Everest has occupied a special place in my mind since I was a young child. I think it started when I heard a friend of ours talking about going to make a film on the infamous K2. I was also fascinated by those other explorers, like Scott and Amundsen racing to the South Pole, or Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the globe. But Everest stuck. For a long time actually climbing it was a serious goal and trekking to Base Camp was the first thing I did when I left Art School back in 1994. Climbing wasn’t an option. It was more of a pilgrimage, but I was also a young guy looking for some answers and the Himalayas have a long tradition of welcoming wandering souls.
Part of the allure I think was the very special nature of these endeavours. These were men with extraordinary ability, stamina, and mental toughness. It was only in the 90s that the mountain started being taken over by clients paying $50k to be guided up the mountain. Sure this would still be tough but it’s very different when you’re making the decisions, when someone’s not there to hold your hand.
But Everest continued to loom in my mind. For years I used it as a metaphor to inspire me through challenging tasks like writing the PhD (later I changed this in favour of the river but that’s another story).
Then at the end of January I signed up for the Hells500 cycling Epic. It was a bold one. No details would be given unless you were seriously keen to do the ride which would require climbing close to 10,000 vertical metres. But as soon as I was let in I was hooked. The challenge was to ‘Everest’ a climb. That is, to do as many repeats on a climb as it takes to get to the height of Everest – 8848m. Think double the elevation of 3 Peaks. Making it especially tough was that this was a solo ride. So I added my name to the list, selecting the back of Kinglake, Glenburn rd, for my Everest. It seemed like a good choice. It was reasonably long, local, and a steady gradient, requiring about 36 10km reps, 360km all up. I was feeling good coming off the Alpine Classic but I still only had 5 weeks to get my head around the challenge. I’d never done repeats before, not seriously anyway, and the epic required doing repeats all day. Then there was organising the logistics for a solo ride on this scale, all the food and drink, power supplies for lights, Garmins etc.
That 4 weeks rolled around very quickly, too quickly really so I opted out so I could focus on 3 Peaks which had been my main focus for months and which I’d already paid up for. It was the right move. But over that time I started to meet other guys doing the challenge, both on the road and on Strava, guys like Brendan and Stryder, Garry, and others. On the weekend of the Epic I rode out to help my friend Cyril on his Everest of Mt St. Leonard, a beautiful climb 9km long that I know well from my Healesville rides. It was a very special experience climbing and descending in the dark and after it I continued to dream about it. That was 6 weeks ago.
After a strong ride on 3 Peaks I was hungry for the next challenge. I was climbing stronger than ever so I decided to have a crack at Everesting Mt St. Leonard. I started dreaming about it in my sleep, and these were good dreams not the ones I used to have before rides I was worried about. The pieces I needed came together quickly, mainly with the extra bits and pieces I needed, but most of all, over these last few weeks I was able to get into the Everesting mindset and to bring my wife on board who respected and supported the endeavour.
Three weeks out and our household came down with a weird virus, not your usual cold. So close to my date with Everest I took the week off the bike to recover rather than make it worse. This was really hard to do, but I didn’t want to jeopardise the main event. Ten days to go and I was able to get back on the bike and punch out a series of strong rides focussed heavily around hill repeats. It was enough to boost my confidence and get some extra mileage in before a few days of steady tapering to make sure I was fresh for the weekend. I was in new territory. Never before have I been so careful with preparation. But I’d never attempted an Everest either.
For a few weeks before the ride I was really excited, but a few days before and this excitement began to change into waves of fear and panic. Aside from the enormity of the ride, there were so many things to do to get ready, so many things to get right. It helped to talk to a couple of friends about these worries, talk through the training, and the rest of it.
The day started early, super early. By 1:25am I was out of bed and in the car by 2. By 3:15 I was on the bike and starting the first climb. To be perfectly honest, the idea of arriving in the dark forest at 3 in the morning was a scary one. Even driving out into the country at that hour made me confront childlike fears of the darkness, fears that I haven’t had in a long, long time. My nerves weren’t helped by a large roo bounding across the road right in front of me which I only missed by the narrowest of margins. Then stopping the car and setting up in a forest in the middle of the night – the reality was surreal. I think it was only by focussing on what needed to be done, step by step, that I moved through the fear.
The forecast was good. After days of rain, it was meant to be dry and 19. The dry bit they got right. But at 3am it was freezing, easily sub-zero on the descents, and this set the theme for the day. The first 6 laps went to schedule, roughly an hour per lap including the time it would take to stop and fill bottles etc. Getting my winter gloves on and off became an increasingly slow affair as they got damp. It’s the strange thing on these rides, even though you’re out there for so long, every minute counts so you try to minimise the time you’re not moving. I was expecting to have to deal with wildlife and/or mist on the road, but this wasn’t the case, with the exception of a single wallaby.
On laps 7 and 8 I was joined by my riding mates, James and Alex. James had driven out and picked up coffee and croissants for us on the way while Alex had ridden out with one of Mary Anne’s crepes and some chocolates. Welcome treats. Not long after, my wife and son arrived. This was going to be my long break, but I also needed help with getting batteries charged as I’d used most of my front lights in the morning and my phone was on its last legs as well. James had dropped my light batteries off at my regular cafe in Healesville, The Gilded Lily, where they happily helped out.
