When George Mallory (grandson of the mountaineer) was preparing to climb Everest over two decades ago he cross-trained by cycling repeats of a mountain. At the crux of his training he rode the equivalent of Mount Everest on Mount Donna Buang (Victoria, Australia). And from this legendary story, the Hells500 epic was born.
Everesting: To climb the equivalent height of Mount Everest. On a bike. In one go. With a few rules of engagement.
So here’s my story.
But didn’t you just finish an epic ride…
Yeah so it’s a funny kinda story, and one that I’ll need to backtrack a little bit for first.
It’s been said that the first time you hear about someone Everesting two things go through your mind. The first is that they are crazy, how on earth is that even possible? And why, WHY, would they want to do that? The second is you start wondering if you were crazy enough to ever do it, what climb would you choose.
My first run in with Everesting was nearly four years ago when I read up on my buddy Jem’s (aka: Eat More Lard’s) Everest of the South Side of Mt Macedon, one of the first ever Everests from Hells 500. At this point I wasn’t a cyclist, this was back in my trail running days. I regularly ran (cough, power walked, cough) up the equivalent trail track (the goat track for the locals) and I had once, ONCE, done a double climb of that track and I thought it would kill me. The idea of doing it 18 times baffled me. So I definitely thought Jem fit into the first category of crazy people, but then again, this WAS Jem, a known climber of hills, so it really was par for the course for him, at least in my head.
Fast forward to two years later when I’d transitioned from runner to cyclist and had met Kristen Slade. I can’t remember exactly what ride we were on, but I’m pretty sure it was half-way up a climb when she was pregnant with Luca, when she dropped Everesting into conversation. And not as a ‘you know, you should think about…’ chat. It was more of a ‘when I’m not pregnant we are going to do your Everesting’ statement. Turns out she’d been thinking about my Everesting even before I had, and had already chosen a hill, a weekend, and started corralling other riders in for it. We’d do it over a long weekend, get the families up to support, and have a bunch of us do it together. Sounded… um… great… (cue panic). At this point I’d only just completed Peaks Challenge Cradle Mountain with 4600m, so the idea of near doubling that was very very daunting.
So onwards we went into 2017. Kristen delivered Luca in February and then after a few weeks she went back on the bike to start training again. The plan was to Everest the November long weekend, so I locked this date into the calendar, thinking I’d probably have to start climb training for it in August. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. As the year went on, I signed up for Sydney-Melbourne 1200 which meant that our planned November date had to change: it was just going to be too close and if I didn’t recover well or fast enough it would be game over for the major event. So a bit of texting back and forth, and the date was rescheduled for January 6th 2018. Again not an ideal date as I was signed up for the Alpine Classic ACE250 on January 27th, but figured I could take that ride slower if I needed to. Jem said I’d need at least three weeks after Everesting to get over it, so this would be cutting it close, but still do-able even if I was a bit tired.
Sydney-Melbourne took place November 19-23, and aside from the normal aches and pains of a long ride I pulled up okay… aside from the nerve damage to my feet. The middle three toes on each foot and the ball of my foot had little to no sensation at all, and in fact was quite painful to walk around on. After a few discussions with other endurance athletes I felt better: most had some sort of nerve damage somewhere on their body after a long event (feet and hands being the top two areas) and most aches and pains went away after a month or so. Mentally setting 4 weeks as the recovery time would bring me to December 23rd. Ish. I went on a few test rides and the feet seemed to be okay, though I hadn’t done any major climbing or ridden in the heat, which were my two major triggers for hot foot. They just felt like winter riding: that weird feeling where your toes go numb but it doesn’t hurt. Yet.
