Everesting Great Dun Fell
Updated: a day ago
The other day I Googled, “what's the point in anything”. Not the first time either. I didn't actually conduct much research in the end, or feel it was necessary to follow any of the links offering support to people in emotional distress, or experiencing some sort of existential crisis. My mind was already made up about what I wanted to do. Nevertheless, I’ve found it is normally a good idea to have solid reasons to do the things you do, and to know what those reasons are – in cycling, and in life. When the going gets hard, the conscious presence of whatever it is that is motivating you can sometimes make all the difference. Perhaps I was clutching at straws, or perhaps attempting to formulate some kind of unnecessarily philosophical response to the inevitable questions along the lines of “yeah, but WHY did you do that?”. Perhaps I’ll work out why on the hill, or maybe after, maybe it doesn’t even matter?
Everesting, it’s worth saying, is simply riding up a hill again and again and again until your total elevation gain is equal to the height of Mount Everest 8,848m. It has to be completed in a single ride, without any sleeping, and it must be completed on a single climb. The Everesting.cc website describes it as - “FIENDISHLY SIMPLE, YET BRUTALLY HARD. EVERESTING IS THE MOST DIFFICULT CLIMBING CHALLENGE IN THE WORLD.”
During that global Covid Lockdown thing that’s been going on there’s been a real spike in Everesting attempts, clearly as there is no actual racing happening. I dabbled with some Zwift racing at the start, which was fun for a bit. I got myself a couple of pages of obscure, local backstreet KOMs on Strava. Had a go at a little bit of GPS artwork. (badass scorpion, obviously). What was next? I couldn’t be arsed messing about with any sourdough starter so I supposed it was going to have to be Everesting.
I know a few people who have been successful, and some unsuccessful in Everesting, and ever since I heard about the concept a few years ago, I knew it was something I had to do - picking the time and place was going to be important, although I sort of had my heart set on Great Dun Fell. A large draw was the fact that you only need to climb it 14 times to complete the challenge. By comparison you would need to ascend Alpe d’Huez or Mont Ventoux something like 8 times to complete it. In the Lake District, Hardknot pass needs 30 reps, and in the North East - Hedley on the Hill, and Prospect Hill have been successfully everested (by Muckles obviously) with around 70 - 80 reps. In London someone has Everested Swains Lane which required 130 reps.
To my mind, a climb that requires as few reps as possible would be psychologically a lot easier. I did not want to imagine going up a hill 30 times and still not being even half-way through the ride. Plus Great Dun Fell is one of the most iconic climbs in the UK, and as close as you can get to something resembling Alpine or Pyrenean. It’s the highest paved road in Britain, and because it’s a private out-and-back-road, only for accessing the radar station at the top, it is mostly well surfaced. There is a couple of gates on the hill you sometimes have to get off and open, but at least there’s no cars and motorbikes smashing past too close to you, although during my Everesting I was nearly knocked off whilst descending at 60kmph by a sheep running across the road (one of the devil sheep I'l talk about later).
Anyway, I think I’ve set the scene well enough haven’t I? On with my tale of the day.
03:00 - wake up, get straight into my kit, go downstairs to quickly smash in some oats and a coffee whilst making more coffee for the thermos flask. 03:30 - jump in the already ready packed car and hit the road. 03:33 - enjoy smug feeling of virtuousness as result of early start combined with wholesome energy provided by the idea of thermos flasks. 03:35 – remember what I am doing and get struck with doubt and misgivings. 03:36 – shrug it off with some positive self-affirmations. 03:37 – mind wanders while looking at horizon and feel sad about something. 03:38 – remember the thermos and feel ok again.
The weather for the day was set fair – dry but cloudy and with only a gentle breeze, a nice change from the heavy rain and wind we seemed to have had all over the North East for a couple of weeks prior. A weather window had opened just in time for the longest day – Strava’s witching hour as I heard someone describe it – there would be some big stuff going on today, but could I go one bigger? The sun was rising as I was driving down the A1 and conditions seemed good, although when I turned onto the A66 and headed West to the Pennines, there were some ominous looking clouds hanging heavily over the hills, very ominous indeed. When I turned off the A66 and towards the West Pennine escarpment which includes GDF it was even gloomier looking. No turning back now. I arrived at Knock and the foot of the climb just after 05:00 and after setting the bike up, a quick coffee, and a Malteser cookie, at 05:25, I had begun rep 1.
The sensations were good, my legs were feeling decent, and my mind and my spirit were one! It was a bit cold setting off, and the temperature seemed to vary massively over the course of the day as well as varying from the bottom to the top of the climb over 800m higher up, where the wind was absolutely howling. The benefit of driving out was that I had multiple kit options to choose from, and I always favour being too warm than too cold. Ahh, the safety car. Such a comforting thought.
