Everesting on Everest: how mountaineers differ from endurance cyclists

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.

The Gyatso La, at 5,220m one of the highest passes on the Friendship Highway
The Gyatso La, at 5,220m one of the highest passes on the Friendship Highway

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.

Watch on YouTube

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.

Cycling towards the north face of Everest (Photo: Cycling Tips)
Cycling towards the north face of Everest (Photo: Cycling Tips)

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.

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14 thoughts on “Everesting on Everest: how mountaineers differ from endurance cyclists

  • February 28, 2018 at 7:41 pm
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    Just to say I’ve that I’ve been reading your blog avidly since I googled “Chimborazo” a few months ago after doing Kilimanjaro last August. This post particularly rings true. I got 3800m up Kili, felt absolutely fine, got a blood oxygen reading below 85% which unnerved my guides and in turn got me worried. It did prompt me to focus better on hydration and deep breathing and I started taking the Diamox which was all to the good but that damn blood oxygen monitor caused the guides (and therefore me) stress for the rest of the trip despite it never going below 85% again. I got up Kili with absolutely no problem at all feeling very good throughout having chosen the Northern Circuit variant of the Lemosho route which gives extra acclimatisation time. I’m now considering Ecuador for next year, this website has been very helpful so far, thank you.

  • February 28, 2018 at 8:12 pm
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    Yes, this happens a lot on Aconcagua too, where a base camp doctor frightens those who are less experienced at high altitude, by giving a (mandatory) health check to climbers who are perfectly healthy.

  • February 28, 2018 at 11:13 pm
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    Mark,

    Re: Your paragraph on pulse oximetry on the mountain..

    “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.”

    Mark, I totally disagree with this statement. You are taking us back to the French clinicians of the XIXth century with this thinking! We are no longer climbing Chimborazo with Humboldt… A pulse oxymeter is an invaluable tool in predicting future problems on the mountain, and if you are using it daily, you will quickly be able to predict pulmonary hypertension and even oedema even if it’s not clinically apparent.

    Your alveolo-capillary membrane is very sensitive to hypoxia and will begin to swell (oedema) long before it fully leaks (froth coming out of your mouth, cyanosis, rales on auscultation, etc.). A pulse oxymeter will be able to detect this by showing abnormally decreased saturations for a given altitude.

    If you follow a group’s SpO2, you will quickly see what seems to be normal for a given altitude. Now go check the person in your group that seems to have slowed down today and whose lips look bluer. His SpO2 may be 5-10 points lower and yet you listen to his lungs and they sound dry. In fact, he already has oedema, but his alveolo-capillary membranes have not burst yet! This is the time to think about drugs that unload the right ventricle and dilate the pulmonary vasculature (Viagra or Cialis) as well as a diuretic (Diamox), and yes O2.

    Under an anesthetic, or in the intensive care unit, this is how we think as doctors when see such situations. The last thing we do these days is make decisions the way our predecessors did, by the gut feeling of a clinician or climber who “listens” to his body with an already hypoxic brain. There have been many deaths on the mountain because somehow tough climbers believe that they can outsmart or control their own incredibly complex physiology. Our brain is UNABLE to wither sense or influence the Krebs cycle in our cells, pulmonary artery pressure, venous oxygen saturation, or a myriad of other factors.

    In 2018, in medicine (and hopefully on the mountain), we measure – and equipped with data, we make intelligent decisions.

    Regards,

    Dr. Leo Montejo

  • February 28, 2018 at 11:17 pm
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    Thanks Mark,

    Andy (from the Everesting trip) here. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your comments, and I don’t disagree with any of your assessment. Part of the fun and excitement in our preparation was that we were truly stepping into the unknown across multiple fronts. Would we do things differently next time around? Absolutely, and I feel that the biggest benefit would be from a (much!) longer acclimatisation at altitude. That said you really still need a bit luck on your side to land a good day at Base Camp for the attempt itself.

    A minor point on the altitude sessions: Given that the highest I had been prior to this trip was 3,000m the altitude sessions (in my mind) were just as much about trying to get a feel of what it might feel like at altitude. That gave me a lot of confidence, and as it turns out it was a pretty good simulation.

