Everesting #3 – Off-Road: Mynydd Graean (Gravel Mountain)

All photos by Kev Mellalieu. Click to view full screen and then use your back button to return to the story.

I’ve never been good in traffic jams. It’s one of the reasons that I moved out of London.

We’d been stationary, engine switched off, for almost an hour.

I looked across at Kev in the passenger seat and asked “Why do I do this to myself”?

‘This’ was the overwhelming weight of an imminent Everesting attempt, but this time with a twist: my chosen hill was entirely off-road: gravel, stones, rocks, mud, dust, soil, cattle grids and stray sheep. Pretty much everything except tarmac. Logic said this would be the hardest Everesting I’d attempted yet, so I needed everything to run like clockwork.

A police car sped past on the hard shoulder. I tried to stay calm and relaxed, but knew I was failing.

Eventually we started to move again. I recalculated in my head: arrive by 9.30 pm, 15 minutes to drive half way up the climb and make camp, before darkness descended. Deep sigh.

The drive across Wales was thankfully uneventful and we turned off the main road just as the sun began to sink and the mountainside was bathed in orange light. I paused at the bottom of the climb, switched the car suspension to ‘Off Road’ and sent a final text message home: “All good. Going to sleep soon”.

I drove slowly up the climb, checking the condition of the surface and reminding myself where the hazards were: steep corners covered in loose rocks, holes that might be hard to spot in the dark, cattle grids, surface water and livestock. My general impression was that the track looked pretty good, despite really heavy rain in the preceding weeks.

I pulled to a halt exactly half way up the 10.3km climb and reversed the car onto the only piece of flat ground. Exactly three weeks ago, I’d run a couple of laps on the climb, partly to check the exact height gain for each lap and partly to work out the best place to make my ‘Base Camp’. I’d chosen this spot primarily because it was flat (Kev would use a tent and I would sleep in the car), but also because it provided a natural view back down the first part of the climb. It was also in a stunning spot, with the Dovey Estuary, Cader Idris and Cardigan Bay in the background.
Base Camp, with the Dovey Estuary in the background.

Base Camp, with the Dovey Estuary in the background.

I snapped a quick shot of Base Camp as the sun sank below the horizon and prepared my clothing and bike as fast as possible. We’d arrived an hour behind schedule, so I reset my start time to 2.45am and went to sleep around 10.30pm.

I hate the sound of the Apple alarm on my phone. So many times, on so many adventures, it’s dragged me from sleep. I like sleeping.

2.00am. Pitch dark. I turned on a torch and dressed, lying down in the back of the car. With a jolt, I realised that I’d forgotten to pack the milk, but then worked out that I could use yoghurt instead. Disaster averted and after a bowl of muesli, I finished dressing and climbed out of the car. The wind hit me straight away. It was a strong west-south-westerly and cold. The good news was that this would be a tail wind, but the bad news was the temperature. I turned on my Garmins (I was running two, just in case one failed – we all know they sometimes do). Six degrees centigrade. Whoa, properly cold.

I rolled away at 2.45am, bang on schedule and my lights cut a brilliant path through the darkness. I headed down the climb first, scattering sheep that had chosen to sleep on the track and then startling a couple of hares, near the tricky corners at the bottom. Two things had struck me so far: the descent was technical and rough in places, at least for a bike without suspension, but on the plus side, the Clement tyres I was running felt amazingly good and were definitely rolling across the rough parts better than I’d expected.

I stopped briefly at the road, removed my wind jacket, turned and headed back up the climb. I soon got hot, despite the wind. A few weeks ago during a recce, I’d mentally divided the climb into three distinct parts: the bottom section (3km), was steep and the surface was loose on the corners. A couple of descents within the climb, led to even steeper ups. If it was a road climb, it would be Hautacam. This section was hard, but forested and protected from the elements. Then came the middle section (2km), with three cattle grids: open countryside and solid 9 – 12% climbing. At exactly 5km, I passed the car and started the upper section of the climb: smoother gravel, but various rock strewn logging areas and much more exposed in places. Parts of it were beautiful and other parts resembled Mordor! The upper section was where ‘scale’ really made itself felt and the climb just seemed to go on forever, again with a couple of downs within the overall up. This upper part of the climb was however easier than the two preceding sections.