Around half way up the climb I arrived into the thick cloud that was hanging low over the whole area, reducing visibility to barely 15 meters and providing a grimly atmospheric experience that reminded me of epic days I’ve had in on the bike in the Pyrenees and Alps, as well as what my head felt like throughout the entirety of my 20s.
One thing the fog did well, was to provide an ignorance is bliss type effect, whereby I was unable to see the steeper sections looming before me mockingly. It meant that I was just dealing with whatever gradient I was immediately on right then. (Top Everesting tip – keep it in the moment.)
The Death Zone
The cloud had mostly cleared up by around midday, by which time I had made some pretty decent progress. I seemed to get the first 4 or 5 reps completed in fairly reasonable time – averaging about 50 minutes for the climb, the descent, and a quick refuel, and bottle refill at the bottom. “I’m going well here,” I thought to myself, vaguely suspecting that I perhaps should have set off a little more conservatively, considering this was going to be in the region of a 16 hour day. That’s not the Stringtani style though, and I reasoned it would be better for my morale if I could make some quick progress, knowing fine well the fatigue was going to really start biting at a certain point anyway, and there would be nothing I could do about it.
I don’t know what I was expecting really but I arrived at ‘the wall’ somewhere on rep 7. I wasn’t even halfway through and things were getting a touch unpleasant. Rep 7 however also came with a surprise morale booster in the form of fellow Muckle, Michael Noble, who was over in the area riding with some friends and went up GDF. We stopped and chatted for a moment halfway up before I cracked on, invigorated by some encouragement from a familiar, friendly face.
On rep 8 things continued to get worse. For comparison, the first 5 reps (climb and descent) my normalised power was averaging around 250 watts and heart rate 138bmp – nicely in the tempo zone, and pretty comfortable but still making progress. It would’ve been perfect if I could have just kept that going all day. My power for rep 6 and 7 dipped a little bit, and about 8/9 hours in from rep 8 until the end my normalised power was averaging below 200 watts and my heart rate 112bpm. My final rep was 188 watts NP and heart rate 116bmp. (If anyone cares I was 65kg and my best 20 min power since Lockdown and before the Everesting was just below 320 watts) I was literally doing the bare minimum amount of work required to keep moving forward, which when you consider the gradient of the climb , that meant just about crawling up the hill, I was unable to do anymore.
That was just the way it was for the second half of the ride. Physically I was gone. Gone. The important question was how long I could hold out psychologically. I was prepared for a long one, accepted the reality and settled into it. This is what I had wanted, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?
I’d not told anyone that I was going to try this before I went, in case I didn’t pull it off, but I had been adding to my Instagram story throughout the morning and word had got around so after each rep I would have a few messages of support, for which I was unbelievably grateful, each one providing a little bit of precious morale boosting encouragement that was so vital for carrying on.
After rep 9 or 10, I dropped back down to the car to find a peculiar arrangement of twigs on the roof. I couldn’t see what it said from a distance, and the first thing that came into my head was, “Uh-oh, that is definitely scary, occult stuff”. In the time it took to reach the car which was, by then about 10 metres away, I had already envisioned my fate. The deranged, psychopathic caretaker from the Knock Christian Centre had targeted me and was going to murder me as part of some satanic ritual sacrifice. They’d find my mutilated body amidst some cryptic blood written symbols, and I would’ve died, never having completed an Everesting, or achieving any other life long ambilitions like driving a Rolls-Royce into a swimming pool for example.
I forgot to get a photo of the place, but if you have passed by the Knock Christian Centre, let me know if you think it really looks like a centre of Christianity or the centre of bad things happening, and people disappearing, like something out of True Detective.
As it turned out, the twigs had been configured to spell out ‘GO JOE’ and had been left by Simon Douglas and a trio of Muckles who had heard what I was up to and happened to have been passing by the bottom of the climb whilst on an epic 200 mile ride round the Yorkshire Dales and the North Pennines. What I experienced was a double whammy of relief - I wasn’t going to be murdered, instead, I was motivated and encouraged by the message, although at that point I didn’t know who had left it. I assumed it was just someone I had passed on the hill, guessed what I was up to, and got my name from the obnoxious, personalised reg plate on my car.
There came a point when I was really having to scrape the barrel for motivation, and only the merest dregs of morale were to be found. I would take what I could, though. The thought suddenly came to me before starting Rep 12 that listening to some Van Halen might perk me up. No idea where that came from, but it worked an absolute charm. Intuition is a wonderful thing. Most of the time I had been listening to my ambient playlist, some super droney, atmospheric black metal on one of the mega foggy reps and, at one point, which turned out to be a mistake, the Watford v Leicester game on Talk Sport Radio.