It was then I started seriously thinking about January and the climb that Kristen had picked out. It would be short: the total kms would be 216km. But the more I thought about it, the more worried I got. It wasn’t a long climb (2.9km) but it was steep (just over 8% average) with some ugly twisty sections with a lot of pinches including one that hit 19%. Which meant a technical and fast descent. Perfect for Kristen. Terrible for me. It wasn’t that I didn’t think it was possible, it just didn’t sound like fun. And to be honest, I’d had enough with Type 2/Type 3 fun rides for the year. And I’d have to do it after a week’s holiday and a busy week back at work, meaning I wouldn’t get much bike time for about two weeks before. Not a huge issue as physically I was strong after months of training for Syd-Mel, but mentally something was throwing me off. Yes, I’d already started talking myself out of it…
Choosing a Climb
So I took a step back and actually thought about what I was like as a climber. I wanted something around the 6% average mark that didn’t hit more than 10%, and something relatively straight with no technical descents. Wildlife was always going to be an issue, but ideally something that didn’t have too many possible animal crossings. Scenic, and one I liked and would want to ride all day long. Kristen and I had run through a number of climbs that were more local, but all had been discarded for various reasons: Shannon’s road had too much wildlife which would make the night descents dangerous, Alton road would be brutal to descend and from my perspective that 22% kick section would end up badly, Straws had the same issue with wildlife, Waterfalls would end up being really long at over 300km. But I knew I wanted to do something local: if I was going to Everest, it would have to be on my home turf on Mt Macedon.
I messaged Jem (Everested Mt Macedon South), Rigs (Everested Alton Road) and Marty (mentor extraordinaire) for help. They knew me as a climber and would either talk me in to (or out of) any stupid decisions. Waterfalls still held a lot of appeal for me, so I started thinking of how I could make it shorter and more efficient. The end of the road turned left onto Douglas Road, which would make the loop 2.7km at 7%, total distance 275km. Both Marty and Jem were against the idea: not only would that last pinch hurt, but the descent would be fast with a hard brake and a right hand turn across traffic, not ideal when I was tired. “Everyone forgets the descents when Everesting” Jem stated. Grabbing the MTB I went out and had a go at the ascent… which hit 15% near the top. Scrap that, back to the drawing board.
I ran a few more climbs through the Everesting calculator , and then ran Waterfalls through again. There was no way around it, it was a long ride with over 300km. But hold on, I just rode three 300+ days back to back during Sydney-Melbourne, 300 wasn’t a daunting distance. And it did tick all the boxes for a perfect ride for me, just a slightly lower average gradient than was perfect. An initial spreadsheet was put together and sent out for discussion, with a strong recommendation to re-check the pacing. Ah yes, probably should go out and ride it more than once eh? Time for a dry run: four repeats later, an adjusted spreadsheet, and I felt ready. So I might as well bump the date forward… and do it December 23rd, which was 10 days away.
Right, so into planning mode we go. I let Kristen know I was changing my date, and unfortunately she wouldn’t able to come run support, but would be on the phone if I needed moral support. Both Jem and Rigs were overseas, and while I knew Marty would come out and ride some repeats, he didn’t have the patience for 63 (yes, 63) laps at turtle pace. So if I wanted support I’d actually need to start telling people.
But to be honest, I wanted to keep this one quiet. There was still a chance my body (more specifically my feet) wouldn’t be ready and I’d have to change back to the original date, or possibly even later. There was also a very good chance that my hot foot* would flare up again, which might just turn it into a Type 3 expedition, which I didn’t want.
*Hot foot is my nemesis on long rides. On Sydney-Melbourne it flared up so badly it nearly ended my ride, so I felt I wasn’t really mentally up to battling through that darkness again. Ever. But as luck would have it I ran into Sarah Hammond about a week before my Everesting and we had a good long chat about endurance riding. She said that everyone is always battling something. For her it’s her hands, for me it’s my feet. And this got me thinking: if my feet do flare up, at least it’s a familiar monster that I’ve battled before. And if I’m going to do battle, it may as well be one I know how to prepare for and, hopefully, manage.
And… well, I wanted to see how I’d go without the fanfare, without massive support, and just draw this one out from within. I didn’t have any doubts that I’d be able to do this WITH support. But could I do it without? Could I do it solo?**
**While the idea of a completely under the radar solo Everesting held a lot of appeal, I was pretty certain that boredom would eventually get to me. So I let a few local riders know, but not until only a few days before when I confirmed that I was going to actually do it. I figured if I only had a couple people out during the day that would be enough to break up the monotony of the day. After all, it was only two days before Christmas and a lot of my normal support crew was on holiday, or just about to head off on holidays. I did say I wanted to see if I could do this solo right…?
