached breath hold. At around the one-minute mark convulsions would start to set in, and all the while Tim was gently telling us to fight through it.
Gains were measured using functional threshold power (FTP) tests, either as a 20 minute or full hour tests. The goal of an FTP test is to measure average wattage by simply going as hard as you can within the timeframe, so the tests in the chamber hurt just as much as they do at sea level. The key difference lay in the recovery post-test where there was close to half the available oxygen. It was also disappointing following a perceived equal effort to see an average wattage roughly 50 watts lower than at sea level.
By the third or fourth rep things were far beyond uncomfortable. These blocks were then finished with a coached breath hold. At around the one-minute mark convulsions would start to set in, and all the while Tim was gently telling us to fight through it.
It was while checking my blood oxygen saturation levels following a grueling FTP test that owner Oz Begen pulled me aside for a quiet chat. As I unsuccessfully attempted to slow my breathing and lower my pulse Oz delivered the words I had secretly been dreading. “In my opinion, you are genetically predisposed to high altitude sickness”. I was shattered, in more ways than one.
High altitude sickness presents itself in two key forms. The pulmonary HAPE, and the cerebral HACE. In Oz’s opinion, my blood sats were low enough that over the space of several days at altitude the lack of oxygen in my blood would result in constant headaches, lack of sleep, and potentially dizziness before proceeding onto the grittier symptoms of HACE. I purchased an Oximeter, and would need to closely monitor my blood sats several times a day. While he recommended a respiration therapist, detailed blood tests, and a change of diet (“Five standard drinks a week? How about NO drinking?”) I had decided that this was something I could just train through. After all, I was pretty accustomed to leaning on stubbornness to get me through any previous challenges I was told I couldn’t complete. It was also at this point that I decided this information wasn’t something I wanted to share with the rest of the team.
Every single session was tough. The efforts themselves were hard, but it was the recovery following an effort that was most noticeable. Beetroot-faced, I’d lug myself to work in a numb stupor.
The training certainly seemed to help. A few weeks in and I was feeling stronger than I had in years. I was on every supplement known to man (well, the legal ones anyway), the respiration coaching we’d been doing with Tim Altman was finally starting to kick in, and I even scheduled in a Zwift ‘virtual Everesting’ before we were due to leave. I felt as prepared as I could, considering I had no idea what to expect.
After months of planning, training, and mental unpacking of what we were about to embark on, we were airborne, and heading for Lhasa at 3,900m elevation. Having never been higher than 3,000m our acclimatization was sure to be a shock. As the final call checks came through over the PA, the tension palpably increased as our joking slowed. We had no idea of what to expect when those doors opened and our flying tube of air would be all but emptied of oxygen.
Walking up the gangway while lugging 20kg of ‘carry on’ a strange sensation of dizziness and the sound of rushing blood in my ears combined with a noticeable breathlessness. We shot each other panicked looks. Gone was the banter, replaced by fear. As we stood waiting for our bags we reminded each other that a big part of this initial feeling could be attributed to anxiety, and we knew from our training that this could be controlled with our breathing. Sure enough, in the time it took to arrive at the hotel we were on top of things again, and had almost forgotten about the altitude. This was to be the pattern we’d follow for the next two weeks. A seed of a thought could easily grow into breathless anxiety, only to be controlled with breathing.
After six months of planning, we finally meet Shannon and Liman from Serk Cycling.
L-R: Tim Bardsley-Smith, Liman Zhou, Shannon Bufton, Malcolm Bloedel, Matilda Raynolds, Andy van Bergen
Monks debating at the Sera Monastery, Lhasa
Late afternoon #lightbro, Jokhang Temple
Mal was the first to get sick.
Coming into Tibet with a 2-out-of-10 cold, our videographer Mal very rapidly deteriorated to a hands-on-knees doubled over hacking chesty miner’s cough. On the third day of being completely bedridden we made the call to replace him, and Shannon started the search for a ring-in local videographer.
With an oxygen bottle next to the bed, we explained to Mal that unless we saw a dramatic improvement by the morning, we’d unfortunately have to leave him in Lhasa. Now that we’d had three days of acclimatization at 3,900m we were only going to gain height every day, and the ability to perform an emergency evacuation without jeopardizing the entire trip would become almost impossible.
