Monday, July 27, 2015

The Tale of a Mountaineering Englishman in Texas

The story starts in 1924 when George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared on the North-East ridge of Everest during their attempt to make the first ascent of the world's highest mountain. They were last seen when they were about 800 feet below the 29,029 ft summit (8,848 meters).  Now fast-forward to the early ‘90s when Mallory’s grandson, George (Junior) was training for a climbing expedition to Everest’s North Ridge. He came up with the idea of riding his bicycle up and down the 1,084m Mount Donna Buang in Australia, until he climbed Everest’s total elevation in one ride. In 1995, and after several attempts, he attained the magic 8,848 meters of cumulative climbing.

After Mallory’s successful “Everesting” climb, nothing much happened till about 2006 when others started to attempt the same feat.  Andy van Bergen of the "Hells 500" group in Australia then started to record the various efforts and these were subsequently documented on the Strava website. A few years later, Andy Coulbeck, a 51 year-old Englishman living in Austin started to explore Hells 500’s Everesting website and became hooked. Most successful attempts had been in Britain, Australia and New Zealand with a sprinkling in North America.  Would it not be the coolest thing to become the first successful Everester in Texas? And thus Andy’s idea became an obsession.

The rules are simple: the attempt must be on one hill and it must be in one single ride. You can stop but you cannot sleep.  Selection of the hill or mountain is of paramount importance and clearly what might work for one rider might not work for another. Most riders select grades of 4 – 9% and complete anything from 20 – 150 repeats over cumulative distances of 100 – 250 miles, taking 12 – 30 hours. That’s quite a range of permutations.

Andy’s first attempt was on Rain Creek Parkway in Austin. However, he had not determined the climb’s exact elevation and hence how many repeats would be needed.  After 22,000 ft. of climbing, he abandoned the attempt. Clearly more planning was going to be needed. After evaluating several climbs, he selected Big View Drive for his second attempt, also in northwest Austin. It was steep enough but offered some variety of climb with a leveling-off in the middle. He was to make the attempt in July.  He obviously had doubts about the high Texas summer temperatures but Andy was ready and he was impatient. Being first in Texas was now a primary motivator and who knows who else was out there thinking about it. Noel Coward did not get a vote ***.

So on the evening of Saturday 11th July, Andy set off to ride 70 hill repeats over a 2-mile (two-way) course. He started alone but during the grueling hours ahead he was supported by his wife Misako and a number of cycling friends, most notably David Ely who went “above and beyond”.  The night started in relative peace and tranquility but any thoughts of serenity were soon quashed by bouts of loneliness in the small hours of Sunday morning as the grim reality of what lay ahead became apparent.  He had planned to eat a burger during the night and by midnight, he was craving it.  Misako’s mission was thus to find a burger-joint that would still be open.  P. Terry’s provided the answer.

Andy originally planned for 16 minute repeats but as the sweltering Sunday dragged on, his breaks became longer and more frequent.  Any excuse to stop was a good excuse. His repeat times dropped, now 20 minutes, then 24 minutes. Occasional cramping set in but fortunately was alleviated with additional intake of electrolytes. By Sunday afternoon, Andy was exhausted and miserable in the 94 degree heat but quitting was not an option. Not only was his own resolve impenetrable but the support of his wife and friends had resulted in a firm commitment to them. And so at 7:20 in the evening, almost 26 hours after he started, Andy Coulbeck became the first cyclist in Texas to accomplish the Everesting goal of 29,029 ft of hill repeats. He also completed the ride in ambient temperatures higher than anybody else in the world.

When I asked Andy whether he was suffering from a mid-life crisis, he simply gave a wry smile, accompanied by giggles from Misako.  But when I asked him about other crazy adventures that he might attempt, his eyes seemed to glaze over and he stared off into the distance. Misako simply put her head in her hands.

William Hudson, July 2015.

***   "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" is a song written by Noël Coward and first performed in New York in 1931.  The locals grieve when the white men leave their huts, because they're obviously, definitely nuts …… though Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Thanks to Misako Coulbeck and Jim Donahue for permission to use their photos.  Photo of Everest courtesy of Wikipedia. Photo of Strava record courtesy of Strava and Hells 500.