Serk Cycling Beijing
Everest is a magical place. As one of the extremities of the earth it has captivated explorers and adventurers throughout the ages. Men and women from across the world dream of climbing and conquering Everest. I too dreamt of conquering my own challenges at Everest - however in the process of trying the journey handed me a new perspective on life and my place in it.
My first visit there was back in 2014 when access was via the old dirt roads. The journey took over 5 hours in a clapped out Jinbei van. When you finally see Everest for the first time your breath is truly taken away. To think that the early Everest adventures like Mallory, Hillary and Norgay took months to reach this same location on horseback and then went onto to actually scale the mountain was truly awe-inspiring. I’d long been captivated by these feats and dreamt of undertaking my own pioneering adventures in the Everest region but this time using two wheels to climb.
That opportunity presented itself almost by accident two years later. While visiting the Everest Base Camp Park on one of our regular Serk Tibet Cycling trips our driver introduced us to the newly constructed tarmac road into Rombok Monastery and Everest Base Camp. The road was phenomenal with an endless spiral of switchbacks and a view of Everest towering on the horizon. I instantly knew this road would open up Everest to road cycling and was the ideal location to attempt a something special.
At that time the Everesting challenge was a relatively new phenomenon but was already beginning to captivate riders across the world. I sent the founder and old friend Andy Van Bergen a picture of the new road and a one line email - ‘mate you need to come here and do an Everesting at Everest with me!’.
I received an enthusiastic response almost immediately and the project was on.
September 2017 finally rolled around and after 6 months of preparing for the unknown we arrived in Lhasa for the journey to Base Camp. There were so many questions we didn’t have the answers for - how would we cope with altitude sickness with the short time frame the project budget allowed? how will our bodies cope with 30 plus hours of continuous riding on some of the worlds highest roads? how will we cope with the freezing temps at night?
After 163km and 12 hours of non stop riding I stood alone in the dark staring at Everest shimmering in the moonlight with answers to those questions. We’d experienced a howling head wind the whole day. It was like Everest knew we were coming and wanted to throw everything she had at us. We kept at it - staying true to the cycling mantra of suffering till you prevail. Only we didn’t. Our attempt was a failure.
I let out a soft ‘so,so,so’ (a Tibetan chant recited at the top of a pass) and before long emotion overcame me and tears starting welling up. Instead of a sense of defeat or disappointment those tears came from an unexpected deep feeling of satisfaction and joy. Nature had humbled us but I somehow felt enlightened by the process of the journey rather than the result. By riding at one of earth’s extremes you realise that nature is king and you as a cyclist are just a small humble dot riding along a road. It’s no wonder the Tibetan people are so spiritual - out there humans alone can’t conquer everything.
I returned to Beijing with a sense of satisfaction and pride for both attempting such a crazy undertaking and then finding great contentment in the failure. It was such a powerful experience that it didn’t take long for thoughts about returning to come creeping back into my mind. I couldn’t get George Mallory’s famous quote about climbing Everest out of my head- ‘because it’s there’.
So I hatched a plan to go back and try again the following year. This time I had experience and was able to put together a more comprehensive plan and team. The previous years failure was mostly down to unexpected windy weather, cold temps and an attempt window which was too short.
5 riders and myself landed in Lhasa again in August 2018 and slowly made our way to the same 1km segment close to Everest Base Camp.
This time we extended our time window to 72 hours as a buffer against bad weather and unexpected issues. The first of such issues came the night before the attempt. As Chief coordinator I received a call and was warned that our planned activity was extremely dangerous and that nobody would like to see any unexpected incidents occur. I had a long think about what the team was about to go through the following day and decided to sacrifice my personal ambitions and pull out as rider to ensure that everything else went as smoothly as possible. It was a huge personal disappointment as I was in top physical shape and mentally prepared to achieve the goal. I knew however that if we were to achieve this goal we would need to work together as a unified team and put aside any personal ambition.
The scene was set ;
After 12 hours and 70 laps freezing rain halted the attempt for the first time. We huddled up in the warmth of the Rombok Monastery Cafe in the early evening and waited out the rain. We sat there for many hours drying our clothes and periodically going out to check the weather. It was looking like once again the weather God at Everest was not in our favour. By 4 in the morning the rain seemed to holt. The sky was clear and we rushed back out to the segment to finish the second half of the challenge off. By now we’d lost 3 riders to either fatigue or altitude sickness and were down to just two - Paul Freeman from the UK and JJ Zhou from China.
By late afternoon the last 5 laps were left. JJ was riding consistently strong - his lap times were dropping slowly but his oxygen saturation levels remained stable. In a subtle sign that Everest was on our side the clouds obscuring the North Face dissipated and Everest again showed her face. We knew now the mountain was on our side and competition was possible. The final lap came around and when asked how he felt JJ exhaustedly mumbled - “The Mountain truly has a spirit and I’m very glad that we did this”. He paid his respects to Everest with a thank you hand gesture and then sprinted off to cross the finish line to be the first person ever to Everest on the slopes of Mount Everest.
A dream of mine had been achieved albeit by someone else. JJ had created endurance cycling history with an incredible demonstration of endurance and persistence on the lower slopes of Everest. I was elated for him and the team. For me personally the true value in this exercise was letting go of the end result and in treasuring every single moment of the experience which we were so privileged to have the opportunity to participate in. I think Edmund Hillary’s famous quote best sums this up - ‘It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves’.