A morning wake-up call wailed out from a crib in the adjacent bedroom, a precious half-hour earlier than the one set for 3 am on my actual alarm clock next to the bed. Clearly, my twenty-month old son Oliver was excited and eager to get a jump on the day and our pending Everest Challenge. I knew better than to try and find his snooze button, so I gave him a bottle of milk and left him to snuggle with mom while I boiled some water, brewed coffee, and forced down a bowl of granola and a hard-boiled egg.
I slipped into my cycling kit and pocketed my essential electronics: phone, Garmin computer, charger, and GoPro, all laid out the night before. I slipped outside into our car park and startled the motion sensor light, a moody and unreliable sentry offering a dull, ambient glow in the cool, quiet morning.
My Cutthroat was propped up and eagerly awaiting our departure with the Thule bike chariot already attached and loaded with critical supplies and allies carefully chosen the day before by Oliver: Racoon. Moosey. Bear. All were opinion-less members of our brave mountaineering party, fluffy diplomats and good luck charms for the next 24 hours.
I was pedaling uphill by 3:45 am. It was going to be a long day and I knew from endurance races that every moment would count. The longer I dithered in the seemingly benign hours of the morning, the later I would finish in the less-forgiving hours of the night. I could feel my ragged, future self already pleading with my smug, present self to get moving.
Mount Seymour loomed in the din and fog of a damp North Vancouver morning. This was my local mountain and the stage for my Everest Challenge. Only a mile from our doorstep, we literally lived in its shadow. Despite all of the miles I had logged up and down this Haute Classe massif over the years, its natural beauty and smooth grades continued to inspire. It was the obvious choice to log the 29,029' of elevation necessary to complete the task. Eleven laps, each 2,265' of climbing and 6.8 miles up and down would yield the necessary height over a total distance of approximately 155 miles. My target was to complete each loop in under 2 hours including stoppage time for refueling, clothing changes and miscellaneous distractions in the pits at the base of the mountain.
I started my ascent in complete darkness, pulling the childless chariot behind me. It still weighed upwards of 40 pounds without my son Oliver and on 8% grades every ounce was compounded by the forces of gravity grappling at each of my slow pedal strokes. Dragging an anchor up the mountain gave me new insight and a deep respect for the sherpas hauling supplies to the highest summit on Earth.
I drifted through a thick fog, relishing in the silence and calm. The moisture in the air clung to my skin and face. The birds were busy with pre-dawn errands, flittering from tree-to-tree, presumably debating their plans for the day on the original twitter feed. I had a sudden burst of joy and flood of anticipation. Alone and isolated, I felt a profound and immediate reconnection to this place, so familiar, yet somehow reshaped and reconfigured by the new honour I had bestowed upon it.
It was Saturday, May 23, and I was now officially engaged in the “Giddy Up For Good” (https://www.pledgereg.com/rebeccas-giddy-up-challenge) Everest Challenge, a virtual fundraiser for the Be Good Foundation (https://www.rebeccarusch.com/be-good-foundation), organized by Rebecca Rusch to support a variety of COVID-related charities. I joined the ranks of thousands of riders across North America and around the world, repetitively summiting the hills and mountains of their choice. The event was not only an opportunity to support some great causes but it was an opportunity to connect and bond with fellow cyclists and bikepackers who, like so many others in the world, had their hopes, plans, and dreams put on hold due to a global pandemic. With all of the events, races, and expeditions cancelled or postponed, there was a palpable desire for the biking community to gather and share in a unifying experience. I had been maintaining my training regime and was motivated for a challenge and some sense of structure and purpose that was more than just Strava-gloating.
I completed my first lap solo and was feeling solid. I sailed down, turned and started again right away. My goal was to keep moving for the first five laps to cover about half of the distance without unnecessary stoppage time. I knew the stops could add up fast. Continuing to move and staying consistent was key. But I also recognized pulling the chariot up and down was an intangible. Yes, I had been doing plenty of training rides with it attached, but the heavy weight meant living in one gear and pushing a deep, slow cadence. This meant no relief for the legs.
