Sometimes the mere act of taking on a challenge is success in itself. We live in a world driven by numbers, of black and white when it comes to success or failure. With Everesting it’s simply reach 8848 meters and you are deemed to be successful but as we have seen with previous efforts, failing to reach that number still allows us to create an impact and do more for those in need which in itself is a success. Drew Thornton set himself a big challenge and set out to see how far he could push himself, the following is his account of his everesting attempt.
Nepal has always been a place that I’ve wanted to visit, with an ascent of Everest being the ultimate dream. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to travel and experience many other countries and cultures in my life already. It was actually a recent trip to California with my bike that helped me fall in love with riding all over again. It all got a bit too serious there for a while, and there is nothing like fresh scenery, new roads and new friends to help you forget about the watts, calories, kilometres or how many more grams you can shave off your bike. It was on this trip that the news of the Nepal earthquakes began to break. It really gave me a reality check and reminded me of how lucky I was, but also reminded me that nature doesn’t discriminate, this could have been anyone, anywhere. We’ve seen the Black Saturday Bush Fires, the Japan Tsunami and countless more disasters in recent years. What I always find amazing, is that in the face of these events people from all walks of life, drop what they are doing and pitch in to help. With a renewed passion for riding my bike and a thirst for challenge, I knew it was my turn to lend a hand.
“It really gave me a reality check and reminded me of how lucky I was, but also reminded me that nature doesn’t discriminate, this could have been anyone, anywhere.”
The way in which I’d end up contributing wasn’t initially clear, but when the challenge was put down by More Than Sport and Hells 500 to ‘Climb For Nepal’. I knew I’d found my challenge. The decision to do it came, quite suddenly. ‘Everesting’ was not something I’d been wanting to do, striving to achieve or even something floating around on my bucket list. Throughout my life I have always tried to be the kind of person who, once they decide to do something, follows through. This attitude has led to me having all kinds of adventures and gotten me in all sorts of trouble. Time would only tell which of the two this would lead to.
Bowden Spur Road is a pretty nasty dirt climb, just outside of Strathewan, about an hour north of Melbourne. I’d ridden this road once in the past, several years ago. I didn’t remember too much about the climb itself, except that it was extremely steep at some points, and had three incredible switchbacks, which on a clear day, allowed an incredible view of Melbourne in distance. There were easier roads I could have chosen, sealed, with lesser gradients, but once the seed was planted, I couldn’t get my mind off having a crack at this climb.
In the weeks leading up to the day of my attempt I tailored my rides to do more climbing and include some more dirt. I ventured out to Bowden Spur rd each weekend to do a few repeats, familiarise myself with the condition of the road and try and workout a good line to take on the descent. The few days leading up to my attempt were pretty chaotic. I was running around and calling in favors all over the place to borrow a Garmin, a Portable Charger, more lights and a fold out gazebo to have some respite from the impending rain.
Four days out and I had the rather naive plan of starting at 2am, rolling the first five or so hours solo. Then having my dad roll by and bring some coffee and hang for a bit. I’d then have a few different groups of people come by throughout the day to keep me company and roll some laps. I think I knew deep down that being out on the mountain by myself for the majority of the attempt was a little bit risky. So I was delighted to receive a text three days out, from my good friend Gordon which simply read ‘Have you found a soigneur for Saturday? If not I’m in. Rub downs, gel sandwiches, hot tea bidons!.. I’m all in.’. Life saver.
There was a huge sense of excitement in the air while driving to Bowden Spur. We passed kangaroos, koalas and had to stop briefly to let a wombat make its way across the road. The mood was really positive and I was keen to get underway. We drove up from the base of the climb, where I’d start my ascents, to the car park at the top of the climb, about two hundred metres from the end of the road, my turnaround point to begin the descent. This excitement was more than enough to get us jumping out of the warm car and into the dark cold midnight air. We were prepared enough for the cold, or so we thought. Based on a few recon rides of the course, I’d planned for 30 minute ‘laps’ up to twenty minutes to climb, ten minutes to descend. The climb itself is 3.6km, at an average of nine percents grade, with a couple of sections between thirteen and sixteen percent. My average lap in training had been twenty five minutes, however these had all been during daylight and in slightly warmer temperatures.