I messaged John Mogavero (who had originally looked at Waterfalls and then Everested/HRSed other climbs instead) and told him of my plans. He offered to come out and run support on the last set of climbs when I would be at my worst, but wanted to know what time I was starting.
Are you sure, he asked? Many different start times were debated, from 7pm the night before (thereby riding from light into the dark and finishing in the light) to 6am the day of (to allow a full nights sleep and then finishing in the dark). But somehow midnight had appeal. I don’t sleep well the night before an event anyways, so I knew I wouldn’t really be sleeping then. And I figured I might as well do the dark loops when I was the freshest.
So I had my climb. The weather forecast looked warm, perhaps too warm, with a northerly wind which would add a bit of a headwind to the climb, and a bit of rain forecasted for later in the day. Base camp would be at the Tony Clarke Reserve at the bottom of the climb where I could park the car loaded with supplies. I grabbed my food planner diary I’d used on The Oppy earlier in the year and tried to emulate the same, albeit with more cinnamon donuts. Max and the kids would run major food stops at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I had a few friends who said they’d try and pop by during the day, and then John would close off the day. With 63 laps the idea of a top tube cue sheet was ludicrous, so I had my spreadsheet set up in Google sheets for a reference point. The plan was to break up the loops into sets of 6, with a break in between each set.
From riding a few epics during the year I knew the biggest time ‘waster’ was the breaks, so my goal for this ride was to try and minimise these as much as possible, especially during the earlier stages when I wouldn’t need them. I figured that if it all went badly during the afternoon (when it would heat up and I’d possibly start struggling) I could just add on more breaks, or break longer, knowing I’d end up riding into the dark at the end of the ride.
Thursday night I slept like a log, and on Friday I rested. Well, as much as possible. While the 23rd of December sounded really good in theory, it wasn’t really ideal. We were in the middle of renovations at home and the builders needed to do all the floors as well as demolish two of the rooms, which meant we needed to completely clear three entire rooms of all furniture. And of course we were leaving for our holiday road trip on Christmas Day so needed to pack. So Thursday and Friday ended up being heavy lifting days, as well as multiple trips back and forth with boxes. And it was nearing Christmas, so we still had presents to wrap and community carols to go to. I finally settled down around 8pm to try and sleep, or at least shut my eyes and rest for a few hours.
Midnight: The Off
The alarm went off at 11:15pm. Kit on, bidons out of the fridge, and into the car I went. It was only a 10 minute drive (if that) from my place to base camp, so I arrived with 15 minutes until go time. Bike off the car, Garmin turned on, lights checked… and what the heck am I doing? I think I got so caught up in the IDEA of Everesting it hadn’t actually entered my head to think about actually DOING it. So that hit me square in the face at 11:55pm. Why am I out here, in the middle of the night when I should be sleeping? I reached into my pocket to grab my phone to check on the time and saw that Warren Smith had sent a group text out at 11:30pm:
“Just in case you have nothing to do over the next 24hours from midnight tonight till tomorrow night [Tiff] is riding up and down waterfall road at Macedon at least 63 times to conquer Everest. If you have some spare time tomorrow drop out and give her some support for an hour or so. Go Tiff you are an inspiration to us all.<
looked at the time: 11:59pm. Crap I better get going! No more wool gathering, Waz said I’m starting at midnight so I better get my butt into gear. Hitting start on the Garmin (at exactly midnight) I headed out on my first set of laps.
