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My own personal Everest

In-depth
18 Dec 2020
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Join Cyclist in the latest global two-wheeled craze as we find out what it’s like to climb 8,848m in a day

Words: Marcus Leach Photography: Gavin Kaps

As I near the final few metres of the climb, I give in to temptation and look down at my Wahoo. For the best part of two hours I have been avoiding doing so, but now I simply have to know.

I read the only four numbers that matter: 6,652m. A quick calculation tells me I still have another 25 ascents of a stretch of road that I have, over the past 11 hours, come to know better than any I have ridden before.

I’m no stranger to cycling challenges that champion discomfort and perseverance, but even by my standards this borders on the absurd.

As a concept, Everesting is simple: pick any hill, anywhere in the world, and cycle up and down it on one continuous ride until you have accumulated 8,848m of vertical ascent, the same height as Mount Everest. That, as I am discovering, is where the simplicity of the challenge ends.

The reality is that such a ride will, no matter how fit or experienced you are, push you to the very edge of your physical and mental limits and probably beyond. As the hours and metres slowly tick by it will leave you questioning your sanity.

After all, who in their right mind would voluntarily ride tens or potentially hundreds of laps of the same climb to complete a ride that offers little more than personal satisfaction.

There are no medals or finisher’s T-shirts upon completion of the ordeal – just a sense of achievement and pride at being inducted into the Everesting Hall of Fame.

But that, as I have discovered from talking to numerous people who have completed these rides, is the whole point of a challenge that has exploded in popularity in recent months.

What began as the nichest of niche ideas has become a global phenomenon, thanks largely to the impact Covid-19 has had in decimating both the professional and amateur race calendars.

A combination of no racing and lockdown saw a sudden spike in riders of all abilities logging virtual Everestings on Zwift, which was followed by more traditional outdoor Everestings, and a subsequent battle for the world record, currently held by Alberto Contador at a staggering 7 hours 27 minutes and 20 seconds.

Contador’s effort eclipsed previous record holder Lachlan Morton by over two minutes, this after Morton completed two Everestings in six days when his first record was scrubbed out due to dodgy data. Not that it was meant to be about breaking records.

‘Everesting was never intended to be something where people were trying to go sub-eight hours,’ says Andy van Bergen, head of the Hells 500 collective and creator of the Everesting concept.

‘If anything it was designed to be the exact opposite, something far more inclusive that anyone could do anywhere, anytime. I wanted people to see it as a way of pushing their limits, inspiring them to do something different, all the while united by a common goal.’

 

Line of attack

My own attempt starts inauspiciously. I have chosen to execute my Everesting assault on The Tumble, a 4km climb with an average 8.5% gradient in South Wales, not far from where I live.

However, when I arrive at 1am I’m greeted with howling winds so strong that I can barely open the door of my motorhome, and torrential rain is rendering my chosen stretch of road unsafe to ride.

I’m left with a simple choice: wait it out or find a new climb. It’s clear the storm has set in for the night, and so my mind turns to finding an alternative, which, given the various criteria of ideal length, gradient and straightness of road is easier said than done in the middle of the night.

The only other option I can think of is a 1km stretch nearby called Mill Hill, which I had initially dismissed in my planning phase. It has a similar average gradient to The Tumble, but its shortness means many more laps and a subsequent lack of recovery time between ascents.

Its saving grace is that it’s sheltered from the wind, but I’d be going from riding 38 laps on The Tumble – already a daunting prospect – to 95 on Mill Hill. It’s simply unimaginable, yet I have little choice. I get back into the driver’s seat and head for the new climb.

The magnitude of what lies ahead fills my mind as I leave the warmth of the motorhome and step into night’s dark embrace. I freewheel to the bottom of the climb, the chill of the air fresh on my face, press start on my bike computer, turn and begin the first ascent.

In that moment all of my worries and nerves fade, although I’m wise enough to know that in the coming hours my sense of optimism will dwindle until eventually I’ll be forced to confront the darkest corners of my mind. But for now, at least, I’m calm and focussed.

