Partway up the Haggenegg, a 6.8 km (4.2 mi) climb in Central Switzerland, Emma Pooley stood beside her car and listened to the din of cowbells and the distant hum of tractors. She set up a small table and placed ten water bottles on top, each with an energy gel tapped to their side. The bottles and the cows would be her support crew and her spectators – a dramatic departure for a cyclist who has competed in the Olympics and won world championships. But this time she was going after a different kind of challenge.
Emma was attempting to set the world record for Everesting, a feat that requires a rider to repeat the same hill over and over until they’ve climbed the equivalent of Mount Everest’s height: 8,848 meters (29,029 feet). For Emma, that meant ten repeats of the staggeringly steep (13%) Haggenegg. And she’d need to do it in less than 9 hours and 8 minutes if she was going to break the record.
Although she hasn’t raced professionally since 2017, and describes her current training as “much less consistent,” she felt like the record was within reach. But just like an ascent of the eponymous mountain, the unexpected is inevitable. And to add to the uncertainty, Emma had never actually climbed this particular hill before her attempt.
“The first lap was a test,” she said. “I started out thinking, ‘I can never do this power for 10 laps. Then by the third lap and fourth lap I was thinking, ‘Hey, I clearly can, I can hold it, I seem to be okay. I’ve just got to eat and drink enough.’ Then I got to the fifth lap. And I blew up.”
Struggling alone on the Haggenegg, Emma was a part of a global trend. Strava data showed a 4x increase in Everesting activities in the month of July. The spike started in May, when the weather improved in the Northern Hemisphere and lockdown restrictions eased. The countries with the most Everestings this year are the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom. And to put Emma’s goal into context, the average Everesting takes 16 hours and 43 minutes.
The average rider will repeat a climb 43 times to achieve their Everesting. At 10 repetitions, Emma’s would be near the low end. And one British rider Everested a cobbled street in Oslo after climbing it 1,001 times! “It’s a short, sharp climb that kicks up to about 15% at the bottom and doesn’t ease off that much,” Joseph Kendrick wrote in his activity description, “It only has a gain of around 12 metres but the vibrations of the cobbles sap your energy enough to make it feel longer and steeper.”
There was a Swiss rider named Manuel Scheidegger who wheelied his entire Everesting. He finished in 21 hours after riding through most of the night, with a light attached to his helmet. And a member of the US national team, Lane Maher, went for a triple Everest, climbing over 100,000 feet! He undertook the challenge, which saw him cover 585 miles in 72 hours, to raise awareness and funds for the Black Lives Matter movement.
With events cancelled, there has been a fierce competition for the speed record. The women’s record was broken in May by retired American pro cyclist Katie Hall who said in her Strava activity description, “I feel fine!!!” Sensing an opening, fellow American Lauren De Crescenzo went out just a week later and nabbed the record – and became the first woman to break 10 hours. But British cyclist Hannah Rhodes thought she could go even faster and smashed the record with a blazing time of 9 hours and 8 minutes. That’s when Emma Pooley took notice and started wondering if she might be the first to go under 9 hours. But as she struggled up the climb on lap 8 of 10, she was questioning if that was truly possible.
“On lap eight I properly blew up. I just wasn’t able to eat enough because of the steepness, and because of the heat, and because the descent was so technical. So normally you should choose a really easy descent so you can eat and drink. It was way too technical, it was quite a stressful descent. So lap eight, I had two more climbs to do, and I just didn’t know if I could make it,” Emma said.
“The ninth one was the worst one. I was nauseous and yet also thirsty and hungry, but I couldn’t eat or drink anything. I just didn’t think I could hold anything down. I started swishing the gel around my mouth and spitting it out, because I know from the science that can help you. But I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t puke if I carried on. So on lap nine I really thought, ‘I’m so close, and I don’t think I’m going to make it.’ I looked at the clock, and I knew I could use a few minutes, but I think I lost between five and seven minutes on each of those laps.”
Emma could feel the doors coming off, but she has always been an athlete who knew how to push her limits. As a pro rider, she was often successful at long breakaways, escaping the peloton to try and win a race solo. It’s an approach that takes a lot more determination than contesting a sprint finish, but it fits Emma’s strengths.
“I mean, the peloton stressed me out anyway, I was never any good at riding in it. I love the physical challenge. From my point of view, there could have been far more mountains and much more climbing in women’s races,” Emma said. While success in road racing is often dependent on fighting for position inside of the peloton or timing your attacks to try and escape, Everesting is more of an individual challenge. “I think maybe that’s why Everesting has really caught people’s imagination a bit, because everyone who does one can feel proud of themselves. I think even if you do it and don’t finish it, if you reach your limit, that’s a brave thing to do, and you can be proud of yourself for pushing yourself that far.”
And that’s exactly how Emma was feeling on her tenth and final ascent. “I think I’d really reached my physical limit. But I told myself it didn’t matter how fast or slow, it doesn’t matter about nine hours, it doesn’t matter whether it’s 11 hours. The point is, just get to the top of this climb.” But that persistence paid off and Emma reached the top in 8 hours and 53 minutes, setting a new record and becoming the first woman to break nine hours.
Emma summed up the attempt perfectly in the description of her Strava activity: “The whole point was to challenge myself: find my limits, and push them. Well ok, it felt more like my limits found me and punched me into a ditch but still: it was tough, I genuinely enjoyed it, and there was plenty of time to think…
“Every stranger I saw was lovely: the e-bikers, the mountain bikers, the hikers, the hay truck drivers, the people at the farm near the top whose garden tap I used to refill on laps 5-9… and most of all, the lovely lovely lady who sold me an ice cream at the top of lap 10 when I could pedal no more. She was confused as to why I was sitting on the ground not on a chair… there was a high risk I would fall off the chair.”
If you’re feeling inspired to attempt your own Everesting, Emma offers this advice: “Choose a climb that you like because you’re going to spend a lot of time together. It’s like choosing who you marry, except of course the time scale is not quite the same. But you’re going to spend a whole day there, and it might feel like a lifetime, so choose one you like.”