On top of the world, Everesting
Photography by Andy Waterman.
5:15 am in a car park on top of a hill with Jimmy. Soon, we’d be at the bottom then, a few minutes later, at the top again. Over the course of 17 hours we’d spill gallons of sweat over this road as we attempted to climb it 68 times. Why? We were Everesting.
What’s the ultimate test of climbing? For mountaineers, one answer literally towers above all others: summiting Everest, at 8,848m (29,028ft) the highest mountain in the world. For road cyclists it’s less clear cut… Maybe we can make the pilgrimage to Alpe d’Huez once in our lives but, although it may be cycling’s most iconic climb, with an official elevation gain of around 1,070m (3,500ft) it is nowhere near the largest.
In the past couple of years, a new contender has emerged: Everesting.
The concept of Everesting is oh-so-diabolically simple: pick your hill and ride it repeatedly until you’ve ascended the equivalent height – 8,848m – of Everest from sea level. The only real rules are that it must be an up-and-back along the same road and that it must be achieved in a single ride: no sleeping! Given that an ‘average’ tough and hilly ride might have 2,500m of climbing, Everesting in a day is no mean feat.
The first Everesting was achieved by a man called George Mallory (who is the grandson of the climber of the same name, famous for his valiant but doomed attempt in 1924 to become the first man to summit Everest). In the early ‘90s George Jr was training for an expedition to the North Ridge of Everest, and came up with the idea of riding his bicycle up and down the 1,084m Mt Donna Buang, near Melbourne in Australia, until he’d achieved the same elevation. On the first try he managed only one ascent before his legs gave up. Eventually, after several more attempts, he attained the magic 8,848m (you can read his story here).
That was in 1995. Afterwards, no more Everests until 2006. And then in 2012 the first attempt recorded on Strava. Every single Everesting ride since has been documented on Strava (see the Everesting Hall of Fame for proof. In fact, says Andy van Bergen, one of the members of the Hells 500 club that maintains the site and ratifies the attempts, it’s essential: “Strava not only helps the vitality of something like Everesting, but also the verification. It is a unit of currency that all cyclists understand and trust, hence making a requirement in the rules to include the Strava file,” he said.
One really pleasing aspect is that riders get so many comments and kudos from other cyclists from around the world who don’t know them, but can respect the effort.
Thanks to Everesting and Strava, mad grimpeurs now have a standard against which they can set their achievement, a way of turning their local hill – be it famous mountain, backroads dirt track or suburban street – into a landmark a rider on the other side of the world can understand.
At the time of writing around 120 people in the world have successfully Everested, although that number is now rising quickly. Others give it a valiant attempt and have to abandon: some of them get stuck in the terrible doldrums between five and seven thousand metres, while others attain the ‘Death Zone’, where no life can survive for long, before capitulating.
We all know what it feels like when a challenge sticks in your head, nags at your thoughts – and you just know the only way of shaking it out of there is to go and give it a pop. But what if you failed? I’d been keeping my Everesting plans quiet and prevaricating, keeping my cards close to my chest. Then, through Strava, I met Jimmy. Strava has become the enabler of the Everesting phenomenon, and so it was to be for mine.
Jimmy had been runner up in the Rapha Tempest Segment Challenge on Ditchling Beacon, climbing the 1.5km, 9.1% hill 29 times in one day and 130 times overall in the six-week period. We were both thinking about Everesting Ditchling, as it’s one of the best known climbs (albeit short!) in the south of England. So we decided to team up.
But how to give ourselves the best chance of succeeding?
As with all these things, the devil lay in the detail. George’s Mt Donna Buang attempt took him 287 horizontal KM to achieve. The shortest Everesting currently stands at 95.6km (an 18.6% hill); the longest at 461.7km (a 4.11% hill). So: what are you best at? Pick a shallow gradient and you’ll be there all day. And night. And day again. Pick a steep one and your knees might pop. In the end, we decided against Ditchling: though convenient, it was a narrow, sometimes busy, road and a technical descent. Instead we landed on Firle Beacon. Firle Beacon, 15km away along the same ridge, was a similar climb to Ditchling: 1.3km and dead on 10%. It only had a car park at the top, it was quieter, wider and prettier, and I’d repped it many times before. And that extra 0.9% of gradient cut around 25km off the ride. Bingo.
