November 21, 2018
It’s November. I’m visiting family in Kelowna, BC, working on some writing projects, but mostly, I’m just feeling antsy and not quite ready for the ride season to be over.
So I decided to everest Knox Mountain. From the folks at Hells 500: “The concept of Everesting is fiendishly simple: Pick any hill, anywhere in the world and ride repeats of it in a single activity until you climb 8,848 m—the equivalent height of Mt Everest.”
Knox Mountain Drive zigzags 3.1 kilometres from the base parking lot to the top of the hill, with an elevation gain of 241 metres and fabulous views of the downtown Kelowna on the descent. A bonus: the park is closed to vehicle traffic during winter months, leaving the road open to deer, dog walkers, and cyclists.
On paper, it sounded easy enough: if Mt Everest is 8,848 m, that meant 37 hill repeats. After training for the World Time Trial Champs, I felt fit and strong, though admittedly I hadn’t done much climbing since the summer. Temperatures have been hovering around freezing, so I knew that I’d need to stock an array of layers and warm clothing items at my basecamp. I also knew that, with shorter fall days, I’d end up doing a lot of riding in the dark.
On November 19, I conned my father into driving me down to Knox Mountain before dawn. I loaded extra clothes, bushels of bananas, GU gel, mac & cheese, as well as two litres of chocolate milk into the van and we were off. I rolled out at at 5:00 am in mittens, rain pants, wool-insulated boot covers, a hooded long-sleeve, and bandana.
The first hours were easy: I kept up a brisk pace, and enjoyed marking off each lap on a tally sheet I’d attached to the gate at the base. As dawn came, I made a game of searching out antlered deer in the pine forest. When I took my first longer break at 11:00 am to remove some layers and have a snack, I’d completed 15 laps. My mom dropped by with pain au chocolate and fresh pressed juice, and I was pleased to report that I was doing well. The juice provided a welcome kick, the pastry a reminder of warmer days cycling through the French countryside. Things continued alright for the next few hours as I listened to episodes of Radio Lab and enjoyed the plus-Celcius temperatures.
By mid-afternoon, however, I was starting to slow down. My legs had lost their freshness, my caffeine had worn off, and I now approached the 12% section—a Strava segment known as “Knox Wall”—with a mounting sense of dread. To combat these negative thoughts, I channeled my inner Anisa Aubin—a strong, steady, and extremely resilient cyclist I met during the North Cape-Tarifa Adventure this summer (she finished the race; I did not)—and reminded myself that I didn’t need to be fast, I just needed to remain consistent. Keep the pedals turning. Just after 4:00 pm, I discovered a puncture and wasted the last minutes of daylight repairing it, which, while annoying, was still better than having to fix it in the dark.
After sunset, my progress really started to drag. The cold air wasn’t helping my lungs either. I’d initially estimated my lap time at 23 minutes, but my ascents alone were taking that long. At 6,000 m, my body simply refused to pedal any faster; by 7,000 m, I had to coerce my legs to move at all. Sections that had seemed almost flat in the morning felt as though they were now vertical; I didn’t know it was possible for a person to ride a bike this slowly. I started taking the descents more cautiously as well, aware that fatigue had impaired my response time—better to take a few extra minutes each lap than risk a wipe out, especially this close to the finish. My dad decided to stick around at the van after dark, and for this I was grateful. I hopped inside every few laps to warm up with a poor man’s mocha; it also proved extremely satisfying to have an ear to whine to:
“This is haaaaaaaaaaaaard.”
My dad is great because he is supportive yet unsympathetic: doesn’t encourage or discourage, just listens and asks if anything hurts.
“No,” I’d sigh. “I’m all good.”
He brought his bike and I hoped that he’d join me for a few laps, but—no surprise—he wasn’t feeling the sub-zero temps.
I was using both my eTrex 20x and Strava on my phone to track the attempt, and on one of these chilly descents the eTrex crashed, rebooted, and crashed again. Thinking it might be the temperature, I tucked the device inside an inner pocket, alongside my phone and birthday cake-flavoured GU gel (it’s delicious, by the way).
Two hours later than anticipated, I summited for the 37th time. Total elevation gain: 8,975 metres; distance: 249 km. Those final hours were mostly agony, interspersed with momentarily relief. I wanted to quit with ever fibre of my being, but forced myself to relive the disappointment of defeat during all those Trans Am days that I’d stopped short of achieving my daily mileage goals—this was not going to be one of those times, I’d decided.
At the end of the day, I felt an immense sense of accomplishment, as well as whole body, low-grade pain. To celebrate, I took an Epsom salt bath, and collapsed in bed snuggling my water bottle.
Would I ever Everest again? Maybe, but not in November.
To be honest, I’m more likely to toss my road bike in a dumpster and take up curling instead.