As the day progressed, friends and cycling bystanders joined me for a section, a lap, two, three, even four laps. Their presence, whether a silent ally or a chatty conversationalist was invaluable. I came across other riders training for their own future Everest and we shared a laugh, some commiseration, and tips, the most obvious tip being don’t pull a chariot. But the chariot, with or without Oliver squawking inside, was certainly a good ice-breaker and immediately ingratiated me to most of the other riders. My decision to pull the carrier was a logical one. Throughout the pandemic lockdown, those of us living in Greater Vancouver, Canada had the fortune of our health advisors promoting time spent in the great outdoors. With that came the silver lining of spending more time with my son Oliver. My wife Sarah worked full-time as a teacher and school administrator, so my elevated status to daytime dad domestique meant I had to get creative with my workout and parenting schedule. I resolved this by doing long training runs with the stroller, mountain hikes with the child carrier, and big rides and drills pulling the chariot. I quickly became acclimatized and accustomed to the efforts and appreciated having Oliver perpetually drawing behind me. Not to mention, our next big riding plans were likely an expedition pulling the chariot so what better way to continue training?
Each time I reached the bottom of the mountain, our base camp seemed to morph and grow. This was thanks to my support team leader, Sarah. She commandeered a section of closed road to pitch a tent, set up chairs, and hang signage informing people of what was going on. Our cooler continued to fill with edible treats as new supporters came and went, donating fresh calories to the cause. I had warned everyone in advance that I wouldn’t be stopping for casual chit-chats. All conversation would need to happen on the bike and on the climb up the mountain to ensure the day didn’t drag on forever.
The first half of the elevation gain passed quickly and I was averaging 1:45 a loop, just slightly ahead of schedule. I was optimistic but grateful to bank some time knowing things would certainly slow a little. Oliver hopped on board for several laps, lowering the pace but raising my spirits. His 30-pound frame certainly added drag but he never was one. It felt good to have my youthful co-pilot and coxswain behind me. Pulling my son gave me great joy and pride and it was worth all the additional suffering in the world.
Sure enough, as I completed more and more loops, my stops extended to fifteen minutes as my body and mind craved some warm food. I had come to appreciate my old-school engine was more coal-burning stove than nuclear reactor, so that meant sustenance. I scarfed down a couple of hamburgers, wraps, and mugs of hot soup, generously delivered by new recruits arriving to take a turn up the mountain. The emotional impact of the company and camaraderie was the part I hadn’t fully accounted for. I knew having family, friends, and neighbours riding by my side would be uplifting, help pass the time, and distract from some of the repetition and monotony, but I didn’t realize how special these chummy pelotons would feel. I had wonderful one-on-one conversations and when the group expanded, sometimes to ten riders, I was delighted by the impromptu discussions breaking out between friends and strangers converging from different circles, tethered by a shared passion for bikes and an excuse to do something unexpected. The desire and gratification for people to feel connected again after so much anxiety and isolation was not lost on me.
As the hours passed and the darkness fell I started nodding off. The murmur of voices and the gentle rocking of the bike was a hypnotic lullaby wooing me to sleep. The blurry shapes of riders seemed to float and hover as my eyes and mind struggled to make sense of movement and speed. At times the forms blurred into apparitions swirling around me.
At 3 am, as I neared the summit of the final lap, I glanced down at my altimeter and watched as it slowly ticked over 29,000 feet. I quietly relayed the elevation count up to my current fellowship of ten riders. Like all summits, it was but a small peak in a much greater experience and adventure. But suddenly, after 24 hours of riding, every foot was precious and meaningful. We took a moment to celebrate on the flat curve of the final switchback before climbing another mile to the summit of the loop so we could plant the proverbial flag and layer up for the quick descent.
