Everesting

Everesting the Devil’s Elbow


Everesting, in case you’ve not come across the term before, refers to making a repeated number of ascents of a climb until the cumulative height gained is equal or greater than the height of Mount Everest (8,848 metres). I first heard about Everesting about a year ago, and almost instantly dismissed it as something that wasn’t for me. Despite that initial reaction, a seed was sown that gradually developed from dismissal to a fully fledged desire to take it on. But before we get into the nitty gritty of actually doing it, the first question you’ll want to ask is….

Why…?!

Before it was ever called Everesting, the concept goes back at least to the days of George Mallory, in his preparations for the first ascent of Everest. He reputedly made repeats of big climbs on Snowdon to replicate the effort required to climb Mount Everest. Everest isn’t the sort of thing you can just nip out to and get some practice on, so you need to adapt your approach to your surroundings.

I find much enjoyment in climbing. I’m better at climbing than I am at descending, but mainly from the fact I’ve devoted more purposeful practice to it. Prior to Everesting, I’ve no doubt people would go out and repeat climbs to amass as many vertical metres as possible. It wasn’t called anything specific; it was individuals going out and pushing the boundaries of personal endeavour. In a cycling context, Everesting gives us a focus (and social media outlet) for pushing our limits further.

I’ve done many rides with 4,000 metres of ascent, mostly off road and usually singlespeed. The Yorkshire Dales 300 had over 6,000 metres, and the Trans Cambrian Double over 7,000 metres. But where was the limit? How far could I really push myself? Could I make it to, and past, that magical figure of 8,848 metres – the highest point on the surface of the earth? What would I learn along the way; about climbing, and about myself?

Photo 31-07-2016, 16 03 16

The other part of the “why?” comes from the mountaineering roots inspired by Mallory. Being the first to top a new summit is a singular opportunity. There are many coveted first ascents of mountains across the globe, and only one person has the privilege of being first.

So, my “why?” is like this: I wanted to see how far I could push myself physically and mentally to complete an Everesting. I also wanted to claim that coveted first “Everesting” ascent of the Devil’s Elbow.

The Climb

The Devil’s Elbow sits at the top of the Senni valley, above Hoel Senni. The climb is your only way out if you want to get into the Nedd valley on the opposite side. It’s 1.8 km from bottom to top, ascending 184 metres in the process. That’s an average gradient of 10%. To qualify for an Everesting on this climb, it’d needed to be repeated 49 times.

Devil's Elbow Profile Image 2

No doubt the other burning question on peoples’ minds is:

Didn’t you get bored?

The answer is no, I didn’t. If you’d have asked me before hand to describe the climb, I’d say something “the bottom part isn’t too bad, over the cattle grid and then fairly straight up the first hairpin. It steepens after that to the second hairpin and then easier on the final section to the top”. Kind of describes it, only there’s much more to it.

At face value, repeating the same climb a large number of times does sound really boring, but there are two elements to relieve the boredom. The first relates to the physical nature of the climb; each ascent becomes a refinement of the last, where you’re seeking to get the best out of yourself and find that optimum that gets you to the top as efficiently as possible. That process keeps the mind very occupied and I quickly learned there was much more to the climb than I’d previously perceived:

The road rises immediately, but gently, off the junction at the bottom [gear 3]. Past the farm entrance, it steepens slightly. Out of the saddle until the cattle grid sign [check heart rate]. Gradient eases, so back to seated. Over the cattle grid, the gradient eases further, so spin up until the start of the rise up to Nant y Bwch [gear 2] Stay seated until the last little kick past the barn, then a few revolutions out of the saddle [check heart rate] Steady gradient now [gear 3] until the trees and the next kick up to the first hairpin [gear 2] Stay seated until the large rock on the right a third of the way up. Out of the saddle until the double bend sign [gear 2] [check heart rate] Back to seated around the hairpin, taking a wide flat line and deliberately maneuvering between two gouge marks in the tarmac. Spin up a bit on the easy gradient after the hairpin until the grit box [gear 2] Gradient steepens past the grit box; out of saddle until the hawthorn tree [gear 1] Sit down and spin to the second hawthorn tree [check heart rate] Out of the saddle on the steepest section until the start of the crash barrier, then back to seated [gear 1] Spin round the final hairpin, taking a wide line avoiding the sheep poo. Gradient eases again, stay seated and spin up higher cadence [gear 2] Reach the top, grab the bottle of drink off the front of the van and ride up to the turning point (double bend sign). Take a good drink, replace bottle on van on way past and begin the descent.

The second element to alleviate boredum relates to the mental preparation:

The Mental Bit

A prerequisite for doing one of these challenges (and many others), is being properly focused and in control of your thought processes. If you’ve not read it, I’d recommend the book The Chimp Paradox, by Dr Stephen Peters, which focuses on the two sides to our brains; the human and the chimp. In summary, the human brain is logical and rational and the chimp brain, well, it isn’t either of those – it runs mostly on emotions.

