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Everesting: A new mountain to climb for cyclists

Date

Campbell Mattinson

Is 'everesting' the sternest physical challenge a cyclist can face? <i>Illustration: Matt Davidson</i>

Is 'everesting' the sternest physical challenge a cyclist can face? Illustration: Matt Davidson

Every generation needs one. An ultimate, amateur, physical goal. A marathon, an ironman triathlon, a swim across the English Channel. Now comes “everesting”, the ultimate test of an amateur cyclist's endurance.

Weekend cycling warriors: if you've not yet heard of everesting, get set to be astonished and inspired.

In February, 34-year-old Melbourne woman Sarah Hammond became the first woman to everest a mountain by bike. She did it by riding her bike unassisted up Mount Buffalo in north-east Victoria not once but eight times in 18 hours, in the process notching 9031 vertical metres of climbing.

Sarah Hammond pictured during her 'everesting' ascent of Mount Buffalo in February.

Sarah Hammond pictured during her 'everesting' ascent of Mount Buffalo in February.

The magic number is 8848 metres; the elevation gain of Mount Everest. Her extra metres were to make certain of it. Forever after, in hard-core cycling circles, Hammond will now “own” Mount Buffalo.

That's the criteria for everesting: you have to notch a minimum ascent of 8848 vertical metres, all in one continuous cycling effort. The mountain or hill or “elevation” is entirely open to your choice, though the shallower the hill you choose the longer (distance) and more time it will take – choose a hill too gentle and you'll run out of time before needing to stop and/or sleep.

To claim your place in history, you also have to be the first cyclist known to have everested that particular hill or mountain.

Hammond trains for her next challenge.

Hammond trains for her next challenge. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

A slew of the 58 successful everesting attempts made so far originate in Victoria, where the sport began. Just one successful attempt has been recorded to date in New South Wales - when Rohan Symons climbed Dead Horse Gap near Mount Thredbo in March - with four in the ACT and three in Queensland. Everests have also been recorded in England, New Zealand, the US, Italy and Norway.

If everesting is about to sweep through weekend warrior cycling, it will be all the fault of the man who founded the idea and coined its name: George Mallory.

In 1994 Mallory – after several failed attempts – everested Victoria's Mount Donna Buang. This feat involved climbing the mountain by bike 10 times in a day. It's taken 20 years to catch on, but word of Mallory's feat has smouldered in amateur circles ever since.

The view over the handlebars at the 4am start of Hammond's 'everesting' attempt.

The view over the handlebars at the 4am start of Hammond's 'everesting' attempt.

If the name sounds familiar, you're right. He is the grandson of the British mountaineer of the same name, who many believe was the first to successfully climb Mount Everest but who never made it back down to tell the story. Modern-day Mallory, 54, has also climbed the real Everest.

“My idea for everesting arose from a game rock climbers play,” Mallory says. “We would do multiple rock climbs in a day with the aim of gaining the equivalent height to El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. In 1989, with my climbing friend Kevin Smith, we climbed five routes on a 300-metre high cliff in 24 hours.”

In 1994, during training for a trek up Everest, Mallory “started dreaming up epic training projects”.

“I wondered how many times I could cycle up [Mount Donna Buang] in a day. Was it five, or six? Or, maybe I should aim for eight! By doing eight laps of the hill my vertical gain would be 8800 metres, approximately the altitude of Mt Everest. Would this be possible? Was there a world record for this brand of stupidity?”

Mallory slowly built ever-increasing numbers of repeat runs up Donna Buang. Then, one day in March 1994, he set out to clock “two laps more than the six I had managed previously”.

“[It] doesn't sound like an outrageous increase, but I was destined to learn the hard way that the human body is not a machine. Marathon runners know that half of 42 is not 21, but 35.”

Mallory is not your average human being. He's climbed Mount Everest, run marathons, and is the only person known to have biked several everests.

“Everesting is not really like the real thing. Having climbed Everest's north ridge in 1995, I can confidently say that an everest ride is physically harder than any one day on Everest. But on Everest, a mountaineer needs to do several hard days in succession with limited food and recovery.

“The cycling version does not involve taking three months off work and burning a bunch of fossil fuels. All you need is a bike, a hill and a lot of determination.”

Every successful attempt goes straight into the unofficial everesting hall-of-fame. The interesting thing is that 44 of these successful everesting attempts have taken place in the past few months. The story of Mallory's feat has finally taken off.

Despite the increasing popularity of everesting attempts, it will remain outside the reach of most mere mortals. Hammond started her attempt on Mount Buffalo at 4am “totally submerged in darkness, only just dodging two deer in the first few hundred metres”.

“As well as all the wombats, rabbits, 'roos and every other rustle from the trees. The darkness was the biggest worry for me, never having ridden in complete darkness. But it was beautiful,” she says.

“I was ambitious to think I would be done with the ride in 16 hours, however. As the day ticked on and eventually the mental walls and fatigue kicked in, my time on the bike pushed out to just on 19 hours.

“The night time was very warped as I was well and truly hurting and having to mutter and talk to myself to keep going. The legs were now just mechanical, but it was the mental challenge overriding the physical. Counting the seconds and metres of elevation was becoming hysterical.

“The wall came a little around 5500m. Everything slowed down, my lights started failing, chain came off the bike twice, hunger and dizziness, cramping in places I didn't know possible, and then the doubt of how the hell can I get through another three laps.

“You start to argue in your head over pushing yourself through. There were tears on a few occasions for the fact it becomes incredibly emotional in a state of exhaustion.

“My lights also failed me for the third time on the final descent, forcing me to hit the brakes hard as I couldn't see a thing. I descended the last kilometres using only a rear red blinker light that was almost as good as nothing!”

An increasing number of hard-core amateur cyclists are now scanning the hills and dales of their experience, assessing them for their everesting possibility. But the hill need not be remote.

In March, Melbourne chiropractor Mike Melling-Williams, 44, everested the steep Anderson Street hill in suburban South Yarra, best known as the hill section for the famous Tan running track. To surpass the magic 8848 vertical metres it took him 24 hours and six minutes as he cycled up the hill a mind-boggling 328 times.

“On the day there must have been a soccer match at AAMI Park. There were many supporters who walked past me on the way to the game. On their way back home, hours later, I heard a couple of kids saying to their parents, 'hey dad, that guy is still riding up and down the hill'!”

Melling-Williams chose Anderson Street for its convenience but “I can honestly say that the accomplishment of climbing to 8865m on a bike [in a day] is not a cute term; it was extremely challenging.”

The relatively lazy gradient of Anderson Street – compared to mountain-based attempts by others - meant that while the climb wasn't as extreme, he needed to cycle many more kilometres and spend far more time on the bike.

“Anderson Street is a well-known street for runners and riders alike,” he says. “Plenty of people use it for hill repeats when running. So to tell them that I did 328 laps of Anderson Street in a day has definitely got some kudos attached to it.”

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