Everesting: Noun. An endurance challenge performed on a bicycle, where a cyclist repeatedly climbs a single hill until the combined elevation gain reaches 8,848m, the height of Mount Everest.
I first learned about Everesting last August, when I visited my brother in northern Scotland after completing our North Coast 500 cycle ride. He’s a keen cyclist, who often completes multi-day cycling trips across Europe. He’s quite competitive and his status updates sometimes contain stats.
‘Total ascent of 13,272m this week. That’s one and a half Everests.’
I assumed these updates were a little dig at me, who has actually climbed Everest, but apparently not. On the way to his house, we passed many cyclists pedalling up and down a big hill on a narrow road, across a bleak stretch of moorland.
I had so despised the many hills that we’d sped up and down on the North Coast 500, that I couldn’t believe how these steep sections of road seemed to attract cyclists. He told me about another nearby road, the Cairn o’ Mount, which had a total ascent of 323m, that he’d once tried to pedal up 27.4 times in a single day.
‘You tried to cycle up it 27.4 times? Why cycle up it even twice in a day, never mind that eccentric number?’
It was then that he told me about Everesting, a (not-so-popular) activity in the cycling community. 323 multiplied by 27.4 equals (more or less) 8,848m – which is, of course, the height of Everest. The aim of Everesting is to cycle an equivalent height of the world’s highest mountain in a single day, without sleeping.
Everesting is an extreme endurance challenge. No kidding. One of the toughest sections of the North Coast 500 had been the infamous Bealach na Ba, a high pass above Applecross on the west coast of Scotland. Clocking in at 626m in height, I ended up wheeling my bike up the last 200m, and renamed the pass the Bealach na Bastard. And that was being polite.
Nothing could have induced me to turn around when I got to Applecross and cycle back up again, not even ownership of a brewery. To complete an Everesting of the Bealach na Bastard, I would have needed to pedal up it no fewer than 14 times. That would have been insane.
I’m no endurance athlete, and I’m not even much of a cyclist. The closest I have come to an Everesting on a bike, was the second day of our Chimborazo sea to summit challenge last year, when we ascended 2,600m through the Andes in a single day. I felt strong that day, and believe I could have cycled for longer, but I’d ascended only 29% of an Everesting. Could I have managed 100% if I’d kept going? Will England ever win a penalty shootout …
In fact, full Everestings are a rarity. There have been only around 2,200 of them, which is considerably fewer than the number of actual ascents of Everest (currently around 7,000). There’s even a website that lists them all, and where claims can be submitted and scrutinised. The average Everesting apparently takes 18 to 20 hours.
I was naturally interested to read an article about an attempt to complete an Everesting on Everest – not literally on the mountain itself, but close enough, up the switchbacks of the 5,200m Pang La pass on the way to Everest Base Camp on the Tibet side. There was even a nice video to go with it.
It was interesting for me, because it was written by a cyclist called Andy, who is clearly a highly experienced endurance athlete, with five Everestings to his name, but by his own admission, zero high-altitude experience.
I’m the opposite of Andy. I’m no more of an endurance athlete than James Corden. I don’t train much. Prior to cycling the North Coast 500, I’d spent little more time riding a bike than I had riding an ostrich. On the other hand, I have a lot of experience at extreme altitude, including one genuine Everest.
I wouldn’t be much good at cycling up and down hills, but given sufficient time to acclimatise, altitude is no problem for me. Would I do anything differently to Andy?
His story fell into three distinct parts. The first of these was an extensive period of training near his home in Australia. This was very serious indeed. Every morning he spent two hours training in an altitude chamber, which simulated an altitude of 5,000m. The training was tough, including 20 minute bursts on an exercise bike and running, going flat out, as hard as he could. Throughout these sessions, blood tests were taken, and his oxygen levels were recorded. It all sounded highly professional.
The second part of his story involved the cycle ride across Tibet, from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp. This included dealing with altitude sickness after arriving in Lhasa, cycling across the Tibetan plateau across several high passes, suffering crushing nausea, headaches and vomiting. He cycled up the hillside above the town of Shegar (wrongly identified as Tingri in the article), and rode up the road to Everest Base Camp, with the breathtaking North Face looming up at the end of the valley.
The final part covered the Everesting itself, up and down the switchbacks beneath the Pang La, wrapped up in many layers to guard against the perishing wind and cold, many degrees below zero. None of the team came anywhere close to completing the challenge. Andy pulled out early on, after taking a blood oxygen reading that left him nervous. His friend Shannon rode till midnight, but wasn’t even halfway when he decided to call it a day. Matilda managed to keep cycling all night, but threw in the towel at dawn. We are not told how much of the challenge she eventually completed. We do learn that she reached the halfway point after more than 20 hours, and had an estimated completion time of 50 hours had she continued.
How did I feel when I read this story? Well, firstly I take my hat off to anyone who can do an Everesting at sea level. That must be hard enough. To do one at 5,000m – well, I salute them for giving it a go. However far they got, it would have been a great achievement, and one hell of an experience.
But in my opinion, they loaded the dice against themselves from the start. They made a number of fundamental mistakes that would be unthinkable to experienced high-altitude mountaineers.