“This excitement was more than enough to get us jumping out of the warm car and into the dark cold midnight air. We were prepared enough for the cold, or so we thought.”
I had a quick roll on the trainer to warm the legs up and then opted to descend back down to the start line on the bike. The quicker I could get my line right on the descent the better was the theory. My first ascent was quite a blur. A little overcome with the excitement of finally being in this challenge, finally being a part of this thing that I’d been playing through in my sleep for the past few weeks. Rolling past the car park for the first time I got the thumbs up from Gordon, under thirty minutes, nice work. Lets do it again. The second descent was a little sketchy in the dark, still under ten minutes though, up we go again. The first three laps rolled through in under an hour and a half, right on schedule. I felt pretty positive and was already sticking to the plan of rotating between energy bars, bananas and a half sandwich on alternate laps. I’d need to eat and drink right from the beginning due to the amount of time I’d be burning through calories. A quick stop at the car park before descending a fourth time saw me put on a second pair of merino socks. At negative two outside I was struggling to feel my feet and because of this, found it really hard to tell if my shoes were done up tight.
Normally on any other ride, you have ups and downs with your energy and the fatigue in your muscles will do the same. On a longer ride you might encounter similar climbs and do some long distances, but generally there are points in every ride that offer some respite for your tired muscles. A descent after a long climb is usually a great opportunity to relax your legs, spin out some of the built up lactic acid in your muscles and get ready for the next test. Four climbs and five descents in I was still feeling positive and my legs, although quite cold, felt good. I was however, quickly learning the toll that descending this road would have on my body. With such a steep grade, on a loose surface, and about six feet of visibility, I was forced to stand for most of the descent, while riding the brakes pretty hard. This meant that I was turning around to climb again, quite stiff and cold. the negative effect of this was already showing, with pain in my lower back and triceps.
“I was however, quickly learning the toll that descending this road would have on my body.”
Beginning climb five a heavy fog rolled over the mountain and reduced visibility even more so. This had little effect on the climb, the effect it would have on the descent certainly played on my mind though. Approaching the top I stopped for a quick chat with Gordon and to take on some food. We agreed that the fog would slow my descents, Gordon insisted that I take it easy and reminded me that a 15 minute descent wouldn’t mean the end of the world. Just before we parted company at the top, a quick time check revealed that my Garmin had turned itself off. I froze for a few seconds, waiting for it to boot up again, praying that my ride data would still be there. One ascent. Thats what I’d lost. The display read 2228m, the same as it did before I began my last climb. After a few moments of panic, I began my descent again. There was no use sitting at the top lamenting the loss of that lap, keep going, keep warm, deal with it later.
Things took a pretty bad turn on ascent six. The amount of effort I’d put in and favors I’d called in prior to today to make sure I had all the backup batteries and correct cables for that Goddamn computer and it still failed me anyway. Climbing for the following twenty minutes I went to a pretty dark place. On top of the frustration with the computer, I was getting extremely tired. The fog had gotten quite dense, almost to the point that you’d call it rain. My subconscious began to taunt me, reminding me of nothing more than the fact that there were still many, many hours before sun would come out, if it would at all. Another quick bidon swap at the top of lap six revealed that again, my Garmin had switched off. Hunched over my handlebars, furious, I took a couple of deep breaths as I contemplated where I was and what I was doing. This ride wasn’t about me, It wasn’t about proving anything to anyone, It was about taking on a challenge and helping those in need. The numbers didn’t matter, there were no points for style here, it was the obsession with the numbers on that screen that I always hated about riding anyway. I took the Garmin off my bike, and handed it to Gordon, ‘stuff it. 28 laps’. ‘stuff it, 22 to go’ said Gordon, as I made my way down for a seventh time.