Exhale. Relax. Breathe deeply. Absorb the surroundings. The beauty and the scale. The mad rush was behind me: all the training, the organising, the bike and body prep, the nerves, the worries, the doubts and the packing. Now there was just the crunch of gravel under my tyres, the sound of the wind in the forest and otherwise, nothing. It was beautiful.

Mynydd Graean: a 10.3km gravel climb in the Cambrian Mountains, Wales.

Mynydd Graean: a 10.3km gravel climb in the Cambrian Mountains, Wales.

By the time I reached the true summit of the climb, I was 10.3km from the road. Research on the Hells 500 Hall of Fame had revealed that someone had Everested the Cat & Fiddle Pass in the Peak District, at 11.52km, but it appeared that Mynydd Graean would be the second longest climb, on any surface – if I could complete the task ahead. It would be hands-down the longest off-road climb to be Everested: the previous ones in Scotland and the Lake District weighed in at 1.43km and 1.89km respectively.

Mynydd Graean means Gravel Mountain in Welsh. I’d given it that name in February, when my son Tom and I had come to recce it. Although I’m sure the whole climb had been ridden plenty of times before by local mountain-bikers, a full Strava segment didn’t even exist. I felt like Columbus discovering the Americas!

The lower, sheltered part of the climb.

The lower, sheltered part of the climb.

I was here, in the dark on a Welsh mountainside because back in 2015, shortly after I’d completed my first Everesting, I’d read an article that quoted Andy van Bergen in Melbourne, the man behind the Hells 500 and Everesting concept. He’d said “A word of warning with Everesting. Because it will take you to the edge of your own capabilities, the post-ride high (mixed nicely with DOMS) is curiously addictive. The number of repeat offenders is growing rapidly. With that in mind, we recently launched the cruel and slightly sadistic SSSS. Each ‘S’ represents a style of Everesting that needs to be knocked off to qualify. The ‘Significant’ ride needs to be an iconic climb. ‘Soil’ is to be completed 100% off paved roads. ‘Suburban’ has riders heading through residential areas in search of up, and ‘Short’ needs to be a ride of less than 200km (including the descents. It’s steep!). Each ‘S’ needs to be it’s own ride, and at least one of them needs to be more than 10,000 vertical metres”.

The upper part of the climb, very close to the summit. Much of the climbing on Mynydd Graean is this steep.

The upper part of the climb, very close to the summit. Much of the climbing on Mynydd Graean is this steep.

As someone who grew up mountain biking and who would probably keep their cyclo-cross bike above all others, ‘Soil’ instantly gripped my imagination. I dreamt about it. But unlike roads, climb options appeared scarce. Very scarce.

But then I remembered a Welsh ride from back in the late 1980s, on a first-generation Specialized mountain bike (steel frame, no suspension, weighed a ton…). I simply recalled a very long track, which finished on top of a mountain. It was tenuous, but in February 2017, I went back to take a look. Could it be my ‘Soil’ climb? It rose from sea level on the west coast of Wales and climbed forever, with unbelievable views and complete solitude. It was perfect. I fell in love with it and started planning.

Each ascent would take just under an hour and the descent, about 25 minutes. A lap would give me 600m of ascent, so I would need to complete exactly 15 laps to pass 8,848m, the height of Everest. I also promised myself that I would ride a cyclo-cross or gravel bike. I categorically didn’t want to use a mountain bike.

The Rules for Everesting a climb are pretty simple: you should aim to ride the entire segment/climb; your effort must be continuous (you can stop as much or as little as you like, but you can’t sleep); and you must descend the same route that you climb.

The section of the upper climb that I christened Mordor.

The section of the upper climb that I christened Mordor.

I decided a while ago that there’s no such thing as an easy Everesting. Short and steep, or easy-angled and really long – either way it’s a defining experience. I now have an additional observation: an off-road Everesting is the hardest type, period. Navigating the constantly changing surface was using muscles not normally engaged on a road climb and the descent was anything but relaxing. On previous Everestings, the half-way mark had come pretty easily and it was the final 25% that had really hurt.

High on the climb on lap four. Cold and windy.

High on the climb on lap four. Cold and windy.

