Words: Ben Hildred // Photography: Callum Wood
After Henry and I completed our Everest of Skyline
last year, I'd often get asked 'so, what's next?.' That was the first time I'd set a challenge like that for myself. Unaware of how fulfilling and all-consuming it'd be I found myself already drawing up ideas in my head, what was possible given my free time, work schedule and location.
The access road we used in the Skyline MTB park, Queenstown was ideal for any such endeavours, quick elevation gain in a short time, two minutes from work with a multitude of options to descend. I figured the obvious one would be to reach 10k vertical in a single sitting, although for now, I wanted to try something slightly different, How high could I climb with a sustained heavy effort over the course of a month.
So what's up there? I needed to determine how much time I could realistically pedal at pace each day consecutively whilst being able to work a full-time job and rest enough, I settled with the outer stratosphere. I say settled, it would still be a slog, the furthest edge of the outer stratosphere is recorded as being 50,000 vertical meters above the earth, as some sources slightly differ I decided to add 10% to make my effort watertight.
Starting on Nov 26th I gave myself 30 days to ascend 55,000m (180446ft) this would mean I'd finish Christmas day. Daily I'd need to average 1834m vertical, such elevation seems reasonable for a good day on the bike, but back to back could be a different story.
Unlike Everest or other big single effort rides there would be a lot more variables, the biggest of which would be work, trail closures, severe weather, injury or significant mechanicals, losing even a couple of days could prove difficult to pull back.
All this was a big unknown, so let's see what happens.
Aiming for something non-tangible, How does it compare?
Even if you haven't seen a big mountain, it's relatively easy to quantify the enormity of Everest, but what about a particular point in the atmosphere, it's hard to pull a scale out of thin air. But let's try. To get there in 30 days I'd need to average a daily Ascent of 1834m.
If in Whistler it'd be the equivalent vertical as climbing from Whistler Village to the 'Top of the World', and then another 350/400m on top of that, daily, for a month. Squamish, roughly 2 laps from the bottom car park to the top of 'Meadow of the Grizzly' then a lap up to 'Angry Midget', every day. Bike Park Wales, 8 laps top to bottom, between work for 30 days. This is all based on final elevation, some climbs will differ if they undulate. Felix Baumgartner
jumped from 39000m in his record-breaking jump. I'm sure you get the picture, it's relatively high up.
The tools for the job
Keeping in mind I'd also be descending 55,000m in Queenstown, I stuck with my normal set-up, Nothing specific for climbing. Giant Reign Advanced 1 XL, 34t chainring, flat pedals, happy days. I like a good honest gear to push and you don't need to be stuck to your pedals to climb.The Gear. Andrew W.K wants you to pedal hard.
Kit wise, unseasonably I spent many days in a raincoat with a spare pair of socks and shorts on the dryer at work to change into before my shift. No tech layers or Chamois, just an array of cotton tees from Vertigo Bikes
Not a glove person either, sorry. Controversial I know.
Best Get pedalling then.All my progress was recorded on Strava with a rolling tally.
I started off with a couple of big days climbing 6634m during my mid-week weekend, I went in hot with too much enthusiasm, I didn't ride conservatively at all. In fact, after 48 hours I declared that I pulled the plug and wasn't going to commit to the 30 days to the few work colleagues who knew my intentions at the time. I turned up for my first big day at work (and third day in) cooked after a sleepless night with leg cramps (oh I didn't do any stretching either, fool) concluding that it just 'wasn't the right time.' A couple of days past of casual riding, a mere lap of Skyline and a 'McNearlyGnarly' and I was feeling good, despite two very small days I was still ahead elevation wise. With a couple of early finishes at work, I quietly plodded on, spending all free time on the access road in the bike park churning out laps.
Unlike our Everest day, I soon realised this was going to be quite a Solemn affair, most laps being on my own made turning round at the bottom of the road and heading back to the top time after time much more difficult.
After 10 days of quietly keeping on target, I once again declared I was 'going for it' for what exactly I'm not too sure, saying the 'outer stratosphere' to people is often met with a blank expression, which is fair enough. On the daily I'd pass hikers who'd tell me I'm 'almost there' indicating towards the top of the gondola station, I didn't have the energy to correct them, I'd reply with a friendly nod until I overtook them again and again and again on their ramble down the access road, more blank expression, 'there is a Gondola you know' thank you mate, very useful.
December in Queenstown was wet, really wet. Lake Wakatipu was close to flooding in the town, sandbags were out, and so was I, on the access road, getting soaked. The weather made for some truly dire days, some mornings I had to be on the bike gaining elevation by 6 am before a 7.45 am - 7.00 pm work shift. A thousand meters before and the rest after in the remaining daylight. Last year I coined the nickname 'Hyperthermia Hildred' as I don't take to cold weather particularly well. My saving grace was a spa gown found in a 'rag bag' we bought for the workshop at Vertigo Bikes, a long white number I'd drape over the heater before setting off gave me something to look forward to. Due to bad weather access to the Bike Park was limited via the Gondola. Descending was never an inconvenience.
There were some great days too, I'd soon get used to the necessary pedalling and perpetual tiredness, once I tipped over day 15 it was mostly done and I was soon on the home straight, 30k would pass, then 40k came and went. My bike didn't skip a beat for the whole duration, I realised the importance of stretching and become ever more aware I needed to take the descents easy as one slip up could ruin everything. I'd occasionally forget this though, lap 100 on December 21st with the boss man, Pang was loose, after feeling like a passenger on a damp rutted in racetrack I stayed on more familiar ground.
Food wise I needed to eat a lot, I had particular hiding spots for bananas and bars on the access road where I knew I'd hit a daily mile stone as reward. Also, those little yellow flowers on Scotch Broom bushes are pretty tasty, the kind that top a posh salad in a fancy cafe, after a month they were quite bare at my arm height, really bitter after time, but it made me drink more water, which is good.
The one thing that was effected was band practise for our alternative brass ensemble, alternative in the sense that we play each others instruments. I'm not blowing my own trumpet or anything, but we are pretty good.
Christmas Day was my final day, I'd banked enough vert that I only had 450m (one skyline lap) remaining. It's somewhat of a tradition in Queenstown to do an early morning access road climb with friends, and felt bloody good.
Bike wise, I was on my third set of brake pads before the end, my drivetrain was all but cooked within 30 days and needed replacing, this was all but expected though, otherwise I ran the same set of tyres with no qualms, everything else remains faultless.
Rear tyre has seen better days. My daily progress.
Big thank you to Vertigo Bikes for putting up with me running at half tilt, being exhausted mentally and physically took its tole some days, waking up and being in a 1834m deficit before getting out of bed would get to me. In the end I'd tallied up 111 Skyline laps among other things. Good graft. Oddly I'm not sure how to feel about achieving my goal, comparative to Everest it was kind of anti-climatic and I'm sure I could have squeezed it out in less days, but hey, it was a big step into the unknown.
So, what's next?
Photography - Callum Wood
Fool on the bike - Ben Hildred