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Joe Houghton: Everesting

Joe Houghton: Everesting

Read the story of one of iRIDE’s own, Joe Houghton, and his ‘not quite ideal summer Everest attempt’…

Have I pushed the boat out too far this time? The biggest thought on my mind as I entered the 8th lap of my Everest attempt. In the 6 years that I’d been properly mountain biking, I had never thought that before. Sure, I’d bonked, crashed, and crawled my way around racecourses, but I’d always finished. Yet here I was, 1/3 of my way through my first attempt at an Everest, and boy was I hurting.

The track I’d decided on was the infamous Speedball into Cockayne Alley, one of the highlights of the Craigieburn area. The descent starts with scree ruts before dropping into fast, open tussock and finally descending through native bush. This grade 5 track was physical, fast, and fun. The climb is affectionately known as Cheesedick Road and climbs roughly 430m vert in a little under 4km, making for a rather direct but efficient climb. The total lap was around 45-55 minutes, covering 5.7km and 430m vert, so I was looking at 21 laps to reach the summit of Everest.

Throwing a spanner in the works, my new Zerode Kapito turned up two and half weeks before my Everesting date, and trying to break in the gearbox while also trying to taper made for an interesting experience. So, despite the recommended 500kms needed to properly break in the Pinion gearbox, I’d be starting my Everest having only done half of that. f*ck it, why not.

Driving up on Friday afternoon and arriving in rain, sleet, and brutally cold conditions made for an interesting final build-up. Fortunately, Dad had come up with me to act as a support crew and gave me the reassuring words of “it just adds to it” when describing the conditions. After a quick spin-out ride in the rain, double-checking I had everything ready to go and prepping food for the next day, it was time for bed.

Waking at 1:45 am, chowing down some overnight oats and a protein shake, I was feeling good and up for the challenge. However, this all changed, when I looked outside to find it snowing. Putting on so many layers you would’ve thought I was going skiing, 'stoked' wasn’t exactly the word that came to mind, considering we were meant to be a week away from summer. After some reassuring words from Dad, who I knew couldn’t wait to get back into bed, I was off.

The first three laps consisted of freezing conditions, a lot of snow, and the joys of riding with 2 meters of visibility. Near the end of the 3rd lap, a patch of clay caught me out, causing an awkward crash, landing on my knee, and twisting it, which would, in turn, cause pain that would become a reoccurring issue throughout the day. Stopping at the bottom of the 3rd lap, I had a serious 'what am I doing' moment. It was snowing, below freezing, pitch black, and I was a 7th of the way through. Fortunately, my pride said to me, “You can’t quit before the sun comes up,” and so back up I went. Climbing up on the 5th lap, the sun started to rise, and suddenly I felt like a million bucks. Being able to see more than 2 meters ahead of me was a game-changer, and suddenly I was loving every minute of the challenge.

One of the quotes that has stuck with me for a long time is Tom Hanks’s “This too shall pass” speech and believe me when I say that the feeling of loving every minute had definitely passed. On lap 9, after another small crash, my knee was not in a good place, and my mind wasn’t much better. At this point, 7 hours in, I decided that it was time for my first hit of caffeine for the day, followed by some painkillers. Riding up on lap 10 was the closest I got to quitting. My knee was hurting on every pedal stroke, my mind could only concentrate on how much this sucked. I was still riding in a raincoat and pants, I was soaked, muddy, cold, and sore, and my mind was starting to try and negotiate with itself. But much like in The Last Airbender when everything changed when the fire nation attacked, all it took was one text to change everything.

The one and only Robbie Jack had asked how far up the ski road I was, telling him he’d catch me, and if not, I’d wait for him at the top. I had a sinking feeling that he was going to have driven all the way out to Craigieburn only to do 1 lap with me before I pulled the plug. I must have looked like a sad sight at the top when he caught me, and this was probably confirmed a few minutes later when I blew the top of a scree-turn and went straight over the bars. Everything was going wrong, but at that moment, suddenly my mindset changed. After riding so carefully to protect my knee, getting up after that crash to find my knee hadn’t gotten any worse was like a mental reset. The next 7 laps flew by, the sun came out, the trail started to dry, I had company, and my knee wasn’t getting any worse.

By the time Rob finished his stint on the bike (Clocking up 3000m vert himself), he had carried me from a state of certainly coming up short to a point where I was only 5 laps away from completion. As time moved into the late evening, I was suddenly aware of the very real possibility of finishing in the dark. Out came the headphones for the first time, knowing that by not allowing myself to listen to music throughout the day, I would, in turn, increase their effectiveness when I needed it. The next few laps passed relatively quickly as I tried to make the most of the light, counting down each lap in my head, knowing that the finish line was in sight. By this point, my tummy was not in a good place, forcing me to eat as I climbed (a massive thank you to Mum for the cookies that got me through), and my mind was starting to play tricks on me in the darkness.

The deterioration of my body in those last 3 laps was incredible, particularly on the descents. My ankles, knees, and wrists were in constant pain, and in the darkness, I was braking more, further creating pain in my wrists and forearms. At the start of my last lap, with only 200m vert to go, I knew I’d done it. Mentally, I felt good, and it wasn’t a question of whether I could do it anymore, but rather a matter of when I would. The final climb was in complete darkness, with only a small circle of light leading the way. But by the time I reached the top, I was sitting at 9033m vert with nothing but 1 more lap in front of me. At the bottom, Dad was waiting for me with a celebratory beer ready to go, and I don’t think I’ve ever worked harder to deserve one more.

Looking back, a lot of stuff probably wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t ideal to be on a pretty much brand-new unbroken gearbox bike; it wasn’t ideal to be met with snow and below-zero conditions, and it certainly wasn’t ideal to crash so early and hurt my knee. But all of those moments made it what it was, and as Dad put it, they “just add to it.” I don’t know if anyone’s ever had an Everest where everything went to plan, but maybe that part of it is not only reaching the vert but the process of getting there.

By the numbers:
121.12 KM
9033m Vert
20:27:13 Total time
15:19:38 Riding time
Average Temp 5 degrees
21x Grade 5 trail laps
3 crashes, who knows how many almosts

Thank you to;

- Dad, for being there from start to finish, taking photos, bringing me food, and supporting me from the first time I mentioned the idea of an Everest to him.
- Robbie Jack, for digging me out of a dark place in the middle and bringing me to the final straight.
- Mum, for making kgs of cookies to fuel me throughout the day.
- Zerode Bikes, for making a bike that in the mud and snow never missed a beat and only got better the worse the conditions got.

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