The following morning Mal arrived late for breakfast, looking like death warmed up but claiming to be ready to go. It was total bullshit acting, but something that each of us would have done in his place. Reluctantly we agreed to take him, provided his health didn’t go backwards over the first pass of the day at 4,500m.
Mal’s health did improve that day and we cancelled his replacement, but that’s when things started to go south for the rest of the crew.
It was noticeably easy rolling through the lush valleys on the outskirts of Lhasa, with the combo of reduced air resistance at altitude, and those 50mm Rovals. Eventually we rolled through a little town, and immediately the road kicked up for the first time on the trip. Switchbacks through fertile fields quickly gave way to the more sparse terrain we had been anticipating away from the Tibetan plateau.
Initially the three of us were riding together, but it was obvious that Tils still had her sea (level) legs and wanted to take off. Shannon was in good form following on from a two-week cycle tour at altitude and I soon found myself slowly slipping off the back. Despite the constant gradient, I just couldn’t find any sort of rhythm. With a strange cereal comprising Coco Pops and All Bran I had all but skipped breakfast, and hadn’t eaten anything on the 40km ride to the base of the climb. The lack of food had me bonking deeply and the support van was up the road with the others.
Far in the distance I could see the road winding up to the top of the pass. I tried to calculate the distance, and then equally tried not to think about it. I knew I had to stop, mentally just as much as physically – so I held off that point as long as possible and then nearly falling over I managed to unceremoniously dump my carcass on a concrete road bollard. I eventually gathered myself, slugged a mouthful of water, and ached towards the pass. An eternity later I passed under the criss-cross of prayer flags and headed towards the bus. I wasn’t in a good way. I checked my blood sats (99% oxygen sat at sea level, 80% is your body under stress at altitude). I tried to hide the reading from the others as I inefficiently gasped in breaths of air but it was too late. 51%.
With my head spinning and shoulders aching from the effort of breathing a mild panic started to build. Thankfully Tim Altman’s respiratory recovery came to mind. I flipped on some jazz, closed my eyes, and spent the next ten minutes performing breathing exercises. I wasn’t back above 80%, but I felt like a different person, and it only took one mention of the switchbacked descent to come to have me out on the bike again.
Getting the low-down on the remainder of the climb.
The onset of HACE was rapid and violent for Tils
While I felt back from the dead, Tils took a terrifying turn for the worse. Fresh off the descent the shift in altitude delivered her headaches and a crushing nausea, which soon lead to violent vomiting. While the team administered oxygen and Diamox, Mal was also silently suffering. He’d made it through the pass, and the worst of his HAPE symptoms – and although he was recovering, he would still require more rest. Dinner that night was a quiet affair, with only the team from Serk Cycling, our photographer Tim, and myself making it.
During dinner we’d received a heads-up that roadworks were going to close the pass we were due to ride over the following morning. If we didn’t beat the early morning road closure we were faced with a 200km detour, which in itself isn’t ideal – but a tourist bus crash a few weeks earlier had resulted in a strictly enforced blanket ban on tourist transport going faster than 40km/hr. Therefore it was a detour we were not too keen to have to take. Throwing everything into the van in the predawn darkness I had a feeling I counted one less bag, and as we drove off my mind snapped to an image of my bag gently resting against the doorway, the contents of which contained all of my riding gear, shoes, and helmet. That was quickly pushed aside as we raced (at 40km/hr) to the security checkpoint in the pitch black. We had been told that we had to clear it before 7am or risk the detour from hell, and it was 7:15am.
We rumbled our way up the second highest pass in Tibet, the last vehicle to be let through on the road. As we unpacked in the sub-zero temperature at the top of the pass we realised that thanks to the road closure we now had an entire mountain pass to ourselves. Thankfully my bag emerged from the depths of the second support vehicle, and the prospect of trying to track down replacement gear in the High Himalaya was avoided.
We clipped in and started the descent down the mountain as the low morning sun cast long chilly shadows. Despite wearing multiple layers, it was simply too cold to be enjoyable, so we stopped and thawed our frozen hands while we waited out the dawn warmth.