Surprisingly I settled into my groove right away. No panic, no drama. It was a perfect night to ride, no wind, only a few cars on the road early on and then nothing. It turned out that the street I’d chosen had a few sections lit up by streetlights which was a nice surprise as I wasn’t in complete darkness. So up (arm warmers pulled down), down (arm warmers back up), up (bright lights off), down (bright lights on), up (is it getting warmer up at the top?), down (feels like I’m riding into a fridge) … at first I thought I was imagining things as it felt significantly colder towards the base of the climb. Which meant when it was time for my first break after 7 laps it was a chilly stop. I looked into the boot of the car at all the food… and wasn’t hungry. Which is no surprise as I didn’t naturally eat at 2:00 in the morning. But I knew I had to eat, so I decided on some fruit loaf, topped up the bidons, and got back on the bike.
I’d now done over 10 repeats so was starting to recognise sections of the ride as I broke it down. Turns out that average 6% gradient wasn’t steady at all: the first section of the ride was cruisey at 5%, which was great just to get the legs warmed up again after the descent. The next section hit 8% but was also beside a massive fence with a hedge, so I knew that this was a “safe zone” in terms of wildlife. It then settled down to 5-6% as you passed the traffic island before hitting the 9-10% section for a few minutes of fun. Then over a little hump, around the corner, and up to the T-intersection and it was over. Average climb pace around 11km/h. On the descent it was the same, but it went a lot quicker, with an average pace around 50 km/h.
Part of the way through the second set I heard a car behind me, so a quick shoulder check to make sure they’d give me passing room, and then they were past. I thought nothing of it until 5 minutes later I could see the car waiting for me at the top of the climb. Please don’t be a crazy person, I thought to myself. It’s 3:30am, maybe it’s just a local wanting to see what was going on. As I neared the top, the person got out of their car and started walking towards me. Please don’t be a crazy person… “Hey Tiff!” they yelled out. Instant relief. Turns out it WAS a crazy person, but it was one of MY crazy people. Matt Stacy had seen Waz’s post and figured since he wasn’t sleeping anyways he’d come out and ride some laps. Matt also confirmed that it did indeed get colder on the way down, but that the cold front was moving further down the hill with every lap (a Garmin check later confirmed there was a 3 degree temperature difference between the top and the bottom). Second set complete, and one more to go until breakfast.
Sunrise Brings More Surprises
With set three well under way I was feeling fine. I’d gotten through the night ride without any drama or wildlife jumping out at me (other than one koala who meandered across the road during one of our ascents). And with first light came new faces: Blair, Marty, and Dan rocked up to say hello and roll a few laps.
Another quick break and I’m back on the bike. About an hour later even more support arrived and it was starting to look like a party! Turns out those few people I told then told even more people, so a lot of the boys rolled through for at least a lap or two on their way to, or from, their morning ride. By 7am I had a group of six, including King Andy, Jason (aka Big Red), and Hayden (who kept asking why I wasn’t doing the South Side as it’d be quicker, cheeky!). After they rolled off for their morning ride the boys from Sunbury (Waz and Russ) rocked up. Soon after they joined so did Steve Baxter, and with a yell of “Tiffo!!” he joined our merry crew of turtle pacers. I must admit it was starting to feel like a super nostalgic ride as I hadn’t ridden with the Butcher Boys since I’d first started riding last year: this was the first shop ride I ever did, and these guys kicked off my bunch ride training.
Typical questions were asked: How are you going? Are you okay if I talk? Do you want me to talk? Are you tired? How many laps are you up to?
How many laps… um… I’d forgotten! In all the fun of seeing the guys and chatting away, I’d lost track. I knew what set I was on, but hadn’t been counting the number of laps during the set. Um… 3? 4? I guessed. So that’s 23, 24 laps? I had done two sets of seven laps to start out, then another set of six, so knew I was 2 laps up on my spreadsheet. I looked down at the Garmin and tried to work it out. Let’s see, it was 141m per lap, I’m at 3500m, so… erm.. 2 laps until breakfast. Let’s go with that. Soon I saw Max and the kids parked at the Reserve and yelled out ONE MORE LAP. Then it was time for breakfast. And more importantly, coffee. The Butcher boys peeled off for coffee in Macedon, Dan headed back to his car to restock his supplies, and I sat down for my first proper rest since I had started over eight hours earlier.
