It’s 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning in late April. The Merry Ploughboy’s a re-assuring presence on the mountain as it first comes into view. In its streetlights I make out Storm Hannah’s detritus: Felled branches dancing in its gusts, floodwaters latticing the road. I scan up the road and the mountain’s strangely unfamiliar, only the road as visible man-made feature, spruce-plantations swirling untamed.

I quickly pitch basecamp and start the ride, looking for an early rhythm, sharpening my headlight’s beam. The moon’s dimmed by brooding cloud. Rain’s pooling on my glasses. But the Volt 800 cuts a warm path. Wandering Aengus sings as a million white moths are on the wing. Within minutes, deer and fawn greet me on the road. They consider my choice of clothing: Trusty Gabba over a single merino base, paper-light Assos rain jacket, bib tights and a few foul-weather/hi-vis extras. Tick. Next they check the bike. Not so good here. I’m riding a 36/28. This could have been fine on my intended route. But with the storm-forecast I’ve switched a day prior to a lower, steeper segment, and decided not to try to adapt the gearing at such short notice. I glance down sympathetically at the knees. Naturally a low-cadence rider, I know they’ll grind me up it. As I pass, the deer shout out the Why are you doing this to yourself. But my answer’s carried away by flurry. I tuck down as I turn into a stiff westerly on the straight section of the road past the Coillte-forest gate. Briefly re-work the numbers on the climbing to be done before scheduled food stop in four hours. Mind and body relax as I find a steady pace and leave behind civilian life and a poor night’s sleep. I relish the day ahead.

Everesting for cyclists was pioneered by storied mountaineer George Mallory’s grandson. The younger Mallory managed while training for his own mountaineering-ascent of Everest (8,848m) to ride up and down the same hill near Melbourne until he reached the same number of VMs. Andy van Bergen a cyclist in Melbourne loved the idea and organised the first group-attempt in 2014. He built a website and made up some punishing rules of engagement: Hill of your choice and take as long as you like, no sleeping, must descend by the route you climbed, etc. There were even extras such as a ‘High-Rouleurs Society’ for those reaching beyond Everest to 10,000VMs, Zwift Everestings for shed-dwellers, ‘double’ and ‘triple’ Everestings and an ‘SSSS badge’ for the misfortunate completers of a quartet of Everestings on: Soil (dirt track), Short (less than 200km->gradient 9%), Suburban and Significant climbs. Slowly, an underground cycling phenomenon took root. Jens Voigt raised the profile in 2017. Club-mates Eoin and Balazs skilfully completed Stocking Lane on a scorching hot day in 2018. A unicyclist from Santa Monica also triumphed last year. There’s always a crazier dude.

I myself liked the purity of the challenge. Pared right back to bike on local hill, stormy Irish weather, no palaver, no marmots. Also drawing me in, frankly, was the real possibility of failure. I was really short on the training miles and even in fitter years had only ever climbed half of today’s objective on the same ride. With a base of only 3,000km on the bike in 2018, training began in January 2019: over the four available months I trained for on average 5.5 hours per week, almost all structured workouts at sweet-spot on the turbo, with an average ride-time of 1.6 hours (only one ride of over 100km!). Not enough, but all the time I had. And tiring! The numbers slowly moved in the right direction: using Xert as a measure, supported by some old UCD-lab data, I got the lower-lactate threshold up a bit to 249W, but for the first time after working through such a programme lost very little weight. (I’m riding today to celebrate my 50th birthday, metabolic changes may have played a part in the weight-retention…)

Phantasmagorical: my daughter Isabelle’s impressions

Advantages going onto the mountain: A certain doggedness, the gift of a naturally very high aerobic capacity and a love for climbing mountains. Disadvantages: Mediocre climber, big guy, poor descender, very short on training miles.

Welcome daybreak allows for faster descents, still picking my way around larger treefalls at the second and third bridges, powering down the lights to save vital battery life. The winds calm gradually and although it’s still cold at 2-4 degrees before windchill the gear keep me perfectly warm. I hold target of about 210W average on the climbs and minimise time above lower threshold throughout. I stick to the plan of not breaking to eat until four hours or so into the ride, with the exception of quick stops at basecamp to fill the bottle and pocket some snacks.

09:00 and a Sherpa appears! He hauls good company and a lucky spare tube, which is needed almost right away. He half-wheels me on the ascents even more than usual, serving a good reminder that even at this early point I’ve already climbed some 2,500VM and need to watch my pacing and nutrition. I make sure to drink a 750ml bidon of water, and eat 60g of carbohydrate, every hour. Most of the eating and drinking is done at summit just at or after turning so as to give the body a chance to process while descending. Over the course of the day I’ll take three, 30 minute rest-stops when I’ll eat some protein. Four happy reps of the mountain together and Sherpa bids me luck, only to return later in the day, giving generously of his time as ever.

The day opens up to some good weather. The roads dry, storm-debris somehow clears and it warms to a perfect 10 degrees. Hannah counters with a freakish hail shower and hurls angry gusts at exposed sections of the descents. But by mid-afternoon, she’s beaten, and I’m hitting my fastest downhills of the day. I’m tiring already though, and the dominant-right knee is getting very sore. At about 15:00, just under 5,000VM into it, I do my first sub-200W climb. Cadence and HR dim, too. But spirits are good, and I decide to forget the clock, enjoy the rest of the ride as if I’ll never get to do it again; and spin the lowest sensible gear at all times to protect the knees.