The next handful of laps were fantastic. I felt great, all the stress of the lead up, all the prep with all the gear didn’t matter anymore. I had some good music in my headphones, a descent amount of food in my belly and had struck up a conversation with a dead wombat on the roadside, named Frank. Whom I could only assume, came to cheer me on, but arrived a day early and froze to death while waiting. I was in the thick of this thing and refilled with confidence.
“I had some good music in my headphones, a descent amount of food in my belly and had struck up a conversation with a dead wombat on the roadside, named Frank.”
Six hours in and the sun was beginning to rise. Bringing with it the gift of visibility, although the fog was yet to clear. After a few laps in the first hours of daylight I stopped for a short break. By this time my back and arms were really tight and sore from being shaken up on the descent. I had a big stretch and Gordon got his knuckles stuck into my lower back. While taking my break some familiar faces came riding through the fog and just like that, whatever pain I was feeling, however tired I was, seemed to vanish. I now had some riding company. After a quick chat at the top, four of us rolled back down for another run at the climb. The distraction of having someone to talk to besides Frank the wombat was a huge help, I can’t thank those guys enough. After a while my companions had Saturdays of their own to get on with, so rolled on after reaching the top. On the next lap my parents and brother turned up with some hot coffee. While I was aware that I didn’t want to stop too often, I had been dreaming about that coffee since at least four am, so I took five minutes to say hello, have my coffee and another stretch.
By this stage I was about twelve or thirteen laps in and buoyed by the friendly faces starting to turn up, I soldiered on, fairly confident. On about lap fourteen or fifteen the effects of the cold and the constant descents really started to take their toll. My legs were still feeling strong, but I had spasms in my lower back and my arms were in a great deal of pain, the feeling in my feet was long gone. My brother James along with Gordon rolled the following couple of laps alongside me in the car. Gordon taking some photos, James rapping along to beats on the stereo and burning out his clutch on the sharp climb. There were more visitors this time up the climb, friends from Melbourne, come to cheer me on, watch me suffer and even ride a lap. Smiles and high fives on the switchbacks, keep going.
At some stage a few laps after this I really started to drop off the edge. I had to constantly change my position on the bike to whatever would hurt the least. I was seeing spots, and wobbling across the road, trying to avoid rutted sections which I now know didn’t exist, and were just patches in my vision, conjured up by my tired mind. Keeping the pedals turning for the following few laps was a constant battle. The focus required to keep going had come at the severe detriment to my ability to put words into sentences and a couple of times, Gordon stopped me at the top to assess my condition.
Approaching the final lap I was able to complete, I still felt really positive, which looking back, occurred every time I was about to drop off completely. With my back cramping constantly and Gordon jogging lap nineteen beside me, I began my ascent. Get to twenty, was all I had in my mind. When you get to twenty you can have a break, then there is only eight to go. I think I stopped I fair few times on my final ascent. I remember Gordon constantly telling me to keep pedaling in circles, smooth motions, keep them turning. With about two hundred metres left on the climb, my back and my brain said enough was enough. I had tears streaming down my face and I knew that It was over. At this point my body just stopped, without Gordon by my side I’d have hit the deck for sure. From two am, in the freezing cold, until what was now four or so in the afternoon, he had my back and kept me turning the pedals.
“This was about taking on a challenge and pushing your body to it’s absolute limit to raise awareness and much needed funds for those in desperate need, those less fortunate than me”
In the days following my attempt I’ve had plenty of time to reflect what happened on the road that day. I found some pretty unique places in my mind. While I’m bitterly disappointed that I couldn’t make it all the way, I can honestly say that I left everything I had out on that road. Had the weather been warmer, had we started at a different time, would It have worked out differently? Maybe. But that’s not what this was about. This was about taking on a challenge and pushing your body to it’s absolute limit to raise awareness and much needed funds for those in desperate need, those less fortunate than me, and while I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have some unfinished business on Bowden Spur Rd. I can know that until next time, there are hundreds of people with a little more warmth, a little more food, and a bit more hope, thanks to the contributions of everyone who donated towards my #ClimbForNepal.
“If you’re going to risk and maybe fail, fail at something that matters. Fail gloriously so that even in failure, lives change.” – Jon Acuff
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