 

Mind games

I find climbing in the dark comparatively easy. By narrowing my world to the six feet in front of me I quietly tick off a handful of ascents without too much effort.

I try not to think about the fact I still have more than 80 to go, concentrating instead on counting pedal strokes, at first in English, then in French, followed by German, Spanish and even Chinese. Anything to keep my mind occupied.

Night slowly gives way to day as light spills onto the horizon, and with it comes my first moment of mental darkness. I find myself struggling to stay awake, closing my eyes for increasingly longer periods, fighting the urge to stop and sleep, which is against the rules of Everesting (unless you’re doing a Double Everesting – yes, there is such a thing – in which case you can sleep for two hours in between). I’m saved by a message from my wife flashing up on my head unit, a timely boost to my morale and a reminder that I’m not alone.

Everesting is, I discover, a series of ups and downs, both literally and metaphorically. For every peak of optimism comes a trough of despair where the mind darkens to such an extent it’s hard to imagine just one more rep, let alone the thousands of vertical metres still required. I ride the waves of optimism, forgoing even momentary stops for extra supplies for fear it will kill my momentum and mood.

Six hours in and the reality of the situation dawns on me. I’m not even halfway through and, as I had originally feared, I’m not getting enough recovery on the descents.

No sooner have I begun to feel the joy of gliding back down, the breeze peeling beads of sweat from my face and the vice-like grip on my legs released, than I’m forced to pull sharply on my brakes, turn and begin all over again.

The thought of riding this exact same stretch for another eight hours is more than my brain can comprehend. And therein lies the greatest battle of Everesting; overcoming the mountains of the mind.

Not unlike an actual Everest expedition, cycling’s equivalent requires the efforts of a team, in this case my family. They arrive as I edge past 5,000m of ascent, legs stinging and mind close to cracking.

Never has a sweat-drenched hug been more welcome or felt so good. In those fleeting moments I’m able to escape the world I have been locked in for what seems like eternity, and with that comes a renewed belief.

For the first time since beginning I have a focus outside of simply climbing. I no longer feel isolated from the rest of the world, trapped in my own perpetual hell.

Maybe it’s naive of me to think that such a feeling will last, but when the euphoria inevitably fades a wave of despondency washes over me as I realise that, despite having clocked over 6,600m, I still have the equivalent of two ascents up Alpe d’Huez to go.

I’m reminded of Van Bergen’s words of advice: ‘The first 6,000m is all about the legs, after which it is all in the head.’ I would argue that all 8,848m are in the head.

 

Summit fever

Growing whispers of uncertainty crowd my mind. ‘It’s too steep’. ‘Nobody will think bad of you’. ‘Stop the suffering now’. ‘Get to 7,000m then call it a day’.

As tempting as it is to give in to that nagging voice I’ve come too far to fall short now. I bow my head, resign myself to the suffering that lies ahead and press down on the pedals.

From the corner of my blurred vision I notice a wheel passing by, and then a voice: ‘One more, one less, that’s what your Granddad always says.’

It takes me a moment to realise that it’s my mum’s voice, but when I do I struggle to keep my emotions in check. She has come to join me, riding her e-bike, and for the best part of two hours we ride together, more often than not in silence, but united by my goal and her desire to help me achieve it.

At a time when I could have happily climbed off the bike her mere presence is enough to keep me going.

With five laps left I’m alone on the road again, questioning my ability to drag myself back up this wretched climb. So close and yet still that voice of apathy torments me.

I’m no longer fully conscious of what I’m doing as I drunkenly weave my way up the steepest sections in a hope that my body and mind won’t give out now. I focus on the tiniest of distances, creeping ever closer to the end.

It’s not until the final descent that I’m able to truly believe I will make it back up one last time, and even then it takes every last ounce of energy.

Whatever resolve has been pushing me forward for the past hour finally evaporates as those magical numbers appear, releasing a burgeoning wave of exhaustion that has been threatening to flood my body for some time.