Time was still ticking away, so off went the high vis vest (the flankles* stayed on all day), off went the night lights (and back to Max for charging at home) and on went the day time running lights. It was starting to warm up now as well, so the wind vest and arm warmers were ditched soon after as well.
*Flankles: fluorescent ankles. A high vis strap with a reflective band with velcro to wrap around ones ankle. Appropriately nicknamed “flankles” by Claire Stevens during Sydney-Melbourne. Probably the best piece of visible gear I now own. Picture later in the blog.
By 10am I had reached the half way point in terms of my spreadsheet and I was doing just fine. I’d completed 168km with a vert gain of 4532m and an average speed of 18.4km/h. I had estimated I’d be at 17.2km/h average so was tracking a little faster than planned at this point but was feeling very solid with my pacing so I wasn’t too concerned. Soon after Sam and Jacques rolled up, and it was great to see them rocking the Woodend Velos kit. I hadn’t seem them since we finished Sydney-Melbourne, and knew that they were both busy with holiday plans, so it was a great surprise to have them both there (Brian was overseas so couldn’t make it, I’ll give him that excuse 😉 ). Jacques wanted to know when my next break was (2 laps) and if I was okay to break at the top of the climb rather than the bottom. Sure…? I said, and off he went to get coffees. Because after 132 hours of training time (thanks Strava recap!), he knew exactly what I’d need at this point in the day.
Marty returned for a lap after his morning ride, and soon after Hayden returned to do a couple laps and see how I was doing. By mid-day it was time for lunch… and time for the first appearance of hot foot. Because by now it had been 14 hours since I started, I’d been climbing more often than not, and it was 27 degrees and humid. But this time I was prepared! Max set me out a camp chair and brought over food, and I threw my feet into an esky of ice. Perfect. Except for the fact that I still didn’t want to eat anything. I had a massive amount of food in the car, and not one bit looked appealing. I forced down a peanut butter & jam sandwich and an iced coffee and tried not to think about food. About the only thing I really wanted was ice cold Coke, but that wasn’t going to sustain me for the next 8 hours.
At this point I was over 200km in with 5300m of vert in the bag. I was well over half-way, but it wasn’t even near time to celebrate yet, as the dreaded death zone was coming. Every Everester I’d spoken to had their zone where things went dark. For many it was around the 6000m vertical mark, where you realise you’re so close, but still have so very far to go. And my support crew had all left after lunch, so it was just me, the heat, and the newly whipped up headwind on the ascent just for fun.
I pulled into my bag of endurance riding tricks and put on the headphones. Heavy base-line playlist on, I ticked over the kms. The company all morning had been wonderful, but I was quite comfortable with a bit of solitude at this point. I’d sent out a message to the Velos to let them know how I was tracking, and with the tunes pumping, I kept on trucking. Up, down, up, down. Sip of water. Gag. Hot water. That cold water I put in didn’t last long at all. It was now around 28 degrees and my stomach was not feeling great. I switched from solid food to gels and gel blocks and just kept drinking warm electrolytes and water out of my rapidly diminishing on-bike supply.
It was now 3pm and I had reached 6666m of vert (yes of course I took a picture here, I’d been watching the meters tick over just for this moment).
But it was still hot and I just wanted something cold to drink, so I decided that instead of doing sets of 6 I’d move to sets of 5 so that I wouldn’t risk dehydrating. During breaks I started piling my bidons full of ice and then toping them up with a little water in hopes that at least the first few laps I’d have something cooler to drink. And also took another feet in the ice bucket break. Up, down, up, down. Yawn… just one more set of 5 laps until dinner. I passed 7000m without a hitch and was still feeling good. It was a great mental boost to know I’d gotten through one set of the death zones without any issues, other than getting bored with the monotony of the same climb. Half a climb later and HELL showed up: John was ready to ride! A few laps later and it was dinnertime.