The trick with Everesting, I think, is to sneak up on it. If you stood at the bottom of a climb that was 56 miles long, ascending to over 9,000 metres, that you thought would take you nearly 11 hours to get up, you’d think twice before getting on your bike. Likewise, if you look at the Devil’s Elbow, and say, right I’m going to ride up that 49 times, you’d very quickly feel daunted. Your chimp brain would take over and quickly tell you there’s no way in the world it’s going to let you do that. So, you need to convince your chimp otherwise and break it down into things it can cope with.

I took my 49 ascents and grouped them into blocks of 5. Chimps can’t count to 49, but they can use their fingers to count to five. Five is a good number; the first one is easy, because you’re fresh. The second is OK too, because you paced yourself well on the first. The third takes you past half way. On the forth, you’ve only got one more to do. After the fifth, you and your chimp can have a rest.

Photo 31-07-2016, 14 47 32

The other thing you’ll note is that 49 isn’t divisible by five. That means that the last block is only 4. I prepared myself mainly for doing 45+4, rather than 49. That way I only had to do 9 blocks of 5. Doing 9 of something doesn’t sound so bad, does it? Yes, each block is going take you 90 minutes to complete, but psychologically nine of something sounds much more manageable than 45.

But what about the last four?

By the time you get to 45, you’re so close to the finish there’s no way, barring injury, that you’d give up. Plus, the last four breaks down even better than five; two down, two to go. After the third, you’ve just got one more and you’re done.

You can also play the thirds game quite easily. Three blocks of 5 is fifteen, which I told myself is a third of the way through (ignoring the last four). So even if your chimp tries to look at the big picture, you can easily distract it by saying, look we’ve done a third of it already, and it’s not even lunchtime.

On a few occasions, doubt did niggle at the back of my mind (that’s my chimp again…). These type of issues were easy to resolve in a way; if I had a bad ascent, it wasn’t long before I was back at the bottom, having found a bit more mental composure, ready to begin things all over again.

The Physical Bit

Having spent a lot of time thinking about strategy and doing my best to mitigate any mental shortcomings, all that was left was to ride the bike. I also committed myself to social media, with posts to Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, thus making it as difficult as possible to back out. Interest in my attempt grew as the day went on, which gave me something to look forward to after each block.

Photo 31-07-2016, 15 12 18

The strategy of blocks of five worked really well. I started out quite quickly, though my heart rate didn’t really suggest I was going too hard. I tried to keep my heart rate down under 150 as much as possible. It wasn’t until after about 30 ascents that I started to see a decline in heart rate figures, which indicated the deep fatigue I get on tough challengings or long days in the saddle. As the day went on, my pace slowed, which was to be expected. The following graph shows you how things changed. Ascent 24 and 47 were where I stopped to take a photo of the GPS reading 4424 metres and 8848 metres climbed, respectively.

Devil's Elbow Ascent Times

 

One other thing I committed to, was not stopping to rest on the climb. Besides three photo stops (the third was ascent 29), I did manage to stick to this, which I was pleased with. Even though each ascent was taking 13-15 minutes, towards the end the steep upper section became increasingly tough.

Ascent 12 was in the company of Rhondda Triathlon boys out for a Sunday ride. I nearly broke all my rules riding with them; heart rate up to 168 at one point. I took it much easier on ascent 13 to compensate. I also had some company from a local Brecon Wheelers club member, who came out late afternoon and did some repeats with me (ascents 31-35). Iwan was gracious enough to stagger his start with mine, so we would pass each other on the way up/ down, which meant I wasn’t compelled to ride at his pace. Beth and the kids also came out mid-afternoon to take some photos, which was great too.

Photo 31-07-2016, 13 54 52

 

My 49 ascents took over 17 hours of riding, and clocked up 181 km of distance. Total time spent climbing amounts to 10 hours 44 minutes and 24 seconds.

What did I learn?

That Everesting is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. Proper preparation of the former makes it easier to manage the latter. Pacing is important, but even recognising the upward drift in terms of ascent times, I was happy how I approached things.

My body seems to have a pain barrier every 4,000 metres. When I reached 4424 metres on the 25th ascent, my chimp was saying “have we got to do all that again…?!”. Persistently ignoring the bigger picture helped, but there was no escaping the mounting fatigue that repeated ascents was having. Once I got to over 5,500 metres, I seemed to find a rhythm that suited my level of fatigue. Sometimes this came through varying my routine (adaptation to find that optimum), or riding different sections seated or standing. That rhythm seemed to get disrupted again at around 8,000 metres of ascent, where I was getting discomfort across a wider range of my body. Previously, the pain barrier at 4,000 metres is where I’ve tended to stop, but I discovered there’s a sort of process I can work through to get over it; in that respect, the limiter is mental rather than physical.

Photo 31-07-2016, 16 03 10
Lastly, I didn’t find it as hard as I expected. I’m not saying it’s easy, but there are harder off road challenges with less climbing in them. That said, there’s no escaping that it’s a long day in the saddle. The climbing goes without saying, but as a challenge, I would venture that the biggest obstacle lies in the mental rather than physical.

Here’s the link to the activity on Strava: strava.com/activities/660595294/

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