A brief stop to re-warm extremities
Frozen prayer flags at the top of the second-highest pass in Tibet
As we neared the valley floor the sun came out and warmed our aching fingers and toes. As it did the terrain transformed from a barren moonscape, to a snowmelt river boasting trees and shrubs, bordered by walls of rock and grass. Swinging around a long, lazy corner a sleepy little village sprang into view. As we neared it and crossed a bridge all of a sudden from between the valley walls appeared the wall-to-wall expanse of the Himalaya for the first time, with Mt Everest proudly overseeing everything. It was an incredible moment, and surreal to think that we were staring at the rooftop of the world. Everest had its hold on us long before we ever set foot in Tibet, but now that we could clearly see the imposing North Face breaking up the skyline, the magnetism couldn’t be stronger.
Through yet another military checkpoint we soon found ourselves in the small stone-wall settlement of Tingri. If the previous villages had seemed remote, then this was truly the wild west, the only thing missing from the leathery faces, small dirt-paved streets, and towering rock surrounds was a gun-slinging cowboy. That said, the Tibetans here were sporting cowboy hats.
A few days of acclimatization and exploration and it was finally time to head up to Everest Base Camp and scope out the section of road that we were planning on riding for our Everesting attempt. Finding an appropriate segment was tricky. The 40km climb from the valley is far too shallow for the majority, and due to the low gradient would have required a ride of more than 600km. Instead, we had pre-selected a shorter set of steep switchbacks in the final kilometres before Base Camp. The segment was 1km in length at an average gradient of 5%. There was a manned checkpoint at the start of the segment, room to park our support van, and a cafe and shelter only a kilometre further along the road.
Everest had been hidden from us for the last week, so when we rounded a bend in the road and the entire North Face filled the skyline above our heads I uttered a profanity so loud and unexpected that the driver slammed on the brakes. It wouldn’t be the last time on the trip that this giant tor of rock and snow would elicit a completely unplanned response.
Above 5,000m, the lack of oxygen was noticeable as we clipped in and started riding the segment as a test. My breathing was all out of whack, but I put that down to the excited pace, and the struggle against a block headwind (“hopefully that’ll die down by tomorrow”). We rode up to Base Camp, and were surprised by how small and quiet it was. A handful of weather-beaten tents bordered a dusty carpark, and perhaps a total of 50 tourists walked around, snapping photos of the North Face. We left Base Camp and headed back down the mountain. The following morning we’d be attempting an Everesting on Mount Everest!
Quality of sleep is always going to be rubbish at high altitude. If I wasn’t sitting bolt upright gasping for air then our photographer Tim’s laboured breathing would wake me, before he would stop breathing altogether, and then splutter back to life. It’d be alarming if it hadn’t been the same pattern for a week and a half. The anticipation of what was to follow meant that even a light sleep was unlikely. So with bleary eyes we packed the van in darkness, and silently made our way up Everest, each of us quietly contemplating the task ahead.
We’d spoken the night before about contingencies. Monitoring HAPE was going to be fairly simple – the signs were generally physical, and obvious. More difficult was going to be HACE. Dizziness could be verified with a US cop-style sobriety ‘walk-the-line’ test, but most of the early symptoms of HACE have to be self-monitored. Oz’s words of warning echoed in my mind as I once again shielded my blood sats from the others, and ‘bumped up’ the reading by 10% (which still had me the lowest score in the group). I still felt strongly that I’d be able to use my fitness and mental fortitude to push through my “genetic disposition”. Simply being at this altitude was going to be tough so we had no idea how we’d react while trying to complete an endurance ride at that height.
To counteract the nerves and to distract ourselves from the enormity of the task ahead all of our movements became very functional. As I threw a leg over the saddle and rolled off in the early morning light I don’t think I even said goodbye or good luck. We were all locked in our own thoughts.
The first hours were cold, but easy enough. That wind hadn’t gone anywhere, and was a screaming block headwind for much of the climb. Defying the early onset of winter in the rest of China, we’d only had one day of partial cloud, and our Everest experience didn’t disappoint. Wall-to-wall deep blue skies provided the backdrop for the North Face, towering 3,000m above our heads. Despite riding toward this view every single lap, it was impossible not to turn and look over your shoulders at it on the descent.
I was wearing everything (socks, waterproof socks, two pairs of booties, two pairs of gloves, undershirt, two winter jerseys and a Gore shell) and I was cold, even as the sun started to rise. We kept a gridded sheet near the support van as a way of keeping track of our reps, which slowly gathered X’s as we ground through the ride. A rhythm of sorts had begun, with the pattern of ride, eat, drink, repeat starting to kick in. Listening to a mountaineering audiobook was a poor choice of motivational company, as I pedalled along to horror story after horror story of climbers’ blackened frostbitten extremities, and loss of life on the very face I was staring at.
