Don't mess with this girl! 9091m climbing and 22 hours in the saddle! Ouch!
And the youngest woman, globally, to Everest - by six years!
Here is her report...
THE SEARCH FOR UP
On a Saturday in late August 2016, I rode my bike up and down one hill for 22 hours. I cycled 9091m of vertical ascent, over 262km of 47 repeats of that same hill. Why? Because I was Everesting.
Everesting is a concept invented by Andy van Bergen, an Australian cyclist keen to push the boundaries of endurance cycling and take on the toughest distance and climbing challenges that he and his friends could dream up. Rather than racing, they set themselves goals that nobody else was achieving and trained for months through the dark winters to prepare for their undertakings at the onset of spring. Soon they were stringing together the peaks of Australia’s seven Victorian ski resorts in a single ride – something only previously attained in 7 consecutive days. After that ride which covered 500km and 10000m of vertical ascent, the group of cyclists became known as ‘Hells 500’.
In the late ‘90s, George Mallory (grandson) was cycling as part of his preparation to climb Everest, riding hill repeats of Australia’s Mt. Donna Buang. Eventually, he came to ride enough repeats to accumulate the same amount of vertical elevation as the height of the summit of Everest, 8848m.
Before long, Andy caught wind of this epic endurance feat and in 2014 he gathered together a group of around 60 select cyclists worldwide, in secret, to attempt to individually achieve 8848m of vertical ascent, in a single effort, by riding repeats of any one hill. About 35 cyclists completed – and so Everesting exploded into the virtual world of Strava and became an exciting new goal for endurance cyclists across the world. The task is to claim your hill before anyone else. 1 ride, no sleeping, and well-recorded data which is submitted and assessed before you can become a member of the ‘Hells 500’ crew, a ‘Keeper of the Cloud’.
Having signed up to ride in the 2017 Tour de Force, I am required to raise a target amount of money for the William Wates Memorial Trust. Everesting would be tough enough to merit sponsorship and push myself further, higher and for longer than ever before. I wanted to find out what I really had locked up within my legs, heart and head and I also wanted to see if I could really tough it out compared to older, more experienced endurance athletes.
I kept my attempt under wraps because both Ollie Blagden and Guy Townsend had completed their own epic Everesting feats around the beginning of August (something quite extraordinary within the small community of a cycling club). Guy is an experienced endurance athlete, already a member of Hells 500 and Ollie is a strong 2nd cat. rider, much fitter and better suited to climbing then myself! I wasn’t prepared for the pressure or expectation which these two riders had inevitably created; I set out at 3am on Saturday 20th August, ready to ride at my own pace, in my own time. I liked to refer to it as ‘Everesting-time’ like the delightful Caribbean ‘Island time’, where deadlines don’t exist and time is spent relaxing on a beach to refresh the spirit and cleanse the soul…
As the hours ticked by with the laps, darkness turned to dawn, into day, to dusk, then darkness again. I was experiencing the full cycle of my natural surroundings, feeling the coastal wind ebb and flow and watching the clouds and mist roll around the exposed hill fort I was climbing. Except for the sheep, I was entirely alone on the hill.
After the first few dark laps were out of the way, I started listening to ‘Into Thin Air’, an account of the disaster on Everest in 1996. I played a little music now and again but most of the time, I preferred to ride in silence without the distractions. I thought I would get bored but introspection and the effect of passing time on my amazing surroundings were enough to keep boredom at bay. I enjoyed the relaxing monotony of pedalling slowly up the slope and down again. I was motivated to achieve a clear and simple goal and eagerly awaited the inevitable personal battle with pain.
But I discovered that Everesting isn’t exactly like that. Apart from an old knee injury, there was no acute pain, no sudden dark feelings, nothing you can get two hands around and throttle with your highly-trained pain-defeating mind. The feeling is a kind of persistent discomfort and fatigue which slowly creeps up on you. The gradual exhaustion is insistent, but nothing you can knock down immediately. The key is to be patient. As darkness loomed, I hadn’t slept for almost 40 hours, having travelled up to Dorset at 11pm on Friday night after being unable to sleep. With only 10 laps to go, I still felt that completion was inevitable. But tiredness is hard to fight.
Quite suddenly, I became intensely scared by my surroundings, lit only by the dim torch mounted on my bars. Fog pitched and rolled across the dark in front of me and sheep choked loudly, laying down and jerking in fit-like states. The roadside grass grew taller in the darkness and waved in menacing shapes, every leaf or stick in the road appeared as a rock big enough to snare my wheel on the descent. I descended suddenly into tears, hurrying as quickly as my exhausted body would take to me to the summit and then back to the bottom of the hill. With 7 laps remaining, I was too afraid to ride alone anymore. My dad got on his bike, (a willing Sherpa!) to ride the remaining laps with me.
The next lap was my tipping point. After 40 repeats, I had been in intense discomfort for hours: my legs were cramping and shaking, my elbows, arms, wrists, feet, back and neck all ached in harmony. Acid was sloshing out of my stomach, making it hard to eat anything more. My breathing had slowed dramatically to the point where I felt like my heart was hardly beating and my eyes were staying closed for longer every time I blinked. I tiredly weaved up the hill, feeling the time pressure of darkness and lack of sleep abruptly bursting my Everesting-time bubble.
I reached the bottom, with 6 laps left, and got into the car. I was mentally unwilling to quit – I knew how much time my whole family had taken to support me and help me prepare. I also knew that it would mean I had failed to prove my strength or ability, failed to be as good as those endurance athletes who I respected and admired… But none of that mattered to me right then because I thought it would not be so bad as the consequences of carrying on. I had to shift something inside my mind, take a huge step to be patient and stay calm. After half an hour I wearily lifted myself out of the car and gingerly clipped back in.
I lived the next three hours in a strange mixture of exhaustion, extreme discomfort and delirious happiness. I dressed up in a winter jersey and tights with a waterproof jacket and then threw on a mountaineering down-jacket for good measure. I ate half a packet of Oreos and drip-fed myself cans of Coke over the remaining 6 laps and sweated my way up to the dizzying heights of the Everest summit.
I am still unsure what I found inside myself that helped me get back on and finish the ride. I had been going for 22 hours and had not slept for 45 hours. When I arrived at the house in Dorset, my legs were shaking so much that I couldn’t stand up (probably thanks to the gradient on the bottom half of the hill, which maxed out at 18%). People have since asked me whether Everesting is harder physically or mentally. To me, they are one and the same! You have to be mentally sturdy to withstand acute pain or the intense physical discomfort which accumulates in every part of your body. But you cannot easily defeat tiredness and exhaustion; their nature is to gnaw at your will and motivation to the point where you don’t care anymore about riding up that damned hill one more time. It takes patience and calmness rather than brutal strength to complete an Everesting challenge.
I would urge anyone to take up the challenge of Everesting! You will have a unique experience and perhaps get the chance to find out new things about your legs, your heart and your head. Prepare well though because you’ll need to look after all 3 of them to reach the summit