On a nondescript stretch of road in Wales I couldn’t be further from Everest, and yet I have somehow hauled myself to its summit.

In essence every ascent is the same; you pedal and you go up. But no single ascent is ever the same, your mind and emotions continually morphing.

What’s more, how you view the small corner of the world you’re in evolves as you ride into the unknown, becoming someone different for all that you force yourself to endure.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve physically suffered so much, but never have I exposed myself to such mental torment.

It’s a vulnerable place to be, submerged in a world where the goal is so simple, yet so demanding. But now I see why so many people are going up.

 

The climb

Conquering Everest 1km at a time

What: Mill Hill Climb
Where: Brockweir, near Chepstow, Gloucestershire
Distance: 1.08km
Elevation: 94m
Average gradient: 8.5%
Max gradient: 11.7%

What is Everesting?

The rules – as established by Hells 500, the orginator of Everesting

  • Climb the equivalent height of Mount Everest: 8,848m
  • Any climb will do, but you must repeat the same climb for the whole challenge, and descend that climb each time as well (no loops allowed)
  • It must be done in one ride. Breaks for food and rest are OK, but no sleeping
  • No walking – it must all be ridden
  • It must be recorded on Strava and verified by Hells 500 to be official (see everesting.cc)

 

The rider’s ride

Factor O2 VAM, £8,245 (£4,330 frameset only), factorbikes.com

At 90kg I’m a long way from the ideal build for climbing, let alone so much in such a condensed manner, so thank heavens for this dream machine. The Factor O2 VAM is the quintessential climbing bike – its name even comes from the climber’s favourite metric, ‘vertical metres per hour’ – and it is now the weapon of choice for the Israel Start-Up Nation pro squad.

I didn’t get a chance to weigh this bike, but I know the disc brake version in this spec comes in at a very light 6.6kg, so I would fully expect this rim brake setup to be even lighter.

Factor says the weight is achieved using special additives in the carbon composite and clever moulding. I suspect it may be witchcraft. Either way, the bike’s lightness doesn’t seem to affect its stiffness or handling, both of which were greatly appreciated on this 1km stretch of South Wales.

 

The perfect climb

Everesting aficionado Phil Gaimon gives Cyclist a few tips on finding the right spot

Since retiring as a pro in 2016, American cyclist Phil Gaimon has established a strong following on social media by targeting Strava KoMs and setting himself riding challenges. In May 2020 Gaimon broke the Everesting world record, only to see his time bettered by pro mountain biker Keegan Swenson four days later.

Gaimon has vowed to regain the record, but he says part of the plan relies on finding the right climb.

‘I’ve been searching the States for the perfect hill – not that I’d tell you where it is if I did find it! It’s mostly to do with the gradient. A lot of people want a hill that’s not too hard, so they find something that’s, say, 6%, but then they realise that they have to ride 280km or something, whereas on a 12% hill it’s half that.

‘If you look at the fastest times set, they are all at around 11%. I think 13-14% is best as it’s about as steep as you can go and still be seated on the bike. And the longer the better, which means fewer turnarounds – every time you turn around it’s about 10-15 seconds gone. It also needs to be safe, with a non-technical descent so you’re not wasting time on the brakes.

‘There’s no database of these climbs, so it’s really just a case of scanning Strava till you find the right one.’

Thanks

A number of people helped me on my epic ascent. Thanks to Factor (factorbikes.com) for the loan of the super-light Factor 02 VAM bike; Rapha (rapha.cc) for the kit – sorry for getting it sweaty; Named Sport (namedsport.com) for the box of nutrition products that kept me going for hour after hour; Garmin (garmin.com) for the loan of the Vector power pedals to gather my data; and Wahoo (wahoofitness.com) for the Roam bike computer, which lasted the course with hours of battery life to spare.

Thanks also to Bailey of Bristol for the best possible base in the shape of an Autograph 74-4 motorhome – my sanctuary at the foot of the hill.

And finally, special thanks to my family who acted as my sherpas, giving me the support, and delicious food, I needed to get through this challenge.