The group divided into two camps based on their differing illumination approach. The lumens-less, of which I was the passionate leader, plummeted first into the dark abyss. After eleven passes I could comfortably profess I knew every nuance of the tarmac like the back of my hand. As if relying solely on telepathic navigation, I anticipated every bump, crack, rivet, and blemish at full speed to the bottom. It was surreal and glorious.
At the bottom, Sarah was waiting outside the base camp tent where Oliver was already reclining in full recovery mode. At the invisible finish line was a hand drawn, chalk outline of Everest surrounded by flickering candles. Surrounded by my fellow riders in the middle of the night, each arriving one-by-one behind me, I wasn’t sure whether this mural was the commemoration of a successful journey or an altar for my sacrifice. Judging by everyone’s fatigue, one more lap might have meant the latter.
And without further fanfare my “Giddy Up For Good” Everest Challenge was complete. My support team disappeared into the darkness and I mounted my bike one last time for the short ride home.
I am no knighted mountaineer but I felt proud of my achievement, pulling a chariot over 29,000 feet up and down a mountain and surpassing my fundraising goal by generating $1,741 for charity. I had accomplished what I had intended to do and once again, beyond any physical achievements of time, distance or elevation, I was illuminated and empowered by the community of cycling and the joy and wonder that can be found by simply riding my bike.
10 TIPS FOR YOUR FIRST EVEREST
If you are considering your first Everest and not looking to break any speed records, here are a few suggestions gleaned from my experience:
1. BUILD A BASE CAMP. It is important to start with smaller ascents leading up to your Challenge. Like any long distance endeavour or mountaineering feat, it’s wise to incrementally build to the peak of Everest over time. Experienced climbers achieve base camps, allowing them to acclimatize along the way. Set a date for your Everest, and add elevation each week leading up to that date. This not only helps with your fitness, but more importantly it gets your body and mind comfortable with the prolonged time in the saddle. I find physical discomfort, not fatigue, can be the biggest obstacle to success. A sore butt, tight low back, improper fueling or a withering attitude will quickly sour the experience, slow progress, and threaten your will to finish. With a good attitude and healthy body you can power through any setbacks. Proper training days provide context and critical insights for the big push.
2. LOCATION. LOCATION. LOCATION. I won’t speculate on the advantages of scope, scale, length, and grade when choosing your repeated climb, especially if you think of Guinness more in the context of beer rather than a record. There was some debate about the perfect climb during our small talk up the mountain on my own Everest but I will leave that to the pros. Ultimately, the elevation required remains the same. I think hill choice depends on each rider and your riding style as it is as much an emotional endeavour as it is a physical one. For me, I chose a reliable route that I knew I would enjoy in terms of scenery, climate and terrain. Not to mention something close to home so half my day wasn’t wasted getting to and from the start line. The Everest Challenge is repetitive, so it’s important to choose a route that offers variety, some emotional encouragement, and even a clean Porta-Potty.
3. BE A TORTOISE, NOT THE HARE. It is easy to let adrenaline and the early deception of fresh legs lead to an unsustainable pace. Slow and steady wins the race, so be consistent and patient. Stick to a plan based on your previous riding and training and trust it. Going out too fast, only to blow up three quarters of the way is common. The day will be a long, so bite the bullet and start as early as possible to get a jump on the day.
4. MISERY LOVES COMPANY. If you are a people person, encourage different friends to come join you throughout the ride, especially for some of the tougher time zones like late in the evening during the final laps. But also consider a few turns on your own. There is something magical about a little private time to soak it all in and be lost in your thoughts. Take some photos or have friends come out and get some pictures of you in the moment. It’s great to have memories of great achievements. In a broader sense, doing an Everest Challenge as part of a bigger virtual event or fundraiser can add an additional motivation and provide a sense of purpose when monotony dictates otherwise.
5. MIX THINGS UP. At about three quarters of the way through my laps I was nodding off a bit and my energy was dropping. I needed to change things up. This is probably a no-brainer, but bring some good music playlists, audio books, or podcasts to break up the potential monotony of the climb, especially if riding a lot of hours in the dark. This can reenergize you or take your mind of things for a while.