As the day wore on I found it more and more difficult to concentrate on the story, and switching to music didn’t seem to help. I contented myself with just listening to the wind whipping past my ears. Focusing on keeping a straight line on the climbs was getting more difficult, and a general feeling of dizziness eventually gave way to an unnerving sensation of floating above myself. I felt drunk, and the occasional snapping myself back to reality had become a fulltime chore. I was conscious of the decline, but hoped it would pass. It wasn’t until a panic unclip against the guardrail after nearly overshooting a corner that I admitted to myself things had progressed into something more serious.
The text came through to Shannon from our Doctor up the road at Everest Base Camp – “Blood oxygen sats below 75% are cause for concern. 55-65% means that the patient will be experiencing severe lack of cognitive function, and judgement will be severely impaired”. I groggily clipped the oximeter back in place on my finger. Once again the ominous alarm tolled. “Shit,” I whispered under my laboured breath. I was sitting at 49% saturation. As a GP buddy would later tell me, “If we had seen that on a patient in Melbourne, they would be on EVERY machine”.
Here I was. Early afternoon and only 1/8th of the way through and my Everesting was over. I spoke to Shannon and Tils who were both looking incredibly strong, and told them I was done. While I had been mulling it over for the past hour or so, the final decision to pull out was surprisingly easy. I felt calm, despite the pressure I’d put on myself. I had gone into the ride fully prepared to turn myself physically and mentally inside out, and yet something in my genes was preventing me from putting up a good fight. It should have been frustrating given how fit I was, but somehow that reaction seemed unwarranted in the shadow of this mountain. It had turned into an amazing day with blue skies and Everest as a backdrop, so I decided to rest and continue as just a ride.
As a GP buddy would later tell me, “If we had seen that on a patient in Melbourne, they would be on EVERY machine”.
As the day progressed it became clear that despite the small breaks and constant riding, the headwind, cold, and altitude were all conspiring against Tils and Shannon. While the laps slowly rose, it was some quick projections at dinnertime that made us realise the riders were still looking down the barrel of at least another 25-30 hours. While the ultimate goal of 8,848m was looking unlikely, the decision was made to press on and see how far they could get.
Sometime after midnight, in temperatures around -8 degrees, Shannon pulled the pin on his effort. Despite the loneliness, freezing cold, and driving wind Tils bravely kept pushing through the night. The enormity of the task at altitude was apparent, when after riding for more than 20 hours (most Everestings are completed in 18-20 hours) Tils had just touched the halfway point of the challenge. At sea level, Tils’ VAM (Velocità Ascensionale Media, or more simply the amount of metres she can climb in an hour) would be roughly 1,000. However with her VAM on Everest hovering between 200 and 250m, the road ahead was a long one. Even assuming a maintained pace, she was looking down the barrel of another 24 hours on the bike, with no sleep. With the knowledge that her ride could easily blow out to 50 hours, and with the prospect of another terrifying night in the cold and the dark, Tils adjusted her goal to making it to the morning.
At 5:15am, and shivering profusely from the sudden temperature drop Tils stepped into the bus, and the attempt for all of us was over. We gathered around the yak dung burner at the Base Camp cafe, simultaneously attempting to warm ourselves, and not breathe in the toxic smoke. None of us were disappointed with what we’d achieved, but the mood remained fairly sombre. Two hours later after thawing out and finishing our sweet milk tea, Tils – still in her kit – rode one final lap to record a final ‘X’ on our crumpled tracking sheet.
All slightly dazed, and all very tired we started the long trip back home. From the foot of Everest we were making our way as directly back to Melbourne as possible, however it was still a 600km drive (at 40 km/ph), and 3-flight four-day long mission. Each pass brought us a little lower, a little extra oxygen, and a little better sleep.
We had approached this challenge knowing full well that our chance of success was extremely low, but for us that’s where lay the adventure. Despite our modern equipment and simulated training, it was the three basic elements of altitude, temperature, and wind that stopped us. It sounds such a cliche to suggest that we were humbled in the presence of this mountain, but there is no other way to describe it. Everesting was always important, but not as much as riding in this incredible location.