The biggest mistake was that they only allowed themselves 10 days for the trip. Ten days to complete an extreme physical challenge at over 5,000m? If you are not already acclimatised, then you can forget it. They were only just starting their acclimatisation when they flew into Lhasa. None of the preparation in Australia, would have helped with this, which leads me onto the second point.
Their second mistake was to use an acclimatisation chamber that simulated the conditions at high altitude. Of course, owners of altitude chambers will tell you they’re fantastic. They certainly look swish, with their expensive facilities and profusion of measuring devices; I’m sure Andy and his team would have been given the hard sell.
But altitude chambers are a poor substitute for spending time at a genuinely high altitude. When you are trekking and camping in the Himalayas, you are acclimatising 24 hours a day. Every moment that you eat, rest, sleep, drink, exercise, read, or go to the toilet, your body is generating more red blood cells to pump the oxygen around your body. Each second of your life, your lungs and breathing are adapting to the conditions. While some expedition operators have started promoting the use of altitude chambers, to date these have mostly been luxury operators targeting inexperienced clients with more money than sense.
Let’s look at some stats of our own. Andy said that he spent two hours a day in an altitude chamber three times a week. That’s 6 hours a week when his body is acclimatising, and 162 hours a week that his body is back at sea level, and losing the acclimatisation again. I doubt he was acclimatised at all. Compare this with spending a week in Tibet, when for 168 hours your body is acclimatising, versus zero hours when you are back at sea level, losing your acclimatisation again. Never mind altitude gyms, with their devices that measure blood oxygen levels. These stats are the ones that matter.
His third mistake was to mix training with acclimatisation by exercising in an altitude chamber. One of the cardinal sins of acclimatisation is to overexert. At high altitude it’s really important to rest and take things as easy as possible. If you are trekking, then you walk slowly and do the high-altitude slow plod. You have short days with plenty of time to rest and relax. And yet here Andy was on an exercise bike, pedalling himself to exhaustion. Crazy. I believe these sessions may even have been harmful to his acclimatisation, and had the opposite effect to what he intended.
The fourth mistake was made by his trainer, when he told Andy that he might be genetically predisposed to high altitude sickness. This is an extraordinary thing for an altitude trainer to say to his student, and bit like giving a sperm donor a test tube and a kick in the goolies.
I’ve talked about psychologically induced altitude sickness before in this blog. It’s well known that worrying about altitude sickness can make the symptoms worse. I’ve seen it happen countless times. People who are inexperienced at altitude literally worry themselves sick over minor symptoms like headaches and appetite loss, that are part and parcel of the acclimatisation process. Thanks to his trainer’s thoughtlessness, this thought could have been gnawing away at Andy while he was in Tibet. And it might not even be true.
So already, before they’ve even set off for Tibet, they’ve made several mistakes.
In Tibet their acclimatisation started in earnest. The training was done, and it was time to take things easy until they were sufficiently acclimatised for the challenge. If you are trekking, then you walk slowly, drink plenty of water, and take plenty of breaks. If you are a mountaineer, then perhaps you do nothing at all, but rest, eat and sleep. The main thing is to avoid overexertion.
But not for our cyclists. They’ve only just started acclimatising, and here they are, pedalling across the Tibetan plateau, up and over high passes. It’s not surprising several of them were sick.
Andy’s final mistake was to read the stats, instead of listening to his body. He described the moment he gave up.
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”.
But he wasn’t in Melbourne. Nor was he on every machine. He didn’t need to be. He was only on one machine – his bike – and he was still pedalling. He wasn’t dead, or even dying. He was still alive – maybe even more alive than he had ever been in Australia.
Never let a little device that you clip onto your finger decide when it’s time to abandon your expedition. Better still, leave that little device at home. You don’t need it. Listen to your body, and make the decision yourself. Of course, this is easier when you’ve been to that altitude before, and you know how your body reacts. Next time Andy will be better at making that decision for himself.
I don’t want to sound too critical though. When it’s your first time, you make mistakes. That’s OK. I made many of my own on my two bike rides last year. You learn from them and grow. Andy did many of the right things too. One on occasion he felt sick after crossing a high pass. He went into the team bus, sat in a chair, took a few deep breaths and calmed himself down. This was a good move, a wise decision, and he immediately felt better.
I should repeat what I said earlier. I have utmost respect for Andy and his two companions. I don’t think they underestimated the challenge: they truly had no idea how the altitude would affect their performance. Fair play to them for giving it a go, and next time they will know better. Of course, many cyclists will seek the advice of the lowlanders with altitude gyms, and repeat the same mistakes. If only they’d asked a high-altitude mountaineer instead.
Here are three things I would do differently:
- Do all your training at home, but do it at normal altitude, and not in an altitude chamber. This is your training period, not your acclimatisation.
- When you get to high altitude and start the process of acclimatisation, take it easy and rest as much as you can. This is your acclimatisation period, not your training.
- Only when you are fully acclimatised is it time to exert.
The single best advice I can give is to forget the altitude chambers back home. I won’t go so far as to call them snake oil, but if their aim is to prepare you for high altitude, then they are an expensive, poor-quality substitute for the real thing.
If you are serious about Everesting at 5,200m, then follow the example of an Everest mountaineer, and take time off. Head for the mountains and give yourself two months in Tibet, not ten days. You will be truly prepared for the altitude and you won’t regret your time in high places.