My ear pods finally ran out of charge after the Van Halen rep, although they had lasted way longer than 5 or 6 hours Boompods had advertised. I was happy with that, and happy that once more I’d had success with a product that had been advertised to me through a cycling team. You know you’re a proper cyclist when you get excited about seeing things like Quick Step flooring or Mapei grouting stuff at a B&Q.
One of the main spirit lifting devices I employed was the food. When I was planning this ride in my head, I probably spent more time thinking about what food I would take with me than anything else. The main event would be a couple of ham and pease pudding stotties. I’m not sure why I had a particular craving for this Geordie classic, maybe I thought that its salt of the earth type character would be concordant with the days endeavour: the food of the people for the sport of the people. Maybe I thought that in its familiarity, I might find some emotional comfort. Perhaps, I should have just had my mother turn up and cook me a lasagne at the bottom of the hill, like in the days when lying about watching T4 Sunday and having a roast dinner would sufficiently banish even the sternest of hangovers, and before the days when in-patient psychiatric treatment, and a hefty dose of chlorpromazine were required.
The whole thing was nearly called off at the last minute, when the day before I was unable to source any stotties – apparently a lot of the Greggs bakers are still furloughed and they’re not selling fresh bread in any of the shops. Everesting without stotties? The attempt was doomed. Sounds dramatic but, to my detriment, they are the kind of lines my thinking runs along. I’ll not bore you with the exact details of the fannying on that was involved and finally resulted in my admission of stottie defeat and abject failure in my quest. As luck would have it, when all hope was lost, the big Sainsbury’s in Heaton pulled through, a little pile of lovely big stotties sitting there, gleaming like treasure or something. I hope I wasn’t actually too loud when I shouted out “IT’S BACK ON” in the middle of the shop. The joy was overwhelming. The people in Sainsburys could think what they like. I immediately took a photo and in my delight WhatsApped one to wor lass, then one to me mam, as if to say, ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to listen to me being all stressed about bread now!'. High drama indeed, and before even a single pedal stroke.
As well as the stottie centre piece, a couple of the outstanding sausage rolls from the Pink Lane bakery in Gosforth were in the bag, and along with some other bits and pieces, a tub of ‘Stringtani’s Riso Cioccolati Speciale’ (said in an Italian accent). This classic is essentially basmati rice with a load of Nutella mixed in. Functional and nothing else really. It’s funny the particular little cravings I get for certain foods after cycling. The other month, my go-to post ride snack was Super Noodles on toast. Not a particularly sophisticated meal but sometimes you’ve got to get honest with yourself and know that that a nice big plate of shan bait is exactly what you’re in the market for. Even this humble dish is not without its own psycho-gastronomic triggers, however. My first experience of Super Noodles on toast was in primary school when I went round to a friends after school for tea in the flat he lived in with his mum and brother. We played ‘James Pond Underwater Agent’ on the Amiga and then his mum served us up some Super Noodles on toast (white bread and margarine) which we ate sitting on the floor in front of the TV. At some point I think this lad might have left our school and gone to a different one or something or maybe I decided I was too cool to hang out with him but either way I don’t think we had much to do with each other after that. I bumped into him few years after and remember thinking that I was not that impressed by him. At this time, life for me was almost exclusively smoking tabs, getting off with lasses, and other really cool stuff that he obviously wasn’t into and therefore could not possibly be worthy of a minute of my time. The bloke could be the CEO of some multinational corporation or something now and absolutely smashing it. Has everested Great Dun Fell though?
I don’t know if everyone has the same experience of food whereby, it can be so closely associated with memory and emotion, a bit like the way the sense of smell is a powerful trigger. The other day I was sharing a bag of chilli and lemon flavour lentil chips, and as soon as I opened the bag I was immediately transported back to another friend from primary school and his families’ flat (and also the first time I played on a PlayStation which obviously pissed all over the Amiga). The smell of the crisps was exactly like the flat, and I suppose his mum’s cooking. A not unwelcome example of involuntary memory recall, I suppose. Proust had his madeleines and lime blossom tea – I have got my stotties. Keeping it real, mate.
Back to the ride.
I have broken the climb down into two main sections - The Safe Zone and the Zone of Death. The Safe Zone includes everything up to the first gate and cattle grid, and includes two subsections – the nice easy bit, which gradually becomes steeper and turns into the harder bit. The Safe Zone is all Sylvanian Families, milk maids, well-tended meadows, with dry stone walls. It is comfort, it is security, it is boundaries, and reassuring certainty.