6. BE ENERGIZED. Not just your body, but your devices. My buddy rode four laps with me and part way through his Garmin device ran out of power and eventually died. Yes, our rides still happen if we don’t Strava them but let’s be honest: we want to record these achievements for posterity and pride and, in the case of an event, for proof! Make sure to bring extra power to recharge critical devices like a phone, bike light, or bike computer.
7. SET UP A BASE CAMP. Organize an efficient base camp with not only the obvious essentials like water refills and typical biking snacks, but have a variety of treats available to quell unexpected cravings that will inevitably pop up through the day. Minimize stoppage time by being organized, such as having pre-filled water bottles and little baggies of snacks, as faffing will drag things out in the end. A good base camp also provides a fun spot for fans and friends to gather and cheer you on.
8. LAYER UP. We should all have a good sense of the weather patterns of our local mountain choice so make sure you are prepared for anything and a long day out, despite what the forecast projects. This means plenty of layers to adapt to changing conditions and temperature over a 24 hour period and constantly gaining elevation. On my ride, the summit and base of my climb differed by 10 degrees Celsius and while it was dry at the bottom it was wet and rainy at the top. I stayed on top of the conditions by swapping layers, especially on my hands and torso. I actually regret not bringing a change of socks—especially a thicker pair—as my feet were a little numb through the day. Once cold, it’s hard to shake those damp shivers.
9. PROOF IS IN THE PUDDING. This one should go without saying, but stay fuelled. Maintain a consistent regime of water intake with proper electrolytes to avoid cramping or bonking. Just like pacing, it is key to stick to a consistent regime even when you don’t feel you need it. Once you start falling behind, it is very difficult to catch up. Estimate the number of hours you will be on the bike and ensure you have plenty bottles, some clean and some with electrolytes waiting to be swapped out. Bring extra in case the timing drags out or you need to give something a quick wash. Always better to be safe than sorry. And as mentioned above, bring some variety of food. There may be a rollercoaster of cravings throughout the day and inevitably the body will long for some real sustenance, so encourage friendly deliveries.
10. MIND OVER MATTER. Keep an open mind. It’s good to have a rough, conservative schedule but don’t beat yourself up if you see you are falling behind your perceived timeline. This is likely to happen. Stay positive and remember this is not a race. Wise mountaineers are patient. They wait for the right conditions to summit and sometimes that means taking longer than expected. Assign enough time for emotional and physical stops to fuel and regroup, especially later in the day. But make your stops smart. I made it clear to everyone beforehand that I wouldn’t be stopping to talk. Chatting was for the climb up. So if someone wanted to chit-chat they had to get on their bike and follow me and the real upside of Everesting is that the slower miles don’t demand much technical focus so it is easy to talk for hours. And a talking pace will also ensure you keep a pace you can maintain. Also, try to avoid too much stopping early on. Knock off as much distance as is comfortable before any prolonged break. That doesn’t mean skipping water bottle refills and getting more food on the bike, but those fifteen minute base camp monologues add up and you will only realize it towards the end of your day when you’re suddenly riding much later than you hoped.
I hope this helps. Remember, each rider has their own unique quirks and approach so do some test rides to get a better sense of your pace and your needs. Whatever works, works. Feel free to reach out to me on Instagram @rjsauer.
Editor’s Note: RJ rode his Salsa Cutthroat with 2.2" mountain bike tires and a 34t chainring / 11-42t cassette pulling the Thule Chariot Cross. His Everest route was 11 laps of a 2,265' climb that spanned just over 24 hours. You can see his ride on Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/3505518743
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As a bikepacker and cyclist I am always learning. Riding my bike takes me to new places, teaches me new things and introduces me to an incredible community of wonderful people. My passion is to combine my love of creative storytelling, with the physical challenges of exploring new and wondrous environments and cultures.