By the time all this was over though I was way off schedule and my 10pm finish was looking more like 11:30, assuming I could maintain the same pace. This meant riding in the dark for a good 5 to 6 hours, a daunting prospect when you’re alone and cold with no means of communication. Cyril was going to come out, but I didn’t know when and I had no means of communicating with him. These worries made laps 10-13 especially challenging but it was also during this period that I did the real soul-searching.
When Ophelia left, her last words were “be strong”, and this mantra gave me extra strength to get through the next few reps. While my times up each climb stayed pretty consistent, they felt a lot slower and as the sun started to get lower they quickly got colder and colder. Still, even though I was extremely tired I realised I was actually still climbing well. This was an amazing realisation and it made my legs feel a little lighter and stronger. I can do this.
While I was climbing well two factors were becoming increasingly difficult to bear. I was getting colder and colder and I was feeling increasingly vulnerable and frankly, afraid. I’ve never thought of it before, but really it takes energy to counter fear, it’s just that we get used to it on our normal rides. But as the day wore it became much harder to fight my fears in the way I normally would. At one point late in the day a car full of young guys pulled up alongside me. My first instinct was to perceive a threat, it was unfounded, they were just looking for a camping ground, but my fear was intensified by the fact that I felt incredibly vulnerable, especially with no communication and on the edge of exhaustion.
With the onset of night, the fear, cold, and exhaustion reached my limit. This was becoming very dangerous, too dangerous. How could I face another 5 or 6 hours of this? Support was on its way but I had no idea when. And I was really, really cold. I had been for much of the day. All my gear was wet now so I couldn’t put on any dry tops, and on the descents it felt like I was wrapped in a blanket of ice. Despite this I got my gear ready for the next couple of laps, refilled my bottles, had a snack. Then a big 4WD hurtled past me. I don’t know what it was but it brought it all together. The risk was now too great. If I rode further I would either just make myself really sick or worse. It wasn’t worth it for me or my wife and child waiting anxiously at home.
It was 6:30 when I pulled the plug. I’d already ridden just over 221km and climbed over 6,500m doing the climb 13 times – 110km up and 110km down. To reach Everest I would have needed a further 5 climbs, or 5-6 hours including stops. While slightly shorter than Audax or 3 Peaks, I had climbed an extra 2,000m for the distance. It wasn’t Everest but it was a truly epic ride.
The hardest part about stopping was the fear of disappointing all my friends who I knew were cheering me on, and especially my riding mates – you know who you are. Were they on their way? I had no idea. But I had to make the decision regardless. Having company wouldn’t have helped with the cold.
Going into this, I couldn’t really explain why I was doing it other than the obvious of course – I love a good challenge and this was truly a doozy. What I knew for certain though was that was going to be a kind of katabasis, an underworld journey. It was going to take me into both dark and beautiful places of the mind in a way that only the most extreme situations can. I was right. It would force me to confront primal fears as well as confront all my self-doubts and negative beliefs.
The underworld journey is one of the main areas of my teaching in Classics, it has been for many years, and over the last few weeks I’ve been getting my students to look at the great epic accounts of Homer and Virgil on the heroic katabasis – namely the journeys of Odysseus on his return from Troy and Aeneas on his way to finding a new home after the destruction of Troy. The prospect of the journey reduces these men to tears, knowing how small the chances are of their successful return to the land of the living. But for the hero called to the underworld, there is no choice. They must make the journey into the dark in order to acquire the knowledge that will enable them to return home safely. One of the questions I usually ask is what is at stake for the hero? Of course, it’s about their survival, but it’s much more than that. In Homer’s Odyssey, his home on Ithaca is effectively under a long siege by a horde of suitors besieging his wife (it’s like a domestic parallel to the Iliad) so his safe passage through the underworld is not just about him, it’s necessary to ensure the safety of his family and community. It’s a powerful text, and I found myself thinking about this before and during the ride, asking the questions. Why am I really doing this?
Somewhere in the middle, I did enter a sweet spot, a point of clarity, where the answers to my internal questions came through crystal clear. Needless to say, it had nothing to do with cycling.
For the last few years, after the PhD really, I’ve been looking for a new way forward, feeling sort of stuck, with the big exceptions of my family life and my riding which have taken me into both wonderful and challenging new waters. What becomes clear is that the way forward is about the return home, a place of peace and acceptance with my imperfect self. Embracing a way forward that honours the simple things that are important to me, rather than the arbitrary expectations of others. I also acknowledged how much this journey was about earning the respect and even love of others while challenging some old beliefs. It was beautiful to be able to see that this respect was already there and to recognise the love that already fills my life, especially that of my family. It was clear that this love was not conditional on my finishing this ride.
I had been concerned about how good I would be to drive once I’d finished. Thankfully, despite such an incredibly long day this wasn’t an issue. I still felt fresh and alert. I arrived home feeling triumphant. I hadn’t gotten the 8848m but in another sense I’d gotten a lot more than that. I felt like part of me had grown through the experience and not finishing was an essential part of that – because in the end, every ride is about returning home to those we love.
Finally, I want to dedicate this ride to the memory of the 16 sherpa mountaineers that were lost in the tragic avalanche last week.