The Death Zone is all ragged zombie sheep, and a devilish voice whispering on the wind. The voices gradually rise to a deafening, sardonic howling, tormenting your every pedal stroke and infecting your spirit with a bleak dread. Part one of the Death Zone begins immediately after the gate, and takes you past “The Devils House”, a few twists and turns, then a slight levelling at which point you are greeted with the sight of Death Zone Part Two. This is a section which I have named, “THE BASTARD”. The Bastard is a straight 1km section of around 15-20% gradient, and the bit I really hated each time. After The Bastard, the gradient relents only slightly until you get to the second gate and cattle grid and you can start on Death Zone Part 4, The Final Bastard, which includes a few hundred metres of around 20% near the end, which do feel slightly easier as you know you’re home and dry, and the gate to the radar station and the sign for Great Dun Fell is in sight.
The Devils house
On each rep the Safe Zone seemed to become shorter and shorter and I seemed to arrive at The Bastard sooner and sooner. I was asked the other day if I would ever want to ride up GDF again, and the answer is, “Of course,” partly because of the intimate relationship I feel I have with it now. I certainly don’t want anyone to think I am taking a flippant view towards kidnapping but I felt almost as if I went through a Stockholm Syndrome type thing with The Bastard. The hatred I felt towards it, the relief and gratitude I felt each time it ended seemed to result in some weird power dynamic, where I was ultimately not sure of quite who was getting the better of whom. In a perverse way, now I’m looking forward to the next time I’m back there, so I can look the Bastard square in the eye, in a way that leaves no doubt at all that I’m the gaffer!
The Bastard looming in the distance
I think It was probably around this time I made the connection with the myth of Sisyphus – the bloke who disobeyed the gods and was condemned to an eternity of pushing a huge boulder up a mountain. Once he had got the rock to the top, he had to let it roll all the way back to the bottom and then follow it down and push it back up again. Ad infinitum. Albert Camus’ essay uses the tale as a metaphor for the absurdity of life and the human condition. I wondered what he would have thought about Everesting? It does sound pretty shit like, but Camus ultimately reckons that within his torture, Sisyphus finds purpose and meaning, and that as he turns around to walk back down the mountain, we have to imagine him as happy and fulfilled as he has shown us the ‘higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks’, and subsequently, therefore, that ‘the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart’.
Typical of me to sully a good bit of honest sporting endeavour by dragging Camus into it, I thought. Keep it simple Joe, keep it real. Poncey French existentialism has nae place on a stern hill in the North Pennines - Stotties and Thermos flasks – that’s where it’s at.
The sun had come out for the last couple of reps, and the conditions were so much calmer and more agreeable than when I had started. Physically I was just about going forward, and mentally I was beginning to pick up, knowing the end was in sight and I was about to finish it. I changed the profile screen on my Garmin to total elevation gained and watched as the metres slowly crept up. The fatigue was immense but I was feeling calm and the relief that I had nearly finished pushed me on. No more Instagram story updates, though, all my best crack had dried up and disappeared long ago.
Arriving at the top for the final time was strange sensation. The joy, the relief, the fatigue, and pride in my achievement, all ganged up on me and left me feeling a bit bewildered. I surveyed the landscape and tried to summon to my mind a clear thought or two. It wasn’t happening. I’d done it, and that was that then. What had been the point in the end? I tell myself that, because I can remember a time when I was not in very good nick, it’s always just about seeing if/because I can. That seemed to be wearing a bit thin though. I’m not sure if I was starting to feel a bit of an anti-climax or something. I thought of the Strava upload. I’m smiling about it now, in fact. If nothing else, it does not get any better than that.
I dropped back down to the car, cleaned myself up, got changed and packed the bike away and headed home into the night. This was definitely one of those rides where you return home feeling like you’ve been away for ages and the world is slightly smaller place on your return. I didn’t know it yet but I would soon be running over a couple of rabbits, then returning to a house that smelled like a bonfire (after the lads I live with actually lit one in the back yard next to the open patio doors), and a girlfriend who would declare her love for me in the special RP voice reserved for when she is attempting to present herself as more sober that she actually is. Today had been a good day, and I enjoyed a contented feeling. I thought back over the day. The view from the top looking out over to Cumbria and the mountains of the Lake District had been breath taking. I thought about the people in my life I wished could’ve seen what I could see at that moment and experience the feelings I was feeling. I thought about the idea of phenomenology and the loneliness of our experience. You will never really know how I felt, and what I saw on that hill. You will never really know what Super Noodles taste like to me, and I will never really know what they taste like to you. But if you say, “They taste minging Joe,” I will absolutely accept that as a valid answer.
My advice anyone who fancies a go at Everesting – go for it. Don’t worry too much about what sandwiches you’re going to take, and don’t underestimate the power of Van Halen.