    Thanks again for putting together your thoughts on this, hopefully it will provide a bit of a roadmap for future attempts. I’ll add it as a comment on the article, should someone look to that for inspiration for their own attempt!

    Andy van Bergen

  • March 1, 2018 at 2:42 am
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    Very good post, Mark. I truly enjoy it.

  • March 1, 2018 at 8:41 am
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    Hi Andy. Thanks. Wow that didn’t take long for you to find!

    I really enjoyed your article and the film that went with it. It sounded like a great experience, whatever the final outcome, and that’s what adventure is all about. It’s also inspirational. I’m not sure Everesting is in my league, but a bike trip down the Friendship Highway may well be.

    I believe this challenge can be achieved by someone someday, but it could take several more attempts. Congratulations on being the first pioneer. As we say in mountaineering, every first ascent stands on the shoulders of those who went before!

  • March 1, 2018 at 8:46 am
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    Hi Leo. Thanks for the comment (four above). You’ve just confirmed my belief – never go climbing with a doctor 😉

    Seriously though, each to their own, but personally, I only go to see my doctor if things get serious. If I have a cold, flu symptoms, or a bad cough, I don’t need anyone telling me what *might* potentially be wrong with me. I just let it pass, and 95 times out of a hundred it’s nothing to worry about.

    Similarly, I often get sporting injuries, little niggles on my joints and muscles that are part and parcel of getting old. I don’t go to see my doctor about them, unless they persist or things get more serious.

    It’s the same principle at high altitude. 95% of the time these altitude symptoms are nothing to worry about. If they get serious, then deal with them. If not, then take the precautions, but don’t get too worried about them.

    Sure, there’s a risk involved, and sometimes things go wrong, but it’s not the only risk mountaineers (and, I expect, endurance athletes) have chosen to take to do what they do.

    And in the case of altitude, there’s an easy cure: immediate descent. From Everest north side you can drive down to Zhangmu in just a few hours.

    Anyway, I enjoy reading your comments. If I haven’t upset you too much then keep them coming!

  • March 1, 2018 at 11:32 am
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    Hi Mark.
    I really enjoyed this article, especially when I am both a cyclist and a trekker, having done a number of bike touring and trekking in the Himalayas.
    Taking our time to acclimatise cannot be stressed enough. Reading this has brought back so many memories of the challenges we had to overcome and the sheer joy of just being out there, listening to the mountain and soaking in the way of life of the inhabitants.
    Thank you.

  • March 2, 2018 at 12:09 am
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    Actually Mark it was passed onto me by none other than George Mallory! I absolutely hope that it does get achieved one day, but naturally there is a small part of me that hopes it takes a few attempts! In a way the three of us also felt that the fact it wasn’t completed on a first attempt validates this as a true adventure.

    BTW – I had never heard this quote, but I love it: “..every first ascent stands on the shoulders of those who went before”

  • March 2, 2018 at 6:09 pm
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    I believe it was Isaac Newton who said it first in relation to his scientific achievements, but his quote has been modified by a few mountain historians since.

    It certainly is a true adventure, and I expect it will take several attempts and a lot more sweat and tears before someone achieves it!

  • April 2, 2018 at 10:28 am
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    Yes, a pulse-ox is a good way to measure and quantify how a person it doing acclimatizing to high altitudes, but it is not the only way. I’m often amused at how many people in our modern society are such “gear freaks” and just have to have that latest gadget. There are other simpler ways to monitor one’s acclimatization progress.

    The easiest is to closely monitor pulse rate, and you only need a watch. Resting pulse is a good measure of fitness, and all hight altitude climbers should know their resting pulses at sea level before going to altitude. When you start gaining serious altitude, that resting pulse rate will go up because your body is now stressed and challenged to provide oxygen in a lower pressure environment (lower pressure = lower availability for the body to use, at least initially). As you take rest days or hang out in base camp after arriving, resting pulse will start going back down, and this indicates that the long-term acclimatization is proceeding. Eventually your resting pulse at altitude will be well below your sea level value, and this indicates a good level of acclimatization.