So when, at just six laps in and 3,600m up, I started to feel tired, I knew I was in for a struggle. I’d already been on the go for 9.5 hours. The briefest of sunrises on lap two had given way to low cloud cover and the wind was causing me to freeze on every descent. I was riding each ascent in a single push and then stopping at the car on the way down to refill a bidon and grab a piece of food. I planned to stop for a few minutes longer on every third descent and refuel more, but I ended up having to sit in the car each time, with the heater running. This constant hot/cold was making me feel pretty rough.
8,848m and c.24 hours on a bike are overwhelming numbers. In attempt to fool my chimp – the part of my brain that was telling me “stop, this is really stupid” – I always break an Everesting down into bite size chunks and I focus on those, rather than the whole. I had a strategy of five times three laps, with an overlay that also compared my ride to a real ascent of Everest. So, when the doubts started to creep in at the end of lap six, I told myself that I would ride another three laps, thereby reaching the equivalent of Everest base camp at 5,335m.
Heading up into the second half of the climb. Base Camp is just out of shot, to my left.

Heading up into the second half of the climb. Base Camp is just out of shot, to my left.

That however, was a further six hour commitment! Somehow, I arrived at the end of nine laps. Previously, 5,335m had felt like something of a turning point, but the surface was taking it’s toll and I was really suffering. I told myself I would ride another lap. And then another and another. Kev told me I was still climbing well and I think that was true, but it didn’t feel that way.

In the end, 12 laps came and went (almost 17 hours), but my chimp and I had been having long conversations, for c.8 hours by then. My chimp is called Pete – I named him during an adventure about 15 years ago, when he very nearly won the ‘let’s stop this nonsense’ debate. I had however let Pete have one small victory this time around: we’d agreed, as I descended the climb on lap 8, that if I failed, I wouldn’t come back: I’d brought the best I had to Mynydd Graean and if I was found wanting, this was one Everesting that was simply beyond me. Pete was grinning from ear to ear: ‘I’ve almost got him’ sort of thing.

 

Base Camp

But for the time being, there in the Cambrian Mountains, two thirds of the way ‘up Everest’, I could not quit and I would not quit. Too many people had contributed to me being here: Phil at CycleFit, Jonny at Noble Wheels, my colleagues at work who were covering for me, Kev who had given up his time to look after me on the hill and my wife Jenny at home, who I’d consigned to a logistical nightmare for a couple of days as she covered all the family trips that usually filled both our schedules.

Twilight. The constant hot/cold and eating too fast finally got the better of me and I was ill. My confidence at reaching 12 laps was instantly replaced by the fear of getting completely shut down by illness. My chimp, Pete, pounced on the opportunity to persuade me that enough was enough. My appetite had disappeared some time ago, so I was having to force myself to eat. A Bounce Ball, some Bloks, occasionally a biscuit, or a banana. I managed another bowl of yoghurt and muesli around lap 12, but I knew none of it was really sufficient.

One thing was still working well though and that was the bike. Back in February, I’d quickly reached the conclusion that my beautiful Scott Addict CX wasn’t the right tool for the job. It wasn’t comfy enough and the brakes weren’t up to 9,000m of descending. The bottom line was, I didn’t have a suitable bike to ride. Fast forward a couple of weeks and I found myself in the CycleFit lab in London, checking my road bike position and talking about my gravel plans. I’d lusted after an Open U.P. ever since the frame was launched by the Cervelo breakaway duo in Switzerland and now, Phil and Julian at CycleFit provided the missing link – they had my frame size in their Manchester lab and would get it shipped down to Covent Garden for me to take a look. It was a no brainer.

I did most of my descending on the drops - there was too much chance of getting bounced off the hoods on the rougher sections.

I did most of my descending on the drops – there was too much chance of getting bounced off the hoods on the rougher sections.

I sent the frame onto Jonny Bell of Noble Wheels. When it comes to detail and build quality, Jonny is second to none. We agreed on the gearing and the parts and also, crucially, on the wheels: Nox carbon rims, laced to DT Swiss hubs. A month later, like an expectant parent, I arrived outside Jonny’s house. The finished article was stunning – and very orange! I set about testing it at home in the Chiltern Hills and then took it to Wales to see how it performed on Mynydd Graean. I completely destroyed two tubeless tyres, but otherwise, the bike was sublime. I set about hunting down the best tyres for the job and Clement (USA) came up trumps. The tyres arrived just 48 hours ahead of my Everesting attempt.

Flawless. Thank you Jonny Bell of Noble Wheels and CycleFit.

Flawless. Thank you Jonny Bell of Noble Wheels and CycleFit.

At this point in the ride, as darkness engulfed me again, the thought of a mechanical, or a blowout, was terrifying. I think I’d have just sat down in the dirt and cried for a while. Likewise, I started to take more care on the descent – “don’t blow it now Guy”. I turned my lights back on. Heading into the second night is always the worst thing about Everesting.