Basecamp - that’s not a Deliveroo at my right hand

Sherpas guide me for eight or so straight hours of this daylight. There’s camaraderie and laughter. One disappears quickly into the pub. Another arrives in running gear but makes an unscheduled left turn at the second bridge in direction Johnny Foxes as soon as I mention a running-Everesting option. Fading steadily, I say less than ever and prefer to hear their stories. Personal news flows easily, as it can in the co-suffering of mountain rides. Snap-memories of long-ago trips together are recalled with surprising acuity, a natural re-connection despite years of civilian life in the meantime, like trusty cycling shoes clicking easily into unseen pedals.

Late afternoon and the last daytime-Sherpa tilts his wings. Alone again, I check in on the remaining lives of the batteries that I’ll need to get to summit. I’m running two Wahoo Elemnt Bolts out front, in case one fails. These are trickle-charged through a small powerbank on the stem, giving them each a 24-hour range. Larger banks at base camp recharge the lights, delivering them roughly three hours each if dimmed while climbing. I top up the trickler-unit on the stem while I eat. I keep mental note of all of their remaining-charge statuses. All is well.

Out front: the two Bolts with powerbank

Something niggles though as I call up the VMs completed on the two Bolts: they disagree with each other by about 400VM and both are out of line with the online Everesting calculator that I’ve used to plan the number of reps needed to reach summit. Confusion ahead perhaps. I put it down to the effect of the stormy weather on the units’ barometers.

The legs continue to wane: 190W, 185W, 180W, and then off the cliff to 155W at about 20:30, 15 hours into the adventure. The only pain is in the right knee although I’m stiff getting off the bike and Z2 feels increasingly like the only gear. I know it’s the more ‘feeling’ knee and that the left is hurting just as much, but less vocally. So try not to compensate from the left. Ride on. Don’t stop much. Halfway through an ascent, feeling the grind more acutely, I realise I’m in the big ring! I feel fine but make a note to sip a coffee and pocket an emergency gel at basecamp. Need to maintain concentration as it darkens and I enter mentally the trickiest zone of the climb. The accounts I’ve read all refer to acute stress/a little craziness in the 6,500VM-8,000VM range.

With a gentle sun still dappling the road, but cadence faded now to a ruinous sub-50rpm, I return to consideration of the Why? Why the heck put myself through such a ride: Want a challenge, mid-life crisis, displaced childhood, yearn to smash the workaday routine, need to prove something; or simply enjoy the endorphins? I turn it over gently, enjoying the ride and as I see the happy sight of another Sherpa climbing towards me, put it out of my mind for now, deciding to trust myself to have good reason to be on the mountain today.

We descend together in unspoken friendship. At dusk on a Saturday I’d expected no more support and Sherpa’s giving up precious family time. I’m pulled along by his generosity and modest accounts of his very many, more challenging rides. He shoulders the heavy phone and puncture bag and soon I’m at 7,500VM. At 23:30 he says bye: “don’t hang around”. I’ve three reps to go. As I eat for the last time at basecamp, Aoife arrives unexpectedly. So gently wise and perceptive, her welcome is the biggest lift. I press on, conscious of the risk of seizing up, with the temperature close to zero for the previous few hours. Fire will meet ice. And will suffice.

Fire will meet ice

The data-niggle returns as I re-call the VM-fields on the Bolts. The discrepancies have widened, beyond previous margins of error with the unit. Lost on the mountain I search, still calm, for cause and solution. I run a real-time count as I climb the next two reps, noting the VMs added from camp to camp. They don’t concur with the Everesting calculator and disagree with each other by different amounts (a complex that made even less sense on the mountain). I decide to stop one last time to rule out possible over-counting of reps completed. I reason that if the Everesting calculator is based, as it’s said to be, on Strava’s large sample of elevation data from other riders’ barometers, it should be right. The Bolts allow me to view the elevation-peaks and troughs on my phone without ending the recording. They show weirdly crimped peaks although I know I’ve climbed every inch. And each crimps different peaks. We count and measure the sine curves, think and re-think the possible glitches but are left with the same anomaly: I’ve one rep of 305VM remaining but am 900VM short. WTF.

At 01:30 I complete the last, scheduled rep, 29. I’m at the scheduled distance, but the VMs are still short, on both Bolts. I decide to do two more reps, to be sure. The choice of gearing’s been a beginner’s mistake. But I’ll learn the lesson tomorrow. And bodge it today with a bit of determination. For the road. For character. For the Why. The spirit’s still up for it. But the heart rate doesn’t want to elevate. I remembering contenting myself with just pedalling. But as I type this and look at the data, the slowdown during those last climbs is surprising: reps 30 and 31 – cadence 38rpm (!), speed 6.1kph, power 123W, heart 115bp…and the left, less ‘feeling’ of the two knees is doing more and more of the work – L/R balance for the day was 53/47%, skewing markedly to the left towards the end. These final two, unplanned reps take over two hours, more than twice nominal, to complete. Summiting rep 31 and although the Bolts still report an underage of several hundred VMs I plant the flag, and retreat, decisively, to civilian life. I up the ride to Veloviewer and it recognises it as within the range of a successful Everesting. A day or so later, van Bergen messages me congrats from Melbourne, marks the climb in his hall of fame at 9,455VM, exactly per the Everesting calculator, and I close the case.

We should trust ourselves to know the Why as we climb our Everests. We are right to intuit the benefits of pushing ourselves. It’s about balance, not masochism: On Cruagh, I celebrated difficulty, adventure and a shock-break from the very comfortable life I’m so fortunate to lead. I even learned something about how I want to shape my next half-century. And I had to get up there to do it.

My thanks to the Sherpas: Aoife, Brendan, Dan, Fergus, Kevin, Lisa and Stephen

RIP Seamus Lawless