    In the early stages of acclimatization, your body is dealing with the stress of starting to make physiological and chemical changes, and the increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and breath rate which comes with the temporary response to high altitude before the long term acclimatization kicks in. Any additional form of stress that you put on your body during the acclimatization process can accumulate to the point of actually slowing down or even stopping acclimatization if you add enough stress. Putting in a really intense week of work just before leaving for the expedition is stress. Jet lag is stress. Catching a cold or other ailment is stress. Walking up hill too fast on the trek to base camp is stress. Getting very worked up about something psychologically is stress. All of these added forms of stress can slow down the acclimatization process. Learn to relax and take care of yourself and you will be ahead of the curve.

    Monitor your active pulse. In the early stages of acclimatization unless you have been to altitude many times before and you know your body’s response very well, you should never walk uphill fast enough that you cannot carry on a continuous conversation without running out of air. I often quantify this by telling clients not to push their active pulse above 120 early in an expedition. Remember you are now on an expedition and it is no longer about training, it is about acclimatization and limiting additional forms of stress. When you stop for a break, take your pulse immediately and again after five minutes. This is your recovery rate. If after 10 minutes your pulse has not recovered significantly, you are likely on that given day pushing too hard and if you continue, you will shoot yourself in the foot on the acclimatization front!

    Yes, a pulse-ox can give you a magic number, but I have also seen many people get stressed out because that number is lower than their expectations or their two buddies on a given day. Remember my comments about stress above! You can compare yourself to yourself, not to anyone else. Everyone is different when it comes to adapting to altitude, and everyone also has good days and bad days. Monitor yourself. Are you adequately hydrated? Are you eating enough? Are you sleeping enough? Are you managing clothing properly? If you have a very down day, low on energy, unmotivated, how about taking an additional rest and acclimatization day? The “Just do it” and “no pain, no gain” attitude kills at high altitudes, so climb smart. Having a really low energy and bad day can be an early warning sign of HACE or HAPE, so it your feeling very poorly, rest until that heart rate recovery happens faster during activity. Awareness of your body and how you feel and acting appropriately are the hallmarks of a really experienced high altitude climber. Besides, you’re there to enjoy the climb, right? You won’t be enjoying much if you feel like shit all the time because you are pushing all the time!

  • May 24, 2018 at 1:51 am
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    Hi Mark,

    Thank you for taking the time to share your insights – super interesting article particularly when you are a part of the subject.

    Your feedback and suggestions certainly make sense, I think when I got to altitude in Tibet I definitely panic trained a little, trying to convince myself and test myself that I’d be okay to perform at altitude, which was more for my mental state … I know we didn’t give ourselves enough time to achieve this feat, (PPPPP) however it was more to tell the tale of cycling to Everest Base Camp than actually trying to achieve the Everesting.

    However, there is discussions of trying again … And I am reading your article now with even more interest on what we could do better to prepare. I resonate with Andy’s comments that the altitude chamber did assist more with coping mechanisms, training breathing etc rather than any altitude affect. Unfortunately, I know we need at least a month over there to be really prepared but I know this wont be possible. Some of your other points and advice will however be imprinted on my mind on how we can better approach a second attempt.

    Again thanks for taking the time to give this feedback and insight,

    Cheers
    Tils

  • May 24, 2018 at 9:08 am
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    Hi Matilda,

    Thanks for dropping by. I’m really happy to hear you found this post useful. Congratulations on your amazing achievement. As a novice cyclist, I’m in awe of anyone who can complete an Everesting at sea level. The extreme cold as well as the altitude must have made this ten times harder, so it’s amazing that you kept going for as long as you did.

    There were a couple of teams on the north side of Everest this year who are promoting the idea of shorter expeditions by acclimatising at home in altitude tents. One of them, Furtenbach Adventures, claimed great success, while the other, Alpenglow, had trouble with their oxygen apparatus which exposed one of the weaknesses of this approach. Both teams used large amounts of supplementary oxygen though, so the jury is still out on whether it’s altitude tents or the extra oxygen that allows them to do this.

    IMHO, if you’re looking to do it without supplementary oxygen, the old tried and tested approach of giving yourself more time is still the best one!

    Regards,
    Mark.

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