Laps 13 and 14 seemed to take forever. Time slowed. I passed one of the hares that I’d seen almost 24 hours earlier. I thought I ran over a snake on one of the descents, but checked on the way back up and it was just a branch.

I just wanted to sleep. The thought of lying back down in the back of the car and closing my eyes, was almost too strong.

At the end of lap 13, I sat in the car, heater on, for ten minutes and did nothing. It was the first time all day that I’d done nothing. Except there was a reason – recharging my Garmins on-the-go was proving tricky because of the rough ground and even tape wouldn’t hold the charging pin in place. So I needed to take a quick break, just to get enough power to see me through the final laps.

The upper middle section, heading for Base Camp. I'm definitely not feeling great at this point and I'm barely half way.

The upper middle section, heading for Base Camp. I’m definitely not feeling great at this point and I’m barely half way.

Somehow, around 1.30am on Saturday morning, I found myself back at the very bottom of the climb and turning around for my final ascent. As I emerged from the forest after 3km and looked up, I could see a faint light, high above me. Was that the car?

It was. Kev had set his alarm for 2.00am and as I passed, he rode out and joined me. Legend. Kev is a talented rider and like me, has spent a lot of his cycling life off-road. In any normal circumstances, he’d have been Everesting with me. In January 2017 however, he was hit by a car which failed to give way and sustained serious injuries – eight broken ribs, a broken collar-bone and a punctured lung. He was on the long, slow path back to full fitness, but still managed to ride this last section with me. Amazing.

We cruised through the next few kms, being really careful on the slight descent in the section that I’d nicknamed Mordor and around the roughest parts of the track. On the final ramp to the summit, first one and then the second Garmin registered 8,848m. We carried onto the summit anyway and then descended slowly back to the car: “it only counts if you get off the mountain safely”. 9,000m was showing on both Garmins by the time we pulled back into Base Camp.

9,000m of up and down, on gravel.

I leaned my Open against the car, gave Kev a hug, told him he was a legend and thanked him. He laughed and headed for his tent, as though riding bikes at 3.00am in the morning was the most normal thing in the world.

I stripped by the car, despite the wind chill. The sheep were probably shocked. I cleaned the worst of the dust from my face, hands, arms and legs. I noticed the birds were beginning to sing and there was a faint light in the eastern sky. My second dawn of the ride… ridiculous.

I crawled into the back of the car, took some anti-sickness pills and zipped up my sleeping bag. It was 3.45am.

I closed my eyes. I think I was smiling.

I woke up four hours later. I hadn’t moved a muscle. It was the sleep of exhaustion. It was warm in the car. I opened a door and noticed there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the wind had dropped.  I dressed and stood outside in the sunshine, looking back down the climb and just soaking it all in. The silence was complete and beautiful.

It was a wonderful day to be alive. SGL, June 2017.

You can view the ride here: https://www.strava.com/activities/1040478473

One Bike to Rule Them All
My Open U.P. was built as follows:
– SRAM Force 1, with 160mm Shimano disc rotors and a 10-42 rear cassette
– a trick single Easton chainring and crankset, 40T, with Kogel ceramic bearings in the BB
– Nox Falcor 36D carbon rims, laced to DT Swiss hubs with Sapim X-Ray spokes
– Clement 700 x 40mm MSO gravel tyres
– enve finishing kit
– and an old, comfy, Fiz’ik Arione saddle
Other gear:
– I used an Exposure Strada 6 front light, with a remote switch: 1200 lumens and amazing!
– I also used an Exposure Axis light on my helmet to help with the descent
– I didn’t bother with a rear light, since there was no traffic
– I used a Garmin 820 and a Garmin 520. Both worked perfectly
– I used a Gomadic charger to recharge them on the go. This has worked well on road Everestings, but the connection was too loose for off-road riding and this cost me a little time
The Stats
– ascent and descent: 9,012m
– total distance: 309.3km
– elapsed time: 24:28:19
– moving time: 20:08:58
– average speed: 15.4km/h
– max speed: 46.8km/h
– average heart rate: 116bpm
How it compares:
– 1st off-road Everesting in Wales and 3rd in the UK
– Longest off-road climb to be Everested in the UK (10.3km)
– 2nd Longest climb on any surface to be Everested in the UK (the Cat & Fiddle Pass takes the honours)