Man vs. Mountain: A Tale of Everesting
To wear this jersey, you have to earn it, one pedal stroke at a time, up 29,029 ft
words and images by Leo Cavallini.
Everesting is not for the faint of heart. It was created by the Hells 500, a bunch of Aussie cyclists that like nothing more than to climb hills and believe that a ride must be hard to be memorable. Everesting is their iconic challenge, consisting of riding any climb in the world over and over again until you’ve climbed the accumulated altimetry of 29,029 feet. Or, if you prefer, the elevation of Mount Everest. That's 8,848 meters climbed. In one ride. With no sleep.
Aside from insanely sore legs, exclusive cycling apparel is earned by those who complete an Everesting challenge. Only those who have done so are allowed to wear the grey stripe and the blood, sweat, and tears logo. When you see the grey stripe out on the road you know you are looking at one hard bastard.
Enter Fred. Fred is a university professor. A fit guy in his 40s who enjoys cycling as a hobby. If you saw him on any São Paulo street, you would call him average. Nothing special. But make no mistake, the bastard is damn tough.
In spring of 2016 Fred decided to take his Merida road bike and attempt the Everesting challenge for his second time. His first Everesting was completed inside the university campus where he teaches. A small segment, hundreds of repetitions, controlled (if existent) car traffic. This time it would be harder—Fred had chosen a sierra.
The planned route this time around was RJ-163, a Brazilian road in the western portion of Rio de Janeiro state that snakes through the Serra da Mantiqueira in the protected area of Parque Estadual da Pedra Selada. Assuming you're unfamiliar, the mountain range is no joke, and the road he chose to climb adds up to 763 meters (2,503 feet) of vertical gain with an average grade of 6% and many parts well over 12%. To complete the Everesting challenge of 8,848 meters climbed, he would have to repeat the segment 12 times over. Our math reasoned he would finish the feat in the middle of the 12th climb, but Everesting rules state the rider must finish all climbs once started, and end the challenge where they began. So, Fred would in the end do well over the required height—that is, if he survived.
But like I said, he's a hard bastard.
With myself and Fred's friend Bruno Rosa acting as documentarians and support team, we set up camp at a cozy chalet some 1.6 km from the start of the segment. The chalet also happened to be a restaurant, and would serve as a place for us to eat and share some beers, and for Fred to rest between loops.
On Saturday at 5:45 p.m. local time, Fred put rubber to pavement and began to pedal. We followed him up in the car, going ahead in places to make some photos happen. On his first Everesting Fred had a problem with his Garmin 800 and almost lost his tracking activity—as the saying goes, if it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen—so this time he came equipped with two. And both were working. He rode the first 12 km uphill in 59 minutes, as expected. Climb one done. The descent took all of 20 minutes—much faster than us with the car. At the bottom Fred stopped to eat some snacks from the car, grab a bread-n-cheese at the restaurant, and was then back on his way.
Fred arrived from his second loop chilled by the cold night. The road is forested almost the entire way, which made humidity and fog a near constant, with temps reaching 11º C (52º F) at the top and a balmy 20° C (68 F) at the bottom. Luckily, the chalet keeper was kind enough to knock our door and gift us a pan of pumpkin with blue cheese soup and ground coffee. What a pleasant surprise. Before long though it was time for climb three.
Shortly after Fred left I too prepared to head up the mountain, intending to meet him somewhere on the road for a bit of night photography. I set up my bike with the handlebar camera bag, tripod attached to the rear bike rack, and set off. It immediately started getting colder and colder as I pedaled uphill. The fog grew thicker with every kilometer pedaled until the point where I couldn’t see for shit beyond a meter in front of me. There was no light besides my own, just absolute darkness, humidity soaking me, and the sound of animals in the dense forest. My bike felt heavy, and though I was halfway I felt the fucking flu wearing me down. I wouldn't reach Fred at the top of the climb for anything in the world, I realized. So, I did the next best thing—found a cool corner, set up my portable flash, and waited for Fred's descent.
At this point he was 3:54 hours in, 61 km down, with 2,284 meters already climbed. I jumped on my bike and started to descend with him. We chatted about the erie weather, the climbs, and how it would be nicer for him if at certain points he had someone to talk with. As it turns out, Everesting isn't just a physical challenge, but a mental one too.
At 1:30 a.m. Fred went on to his 5th lap. And I took a long, hot shower.
At 3 a.m. I updated Fred's friends, family, and social media. Everyone, including the Hells 500 guys all the way in Australia, where liking the pics and commenting, offering plenty of moral support. When I posted that I was exhausted and planned to nap till sunrise, my phone buzzed with a message from Fred's wife. It read, "How are you going to sleep? You are keeping me from having a gastric ulcer! Nice shots, congrats!” I slept anyways.
I awoke to my phone's alarm at roughly 6 a.m. only to find Fred reclining on the chalet couch. The long night had been brutally cold, with dense fog and wet pavement stopping him from descending the mountain's many sharp bends with any reasonable speed. He was too tired and a bit depressed, and thinking about quitting the challenge. After a bit of talk I advertised the deliciousness of the chalet's shower, and he followed suit. Problem solved.
With hot shower taken, wet kit switched for a dry one, and stomach warm and happy with breakfast Fred was ready for a fresh restart. It was now 8 a.m. on Sunday. He had logged 5,000 meters already, and was ready for his 7th climb. As for me, my flu was playing cool and with the sunlight available, things could be seen—curves, forest, sceneries. I felt the fresh restart too.
7 of 12 climbs done.
10 hours in the saddle.
15 hours elapsed.
156 kilometers pedaled.
5,341 meters climbed.
After shooting some elevated images from one of the roads three bridges made for animals—mostly monkeys—to cross the road and avoid traffic in an area we called passa-macaco (monkey lane), I decided to make my way to the chalet on foot, to make some landscape and flora shots. This stretch of the road crosses the Atlantic rainforest, a region rich in biodiversity. Some of the species of plants have existed in this very place since the dinosaurs ruled our planet.
SUNDAY, AND THE LAST LAPS
At 11 and something in the morning Bruno and I headed to the chalet's restaurant for lunch. Fred arrived from his 8th lap—close to 200 km ridden and 6,000 meters climbed—and in his own words posted on Instagram, "six fucking thousand #verhurtical meters." At the restaurant he ordered the usual.
Though Fred's Everesting challenge wasn't a competition—completion was the only goal—he certainly earned the record of most bread-n-cheese and lattes consumed in a weekend at our humble restaurant.
Bruno and I stayed put at the place during Fred’s 9th lap, and at 2 p.m.a we chased him by car to offer some support for the 10th. At the summit, Fred laid down on an yoga mat and was immediately reminded that the rules allow no sleep. No naps. No micro naps. So he settled for some rest and a bit of stretching. At 3:40 p.m. he departed for his 10th descent.
The 11th lap was made with no support from us, as we headed back the chalet to pack up things to leave, take one last hot shower, and ensure our availability for his 12th and final lap. The day had begun to fade to night, and the sky was clear as could be.
At almost 8 p.m., midway up the final climb, Fred reached 8,851 meters and stopped to make a photo of the Garmin with his phone, then diligently continued on. Twenty-five minutes later we reached the summit together. He had done it. The immediate reward was one final descent of the mountain, and the pleasure of closing two Garmin activities. Again he'd earned the grey stripe, and now truly knew the meaning of the Hells 500 blood, sweat, and tears logo.
Though the celebration was short lived as at the bottom Fred had to toss his bike back on the roof and drive four hours home. After all, the tough bastard is a university professor, and class would be back in session the following day. And his students, none the wiser.