The stage was set. We agreed on an early start. We got our kit lists together, bought 20L of water each and made flapjacks. I borrowed a cassette with a 28-tooth cog and fitted it on my back wheel. We were as ready as we were ever going to be. The big question was: would the mental or the physical challenge be more difficult?
Back in that car park, 5:15 am. A red sun was rising through the mist to our left. We got our bikes out, fired up our GPSes and there was nothing else to do but leave. In the cool of the morning the going was easy. Even at the very start we did not push out of our comfort zone. Half an hour later the first of our friends arrived to keep us company for a few laps. They laughed at us, commiserated, rode at our pace and time passed. We began to tick off the reps we needed: 10 came quickly; then we knocked off 2,000 metres before normal breakfast time, all chalked up in the relative cool of the morning.
It began to get hot. The day would peak at 29-30C (85F), but even at 9:30 it was uncomfortably stuffy. We reminded each other to eat and drink; a guy called Neil arrived and chatted to us non stop, staying for 15 laps or more – a life saver. We dripped sweat that did not have time to dry on the too-quick rush to the bottom.
Six hours’ riding passed in a blink of an eye. Time on this hill flowed smoothly away, it did not matter; what mattered was forward motion.
By 2pm, however, we were cooked. So we took half an hour in the shade to drink cold coke and eat chips. Neil left to get the train home. We were tired and sticky, our clothes wringing wet with sweat, but we were still cheerful and alert, our legs feeling good. An average of 11-12 minutes per 2.7km lap; five ascents an hour. Thirty-eight reps down. Thirty to go.
Thirty reps to go.
This was where the real challenge kicked in. We started the 39th ascent with no friends to cheer us on, alone in the heat, alone riding next to each other in silence, both victim to a depressing internal monologue that undermined our confidence, questioned what we were doing – why?! – both of us knowing we would be on this hill until past 9pm and yet neither 100% sure, despite continuing good legs, we’d make it.
The reps through the 40s – roughly from 4,000 to 5,500m – passed excruciatingly slowly. The heat intensified and, although cows were our only audience, the heavy atmosphere in this open-air amphitheatre we’d created became almost unbearable. We’d planned to keep going until 55, a last rest camp before a manageable final push to the summit, but we had to take a break at 50. And it was at 50 that the summit appeared from the clouds that had obscured it. Some more people arrived – it was after-work time now – the temperature dropped by a fraction and we could see the end in sight.
With at least a friend or two riding next to us each lap, and cheers at the top of every rep, our spirits were lifted. The sun went down, bathing the countryside in stillness, and we rode through the gathering dusk. Somewhere in the sixties, when we were counting down to the finish, we strapped on our lights and glided up and down hill in the dark – the downward leg now requiring more concentration and feeling more difficult than the upward.
For the final lap we rode up alone, chatting in the night, trying to work out how we felt. We’d both had our low moments, both struggled to eat and drink enough at the right times – and suffered for it. We agreed that the mental challenge had, for us, been tougher than the physical, and that it was perhaps the heat that came closest to causing our undoing.
Most importantly, we both knew we couldn’t have done it without each other, or the people who had ridden with us and given us encouragement the whole day long. And, though our legs still felt OK and we could maybe do one or two more, hit 10,000m total elevation, that it was time to stop. It was 10:30pm. 17h00’ elapsed and 13h56’ moving time, 194km, more than 20 litres of water, 6 cokes, plentiful flapjacks and honey, nutella and peanut butter sandwiches, 8,994m.
On the way home I stopped at a motorway service station and ate all the Big Macs. And then, at 2am, I gratefully slept.
I love that feeling of exhaustion after a ride: everything feels better – sleep, food… I feel alive.
Jimmy told me afterwards. “I actually felt a sense of calm on my recovery ride a few days after. As others riders passed me I had a wry smile on my face: it didn’t matter to me like it normally did – I had an Everest under my belt. Doing an Everest has given me a mental reference point for future rides when I’m struggling.”
Now, a few days later, now the post-Everest hunger has subsided, I’ve slept a couple of 10-hour nights and feel like riding my bike again, I still don’t know why I took on the beautiful madness that is Everesting. But I’m glad to get my name in that Hall of Fame, and to have made Firle Beacon forever ours. And – here’s the funny thing – thoughts of Everesting keep coming back. Of this past one, yes, but also of doing another. Committing to another long, hot, hard day in the saddle. Striking out for another summit and inscribing our names on another peak.