Dinner time meant it was time for HOT CHIPS, a main stay of all dinners on my long rides. But after Max placed the warm, salty chips in my lap… my stomach rolled. It just didn’t want to put food in. At all. But I knew I needed to get salt and carbs in me as I still had 3 hours left to go and was running low on fuel. So I forced a few handfuls in me, thanked Max for bringing enough chips to feed an army, and gave the rest of them to my kids. I was now 282km in with 7500m and 10 laps left to go. I started chatting with John about the number of laps. Maybe I didn’t have to do 10. By my count I’d only need 7, maybe 8, to finish it right? He said that Everesting isn’t necessarily about the numbers, it’s about doing the laps you set out to do. Right, so 10 it is then. Or 9.7 if I was to go by the original spreadsheet.
Off we set for the last sets… and dinner nearly reappeared. My stomach had decided that enough was enough: we didn’t have enough energy to ride as well as digest, so it was going to make life difficult. I wasn’t feeling very well, so just drew strength from within, focused on a point in road up ahead, and just kept pedalling. John looked over a few times and suggested maybe aiming for less laps this set. I’m pretty sure he thought I was going to puke, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep my food down. But if you can walk you can ride, so onwards I went. We slowed the descents down a little to give me more recovery time, but at most I was getting an extra 30 seconds: it’s a pretty quick descent and you have to really be on the brakes to slow it down.
The sun had started to go down and it started getting a bit cooler, which helped a lot. I did four laps and then we pulled over for more Coke to settle the stomach, and an apple, which was the only thing that looked even vaguely appealing. My stomach finally started to settle down and I got past the dreaded death zone, which for me turned out to be between 7500-8100m of vert.
Back on we went, with John suggesting that maybe we aim for another three laps and then break. I wasn’t keen on stopping again, but it was nice to have the idea in the back pocket just in case. Three laps later and Marty came back to join in, then another lap and Matt was back… and with him came the rain. Nothing dramatic, but enough to cool me down and make the roads wet, so we slowed down the descents even more just to be on the safe side. But with only a couple laps to go there was no way I was stopping. Marty looked over and said I was looking very strong still, and asked how much vert I had. 8600m I replied. Good! he said, and onwards we went. With one last lap to go John peeled off: he didn’t need to finish any more laps and had accomplished what he needed to do in getting me through the death zone. I soon ticked over 8848 and Marty headed back to let Max know that I was nearly completed so he could get ready. But I had said 0.7 on the last lap, so had a goal to reach the traffic island before I turned around. Up, up, up, 8888m… aw heck let’s round it up to 8900*… and I was done! I rolled around, and back down we flew to the finish.
Chasing Waterfalls: Complete
*Side note: the next day I looked at the Strava file and noticed that once it started raining my elevation profile changed dramatically so I did an elevation correction to check. Turns out I had done 9193m of elevation and only 61.7 laps. I had indeed lost count early on, but it turns out I didn’t need that extra lap anyways. My initial Everesting calculation had been done on a segment called “Waterfalls & Governors Drive” but I actually rode a bit further than that each time (I don’t like to brake during a descent so had rolled past base camp each time to turn around at the T-junction). I created a segment to match my actual ascent and called it “Chasing Waterfalls” and reloaded it into the calculator. Turns out I only needed 58.8 laps (61 if I took out the little bit of vert I gained on the descent). But better safe than sorry right?
Really was a surprise to have so much help along the way, so thank you to everyone who decided to rock up and just check on how I was doing. All the massive rides I’ve done this year have been accomplished with a very small number of people, so it was a great change to get to do an epic ride with so many new faces! Whether you did one lap or nineteen, came out to visit once, twice, or three times, it was all appreciated. Thanks again to Max and the kids for their support, cheers, videos, and encouragement. We can go on holidays now, and I’ll leave the (road) bike at home.
- Total distance: 334.8km
- Total vertical climbed: 9193
- Elapsed time: 21 hours and 8 minutes (estimated as per spreadsheet 20:36)
- Moving time: 18 hours and 21 minutes (estimated as per spreadsheet 17:51)
- Average speed: 18.2 km/h
- Calories burnt: 10,256
- Max temperature: 29 degrees
- Min temperature: 8 degrees
- Breakdowns and tears: NONE!!
- Ride data: Chasing Waterfalls